Aaron's Career Aim: To Carry on the Robinson Legacy

THE other day, a right fielder named Bobby Bonilla turned down an offer of $4.1 million a year to continue playing baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates until 1996. He wants a contract that would extend until 1997 and pay him at least $4.2 million a year. Hank Aaron, you may recall, was also a right fielder of some note. He hung up the spikes in 1976, having hit more home runs than anyone else in the history of the game.

And his salary that year was $240,000.

Even when allowing for the depreciation of the dollar, that's not even good journeyman pay today. If Bonilla is really a $4.2 million-a-year ballplayer, imagine what Hank Aaron was worth.

Aaron never suggests in ``I Had a Hammer'' (written with Lonnie Wheeler) that making a fortune out of baseball was his primary motivation - any more than breaking Babe Ruth's career home run record was.

No, he writes, he dedicated his career instead to carrying on the legacy of the late Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball's color line in 1947 and then worked tirelessly to make the sport pay for having had one in the first place.

It is this quality that sets Aaron apart from countless other players - black, brown, and white - who have risen from humble origins to fame. Throughout the book runs an undercurrent of anger at the ignorance and bigotry that have characterized baseball's experience with racial integration.

``All that hatred left a deep scar on me,'' he writes. ``I was just a man doing something that God had given me the power to do, and I was living like an outcast in my own country.''

Aaron says he avoids the endless argument over whether he would still have hit more homers than Ruth had they been contemporaries.

``If people want to hear me say that Babe Ruth was the greatest home run hitter, fine, Babe Ruth was the greatest home run hitter,'' he writes. ``If black players had been allowed to play in the major leagues at the time,'' he adds, ``it is highly unlikely that Ruth would have dominated in the manner that he did.''

Aaron's book doesn't evoke the smell of hot dogs and roasted peanuts at the ballpark. And its message is too disturbing to take lying down in a hammock on your summer vacation.

No, this is one baseball book to read sitting up. Hank Aaron, one suspects, would want it that way.

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