DURING Hank Aaron's 23 years in baseball's major leagues, it was inevitable there would be contentious incidents that caught public attention. Subsequent media reports, Aaron says, didn't always paint an accurate picture of what had happened. ``After this book, I think people are going to say that all the things they've read and heard about this man just aren't true,'' says the home-run record holder while making his rounds on a whirlwind promotional tour for his latest autobiography (see review below). Some of his career's rough spots surely were exacerbated by being black. Aaron came into the majors in 1954, just seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, and had to handle many challenges similar to Robinson's. In 1966, the Braves, Aaron's team, moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, still the only major-league outpost in the Deep South. And in his run up to setting a new home run mark in 1974, he felt the full fury of bigotry from people incensed that Aaron was about to overtake a w hite hero, Babe Ruth, and lay claim to the Babe's hallowed record of 714 career homers (Aaron has 755).
Aaron kept many of the vicious letters (some he turned over to the FBI at the time) and offers them as proof of the racist attitudes he confronted. They made his pursuit of the mark one of the most trying and unpleasant experiences of his career. ``When someone comes along and breaks my record, I just hope they have a nice time doing it,'' he says, adding that he most certainly did not.
NONETHELESS, Aaron recognized the feat as a transcendent achievement that would catapult him beyond perennial all-star status. In a sense, it gave him a platform that he is still using to address issues within the sport.
Although a senior vice president of the Braves, he makes no secret of his disappointment in major league baseball's minority hiring initiatives. ``We've still got just two black managers, Frank Robinson [in Baltimore] and Cito Gaston [in Toronto],'' Aaron says. ``Of course we do have the National League president, Bill White, but we haven't made that much progress.''
Despite the wider endorsement avenues open to some black stars, Aaron would like to see African-Americans become ``a part of the rock,'' that is, involved in team ownership. ``That's an area very closed to blacks, who don't even know when a baseball franchise is available,'' he says.
In his view, interest in baseball among black Americans is in jeopardy. ``I think it's losing some of its appeal, no question about it,'' he concludes. ``Baseball just doesn't promote itself in the black community. They take for granted that they don't need to.''
He says that blacks feel comfortable attending major league games, but often can't afford to. ``I think baseball has somehow priced itself away from the black family. It costs a lot of money to park your car, pay for tickets, buy hot dogs ... and, unfortunately, [blacks] are not on the same earning level with whites.
``Money, money, money: If you don't have money, you don't come through the turnstiles.''
Aaron says he believes that major league clubs should revive the ``knothole'' concept, allowing kids into the park for a nominal amount (50 cents or so). ``If you opened up the gates, you might not have any trouble with these kids,'' Aaron says. ``They'd make a lot of noise and that's fine.''
America's home-run king also points to a need for more urban parks and better maintenance of existing ones. ``We have some in Atlanta that aren't good enough to put cows on,'' he notes.
Aaron, however, would be the first to agree that conditions are often less than ideal in sports and life, but that these conditions shouldn't stifle personal progress. ``In the book, I talk about growing up in Mobile [Ala.], coming from a very poor family,'' Aaron says. ``I could easily have turned my back and thrown up my hands and said `I'm finished,' but I didn't. I'd like the young people to read my book and to realize that, if they're in the same position, they can't turn their backs. They've got t o continue to push forward.''