Bigger than baseball: Hank Aaron emerged as an important figure in civil rights movement

ATLANTA — Hank Aaron was a major force on and off the baseball diamond – using his bat and his voice.

The Braves moved to Atlanta in time for the 1966 season, and within two years, Aaron was recording milestones in Georgia.

“Honestly, I was scared coming to a high-profile city like Atlanta,” Aaron told Channel 2 Sports Director Zach Klein. “Knowing that Dr. King was here, Andy Young and some of the other great civil rights leaders that made their home here, and I’m coming from Milwaukee where there was no activity at all... It makes you start thinking about what it is, what can you do, what role you can play. And makes you feel like you kind of shortchanged everybody really, you didn’t do your job.”

[FULL STORY: Braves legend Hank Aaron dies at age 86]

Aaron said he knew that Atlanta was becoming the hub for the civil rights movement and said he didn’t think he would become a figure that would emerge out of that movement.

“To be honest with you, I felt a little ashamed of myself, because I was so far back in the sticks, in the woods, that I didn’t know what was going on. It kind of made me start thinking, realizing that, regardless of what I achieved in life, no matter whether it’s baseball, football, basketball, life, lawyers, whatever it may be, that I still had a role to play,” Aaron said.

Aaron recalls when he finally realized he was now part of a changing world.

“I think it hit me when we played an exhibition game, and I don’t know when, in Macon. I think it hit me when I realized that I had some kind of role that I should be playing. I’m not talking about a baseball role, I’m not talking about somebody going out on the baseball field, someone who had a role to play to help other blacks like myself,” Aaron told Klein.

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As Aaron started turning into “Hammerin’ Hank,” he would eventually meet the biggest figure of the civil rights movement – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – right in the stands.

“I didn’t spend much time with him. I met him here, at the ballpark. Came here with some other friends of his, and I met him then. I didn’t spend as much time as I would have loved to have spend with him. I made that up, of course, by spending a lot of time, and still spending a lot of time, with my brother now, Andy Young. I wish I could have spent a lot of time,” Aaron said.

“I realized he was the voice of a lot of African-Americans around. I realized that he did some things, said some things that you started thinking, you know, if things had been a little different, we could have done this, and he was making it a reality. He was making all those things a reality.”

As Aaron got closer and closer to reaching Babe Ruth’s home run record, he soon found himself at the center of racist attacks.

“I thought that everybody hated me for some reason,” Aaron told former Channel 2 anchor and People 2 People host Jocelyn Dorsey.

“Why did you think that?” Dorsey asked Aaron.

“I don’t know, maybe because of the letters I received. I received so many letters and those that I received I couldn’t open,” Aaron said. “They wouldn’t let me open them because the FBI or whoever it was told me, any letter that I received they had to open them so I couldn’t open them and the ones that I opened started out by being very hateful and spiteful.”

Aaron said the letters and threats scared him.

“It made me be very frightful of where I was thinking about it because there were times, you know, that I was on a road trip, a 15-day road trip, and I didn’t even come out of the hotel. I used to have people deliver my meals to me in my room, and once the game was over with I had to have… Maynard (Jackson) was kind enough to send someone to escort me to and from the ball park. And I just thought that I was doing something wrong, you know, in spite of just playing baseball,” Aaron said.

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Aaron said his mother gave him some good advice to keep in mind as he got closer to breaking the big record.

“I used to always confer with my mother, and she said, ‘Son, let me just say this.’ She said, ‘God gave you the ability to play baseball and I want you to play as well all the time that you can possibly play,’ and said ‘Whatever will be will be,’ and I looked at that and I said you know, in spite of all the things I went through I had to think about those words that she gave me and it stuck with me,” Aaron said.

“That had to be easier said than done,” Dorsey said.

“Once I went to the baseball field, put on my baseball uniform, I couldn’t even tell you whether there were 50,000 people in the stands or whether there were 5,000 people in the stands. The only thing I thought about was the person on the mound or the people that I was facing,” Aaron said.

In front of 53,775 spectators and a national TV audience, Aaron broke the Babe’s record with home run No. 715.

The U.S. Postal Service honored Aaron for receiving nearly 1 million pieces of mail, more than any non-politician.

Elisabeth Omilami, daughter of civil rights icon Hosea Williams, said Aaron’s death hits close to home.

“He was bigger than life for me and I was blessed enough to have been in his home and to know him and his wife Billye,” Omilami said.

She told Channel 2′s Michael Seiden that her father and the “Home Run King” shared a tight bond and fought together for civil rights despite their different personalities.

“My father was the rabble-rouser, the bull in the china shop, the one that would shake up meetings. (Hank) was very quiet in his way of changing things,” Omilami said. “They came together for one cause, which was to help the poor and needy in the city.”

After Hosea Williams died in 2000, Omilami said Aaron and his wife Billye remained in active in the family’s mission.

“They gave back and still give back to the community more than anybody I know as individual donors,” Omilami said.

She said despite fighting racism and death threat against his family, Aaron found a way to break through racial barriers throughout his Hall of Fame career.

“When you’re thinking of superheroes, and you’re looking at Iron Man, and you’re looking at Superman and Spider Man, say Hank Aaron, because he’s just as fantastic as those superheroes to young people,” Omilami said.

Aaron was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1982, his first year of eligibility and just nine votes short of being the first unanimous choice ever to the Hall of Fame.

In 1999, baseball began honoring its top hitter with the Hank Aaron Award, akin to the Cy Young for pitchers. Three years later, a nationwide vote named Aaron’s No. 715 as the second-most memorable moment in baseball history, eclipsed only by Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.

In 2002 President George W. Bush awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his philanthropy and humanitarian endeavors.

Aaron died Friday at his home. He was 86.