A couple of years ago I met Hank Aaron, which counts as one of the highlights of my life. C’mon, it’s Hank Aaron.
When I told him how much I enjoyed seeing him play in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when we were both about 35 years younger, he said, without a shred of pretension, “Well, thanks. Hope I didn’t disappoint you.”
Disappoint? The guy was a baseball virtuoso, consistent as the sunrise.
For nearly a quarter century Aaron was a cool customer who rarely showed emotion, whose athletic elegance, intense focus and passion to succeed was masked by his seeming tranquility – to some observers he looked as likely to take a nap in the batter’s box as he was to massacre a baseball, which he did with savage regularity.
He hit 755 home runs in a normal-sized (i.e., steroid free) human body. He won a Most Valuable Player Award and a World Series championship and stared down an onslaught of hate mail while staring down Major League pitchers en route to breaking baseball’s most hallowed record.
I saw some of his home runs, in person. Got his autograph.
When the Braves traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers, it pissed me off. He was 41, near the end, but I always hoped he’d finish his career in a Braves uniform. Instead, he ended his career in the city where he started it, breezed into the Hall of Fame, worked in the Braves front office, started a successful business empire and a philanthropic foundation, settled gracefully into his role as an elder statesman of the game, and into the collective American mindset as one of the greatest players of all-time.
“No,” I told him, “you didn’t disappoint me.”
Aaron was a quiet superstar radiating organic poise. He never sought the spotlight, though it eventually found him. But just in case anyone was watching, he always made being Hank Aaron a full-time job.
“You have to carry your dignity a little bit further than the field, you know,” Aaron said, as if this is common knowledge. “Just because you’ve taken the uniform off doesn’t mean you stop being a professional. You try to live your life and play the game in such a way that others would want to emulate.”
When it came to emulating someone else, Aaron aimed high. He was a young teen living in Mobile, Alabama, when he first saw Jackie Robinson play in an exhibition game, and remembers evenings spent with friends and family around the radio whenever Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers were on the air.
“Here was the first African-American in the big leagues, someone the black community could really look up to,” Aaron says. “And he really set the example for all the black players who came along of what it takes to be a professional athlete – beyond hitting home runs and base hits. It wasn’t in what he said, but the way he carried himself.
“You start idolizing someone, you watch their every move. He didn’t have to say anything to me. Good thing, because I was in awe. I probably would have been paralyzed.”
Aaron’s playing career might best be viewed from a distance, from the vantage point of years. He didn’t hit moon shots like Mickey Mantle, didn’t lose his hat running down fly balls like Willie Mays – basically, he didn’t play in New York, so he wasn’t appreciated on a national level like those guys.
He wasn’t flashy, but he was rock solid and relentless, more durable than Mantle or Mays. He also hit for a higher average than they did, collected more hits, may have been their equal as a fielder, was a brilliant baserunner, drove in more runs than anyone who ever played, and on April 8, 1974, did what many considered impossible, passing Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader when he belted No. 715 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
So, given all of that and everything else the guy has seen and done, maybe it’s understandable that he would forget that one episode of Futurama. Yes, Hank Aaron actually was a guest voice on Futurama, in an episode called A Leela of Her Own.
It’s a mostly awful episode in which one-eyed Planet Express captain Leela breaks the gender barrier in ‘bernsball,’ and calls on Aaron’s descendant, Hank Aaron XXIV, to help her along. Aaron provided the voice for both his progeny and his own preserved head. Anyway, his performance (he acts like you’d expect a retired ballplayer to act) makes the otherwise terrible episode memorable … memorable to anyone except Hank Aaron.
“Futurama? What is that?” he asked me.
I was stunned, because I couldn’t wait to ask him about Futurama. I tried to explain.
“No, I honestly don’t remember doing it,” he said. And he wasn’t being aloof. He either blocked the experience out of his mind, or he just didn’t remember.
The guy had a photographic memory and could tell you what kind of pitch Don Drysdale threw on a 1-2 count in the late innings of a mid-summer game in 1962. He could remember which way he broke for a fly ball in deep right field to steal a triple from Willie Mays. But he couldn’t remember his few minutes of animated TV fame.
And that’s another reason to love Hank Aaron. The man’s got his priorities in order.