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Aaron Gets No Reprieve From Home Run Debate

It is a little sad that the greatest home run hitter in baseball history can’t just come to town these days and be nothing more than the greatest home run hitter in baseball history.

Hank Aaron knows all too well that he is historically joined at the hip with the Giant Giant from the Bay Area, that when he goes out in public, questions will be asked and the two will be, once again, bonded.

He knows that the fifth question will include the word “steroids,” and so will the ninth, 11th and 15th. He knows he doesn’t like answering them and reporters aren’t all that fond of asking.

But all involved know that the topic is too compelling for the public not to hear something from a man who hit 755 home runs and, at age 72, is watching another, possibly tainted by use of performance-enhancing drugs, who is only 22 shy of topping that.

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Aaron was here Monday on a mission of good, something his life has become ever since he hit homer No. 715 on April 8, 1974, to break Babe Ruth’s record and No. 755 on July 20, 1976, to set the current bar. He spoke at a fundraising dinner for the Westcoast Sports Associates, which raised about $300,000 for after-school sports and mentoring programs in Los Angeles.

He spent the afternoon signing memorabilia for the dinner’s auction, doing a lengthy and compelling interview for Roy Firestone’s “Face to Face” show on HDTV and chatting with reporters about the good old days, and those that weren’t.

“I’ve been so blessed,” he says. “I had 23 years in baseball, and now I’m trying to do as much as I can to make God understand that I am grateful for that.”

He said that hitting home runs, in his years with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers, was satisfying, but that seeing young people smile these days is much more so. He said his foundation, Chasing Your Dreams, provides many of those smiles for him and his wife and cited the case of one of its recipients, who recently headed off to the University of Michigan to study music and play the harp.

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Aaron grew up in poverty in Mobile, Ala., and still carries the memories. He also still lives in the same house in Atlanta that he did when he broke Ruth’s record.

But he has progressed from a person who didn’t know how to fill out a job application or create a personal resume when he stopped playing in 1976 to owning five car dealerships and several restaurants and sitting on several boards, including the Atlanta Falcons’. He moves easily in business circles, counts the likes of Ted Turner, Peter Ueberroth and Bud Selig as friends, and has met and talked personally with every president of the United States since he became baseball’s greatest home run hitter.

“I think I might have liked Bill Clinton the best,” he says. “He was so easy to talk to.”

Aaron is heavier now, of course, and walks with a slight limp. The powerful forearms and wrists that made him the game’s greatest contact hitter remain massive, though an occasional detriment now.

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“They don’t help my golf game one bit,” he says.

Firestone gets him to talk about the potential evils of the massive amounts of money players get today, and Aaron tells the story of his seventh year in the league, when he signed a contract for $50,000.

“I think Eddie Mathews was getting $60,000 and Warren Spahn $65,000,” Aaron says. “I remember thinking that there was no way I could spend all that.”

So they got together and requested that the team defer $20,000 each from those salaries.

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“We were told no,” he says. “We were told that sort of thing would send the club into bankruptcy.”

He still wears the scars of the racial injustice that was a way of life as a child in Mobile.

“I remember that, by 6 o’clock, it was pitch dark,” he says, “and by 7, you could hear the drums outside. It was the Ku Klux Klan, just walking along, not doing anything more [than beating the drums]. My mother would tell me to hide, to get under the bed. It was constant irritation, and it just wore you down.”

Aaron says it took him two years after his record 715th to get over the bitterness of all the racial hate mail he got as he pursued Ruth’s record. One said, “Dear Henry Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia?”

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He still remembers the kidnap threat against his daughter, the constant bodyguards, the people around him who tasted his food before he could eat.

And he admits that the irony is not lost on him that now, 32 years later, so many people are rooting hard that his record 755 is never toppled, especially by the Giant Giant.

The issue this time is not racial, it is chemical. And, as he has for more than a year now, Aaron handles it as best he can.

“I’ve tried desperately to not get involved in a discussion of who is the best-ever home run hitter,” he says. “Besides, records are made to be broken.

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“Everybody is innocent until they are proven guilty. We can all talk, but until something is proven, what can I say?”

Words on the issue are one thing. Action, or lack thereof, yet another. Aaron is asked, assuming the Giant Giant signs for one more year in the Bay Area to pursue the record, if he will be there for the moment.

He has said this before, and he doesn’t hesitate this time.

“I’m not coming,” he says, adding quickly that it will be controversial if he does and controversial if he doesn’t, so what’s the point. He also says he doesn’t like to fly much anymore.

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There is no Hammerin’ Hank in the answer. His body language reveals little, except maybe that the greatest home run hitter in history is tired of finding ways to say nice things about the soon-to-be greatest home run asterisk.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.


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