The sermon of Aaron’s life: ‘Discipline and focus and using the gifts that God gives you’

Andrew Young reflects on his long friendship with Hank Aaron
Andrew Young (left) and Hank Aaron pose for photos with the participants at the end of the Hank Aaron Invitational at SunTrust Park in Atlanta Aug. 2, 2019.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Andrew Young (left) and Hank Aaron pose for photos with the participants at the end of the Hank Aaron Invitational at SunTrust Park in Atlanta Aug. 2, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

It was Thursday afternoon. Andrew Young, the 92-year-old civil rights giant, was at work at his foundation’s office in Midtown. He was dressed in a blue blazer, gray slacks, a light-blue dress shirt and a gray tie.

In a conference room filled with sunlight, he sat at the head of the table. He was receiving a visitor who wanted to talk with him about his friend, the late Braves legend Hank Aaron, and the approaching 50th anniversary of his most historic feat, breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.

Thursday was also the 56th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a close friend whom Young served as a lieutenant in the civil rights movement. The timing was not lost on Young, who likes to say that “coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” It gave him pause.

“And thinking of those two things together, and I don’t know what it means,” Young said.

Many ideas and memories rustled within Young’s mind over the course of the conversation. He didn’t remember much about April 8, 1974, when Aaron connected off the Dodgers’ Al Downing for his 715th home run at what was then called Atlanta Stadium.

Young recalled that it was cold and that he attended the game with his son Andrew “Bo” Young III and late wife Jean Childs Young. He remembered the young men who dashed onto the field to congratulate Aaron on his home run trot between second and third base.

“And I remember that his mother got to hug him before his wife did,” Young said with a chuckle. “He was still her big baby boy.”

Young recalled other aspects of his long friendship with Aaron with greater clarity than the moments of a night from a half-century ago. For instance, shortly before his death in January 2021 at the age of 86, Aaron had received a big box of Alaskan king crabs as a gift.

“And he called and said would I come on by and help him eat ’em,” Young said. “And that’s my last memory.”

Young remembered his young grandson asking Aaron about the statue of him at Truist Park, specifically why he held the bat the way he did. It led to a conversation about hitting technique that Young said lasted nearly half an hour.

“He respected and loved everybody, it seems,” Young said. “And there was nobody too big or too little for him to take his attention.”

He recalled the impact of Aaron’s Chasing the Dream Foundation. Aaron and wife Billye sought to award scholarships to 755 recipients to match the number of his career home runs and ended up far exceeding it. Among many other philanthropic gifts made possible by his successful post-baseball entrepreneurial career, the Aarons made a $3 million gift to the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Aaron was quite arguably one of the five greatest baseball players ever, but that hardly defined him. When he and Young got together, Aaron and the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Congressman and Atlanta mayor might talk about sports, but also about world events and conflicts.

“Something as complicated as the Middle East,” Young said. “He would have certain instincts, but they’d always be toward peace and reconciliation. He’d never be on one side or the other. His whole mood was to keep people working and playing together.”

Young, too, witnessed Aaron’s determination to live his life with dignity and fearlessness as a Black man in a sport and country that did not always warm to him. Aaron was committed to using his stature to expose and right the wrongs of baseball, a game that had been integrated for less than 30 years when he hit his record-breaking homer. In his willingness to advocate for racial justice, Aaron followed the example of his own hero, Jackie Robinson, despite significant personal cost.

“That’s the way he handled his stardom,” Young said. “And it’s the way he handled controversy. It was a burden, but it was never a burden that burdened him down. It was a burden that he calmly and rationally dealt with.”

The part of Aaron’s home-run chase and career that needs to be remembered by the generations who weren’t there to witness it (including mine) is that the pursuit was not wholly joyful and celebrated. As he chased the American icon Ruth, Aaron received hundreds of letters in the mail carrying death threats and the most vile of racist attacks (though he received many more supporting him), prompting the Braves and the city of Atlanta to provide him with a police escort to and from the stadium.

Even as he closed in on 715 in 1973, miniscule turnouts for home games told him he was not appreciated even in Atlanta.

“It should have been the most enjoyable time in my life, and instead it was hell,” Aaron wrote in his 1991 autobiography I Had a Hammer.

Perhaps most notably at the time, he expressed his disappointment in then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn for not reaching out to congratulate him when he hit his 700th home run in 1973. Kuhn tried to make amends by saying he would be on hand for Aaron’s record-tying and -breaking home runs, but then was not in attendance for the record-breaker.

Aaron was outspoken about the small number of Black managers and general managers in the game, a cause he carried long after his playing career ended. (And one that continues to need attention. This season, there are two Black managers and one Black general manager.)

“He understood the burden of leadership,” Young said of Aaron. “But the thing I remember is that he was always calm and rational and you’d almost hear him being very prophetic and militant in terms of his ideas, but his spirit was so calm and he was always smiling. I never saw him angry at anybody.”

Young connected Aaron’s level-headed approach with his childhood. Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Aaron’s mother called him in from his baseball games near his home and had him hide under a bed when the Ku Klux Klan was approaching. When the Klan left, Aaron returned to the field to continue playing.

“And it was like he had grown up living with this kind of tension and had adjusted to it and didn’t pay any attention to it,” Young said.

Speaking of Aaron’s childhood and his learning to rise above hatred brought Young back to King and the anniversary of his death. From his seat at the head of the conference room table, he said he had to deal with the two ideas together.

“I think of the two of them as having a similar kind of spirit,” Young said. “The most exciting and energetic thing that Martin did in life was his preaching – the only time he’d get fired up.”

In the same way, Aaron was typically reserved and calm. He spoke loudest at the plate. In those moments, he elevated himself and all whom he represented and who supported hm.

“Thinking about what his sermon was,” Young said, “it’s not a matter of race, creed or color. It’s a matter of discipline and focus and using the gifts that God gives you. You celebrate him by sharing him with others. And I think that’s a good message from his life.”