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Monday, February 28, 2011
Updated: March 8, 6:34 PM ET
The Hammer is still a baseball treasure

By Matthew Glenesk
Special to ESPN.com

It's been almost four years since Barry Bonds eclipsed Hank Aaron's home run record, but little has changed for the Hall of Famer affectionately referred to as The Hammer.

Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron doesn't look at today's salaries with envy, saying "I'm just grateful I had the opportunity to play when I did."

"I'm still the same guy," Aaron said. "Not much has been different."

While Aaron might not be the home run king anymore, he is still treated like baseball royalty.

Now a spokesman for Topps, Aaron says he's enjoying traveling around the country, visiting with old friends, and he even stopped by for a sit-down with David Letterman last week (see video below).

Aaron has been making the rounds as Topps marks its 60th anniversary, and the baseball card giant is celebrating by giving fans the chance to win vintage cards, diamond-embedded cards and even a diamond engagement ring. It sure beats the stale piece of gum that cards used to come with.

The Life caught up with Hammerin' Hank last week and touched on a variety of topics ranging from the toughest pitcher he faced to "Futurama." Yes, "Futurama."

The Life: Most women, be it wives or mothers, find excuses to get rid of men's baseball card collections either through garage sales or just clearing out the attic. You suppose they'd change their tune if they knew diamonds were somehow involved?

Aaron: [Laughs] I think you're right. It's just really to get kids more involved in it. Offer them something a little bit different.

The Life: I understand you've been collecting cards since 1954 when your first card was made?

Aaron: That's right. I was fortunate enough that Topps gave me a series of cards, from the first one my rookie year to the last year I was in baseball.

The Life: What's your favorite card of yourself?

Aaron: I guess the first one, the No. 1. It's not the prettiest one, but it is the first one. You have to start somewhere, so that would be the one that I admire the most.

The Life: I'm looking at some of these old cards of yours from the '50s and '60s, and jeez, do you look young!

Aaron: Well, I do. In some ways it makes you feel good. You look at yourself, and think, "I haven't changed that much." That's the good part about it. It keeps you on your toes and lets you remember how you looked 40 years ago.

The Life: There's a card from 1964 with you and Willie Mays with "Tops in the NL" across the top. That has to be a special one.

Aaron: It is, it's a special card for me. To be on a card with Willie was great. I think he was with San Francisco and I was with Milwaukee. We both were very young.

The Life: A story goes that you two could have been teammates with the Giants, but the Braves came in with a better offer, something like $50 more. True story?

Aaron: That is very true. Back then, when you start talking about $100 and $200, that was a lot of money. And yeah, the decision to sign with Milwaukee came down to a matter of just a few dollars.

Hank Aaron card
Hank Aaron's 1954 Topps rookie card has fetched more than Hammerin' Hank made that year.

The Life: That would have been some outfield with you and Willie.

Aaron: I don't know, I think it was pretty good how it worked out. Perhaps it could have been even better, but I did pretty good just being by myself.

The Life: Do you sometimes see what your cards sell for at auction?

Aaron: No, never have. That's not one of the things that I pride myself after. It's hard for me to believe whatever the price of them are, that people would pay that much.

The Life: Your rookie card is worth more than you made that year with Milwaukee.

Aaron: I think you're right. I don't know what the card sells for, but I guess if it's in good condition, you could get pretty good prices for things that like.

[Note: Aaron's rookie salary with Milwaukee was $5,000. A mint condition 1954 Topps Aaron rookie card sold for $28,100 in an eBay auction in 2008.]

The Life: Your playing salary is a far cry from what players are making these days. What do you think about the escalating salaries in light of Albert Pujols and the potential for $30 million a season?

Aaron: I think that if you look at it, how many people go to the ballpark to watch an owner play versus watching a player play. In fairness to the player, I think they just feel like they deserve more of a pop, a bigger piece of the pie than they had a few years ago. I don't have anything against that. It's one of those things that happen. When I played, owners made all the money. Now, it's the players making all the money.

The Life: Does it ever make you wonder what your bank account would look like had you played in this era?

Aaron: I don't think about it really that much. I'm just grateful I had the opportunity to play when I did. I don't even think about the money part of it. I was just thankful to be able to play in a day with so many Hall of Famers, on my team and on other teams. It was great fun.

The Life: Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?

Aaron: Curt Simmons.

The Life: I'm sorry, did you say Curt Schilling?

Aaron: Simmons. Curt Simmons.

Hank Aaron & Jason Heyward
Braves outfielder Jason Heyward tries to follow in the legendary footsteps of The Hammer.

The Life: Ah, that makes a little more sense. What made him so tough?

Aaron: The way he threw and just made it tough for you to pick the ball up, at least for me.

[Note: Because I obviously had never heard of Curt Simmons, I did some research. Simmons was a three-time All-Star in the 1950s and spent most of his career with Philadelphia before stops in St. Louis, Chicago and California. As a member of the Cardinals, he started two games in the 1964 World Series, which St. Louis won. He finished his 20-year career with a 193-183 record, 3.54 ERA and 1,697 strikeouts.]

The Life: Recently President Obama awarded Bill Russell and Stan Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. You were presented with the same honor in 2002; what kind of feeling is that to be honored like that?

Aaron: It just makes you feel good, very special. It's about as high as you can go as far as an honor. It makes you feel like you've finally been appreciated by people other than just people in baseball. I was quite thrilled to receive that.

The Life: Where do you keep your medal?

Aaron: In a vault.

The Life: Ah, the vault. I'm guessing there's a lot of good stuff in Hank Aaron's vault.

Aaron: Most of my things are in Cooperstown. I decided, that's where I wanted them to go. I felt like they belong to the public and that's where they need to be.

The Life: Let's talk about your beloved Braves. This year is the first since 1990 that Bobby Cox won't be in the dugout; what do you think that's going to be like?

Aaron: I think it's going to be good. I think [Fredi] Gonzalez is going to do well. I think the team is going to do well. The players are going to respond and play as if Bobby was still there. I don't have any reason to doubt things are going to change. I truly believe things are going to be the same under Gonzalez.

The Life: You've been at the forefront in helping to increase baseball's popularity amongst minorities. As the player who manned right field for the Braves for so long, how much interaction have you had with Jason Heyward, a young, black, power-hitting Braves right fielder?

Aaron: I haven't had that much conversation with him, but his ability to play the game is great. I think he's done well and has a tremendous future ahead of him. And it makes you feel good that you might have helped in some way.

Hank Aaron
Henry Aaron hit .280 with 13 home runs as a 20-year-old rookie in 1954.

The Life: Are you concerned about the four aces in Philly?

Aaron: [Laughs] No, I'm not. The game is played on the field. It's 162 games, so you have to win them. I think there are a lot of teams going to be in the thick of the pennant race, Braves included.

The Life: We see the NFL and, to an extent, the NBA having lockout and strike concerns. Do you think MLB has fully recovered from the strike 15 years ago?

Aaron: Well, I don't know. I know last year we drew very well. If you talk to the commissioner, I'm sure he was pleased with what happened last year. I've got a feeling people have forgotten about that. [The strike] is something that people don't think about any more.

The Life: What are some of the things you look forward to most about Opening Day?

Aaron: I don't know, I haven't played the game for 35 years. I guess I look forward to smelling the popcorn, knowing things are going to look up. Just having the baseball season back means an awful lot. I guess you look forward to having teams chasing the pennant, chasing the flag all of them wish they could win.

[Note: I then chose to close the interview with a question I was coaxed into asking by friends regarding a 2002 episode of the cult favorite "Futurama," in which Hank Aaron XXIV is the worst blernsball player in the world. Blernsball is a 30th century version of baseball. So I did a little research and learned -- or so I thought -- through Wikipedia that Hank Aaron actually provided the voice for the show's character. So I figured, "What the hey," and asked one of the most revered baseball players of all-time about a short-lived Fox cartoon.]

The Life: In '02, you provided the voice for a fictional descendant in "Futurama." Did you have fun with that? [I had to repeat the question.]

Aaron: Son, you've lost me. I haven't got a clue what you're talking about.

[Note: So much for Michael Scott-like reliance on Wikipedia.]

Matthew Glenesk is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.