“I do,” Aaron answered, the slightest grin on his face.
“How can that be?” Melvin asked.
“I knew Barry’s father very well, and I got to know Barry [Bonds] a little bit,” Aaron said, folding his hands together. “It’s kind of hard for me to digest and come to realize that Barry cheated in home runs, cheated in this and that.”
The “Today” show interview aired in February. Aaron died Friday at 86. And now one slice of his legacy, as the last player to set the home run record without the help of steroids, is being approached in different ways. A Twitter search for “true home run king” produced thousands of results Friday afternoon. Hall of Famer Frank Thomas capped a Twitter tribute to Aaron with #HRKing. Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) called Aaron the “true home run king” in a social media post.
Bonds later released a statement via Twitter that reasonably — and perhaps appropriately — avoided the debate. On April 8, 1974, Aaron passed Babe Ruth on the all-time list with his 715th home run. He would finish his career with 755. Then, on Aug. 7, 2007, Bonds passed Aaron with his 756th blast. He would finish his career with 762, a number that could stand forever.
“Hank Aaron — thank you for everything you ever taught us, for being a trailblazer through adversity and setting an example for all of us African American ballplayers that came after you,” read part of Bonds’s statement. “Being able to grow up and have the idols and role models I did, help shape me for a future I could have never dreamed of. Hank’s passing will be felt by all of us who love the game and his impact will forever be cemented in my heart.”
Many accounts at the time said Aaron tried to distance himself from Bonds’s record-setting summer. But when Bonds hit No. 756, a shot to right-center off Washington Nationals starter Mike Bacsik, Aaron soon appeared with a message on the big screen at At&T Park in San Francisco.
“I move over and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement,” Aaron told Bonds and the sellout crowd. “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”
After the game, Bonds chose defiance when asked whether the record was at all tainted by his suspected use of steroids. Bonds already had taken the single-season record from Mark McGwire, another steroid user, by hitting 73 homers in 2001. By this point, he was used to questions about how he should be viewed next to Aaron, Ruth or Willie Mays, who succeeded without performance-enhancing drugs.
It made Bonds’s hard shell even harder.
“This record is not tainted at all, at all,” Bonds told reporters that night. “Period. You guys can say whatever you want.”
About two years later, while in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the National Baseball Hall of Fame inductions of Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson, Aaron advocated for putting asterisks next to records set by steroid users. That, of course, would include a mark alongside the only home run total that bested his. Aaron reasoned that while steroids can’t help a player hit a 100-mph fastball, they can help with recovery and add strength to a player’s body.
Shortly before that weekend in Cooperstown, Harmon Killebrew — a Hall of Famer with 573 career home runs — told the Columbus Dispatch, “As far as I’m concerned, Hank Aaron is the all-time home run champ and Roger Maris should still have the [single-season] record at 61, but Barry Bonds is the name you see in the record book.”
Aaron never called himself the true home run king or leader. He instead chose to recognize Bonds’s achievements and the obvious complications.
“I played the game long enough to know, and it is impossible for players, I don’t care who they are, to hit 70 home runs,” Aaron told reporters in Cooperstown in 2009, according to ESPN. “It just does not happen. I think that’s one reason why people’s eyes started opening up and they said, ‘How can this guy do this?’ ”
“I appreciate it, but I’m still second,” Aaron added, according to ESPN, when asked about Killebrew’s comments. “Like I told somebody the other day, ‘No matter how [people] feel, I don’t think I’m going to ever hit another home run.’ It’s all over with. I can’t even play 18 holes of golf anymore.”
With Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, the steroid era lingers. In the “Today” interview from February, Aaron explained why that should not keep them from enshrinement in Cooperstown, where he was inducted in 1982.
“Even though they were on steroids?” Melvin, the interviewer, asked Aaron, who remains Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in RBI, with 2,297, and extra-base hits, with 1,477.
“We’ve had so many cheaters that have made the Hall of Fame,” said Aaron, who also called Bonds a terrific ballplayer. “Now I don’t see any reason why Barry or any of the rest of them shouldn’t make it.”
“Did you cheat?” Melvin pressed.
“I didn’t know how to do anything,” Aaron said as a self-deprecating smile turned to laughter. “I didn’t know how to hold a bat straight.”