A day with Hank Aaron in 2009 revealed how he felt about steroid-era stars and the Hall
“I probably would’ve had as much temptation as anybody else,” he said. “The reason for that is a lot of dollar bills.”
With baseball’s 2021 Hall of Fame election results due Tuesday evening, I found myself thinking of the great Hank Aaron — who died Friday at 86 — all over again.
More specifically, thinking back to a day in 2009 when, in a previous job, I spent the morning with Aaron in his ballpark office in Atlanta before taking an easy stroll and enjoying lunch together. It was an interview timed for his 75th birthday.
“They don’t allow you to go that fast on the expressway,” he said when asked if 75 was old.
There would be many birthdays to come, thank goodness, and we spoke on the phone a few more times, most recently around this time in 2015 after Ernie Banks died. But what stirred memories Tuesday of that 2009 interview were the Hall fates of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and any other superheroes of the steroid era. By 2009, Bonds had broken Aaron’s all-time home-run record. Aaron had declined to attend Bonds’ games as the record fell.
I asked Aaron: If he’d come up 30-some years later, would he have been tempted by steroids? His answer was just plain honest.
“I probably would’ve had as much temptation as anybody else,” he said. “I’m not exempted from that. I probably would’ve been tempted to do it. The reason for that is a lot of dollar bills. A lot of money was floating out there.”
Some other former stars at that time were defiant in support of Aaron’s record. Reggie Jackson told me in no uncertain terms back then that Aaron was the greatest player of all time and, as far as he was concerned, still the home-run champ. But Aaron didn’t draw the same line in the dirt, and it wasn’t just his humility talking.
“You have to remember,” he said, “that if a young kid was coming up in that era and he’s sitting over in the corner and looking over at Barry’s chiseled physique, with muscles like Popeye’s, he’s going to say, ‘Hey, what do I have to do to start looking like that?’ ”
Aaron the player looked so unlike that; it’s another thing worth remembering here. Bonds, when he broke Aaron’s record of 755 homers in 2007, weighed 240 pounds. Aaron, when he broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714 in 1974, weighed no more than 190.
The enduring image many, if not most, young baseball fans have of Aaron is of a big-looking, slow-looking, not-so-athletic-looking old player rounding the bases after swatting No. 715 in Atlanta.But those young fans should’ve seen Aaron in his prime, which lasted darn near forever. He stood 6 feet and weighed a mere 175.
“At my best, I weighed 175,” he said. “No more than 180. If I got to 185, I got too big across the chest and shoulders. When I was 175 pounds, I could do all the things I wanted to do: go out and play a doubleheader, play 10 straight days without getting tired. That’s when I was at my best.”
Let’s use the White Sox’ roster for some perspective on that. Slugger Eloy Jimenez is 235. Sculpted center fielder Luis Robert is 210. You know who’s about the same height Aaron was and weighs — at 185 — more than Aaron’s ideal amount? Skinny Tim Anderson, that’s who. You know who tips the scales at Aaron’s ideal 175? Tiny Nick Madrigal, that’s who.
What Aaron produced — he’s No. 1 all time in RBI, extra-base hits and total bases, too, and played in 24 All-Star Games — for a player of modest size never ceases to amaze me. I’m with Reggie: This is the greatest player of them all.
One more memory to share from that interview in 2009. As we were eating lunch, a report came from the TV on the wall above us that Manny Ramirez had turned down a one-year, $25 million offer from the Dodgers. That’s one year at — it’s almost painful to say it — exactly 100 times the highest amount Aaron ever made in a season.
Aaron stared blankly at the screen awhile before rolling his eyes, looking at me — expressionless — and then returning to his soup. All without saying a word. I half-wanted to flip over the table in protest on his behalf, but that’s not the sort of man he was.
This wasn’t meant as an obituary; it’s a couple of days late for that. But Aaron the man was, of course, about so much more than baseball. His best friend of over 50 years, former Atlanta mayor, U.S. congressman and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, described trying to get Aaron to talk stick-and-ball as pretty much useless.
“He would much rather talk politics or business or problems with young people,” Young said in 2009.
Wife Billye Aaron said he never saw himself as a big deal because he’d been a ballplayer.
“He has always been Henry Aaron the man, the husband, the father, the community participant,” she said then. “And I don’t think they come any finer.”
Not in baseball, they don’t, during the steroid era or any other time since Aaron’s heyday. Certainly not before him, considering he started out with Banks in the Negro Leagues. No, indeed, not ever.