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In September 1998, Aaron watched wistfully as Mark McGwire crossed home plate following his record-breaking 62nd home run and hugged his son, Matthew, dressed in a Cardinals uniform as a team batboy. When Aaron hit 715, his daughter, Gaile, a student at Fisk University in Tennessee, had to watch on television while under the protection of FBI agents because of a kidnapping plot against her. His mother, Estella, was at the game and threw a hug around her son after he crossed home plate. It seemed a touching scene, though the truth, she later explained, was that she had done so out of fear that Hank might be assassinated by someone in the crowd. The first words spoken into the stadium microphone by the new home run king were these: "Thank God it's over."
"Hank is genuinely a soft-spoken, private guy, and he truly doesn't want to relive 1972, '73, '74," says Terence Moore, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and an Aaron confidant. (Aaron has declined all interview requests, including several from SI, on the subject of the home run chase.) "Those are bad memories for him. With Barry Bonds going through the chase, it's like it's putting him back in that era. And he doesn't want to go back there."
Despite the hatred for him, Aaron played with a cool dignity. "Grace in a gray flannel suit," as the great sportswriter Jim Murray observed. But Aaron also spoke out against injustice when he saw it, whether as a player, baseball executive or businessman. Indeed, he considered it his duty after Robinson died in 1972 to carry on Jackie's cause.
In this world, Longfellow wrote, a man must be either anvil or hammer. Hank Aaron left no doubt about which he was.
In an editorial the day after he hit 715, The Washington Post said of Aaron, "Here is a person who is authentic, whose acclaim is based on the results of his self-confidence and not self-promotion, who has been faithful to his vocation whether noticed or not." Authenticity. It is what elevates Aaron and 755 even more now than in 1974.
"Hank Aaron," says Selig, his friend for more than 40 years, "is one of the most principled persons you will ever know."
Aaron wants nothing to do with Bonds, not because Bonds is breaking his record, but because he doesn't want to get dragged into the conversation about Bonds and steroids and, as several friends have said, he does not find Bonds to be a likable person. One friend, for instance, says that Aaron was crestfallen to hear Bonds question whether the Hall of Fame is entitled to any memorabilia from his record chase. (Bonds has since relented slightly, saying he might share an artifact.) Said Bonds, in a self-styled epitaph worthy of his tombstone, "I take care of me."
At a June 7 ceremony in Milwaukee, where he dedicated a plaque to commemorate home run number 755, Aaron told reporters that virtually all of his memorabilia are in the Hall of Fame, explaining, "I think what I did belongs to the public." When asked about Bonds, Aaron replied, "I don't even know how to spell his name." He laughed after he said it, more dismissive of the question than of the Giants leftfielder, but news outlets portrayed an edge to Aaron's comments that he had not intended. According to friends, Aaron was chagrined at such a portrayal, the episode confirming his belief that he's better off having nothing to do with what has become a no-win drag on the game.
A window into Aaron's position on steroids can be found in his autobiography, in which he said of 300-game winner Gaylord Perry, "I regarded a spitball as cheating, and because of it I have serious doubts as to whether Perry belongs in the Hall of Fame. . . . I had always taken a strong stand against anything that wasn't within the spirit and rules of the game--like spitballs. I believed in the integrity of the game as strongly as anybody."
At 73, Aaron has said that he is at a stage in his life where he need not jet around the country in anticipation of Bonds breaking his record. Aaron did travel to Los Angeles for a mid-April celebration of Robinson, and he made the trip to Milwaukee for the unveiling of the 755 plaque. He lives in the Atlanta area, where he owns a car dealership and recently, upon the ownership transfer of the Braves from Time Warner to Liberty Media, agreed to resume an active role as a team vice president after several years of having little involvement in the baseball operations of the club.