Thursday, February 5, 2009
Aaron celebrates 75th birthday in style
ATLANTA -- Hank Aaron was peppered with hate mail as he closed in on Babe Ruth's home run record.
On his 75th birthday, "Hammerin' Hank" felt nothing but love.
From former President Bill Clinton to baseball commissioner Bud Selig, the famous came together Thursday night to celebrate a landmark birthday for the man who hit 755 homers during his Hall of Fame career.
In an interesting twist, Aaron was honored by some 700 people at a downtown Atlanta hotel on the same day Barry Bonds was in a San Francisco courtroom, pleading not guilty to charges he lied when he told a grand jury he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs as he was chasing Aaron's record.
"This means an awful lot to me," Aaron said after posing for pictures with some of his birthday guests. "It means you tried to carry yourself in such a way that people have respect for you. That's the most important thing. I don't try to do anything special. I just try to share whatever I've been able to accomplish with other people."
He declined to discuss Bonds' legal woes, nor the perception that Aaron remained the true home run king even after his record was eclipsed in 2007.
"I haven't been keeping up with it. I really haven't," Aaron said of the Bonds case. "I haven't thought about it one way or the other. Really."
Selig, a longtime friend of Aaron who watched him play when the Braves were in Milwaukee, declined to discuss Bonds' court case. The commissioner balked, as well, when asked whether there was any chance the baseball record book could be altered -- an asterisk, perhaps? -- if the former San Francisco Giants slugger is convicted on federal perjury charges.
"Well, let's not get into hypotheticals," Selig said. "This is a night to enjoy. Let's see how that all plays out."
Clinton, who dined at Aaron's table, credited him with helping carve a path of racial tolerance that led to the election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama.
"We're a different country now," Clinton said, noting the racist letters that Aaron received while chasing Ruth's mark of 715 homers, some even threatening to kill the black man if he broke a white hero's record.
"You've given us far more than we'll ever give you," Clinton told Aaron.
The former slugger said he was thrilled with Obama's election but doesn't spend much time dwelling on the past.
"I am extremely happy with what happened in the country with having a black president," he said. "I don't think about 15, 20 years ago. I don't have time to. I think about the good time I'm having now. I've got the respect of people. That's the most important thing, trying to do everything I can and do it right."
Former Braves owner Ted Turner wouldn't talk about Bonds, but did say he considers Aaron the greatest player ever -- and still the home run king.
"Yes, I do," Turner said.
Tom Johnson, the retired chairman of CNN, appeared to take a swipe at Bonds while paying tribute to Aaron.
"You will always rank number one in my record book, without an asterisk," Johnson said. "Henry, you never disappointed us. Not once. Long after all of us are gone, your name, the name of Henry Aaron, will symbolize what I believe it really means to be a genuine American hero."
Aaron, always a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight, agreed to the party once he was told it would also serve as a benefit for his Chasing A Dream foundation, which helps underprivileged youths pursue their talents -- an effort that stretches far beyond the baseball field.
"I look back at all the kids who benefited," Aaron said. "This is not just a celebration of Hank Aaron. This is a celebration of the kids chasing a dream. I'm so proud of these kids. That's what makes me proud. That's what keeps me going."
Selig, who'll turn 75 later this year, said he talks frequently with Aaron by telephone and often turns to him for advice on baseball issues.
"He really does have wonderful judgment about things," Selig said. "It's easy to be a friend with him."
If Aaron could change one thing about the sport he played so well, what would it be? His reply came quickly: a salary cap.
"I would try to put a cap on things," he said. "Really, that's the thing that I see will probably do baseball in if we don't have some kind of money cap. I go back to the Yankees and the way they just gobble up players. You don't need to do that really. It was proven last year when Tampa was in the World Series. They probably had one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball. You just need to put the right people on the field and do it right.
"I think a cap would get baseball back to where it was before."
His wife, Billye, closed the night by serenading her husband with a Marilyn Monroe-like performance of "Happy Birthday."
Aaron couldn't stop smiling.