Hank Aaron Followed in Jackie Robinson's Footprints
Written by Jim Rednour   
Saturday, 22 January 2011

On June 14, 1999, Hank Aaron contributed an article about Jackie Robinson for a special section in TIME Magazine.  Entitled “The Trailblazer,” the article presented a rare view of MLB’s first African American player through the eyes of the one man who could truly understand and appreciate what Jackie had endured because he too had experienced bigotry, cruelty and personal danger all for the sake of pursuing his dream to play Major League Baseball.

“I was 14-years-old when I first saw Jackie Robinson,” wrote an awe inspired Aaron. “It was the spring of 1948, the year after Jackie changed my life by breaking baseball's color line. His team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, made a stop in my hometown of Mobile, Ala., while barnstorming its way north to start the season, and while he was there, Jackie spoke to a big crowd of black folks over on Davis Avenue. I think he talked about segregation, but I didn't hear a word that came out of his mouth. Jackie Robinson was such a hero to me that I couldn't do anything but gawk at him.”

Years later, Aaron would himself be the object of fan adoration as he joined Jackie’s widow Rachel Robinson who presented him with the “Humanitarianism” award at the 2003 Jackie Robinson Foundation annual Robie Awards Gala at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. 

In the TIME Magazine article, Aaron wrote “They say certain people are bigger than life, but Jackie Robinson is the only man I've known who truly was. In 1947, there were separate schools for blacks and whites, separate restaurants, separate hotels, separate drinking fountains and separate baseball leagues. Life was unkind to black people who tried to bring those worlds together. It could be hateful. But Jackie Robinson, God bless him, was bigger than all of that.”

Jackie Robinson had to be bigger than life. He had to be bigger than the Brooklyn teammates who got up a petition to keep him off the ball club, bigger than the pitchers who threw at him or the base runners who dug their spikes into his shin, bigger than the bench jockeys who hollered for him to carry their bags and shine their shoes, bigger than the so-called fans who mocked him with mops on their heads and wrote him death threats.

“Believe me, it wasn't Jackie's nature to do that,” Aaron wrote. “He was a fighter, the proudest and most competitive person I've ever seen…To this day, I don't know how he withstood the things he did without lashing back. I know I couldn't have done what Jackie did. I don't think anybody else could have done it. Somehow, though, Jackie had the strength to suppress his instincts, to sacrifice his pride for his people’s.  It was an incredible act of selflessness that brought the races closer together than ever before and shaped the dreams of an entire generation.”

According to Aaron, before Jackie Robinson broke the color line, he wasn’t permitted even to think about being a professional baseball player. “I once mentioned something to my father about it, and he said, ‘Ain't no colored ballplayers,” Hank said.  “All that changed when Jackie put on No. 42 and started stealing bases in a Brooklyn uniform.”

Looking back at his own career, Aaron said “I don't think it's a coincidence that the black players of the late '50s and '60s — me, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson and others — dominated the National League. If we played as if we were on a mission, it was because Jackie Robinson had sent us out on one.”

The similarities between Aaron and Robinson continued even after their playing days were over. “After Jackie retired in 1956 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, he continued to chop along the path that was still a long way from being cleared,” said Aaron, who himself was referred to as the Ultimate Gentleman for his quiet dignity and perseverance to the cause of equality in major league baseball.

Jackie campaigned for baseball to hire a black third-base coach, then a black manager. In 1969 he refused an invitation to play in an old-timers' game at Yankee Stadium to protest the lack of progress along those lines. Frank Robinson (who was related to Jackie only in spirit), finally became the first black manager in 1975.  But Jackie was gone by then. His last public appearance was at the 1972 World Series, where he showed up with white hair, carrying a cane and going blind from diabetes. He died nine days later.

“Most of the black players from Jackie's day were at the funeral, but I was appalled by how few of the younger players showed up to pay him tribute,” Aaron said in the TIME article.  “At the time, I was 41 home runs short of Babe Ruth's career record, and when Jackie died, I really felt that it was up to me to keep his dream alive. I was inspired to dedicate my home run record to the same great cause to which Jackie dedicated his life. I'm still inspired by Jackie Robinson. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think of him.”

Quotes about Henry Aaron by other players

No question, Hank Aaron was the best player I ever saw play. The yardstick was Willie Mays because of the flair he had. But Aaron could do everything that Mays could do and even more. He was a better hitter and just as good in the outfield."  - Del Crandall

"I'm not saying Willie Mays wasn't a great ballplayer, but I think Hank was a better ballplayer and did everything Willie did but without Willie's flair." - Lew Burdette

"The most dangerous hitter between Aaron and Willie Mays was Aaron." - Bob Gibson

"When they talk about Aaron, they naturally talk about his homeruns, but to me he was a great player. Not only was he a great home run hitter who hit for average, he was an excellent outfielder and was a really great base runner. Hank could do everything that as called for on the field, and those are the things they don't talk enough about. He was the complete ballplayer." - Harmon Killebrew

"Henry belongs in a higher league." - Joe Torre

"Speaking as a pitcher, you wanted Henry as your right fielder. You wanted that line drive to come to him in right, with a man on second. A lot of people forget or don't realize how good of an arm he had, and accurate, and what a great outfielder he was. The same quiet way, what a great base runner he was. He did everything so fluidly. He wasn't a showoff. He hit a homerun, he circled the bases. High fives weren't in then." - Phil Niekro

"The reason he never hit 50 was that he wasn't a home run hitter. He didn't think home run. He thought of going up and making good contact, hitting .300, hitting the ball where it was pitched. A lot of times he went up the middle, went the other way, never trying to overpull, never trying to force anything. Hank always was one guy who played within himself, even on 715." - Johnny Bench

"Trust me on this one, he was the best ballplayer. I watched him over many, many years and watched him never throw to the wrong base, never miss a cutoff, never make a mistake. I saw the instincts he had." - Eddie Mathews

"All you have to do is look at the record. The best player of all was neither me nor Mays. It was Henry Aaron. Look at his homerun record, his doubles. If you need a base stolen, he'd steal a base for you. He could throw. A great base runner with great instincts. He just never played in New York, so he went kind of unnoticed." - Mickey Mantle