Aaron, who died yesterday at 86, was the most graceful athlete I had ever seen. He didn’t run, so much as he loped. And he was far, far faster than almost anybody realized. He was always among the top base stealers in baseball (Milwaukee with the Braves and Brewers and Atlanta with the Braves) and he covered a great expanse of right and center fields on defense. He also set a career home run record, which is remarkable. Mostly, home run hitters didn’t run especially well.
Watching him was like watching an antelope run from a lion. I decided that’s what I wanted: Dan the antelope. I worked hard on it, running short sprints, long sprints; running distances as fast as practical; always concentrating on that long lope with my short legs.
Eventually, it paid off. I became the fastest player on my high school football team by the time I was a senior and even though I had a bad knee and was a quarterback, where speed didn’t matter all that much, I took great pride in it.
Hank Aaron had great influence on a generation or two of young athletes all over the country, but I saw his influence most in the deep south where black people weren’t always seen as human. Aaron was accessible to those of us who didn’t understand why black and brown people were hated for no reason other than their color. He gave us a point of reference: “Why the hell would anybody, anybody at all, hate Hank Aaron?”
Aaron was one of the first black players in the Major Leagues, moving over from the old Negro Leagues where he was a star among some of the best baseball players in history.
He was never flashy, outspoken, or even larger than life the way Babe Ruth was. He was a quiet, dignified man who fought for civil rights in his own way. I remember once responding to a boy in my crowd’s question, “Who’s your favorite baseball player?” I told him Henry Aaron was.
He said, exasperated, “Aaron’s a nigger!”
I said, “He’s a baseball player. A good one.”
The kid just looked at me, totally confused.