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If you like Hank Aaron's story, you might also like:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,
Yogi Berra,
Julius Erving,
Frank M. Johnson,
B.B. King,
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and Andrew Young

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  Hank Aaron

In 1954, America met the 20-year-old Henry Aaron. The Civil Rights Movement was taking off at the same time. In effect, sports stars like Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis had already led the way. But how did you feel about what was going on in the country, when you saw things on television, with people being dragged from lunch counters...

Hank Aaron: And fire hoses and things like that. It certainly was a sad moment.

The thing that, I think, that all of us -- in fact, in talking to Don Newcombe and some of the other black ball players -- was that, I think Dr. King had said that he wanted us to keep things like they were, because we were playing baseball and we were integrating situations in other areas. And we were doing it a little bit more -- they were a little bit more peaceful with us than they were with just the average black person in the South. We looked at it, and some of us, including myself, wanted to take time out to go and be part of the march, and be part of whatever Dr. King and some of the other civil rights leaders were doing. We talked it over, and we decided that the best thing is to sit -- is to continue to do baseball. Because things were -- we were seeing a little progress in baseball. I know when I first started in Jacksonville, blacks and whites could not mingle together. And then at the end of the season, they were starting to go together, and shake hands, because it was for one thing, and that was to try to win a championship. So all these things, we saw it was hurting, when you look at TV and see you things like that and you're not part of it, but yet you feel like you -- and I mean "you," myself -- you were making progress as far as trying to help bring equality yourself.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Hank Aaron Interview Photo
You did make a difference. You had a chance to play in Mobile, and share the field with Jackie Robinson and the other Dodgers. What was that like?

Hank Aaron: Probably, other than hitting a home run to clinch the pennant for the Braves, one of the greatest moments I ever had was playing in my home town against the Brooklyn Dodgers. And there was Jackie Robinson. All of us were right there in Mobile.

How did your family feel about it?

Hank Aaron: My family felt good. I had a good day. I think I had two or three hits, so they felt very well. My mama would say, "My boy has come a long way. And he has made it a little bit comfortable for me!"

In your first year with the Milwaukee Braves, you were filling in for the legendary Bobby Thomson, who was injured. You've said, "I started to get ready for every game the minute I woke up." How important is that kind of preparation?

Hank Aaron: My first year in the big leagues, I knew I had had a great year in the minor leagues. I mean a great season. Today, if a kid have that kind of year in the minor leagues, he would come up and sign a 15-year contract. I had a great year, but I knew, back then, that regardless to what kind of year that I had -- and this didn't only refer to me, it referred to every player, because there was so many good ball players back then -- I knew that I was probably going back to the minor leagues. No matter what happened, I knew that if I had the greatest spring training -- and I did -- but I was ticketed back to the minor leagues I was going to Triple A, because the Braves had made a very big trade, they had traded for Bobby Thomson, and Bobby Thomson was going to be the left fielder. He was going to play left field, and I was not going to play. So they was sending me back to the minor leagues to get more experience. And as fate would have it -- not anything that I had anything to do with -- Bobby Thomson broke his ankle in St. Petersburg. I had played a year -- half a year, rather -- in Puerto Rico. Charlie Grimm, I don't think he really wanted to keep me, but I think between the management and the general manager, they persuaded him to keep me on the team, and he just did. To do that, he wanted to bring in somebody with a little bit more experience, somebody who had played in the major leagues. At least, I didn't have anything to do with it, but somebody convinced him to keep me on the team.

You have said, "To me, hitting is a matter of knowing where the ball was going to be and when." You felt your strengths were your strong arms, your wrists, and your eyesight. You focused on the pitcher's body too. There are more than 100 books on hitting a baseball. You can download hitting apps on your phone, even. Everybody has got some ideas, but it worked for you. So what's the secret?

Hank Aaron: I don't know that it was a secret. I just concentrate on everything I had to do. Baseball was my livelihood. I thought about it, I studied it. I practiced as much as I possibly could. Where some players practice during the day, during the game, I practiced all -- I would go out and do things that they would never dream about doing. And I can tell you what pitchers -- in what situation they want to throw a certain pitch to me. So I knew that. And I knew it only because I studied the pitchers a little bit more than just the average did.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

We've read that you didn't even go to movies during the day because you wanted to keep your eyes adjusted to the night game lights.

Hank Aaron: I didn't go to the movies. I stayed in. If I would travel from, say from Milwaukee to Philadelphia, and that evening we had a night game, and we would get in in the morning or something, I would never go out of the hotel until the game would start. Because I just felt like I needed to stay, and study and study, and just keep my eyes. Rather than going out and looking at bright sunshine, wait until the night, and it would be accustomed to being -- because I would be in the dark!

Where did these observations and all this insight come from?

Hank Aaron: I don't know. I think it just came from the Good Lord, really. I don't know.

My father always taught me, if you want something bad enough, you've got to learn how to go out and do something special in order to accomplish and get it. I just felt that I had the ability to play baseball, that was given to me by God, but I had to apply my own intuition into it in order to make myself a little bit better. In order for me to do that, then I had to do some things that ordinarily another player would not do. I had to make sure that if a pitcher was out there on the mound, that I knew exactly what his weakness was, because he had already studied mine. I felt like I need to be ahead of him at all times, and that's what happened.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

So you saved your eyes for the night games. Cal Ripken told us he had a difficult time seeing the ball until the later innings. Did you ever have that problem?

Hank Aaron: No, I never had a problem. My eyesight has always been pretty good.

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This page last revised on Oct 02, 2015 17:14 EDT
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