Bill Clinton on Hank Aaron: ‘His whole life was one long home run’

Former President Bill Clinton was among those reflecting on the life of Hank Aaron during the funeral service for Aaron on Wednesday at Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Here are excerpts from Clinton’s remarks about his long-time friend:

On his first memories of Aaron: “We didn’t get a television in my home until 1957. … I got that TV in time for the ’57 season. I saw this young Hank Aaron win the MVP, the (Milwaukee) Braves win the World Series. And from the time I was in grade school until the time I was a grown man, when Hank retired, I believed that Hank Aaron’s greatness as a baseball player was just part of the ordinary fabric of American life. You know, spring would come, the trees would blossom, the birds would chirp, and Aaron would begin wearing out the pitchers.”

On Aaron’s life after his playing career: “When he retired from baseball, instead of becoming the man who used to be Hank Aaron, he just chased other dreams. He aspired to succeed in business and acquired the means to help others do things with their lives, and he did. He aspired to help young people overcome the barriers that he’d had to overcome by himself, and … through the ‘Chasing the Dream’ foundation, he did. He (aspired) to close the racial divide, not by tearing anybody down but by lifting people up, not by demeaning people but by opening their minds and opening their eyes and opening their hearts. And he did. And for that, Lord, (Aaron’s wife) Billye was the best teammate he ever could have had.”

On his friendship with Aaron: “I wasn’t with Hank Aaron five minutes before I thought, ‘I’m going to love this guy for the rest of my life.’”

On Aaron as protector of baseball: “It’s interesting that he was so protective of baseball and its integrity. I think one reason is, in spite of all the racism and all the threats and all the terrible things that happened to him when he was about to break the home-run record, he knew when he was playing baseball it’s on the level. If he got a hit, they couldn’t say he didn’t. ... And they kept score. If you were an African-American when Hank Aaron was young and even now in too many places … there’s still so many days when people wonder if anything will ever be on the level again. Baseball did that for him. Amidst all the racism, nobody fiddled with his numbers. ... He wanted everybody to have their baseball – some way to be on the level, to be seen for who they were, to be judged for what they were. That’s his legacy to me.”

On the hate mail Aaron received as he chased Babe Ruth’s record: “I think one reason he never got rid of all those boxes of hate mail he got, first they just spurred him on to break the home-run record, but then I think he kept it to remind himself that grace is not the absence of anger or resentment. It is the conscious choice not to surrender to them.”

Former President Bill Clinton speaks during funeral services for Henry "Hank" Aaron, longtime Atlanta Braves player and Hall of Famer, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 at Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta. Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves
Former President Bill Clinton speaks during funeral services for Henry "Hank" Aaron, longtime Atlanta Braves player and Hall of Famer, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 at Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta. Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

Credit: Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

Credit: Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

On Aaron’s start in professional baseball: “It has been said by the time he retired in 1976 he was the last major leaguer to have played in the old Negro Leagues. ... I think about all of that talent that never had a chance to bloom and be seen and be felt. He felt that. That was a big part of his life, wanting to make sure that all of the young people … never had to stay in a separate room but got a chance to shine.”

On Aaron’s contribution to Clinton winning the presidency: “Hank was the big draw (at a Clinton rally in Georgia during the 1992 campaign). I just sort of was on the program. … He was unbelievable, just talking to people, and three days later after that 25,000-person rally, I carried Georgia by 13,000 votes. And for the rest of his life, he never let me forget who was responsible for winning. Hank Aaron never bragged about anything except carrying Georgia in 1992, and he probably did.”

And finally: “His whole life ... was one long home run, and now he has rounded the bases.”

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