ATLANTA — My personal experience with Henry Aaron illustrated not only his greatness as a ballplayer, but his greatness as a man -- and his exceptional kindness.
For maybe a quarter century or so, I was humbled to emcee a charity event called the Heroes, Saints and Legends, benefitting the Foundation of Wesley Woods. Wesley Woods is a comprehensive geriatric community under the Emory Healthcare umbrella. As I recall, the proceeds went toward the funding of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research. The award winners were generally people who had accomplished great things in their lives and were still contributing to society past the age of 70. We often produced a long video biography of the honorees. I met some of the most impressive people of my life through that event, from Rosalynn Carter to Ivan Allen, Donald Lee Hollowell to Celestine Sibley, and many others, including Muhammad Ali, who, as I recall, was given a special award and came to Emory for his Parkinson’s treatment. Carol Harman, a producer for the Wesley Woods event, remembers setting up the Aaron interview, and it was for a biographical piece to play in connection with Henry Aaron receiving the award.
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I don’t know where my notes are from the interview, so what I am saying here is mostly the best I can remember, but it stands out among the countless interviews I have done in 41 years as a newspaper and television reporter for many reasons. For one thing, he made some newsworthy comments pertaining to Barry Bonds, who at the time was closing in on Aaron’s homerun record, which he would soon eclipse. A lesser man might have taken the opportunity to cast aspersions on Bonds who was already mired in a steroid controversy. But Aaron evinced the class with which he conducted himself, and our script archives reflect he told me, when I inquired into whether there should be some kind of asterisk if Bonds got to 755, he replied, “No, I don’t think so. If he gets to 755, I think he legitimately deserves to get to 755.”
“In spite of all the things that have been said about steroids and all these other things, he said he hasn’t. So I have to believe him,” Aaron said. “When you go to the ballpark, you see a complete player.”
Bonds had repeatedly denied using steroids. But it had also been reported that he told a grand jury he unknowingly took steroids supplied to him by a personal trainer. And Bonds wasn’t the only prodigious slugger dogged by the steroid issue. My script indicates Henry Aaron also told us, perhaps indicative of his abiding interest in youth, “Now, the thing that I do detest, more than anything, what message that anybody, no matter who it is, that is involved in steroids is sending to our kids. Now, that’s more important to me than 755 home runs.”
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Initially, my conundrum as a journalist was that he made the comments in an interview done for a limited purpose and limited audience for an awards ceremony. So I remember, after I told the newsroom what he said and there was general agreement it was news, I called him to see if he was okay with me using some of his comments, which I considered groundbreaking at the time, on the news. He didn’t have to, but he blessed it.
But that interview stands out to me years later for another reason: it may be the only interview in my decades of news that either of my two sons came on.
The older one, Jack, a middle school baseball player at the time, worked on a project that year about Hammerin’ Hank, perhaps for Black History Month. When my beloved wife dropped him off, he had a couple of baseballs with him. I informed him, regretfully, that in the news business, we don’t ask people we are interviewing for autographs. We hastily stashed the baseballs in the light bag of ace photographer Dwayne Harden.
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We were running late; whether it was because of the exigencies of my day job, hard news, I can’t say, but Aaron, probably a very busy man as senior vice president of the Atlanta Braves and a businessman in his own right, waited for us and he was generous with his time in a room in the bowels of the stadium.
Jack may have asked an additional question or two for his project at the end, but then Henry Aaron, at the time still holder of the home run record, looked at Jack and said something along the lines of, “Don’t you have something you want me to sign?” Jack had his baseballs out faster than maybe he ever ran a basepath, and, in one of his best moves of big brotherhood ever to that point, explained that his little brother, also an ardent baseball player at the time and fan, was home sick, and Jack asked for an autograph for him too, a request, as I recall, with which perhaps the greatest living ballplayer at the time happily complied.
God blessed Atlanta and the world with Henry Aaron, the ballplayer and, more importantly, the man who overcame so much to accomplish so much. I hope he is experiencing unmitigated joy in God’s Heavenly Kingdom. The Man Upstairs blessed Atlanta and the world with his life, and blessed me, as a reporter and as a dad.