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Still hammerin' away - baseball player Hank Aaron - includes related articles on various aspects of sports - Interview

Still hammerin' away - baseball player Hank Aaron - includes related articles on various aspects of sports - InterviewHank Aaron drives home the point that he was a dedicated student of the game and an all-around player, not just a home run hitter

Granted, Hank Aaron always will be best known for breaking Babe Ruth's career home run record. But that's not the only reason he will be featured in (he TV special, Kodak presents: The Sporting News Baseball's 100 Greatest Players, which airs April 24 on NBC. Aaron, who ranks fifth on the list, was a complete player, He also is the career leader in total bases, RBIs and extra-base hits. Plus, he was a two-time batting champion.

Let's not forget that Aaron, although not as flashy as Willie Mays, was an excellent outfielder and baserunner. He won three Gold Gloves and scored 2,174 runs, which ranks second all time. Not bad for a guy who was overshadowed by Mays and Mickey Mantle during his career.

Clearly, Aaron's 755 career home runs-the 25th anniversary of record--breaking No. 715 was celebrated earlier this month--will be the centerpiece of his legacy. But when The Sporting News caught up with Aaron twice during a three-week span, he stressed that he doesn't want to be remembered as just a home run hitter.

The Sporting News: In the book, The Sporting News Selects Baseball's 100 Greatest Players, you are considered the fifth-best player in the 20th century. That ranking proves that you were a great all-around player. Does it bother you that you are primarily known for hitting home runs?

Aaron: It doesn't bother me. I'm always going to be known for that. People (must) start realizing that I did other things. The stats are there. When people talk about Babe Ruth, they talk about home runs. That's what people are going to say about me.... I can't change their minds. I can't influence them to think any other way.

Q: For people who don't know about your career, what did you like best about your game?

A: I liked everything.... I felt like I did it as well as anybody else. I ran the bases, I hit well, I hit home runs, batted in a lot of runs and scored a lot of runs. There is not one phase of the game that I looked at and said, "Oh, I did well." I look at all of it and said, "I did it equally well."

Q: People talk about your wrists as the reason you were a successful hitter. But it had to be more than that.

A: It was a combination of a lot of things. (It was) my dedication and willingness to study the game.... I wish people would start thinking about that. It wasn't just a matter of talent and the ability to play. But it was a matter of putting those things together. Sometimes, as a black person, you get a little tired of it. When they talk about Ted Williams or Stan Musial, (you hear) that they were smart hitters, they knew the strike zone. When they start talking about black players, (you hear) that they had tremendous ability. That makes you kind of angry. I had to study the game as well as anybody.

Q: Although you are best known for your playing days in Atlanta, we get the impression that your happiest moments were in Milwaukee. Talk about your time there.

A: Part of that is true and part of it is not. I came up in Milwaukee. I was a young player, and I was treated very, very well in Milwaukee. If I had played in New York City, I don't know if I would have made it because of the press. We didn't have but one newspaper in Milwaukee (actually two, owned by the same company). I was content, and the people in Milwaukee were content. However, I had some of my greatest years in Atlanta. Of course, I broke the (home run) record in Atlanta. Both cities were very, very good to me. But Milwaukee has been the one because I played there first.

Q: In fact, you went on record to say that your greatest moment in baseball came when you hit a pennant-winning home run against the Cardinals in 1957. Could you take us through that moment?

A: Our ballclub was in a slump. It just so happens that we had blown the pennant the year before. We wound up playing the Cardinals, who knocked us out of the pennant race (in 1956). We went into the 11th inning, and 1 happened to hit a home run off Billy Muffett. And the home run won the pennant for the Braves. It's got to be one of the best moments in baseball.

Q: When did you realize that you had a shot at Ruth's home run record?

A: (I knew) I had an outside chance after the (1972) strike ended. We came back, and I had a decent year (34 home runs in 129 games). I had to stay healthy and be surrounded by great ballplayers.

Q: As you were closing in on the Babe, when did you start feeling the pressure?

A: This might sound like I'm bragging, but I never felt pressured. I never felt pressured because I felt the only way I could play baseball was to relax and do the best I could. I couldn't play under pressure.

Q: How did you stay relaxed during that period?

A: The record we are talking about was not set in one year, and it certainly wasn't going to be broken in one year. So I certainly wasn't going to let one game or one series or one month get me to the point where I was going to be pressured.

Q: As you were approaching the record, what was the most disappointing experience you had on or off the field?

A: That's a tough question.... The closer I got to the record, people started thinking that it wasn't the most important record in baseball. Of course, there were other things. I just wished for a moment that I could have enjoyed it as much as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire enjoyed their chase last year.

Q: The death threats and the letters from bigots are the reasons you didn't enjoy the chase, right?

A: The threats and all the controversy. My daughter was in college at Fisk University (in Nashville), and she wasn't able to enjoy it. And I had to put my two boys in private schools, so they weren't there to be batboys. They weren't able to enjoy it. So I was deprived of a lot of things that really should have belonged to me and my family.

Q: It's no secret that you were very upset over the hate mail you received as you were getting closer to Ruth's record. Now it seems that the bitterness has gone away. What has Major League Baseball done to take away the bitterness?

A: I don't think baseball did anything. I think it's just a matter of me getting older and wiser and saying, "Hey, leave it alone and go on to another chapter. You are only here for a little while." You are not going to erase it. It's there. It's going to remain there for the rest of my life. I wasn't bitter. I was just disappointed.

Q: Do you think playing in the shadows of Mantle and Mays helped you break the record?

A: I don't know if it helped me. I was going to eventually do what I had to do, regardless of what those guys did. If the (public) had a choice of who they wanted to break Babe Ruth's record, it would have been Mickey Mantle. And if Mickey couldn't do it, they probably would have wanted Willie Mays.

Q: Why do you think so many people wanted Mantle to break the record?

A: Mantle played in New York City, played with the Yankees. They won a lot of pennants. Mickey Mantle was like Marilyn Monroe. He didn't have to be the greatest ballplayer, but he had that charisma. And Mickey, God rest his soul, was a terrific ballplayer, but he could always give you some kind of news.... Back in the early '50s, (in) New York City, you walk out on the field and you might find 50 guys out there with pencils in their hands taking (notes). And Mickey could always give them the news.

Q: With all the death threats you received during your chase of the Babe, how come you were so calm when a couple of fans went on the field after you broke the record?

A: When I was in a ballpark, I felt there was nothing that could bother me. I felt safe. I felt like I was surrounded by angels and I had God's hand on my shoulder. I didn't feel like anything could bother me. When I hit that home run, I had no reason to think that those kids were out there to do bodily harm. First of all, (if they tried anything), they would have been a dime short and nickel late. It was over with. I thought they were out there to have some fun.

Q: What player today has a chance to break your record?

A: The only player I think has a chance (is) Ken Griffey Jr. He's 29 years old, and he has had some great years. If he stays healthy, I think he could probably break the record.

Q: Do you think money could prevent him from breaking the record? After all, he doesn't need to play major league baseball for 23 years like you did.

A: That's true. That could be a big factor. But I don't think that's going to have an effect on him because he has his head screwed on right and I think he wants to do everything he can ... to be the best ballplayer.

Q: Besides hitting home runs, what do you like about Griffey?

A: I like his makeup. I think that he's calm, cool and collected. He wants to win (every time) he's out there.... He's not just a home run hitter. He does everything well.


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