There is a story from his childhood that sticks with Hank Aaron.
In Durham on Thursday, the Hall-of-Fame baseball player didn’t even tell the story. His good friend Andrew Young told it as if he’d heard it 100 one hundred times.
As Aaron bashfully listened, Young, a civil rights leader who was a close confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., told a tale about Aaron playing baseball outside as a child, only to be instructed by his mother to quickly hide inside under the bed because the KKK was riding through their neighborhood.
“Then the Klan rode by and she would say ‘alright, go back out and finish your game,’” Young said. “That’s where all of this started.”
That was one of Aaron’s early memories of being in a world where he would be looked at differently just because of the color of his skin. When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974 he received death threats. He spent time in the Negro American League before breaking into the big leagues.
The Hall-of-Fame baseball player turned philanthropist was in Durham on Thursday, at the Nasher Art Museum on the campus of Duke University to promote the Hank and Billye Suber Aaron Young Scholars Summer Research Program. The program, which aims to nurture young scholars interested in social justice, offers summer research and enrichment opportunities to Durham Public Schools’ middle and high school students.
Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity named its enrichment program after the Aarons. Cook was the first African-American faculty member at Duke University.
Aaron was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982 and is now the vice president of the Atlanta Braves. During his 23-year playing career, Aaron hit 755 home runs, surpassing Babe Ruth’s 1935 record of 714 in 1974, and he held the title of home run king for many years. But since his playing days ended, Aaron, 84, has continued his quest to fight for social equality. And the story from his days as a young child in Mobile, Ala., combined the two.
In Durham on Thursday, Aaron didn’t even tell the story. His good friend Andrew Young - yes, that Andrew Young - told it as if he’s heard it one hundred times.
“I think about all the good things that happened to me in the 23 years I played baseball and the good people who stood behind me,” Aaron said. “My mother always told me you’re going no place until you help your fellow man. I’m so thrilled to have all these young people over the world that you can help and have them go in the direction you think is good for the country.”
After his career ended in 1976, Aaron never forgot the injustices he faced, hence his work for social equality.
“I think we all try to do the very best that we can, and there are things that are beyond our scope, of course,” Aaron said.
Aaron is no stranger to the city of Durham. Atlanta Braves used to have their farm team in Durham. Aaron played for the Braves from 1954-1974, and he would spend weeks in Durham, running through the city to “keep myself in halfway decent shape.”
Near the end of his media session, Aaron was asked about current athletes using their platforms to speak out against social injustice in the country. Aaron is all for it.
“I would advise any (athlete) to use their podium to speak out,” Aaron said. “The thing that has hurt us the most is the fact that we don’t talk enough about it.”