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Aaron transcended baseball

4/13/2004

My most cherished memory of Hank Aaron as a player came 30 years ago on Opening Day in Cincinnati. In his first at-bat, in the first inning, Hank hit home run No. 714 to tie Babe Ruth's record.

I was playing second base for the Reds. As he was trotting toward me, I didn't know what to do. I wanted to reach out and give him a hug, but that would have embarrassed my pitcher, Jack Billingham, who gave up the homer. I never wanted to do anything on the field to show anybody up, so that was out of the question.

As Hank trotted by, we made eye contact, and I nodded at him. That was a great moment for me. I was glad to be able to acknowledge what he had just accomplished without lots of fanfare.

This was the first game of the season in the majors -- well before baseball made trips to Japan, when Cincinnati had MLB's opening game every year. But it wasn't on national TV.

Four days later, on April 8, I was glued to the TV set like baseball fans everywhere because I wanted to see No. 715 when it happened. And when Hank hit that historic homer off Al Downing, I was glad again for him.

Most under-celebrated
Thirty years later, let's look back at that milestone. From a sociological standpoint, Aaron breaking Ruth's home-run record record was like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier (but with less impact).

If you were an African-American who grew up in an era when black ballplayers weren't allowed to play in the major leagues, the only thing you heard about were the exploits of great players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.

But on April 8, 1974, the most cherished record in baseball was eclipsed by an African-American. That one home run changed the landscape of baseball. Hank Aaron, not Babe Ruth, was the new standard-bearer -- the greatest home-run hitter ever.

So Aaron's record-setting homer had a big impact sociologically, because it was evidence that if African-Americans had enjoyed the same opportunity all those years -- when the best black players toiled in the Negro Leagues -- maybe Babe Ruth would have been second already when Aaron arrived on the scene. It made us realize that if African-Americans had the same opportunity to play, they would have had an equal opportunity to establish baseball's most cherished records.

Despite his accomplishments and significance, Aaron has always been under-celebrated -- and even slighted. To me, Aaron is the most under-celebrated player in baseball history.

Remember, when Aaron broke Ruth's record, commissioner Bowie Kuhn wasn't even there at Atlanta's Fulton-County Stadium. I'm not sure where he was, but he should have been there with Aaron. For other key milestones throughout baseball history, commissioners have been there -- but not for the biggest record ever?

Aaron the man
I'm friends with Hank, but I've never talked with him about the hate mail he received and the racism he faced as he chased Ruth's record. I know how devastating it was to him to have to open the mail every day and read it.

I've read many of the accounts, but I'd never want to bring something up that I know is so hurtful, and I don't think that it needs to be discussed.

Since Hank and I retired, we've become closer friends than we were as players. We've met together with the commissioner to address minority issues and we've talked often on the phone.

Over the years, I've gained a greater appreciation for Hank Aaron the man, not just Hank Aaron the legend.

I majored in business in college, so I've also admired Hank's business skills. He's a smart businessman, with car dealerships and other enterprises in the Southeast.

Aaron and Mays
I've always said that Willie Mays is the greatest player I've ever seen. In saying that, I realize that Hank tends to get overlooked.

I see Mays as the greatest because he did everything to help his team win, all facets of the game -- and he did it with a flair. Aaron also did everything well, but he made it look easy. Mays was better at defense and baserunning (though Aaron was also skilled in those categories, with three Gold Gloves to Mays' 12).

But make no mistake, Aaron was a better hitter than Mays. Baseball has not seen a better right-handed hitter. Aaron has better career stats than Mays in several key categories, including: batting average (.305 to .302); runs (2,174 to 2,062); RBI (2,297 to 1,903); and, of course, home runs (755 to 660).

Aaron's RBI number is staggering -- and like his 755 homers, 2,297 RBI is also a major-league record. Guess who's second in RBI ... that's right, Babe Ruth.

Aaron was a great hitter, a hitter's hitter, from the very beginning of his career. He hit lots of balls to right-center. But in his pursuit of Ruth's home-run record, he became more of a pull hitter.

So Mays is No. 1 overall on my list, but Aaron is No. 1A. Mays had the flair while Aaron just got the job done. Thus, sadly, Aaron has often been slighted. To this day, there are Babe Ruth Leagues all across the country (for players age 13-15). I played in a Babe Ruth League as a youngster. Maybe it's time for a national Hank Aaron League.

Unfortunately, it takes an anniversary for the baseball world to recognize the accomplishments of great players from the past. We need to be more aware on a regular basis of what an overlooked Hall of Famer like Aaron has contributed to the game.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series and MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76. He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.