HANK AARON: Beyond Home Plate

Times Staff Writer

A sports reporter once wrote: “Hank Aaron does everything Willie Mays does, but his hat doesn’t fall off.”-- former Braves pitcher Ernie Johnson

On April 8, 1974, “Hammerin’ ” Henry Aaron of the Atlanta Braves made baseball history when he hit his 715th home run, shattering Babe Ruth’s longstanding record of 714 homers.

In honor of this, TBS presents “‘Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream,” an inspiring two-hour documentary chronicling the story behind Aaron’s home run and the incredible obstacles he faced trying to break Ruth’s record.

The Mobile, Ala., native, now 61, was just 18 when he was signed by the Braves organization. Five years earlier, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. It wasn’t easy for Aaron following in his footsteps: He faced difficulties both on and off the field during his 23 seasons in the majors. While trying to break Ruth’s record, Aaron received racist hate mail and death threats and was assigned a bodyguard for protection. But his love for the game kept him going.


“Chasing the Dream” was written and directed by executive producer Mike Tollin. Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington is executive producer. The documentary includes narration from Aaron’s own words, memorable footage of Aaron’s career and interviews with family members as well as baseball greats Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, Sandy Koufax and Bobby Thomson.

Today, Aaron is corporate vice president of community relations for the Turner Broadcasting System and vice president of business development for the Airport Network. He serves as vice president and assistant to the president of the Atlanta Braves and is founder of the Hank Aaron Rookie League program.

Times Staff Writer Susan King talked with Aaron about “Chasing the Dream” over the phone from Atlanta.

Had producers approached you previously about doing a documentary or movie about your life?

Not really. To be very honest with you, I probably would have been skeptical. Traditionally, baseball movies don’t really pay off. I think if you are talking about a person’s life, if you talk about somebody’s life like my own, which is more than just baseball, I think it has got to be about more than baseball. My baseball career was very successful, I realize that. But there were a lot of trials and tribulations that attributed to that--growing up in Mobile and growing up in a segregated society and not having the right equipment to play the game of baseball. It just proves one thing--if a person has a dream and he’s chasing it, he can fulfill that dream by keeping himself focused in what he has to do.

What did you think of Ken Burns’ miniseries “Baseball”?

I thought he did an excellent job. When you make a series of that magnitude you are certainly going to hurt something. Of course, I had my little-bitty blip in there. If you went to the bathroom you would have missed me (laughs). If I hadn’t broken Babe Ruth’s record, I wouldn’t have made it. But anyhow, I thought he did an excellent job.


Can you discuss your friendship with Jackie Robinson--what he taught you and what it was like playing against him during his rookie season?

Well, I was in awe really to have a chance to play in a baseball game against him. You hear about things happening that you dream about, but having them become real was something I didn’t think would happen. When I had a chance to play against him, I really didn’t know it was me. But playing against him and watching his every move and what he went through and how he carried himself, I guess I kind of tried to pattern myself somewhat after him. I try to do some of the things that he did. I try to make myself useful in ways that go beyond the baseball field.

How did you make it through the time you were approaching Babe Ruth’s record, receiving all the hate mail. Was it following Jackie Robinson’s example?

I think you touched on the magic word there when you said Jackie Robinson.

I think the thing that he went through gave me the strength and the courage to fulfill my dream. I felt like he could do it. There’s no question that I had the ability to do the same thing. I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way no matter what it was. I had the God-given talent, but I needed to do something else--I needed to show the world I was capable of doing some other things.

Did you miss baseball once you retired?

It was very easy for me (to retire). I was burned out. I had done just about everything that I wanted to do and there was nothing else for me to reach for.


Can you talk about your Hank Aaron Rookie League? How long has it been in existence?

About 3 1/2 years. Right now, it’s in the Atlanta area. We have about 300 kids. We don’t have enough. It’s directed to the housing projects. We are concerned with the kids playing among themselves because so many times we forget about those kids.

Do you think the strike is hurting the youth of America, since they are not getting the opportunity to see the game played?

I don’t think the strike has that much to do with the kids, as far as them hurting. It’s a matter of money, money, money. It comes from the players who are making more money. The owners want more money. Everybody wants more money without thinking about the sacrifice that they make down the road.

Not including the time when you broke Babe Ruth’s record, did you ever have a perfect game?

There have been games like that and there have been games where I wanted to hide in a gopher hole. That’s what makes the game what it is. It is the guy who can do well today and the guy who can do well tomorrow. But it’s also the guy who can realize that yesterday’s news is only good for wrapping dead fish in. So as soon as you learn that, the better off you are.

“Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream” premieres Wednesday at 5:05 and 7:05 p.m. on TBS; it repeats April 22 at 1:05 p.m.