On the 25th anniversary of breaking Babe Ruth's record for career home runs, Hank Aaron said he finally has been able to overcome some of the bitterness and disappointment that accompanied his record-breaking 715th home run. Aaron, who said he was hounded by racial hate mail and death threats as he closed in on Ruth's record, was honored tonight by Major League Baseball, which unveiled the Hank Aaron Award that will be given to the top hitter in each league based on home runs, RBI and batting average.
Commissioner Bud Selig, a personal friend of Aaron's for 40 years, said Major League Baseball wants the award to be on par with the MVP and Cy Young awards. Also tonight, Tom Johnson, president of Atlanta-based CNN, presented Aaron's "Chasing a Dream Foundation" with a $1 million check prior to the Braves' game against the Phillies.
Asked why it took so long for him to receive recognition for breaking Ruth's record, the 65-year-old Aaron said, "If you had asked me the same question 15 years ago you would have found a much angrier person. Time has a way of healing some things. Things have gone very well."
"The last few days have been an overwhelming experience of joy and happiness for my husband and for the kind of recognition he's finally getting for an accomplishment that's high above anything else that's been done," Billye Aaron said. "It's been a wonderful experience of making up for all that didn't happen 25 years ago."
Aaron, a career .305 hitter and baseball's all-time RBI leader too, said he watched the excitement last season of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing Roger Maris's record and admitted he wished he could have had some of the same attention.
"When I looked at Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who enjoyed the moment they were going through, who had all the accolades and had the people behind them, and McGwire every time he hit a home run he would embrace his son, well, I didn't have that," Aaron said. "I thought if I had just a little bit of it, it would have made me feel a whole lot different."
Aaron broke Ruth's record on April 8, 1974, when he hit a pitch from the Dodgers' Al Downing in the bottom of the fourth inning over the left field fence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which has been torn down and replaced by Turner Field. Aaron finished his career in 1976 with 755 career home runs.
"This is something that should have happened long ago," Selig said. "Somehow the great achievement that Hank accomplished in 1974 did not get the attention or the depth of feeling that it deserved. But, wonderfully, it's a story that's going to have a better ending. Some of the things that went on were worse than regrettable, disgraceful at best."
Selig was referring to the hate mail Aaron received while he was closing in on Ruth's record. Aaron still has many of the letters in a trunk in his home in Atlanta. Not only did he receive death threats and require a bodyguard, but he said five years ago on the 20th anniversary of his 715th home run that the FBI was called in after members of his family received death threats.
On top of the threats and hate mail, Aaron was snubbed by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who didn't attend the game in Atlanta when Aaron hit the 715th homer. Kuhn insisted he had to honor a speaking commitment in Cleveland.
"I wish it had been a happier experience and I wish much of what happened hadn't happened. . . . It was inexcusable," Selig said. When his father owned the Milwaukee Braves, one of Selig's jobs was to arrange cars for the Braves' players to drive. That's how he and Aaron became close friends.
Former Baltimore Oriole Frank Robinson attended the ceremony tonight along with former players Lou Brock, Joe Black, Ralph Garr and Phil Niekro. Robinson, who works for the National League, said he is still not certain Aaron has been accepted as the all-time home run king.
"Certainly they weren't ready for it then," Robinson said. "A lot of people don't recognize him to this day. They recognize Babe Ruth as the home run king. He deserved better than what happened over the last 25 years. Maybe this will start the healing process."
CAPTION: With wife Billye at his side, Hank Aaron shakes with Phillies' Desi Relaford in Atlanta. It was 25th anniversary celebration of Aaron setting home run mark.