A long line of baseball fans, diverse in race, gender and age, snaked up the carpeted steps to the third floor of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The objective of all in the tightly packed crowd Saturday morning was a peek at Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, an American icon who was honored in a daylong celebration for more than hitting a home run 35 years ago.
A long line of baseball fans, diverse in race, gender and age, snaked up the carpeted steps to the third floor of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
The objective of all in the tightly packed crowd Saturday morning was a peek at Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, an American icon who was honored in a daylong celebration for more than hitting a home run 35 years ago.
The home run on April 8, 1974, was the 715th of Aaron’s career and broke the home run record held by Babe Ruth. With Saturday’s opening of the permanent exhibit “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream,” the 23-year major leaguer becomes the second player to have a room dedicated to him at the Hall of Fame. Ruth was the first.
“Of all of the things I’ve achieved, I feel quite proud,” Aaron said.
One of those in the crowd waiting to see Aaron’s exhibit was 77-year-old Glenn Kline, who came to Cooperstown from Mechanicsburg, Pa., with his son Russ Daniels. Aaron was worth the 4½ hour drive.
“He was one of my favorites,” Kline said. “I’m going to ask him how he’s doing in old age.” Aaron is 75.
The exhibit, in development and planning for more than five years, opened at a time when baseball has been roughed up with rumors and admission of steroid use by notable players.
Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson said the purpose of the exhibit is not to underscore the statistics of steroid-era players or to elevate Aaron’s accomplishments because there was no question about the legitimacy of his numbers.
“Not necessarily, the exhibit reflects every players chase of a dream,” Idelson said. “We could’ve picked any number of players. You look at Hank Aaron and it’s a natural fit.”
The unveiling of the exhibit was part of a daylong event. In the early afternoon, Aaron sat in the museum’s filled Grandstand Theater and answered questions about his life and career from the tough times of breaking the color barrier in South Atlantic League to his 1957 Most Valuable Player Award and World Series championship.
“I had a very good year in Jacksonville, a very good year,” Aaron said. “I led the league in everything but hotel accommodations.”
Harassed by spectators in southern cities such as Savannah, Ga. and Montgomery, Ala., some parks forbade Aaron and other black players from changing in the clubhouse. The racist treatment was a hint of what Aaron would face in the months leading up to his record-breaking home run.
In the mid 1970s Aaron and his family endured threats as the then 30-year-old black man challenged Ruth. As he did in the early days of his career, Aaron didn’t dwell on the attitudes of others – a trick he learned from his mother, Estella.
“Things I had no control over, I didn’t worry about,” Aaron said. “Despite the tough times, all I could do was play ball and do the best I could for my country.”
Aaron, who treasures his numbers in RBIs and runs scored more than his 755 home runs, has spent much of his post-baseball life heavily involved in The Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, which helps underprivileged children ages 9-12 pursue their interests and dreams.
“Home runs are all right,” Aaron said to laughter among the Grandstand Theater crowd. “Scoring runs and batting in runs are the greatest achievements a ballplayer can make.”
In 2002, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
In attendance Saturday, along with Aaron’s wife, Billye, was Braves chairman emeritus Bill Bartholomay who called Aaron a “complete, complete ballplayer.” In 2002, Aaron was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor, the highest civilian honor in the United States and rounding out Aaron’s character as a complete man.
“I hope most look back and say he was a terrific ballplayer but he was a terrific fella,” Aaron said.