| Special to Detroit Free Press
Remembering Hank Aaron, one of baseball’s all-time greats
Sports Pulse: Reporter Bob Nightengale reminisces on his time with the baseball legend, Hank Aaron
SportsPulse, USA TODAY
A few days before Hank Aaron died on Friday at age 86, I came across an old Free Press story headlined “Henry Aaron: `I Believe Somehow Things Have to Change.’” I wrote it 40 summers ago (July 27, 1980) as part of a series called “Blacks and Baseball.”
At that time, Aaron held baseball’s career record with 755 home runs and he worked as a top executive for the Atlanta Braves. At his gracious Atlanta home, he walked me back to a lake behind his house to fish and to talk.
With his hook, he stabbed several worms soon to be stolen by fish. With his keen, hitter’s eyes, he spied snakes and other critters beneath the calm surface of the lake.
His voice was calm, too, but still waters run deep. Aaron said baseball was losing Black participants in part because there were few management opportunities for former players. He predicted a rupture between Black athletic talent and the national pastime.
“Black kids just aren’t going out for baseball like they used to,” Aaron said. “After the Black baseball player’s career is over, he’s gone, he’s no longer part of the system. That’s the end of it. Kids that could probably play baseball are … going into basketball … I can see baseball being a dying sport among Black people.”
When Aaron told me these things in 1980, 17.4% of major league players were Black. The following year, 1981, the Black percentage was 18.7, its highest ever. Since then, the Black percentage has plunged to as low as 6.7% in 2016. Last season, it was 7.8%.
“I didn’t know much about Babe Ruth when I was growing up in Alabama,” Aaron said. “Back then, professional baseball was not even talked about. Only thing you’d talk about in baseball, you’d talk about the Negro Leagues.”
In 1952, Aaron started his baseball career in those leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns. In 1954, he joined the Milwaukee Braves, which had recently moved from Boston. In 1974, Aaron surpassed Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. (Both now trail Barry Bonds’ mark of 762).
But in 1980, our conversation was not about home runs but about management opportunities for Black people in baseball. Aaron was adamant.
To make his point, Aaron had recently snubbed MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who wanted to give him an award. Six years before that, in 1974, Kuhn missed Aaron’s record-setting 715th. home run due to a prior commitment.
But Aaron emphasized to me that his protest was more than personal. He said Black players were rarely considered for jobs as managers or executives. This drew a backlash.
He recalled an argument with Monte Irvin, another Black Hall-of-Fame player who worked for the commissioner. Irvin scolded Aaron for snubbing Kuhn. One word led to another.
“And we got in an argument, I mean a serious argument, right there in Club 21,” Aaron said.
“He said I made him look like an ass and I said `You serious?’ … He was saying he thought for some reason that baseball has been fair with Blacks. And I can’t see that. I can’t buy it. I tell Monte, I don’t care if anybody believes me or not, as long as a breath is in my body, someone has to show me they’re going after a Black manager, they can have Black people working in the front office, they can have a Black trainer, I’ll say then that baseball has been fair to Blacks.”
When Aaron died Friday, baseball’s 30 teams had two Black managers: Dave Roberts of the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros.
There are no Black general managers; Ken Williams is an executive vice-president of the Chicago White Sox.
At the time, Aaron told me he might boycott his Hall of Fame induction in 1982.
“I’m having second thoughts about going to Cooperstown,” he said. “If things don’t get any better, then I’m going to have to think about it.”
In the end, he went.
It is fascinating to re-read my piece from 1980 and realize how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. In the course of our conversation, Aaron said “Black kids know they can’t be president.”
Twenty-eight years later, Barack Obama won the presidential election, becoming the Jackie Robinson of politics.
Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, only 33 years before Aaron and I spoke that day on the fishing dock.
Aaron expressed dismay at criticism he’d read from white sports journalists who called him ungrateful.
Challenging me in an earnest tone, he said newspapers needed Black sports journalists. At the time, the Free Press had none; Aaron said it was the same in Atlanta.
“The basketball team is almost entirely Black,” Aaron said, “and you mean they can’t find a Black sports writer?”
Aaron said a Black reporter might relate better to Black athletes.
“Some (white) people may say ‘I realize where you’re coming from,’” Aaron said, “but nobody realizes how Henry Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, with eight kids, mother and father didn’t know where they were going to get a piece of bread the next day. These people who write about Henry Aaron, they don’t know me. They’ve never lived across a railroad track.”
At one point, Aaron stopped himself and his tone turned almost apologetic.
“I don’t mean to hop on every little thing,” he said, reeling in his empty line.
As the sun set in the summer dusk, he seemed unburdened. As he headed back to his house without a fish, I went to my rental car with a full notebook and the realization that fishing isn’t always about catching fish.
Joe Lapointe is a former Detroit Free Press and New York Times sports reporter. Now retired, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.