Aaron: Icon of Perseverance

Baseball Legend Will Address Seniors Today, Offering Lessons on the Value of Hard Work

Hank Aaron is not a traditional Class Day speaker.

Instead of the politically active figures chosen in recent years, the members of the Class of 1995 have selected an inspirational sports legend to celebrate their entrance into the real world.

And class marshals say they believe that no one represents the real world better than Hank Aaron, who has worked hard throughout his life to achieve.

Aaron began his major league baseball career facing death threats for being one of the first Blacks to play in the major leagues. He ended his career facing death threats for breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.

In between, Aaron consistently showed why he is considered one of the greatest ever to play the game.

"Like Jackie Robinson, he has demonstrated to us how one can keep his poise under the pressure of racial difficulties and the various threats that he received from his fellow Americans as he attempted to break a world record," says S. Allen Counter Jr., director of the Harvard Foundation, who knows Aaron personally.

Class marshals say they are impressed by Aaron's successes and invited him partly because he has succeeded despite the hardships of racial prejudice.

"I think that his life tells a lot about national history and strength of character and leadership and all the things we should admire and think about as we leave Harvard especially since he did not obtain a higher degree," says First Harvard Marshal Jamie Miller '95-'96.

"He was one of the first Blacks to break the color line and he became the most successful home run hitter in history," says Third Marshal Ernie Minelli '95. "He did that at a time when not everyone was willing to accept him. I think he could teach us a lot about perseverance and courage and humility."

Miller said the class also invited Aaron as an inspirational figure.

"We felt in light of the recent baseball strike that Hank Aaron was a fallback to a time when our national pastime was more devoted to playing and the beauty of the game," Miller says.

The class marshals might get their wishes. Aaron said in an interview last week that he was not entirely sure what he would say to the Class of 1995.

"I kind of feel like this is the first day of my professional career, and I'm so nervous," Aaron jokes.

In addition to his speech, which may focus on "the ABC's of learning," Aaron will attend the senior picnic in the Old Yard and possibly some masters' teas.

Aaron says he would like to tell graduating seniors that their entrance to the working world is in some ways an introduction to reality.

"Just because someone graduated from Harvard doesn't mean they will have any more than anyone else," he says. "They will still have to work as hard as anyone else."

Aaron recently came to Harvard for a reception at Mather House.

"We extended the invitation [to the Mather House reception for Aaron to] share his views and experiences with us as a symbol of American achievement and to discuss, as he did during his speech, the importance of persons of different racial and cultural backgrounds working together to improve racial understanding among students and faculty," Counter says. "We saw fit to honor him for his outstanding contribution to American sports and intercultural relations."

Rags to Riches

Aaron's contribution to racial understanding may be the result of his nurturing family background.

Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 5, 1934, the third oldest of eight children.

"I had a very happy childhood," Aaron says. "I came from a very poor family, but my mother and father gave me the love and support that I needed to be successful."

Aaron attended school through high school, but did not pursue his education after he graduated from Central High School in Mobile in 1952, instead focusing full time on his baseball career.

He says he began playing baseball as a young child.

"I played in the city recreational league as a little kid," he says. "I just played in the parks and watched the older kids and that's how I picked up a lot--by watching the older kids."

Aaron says he was not the best player when he was young, but that he worked very hard.

"I applied myself and had a lot of confidence," he says. "I felt that given the opportunity, I could play as well as anybody."

When Aaron first began to play baseball as a youngster, there were no Blacks in the major leagues.

"I had to kind of wait for Jackie Robinson to break the barrier," Aaron says.

Robinson became the first player to break the color barrier in professional baseball when he signed with the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodger minor league team in the International League on October 23, 1945.

Robinson later broke the major league color barrier on April 10, 1947, when he signed a contract to play for the Dodgers.

As a 13-year-old, Aaron was very excited when Robinson entered the major leagues.

"I was quite happy," he says. "I realized that by his making the initial step it would give minority kids a chance to play professional ball."

Aaron knew Robinson quite well, describing him as an "athlete and gentleman."

"Besides being a great ballplayer, he was great to the human race," Aaron says.

The Negro leagues continued to operate even after Robinson broke the color barrier, and Aaron began his baseball career playing for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American Leagues, the only Black team for whom he played.

Aaron's contract was purchased by the Boston Braves in June 1952, and he played in the minor leagues for two years before being called up to the majors by the Braves, then based in Milwaukee.

When Aaron first began playing major league baseball, there were not more than 10 Black players in the league, he says.

Aaron debuted with the Braves on April 13, 1954 as a right fielder even though he had played infield in the minors.

The 20-year-old rookie batted .280 with 13 home runs. And he just got better with age.

He won the National League batting championship in 1956 with a .328 average and had perhaps his finest season the following year, hitting .322 with 44 homers, 132 runs batted in and 118 runs scored. That year, he led the Braves to a world championship and took home the most valuable player award.

Aaron led the league four times in home runs and runs batted in and twice in batting average. A wellrounded player, he also won three Golden Glove awards for fielding.

Aaron, nicknamed `Hammering Hank,' is perhaps known more for his prowess at hitting home runs than for his all-around skills.

On April 8, 1974, he hit his 715th home run in Atlanta, breaking the career record set by Babe Ruth. Aaron went on to finish his career with 755 lifetimehome runs.

Aaron calls breaking the home run record "anhonor and privilege."

"Records are made to be broken, and someonewill come along and break mine," he says. "Theonly reason I was able to accomplish that wasbecause I was able to play for so long and had somany great years."

While going after Ruth's record, Aaron receivedan enormous amount of hate mail and death threats.

"Dear Nigger Henry, You are [not] going tobreak this record established by the great BabeRuth if I can help it....Whites are far moresuperior than jungle bunnies....My gun is watchingyour every black move," reads one letter publishedin a Sports Illustrated article on Aaron.

Aaron says he was upset by the threats and theracism behind them.

"It bothered me, but I had to look beyondthat," he says. "I just had a job to do and didit."

Aaron hit 40 or more homers eight times and seta National League record by hitting at least 20homers in 20 consecutive years.

He ended his career with the Milwaukee Brewersin 1976 after 23 years of major league baseball,with a career total of a .305 batting average. Heheld major league records in games played,at-bats, runs batted in, extra-base hits, totalbases and home runs, the last four of which hestill holds.

Aaron had many highlights in his long career,but when asked to pick one special moment, he doesnot cite any of his impressive statistics.

"I would say participating for those years,being healthy and being able to participate wasthe highlight," he says. "Otherwise none of theseother things would have happened to me."

In 1982, Aaron received 406 of 415 votes fromthe Baseball Writers Association and was electedto the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Post-Season

After retiring from baseball in 1976, Aaroncontinued to work in the sport.

He joined the Atlanta Braves' front office astheir vice president for player development. Afterdirecting the Braves' farm system for 16 years,Aaron became the vice president of TurnerBroadcasting in 1992 and has his office inAtlanta's CNN Center.

"I've been doing quite a few things [since Iretired]," he says. "Community work, personalthings, most of all I've just been enjoyingmyself."

"I was fortunate to come out of baseballuninjured," he says. "I'm in business, but most ofall, I just feel lucky enough to have played forso long.

But Aaron has not gotten out of baseballcompletely. He still serves on the Braves' Boardof Directors.

And he continues to be active in arguing forthe rights of minorities in baseball.

"I think that we still have a long way to go,"he says. "I'm still somewhat disturbed at what theminority status is at the moment--the lack ofminorities participating in the managerialcapacity."

"My concern is one that minorities have stoodtall in playing and should stand tall in gettingmanagerial jobs also," he says.

American Hero

Counter describes Aaron in glowing terms.

"I think that he is one of the finest humanbeings I have ever met," he says. "He is a man ofgreat dignity and poise."

Counter says he has known Aaron for many yearsthrough mutual friends.

"[I met him] when I was a youngster in WestPalm Beach many years ago," Counter says. "Mr.Aaron was playing baseball at that time, and [I]considered him the best in the country and allyoungsters looked up to him as a hero."

Counter says that knowing Aaron made watchinghim hit the record-breaking 715th homer all themore special.

"I was ecstatic. I was delighted," Countersays. "I remember watching the game, seeing thepitch and [seeing him] hitting the ball."

"I was excited for him--he made Americanhistory," Counter says. "I was so proud of him."

Counter's pride is mirrored in the eyes of theyounger generation. Miller says the reaction toAaron's selection has been wonderful.

"The response that we've received from seniorshas been overwhelmingly positive about ourchoice," he says. "We're very happy with it, andwe think that the choice that we have made and theresponse from Hank Aaron has been really great andwe really look forward to Class Day."Photo Courtesy of Harvard News OfficeHANK AARON and S. ALLEN COUNTER Jr. (rear)at a Mather House reception earlier thisspring.