MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – The world remembers Hank Aaron as the baseball legend who broke baseball’s marquee record.
Mobilians who grew up with Aaron in the Port City knew him as so much more.
“Hank was seven years older than I am,” recalled Cleon Jones, who followed in the baseball legend’s footsteps. “And he was like a big brother. And he told me if you go out and do your job, and you do it in a way that is tasteful, even the haters, even the haters can appreciate it. And that's what he did.”
Jones was among many offering condolences to Aaron, who died in Atlanta on Friday at the age of 86.
It didn’t take a professional baseball scout to see that teenage Henry Aaron was bound for greatness. Jones was not quite old enough to play against Aaron while growing up in Mobile. But he said he heard plenty of tales.
“There was a lot of stories, around Mobile,” he said. “Every black stadium or recreation area you went to, there was a story about Hank Aaron. Hank Aaron would hit one there. Hank Aaron would hit one there.”
Aaron was a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and until Barry Bonds broke his record, the all-time homerun king. He also accumulated enough trophies and plaques to fill a house.
But Jones, who took his place in the pantheon of Mobile’s diamond legends and starred on the 1969 Amazin’ Mets World Series championship team, said he does not think of the records and the accolades when he reflects on his friend and mentor.
“What I think about is what he went through racially,” he said. “And we don’t talk enough about that. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders, because he got so much hate mail. And there were so many threats to his life. And I got a chance to share that with him.”
That hate mail was most intense as Aaron got closer to Ruth’s iconic record for dingers. Mobile resident Tom Withers remembers it well. He was a friend of Aaron’s since the two were teenagers playing ball against each other. Withers said he never had the fastball to make it a pitcher. But he kept in close touch with his friends over the decades.
“I’ve never seen so much to hate in my life,” he said, recalling Aaron’s run for the homerun record. “And he received so much threatening mail up in Atlanta. And I went up there with him. He had a detective with him 24 hours.”
Withers, who was wearing a Hank Aaron Atlanta Braves jacket on Friday, said he marvels at how Aaron handled it.
“He never did get nervous about it,” he said. “He didn’t talk about it.”
As the public relations director for the Atlanta Braves, Bob Hope read many of those ugly letters. He said Aaron never allowed himself to be intimidated. He compared Aaron to Jackie Robinson, the black player who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
“He was a great baseball player, a great human being,” he told FOX10 News. “He was a major contributor to the civil rights movement just by being a class act.”
Hope recalled fielding calls from people who would say all Aaron could do was hit homeruns.
“And I’d always say, ‘All Rembrandt could do was paint. What’s your point?’” he said.
Once, the FBI showed up for a Sunday game informing the Braves that they had a credible death threat against Aaron. Hope said the agents asked Aaron not to play, for his safety.
“Hank just looked at them and said, ‘What kind of statement would that make?’” he said.
Withers said above all else, Aaron loved people.
“When he would come home … all the kids would come over to the house,” he said. “And he would sign autographs for the kids. He never turned them down.”
By the time Aaron died, Alabama and South had gone through a transformation. He grew up with racism in a segregated society.
But on Friday, sports figures, politicians and entertainment figures of all races sent their condolences. Mobile’s baseball stadium bears his name, and his childhood home now sits on the property as a museum and tribute to his life.
“It’s a sad day for Mobile to have probably our most famous Mobilians pass on,” said Danny Corte, executive director of the Mobile Sports Authority.
Even people who didn’t know Aaron were paying their respects on Friday. One man left a bouquet of flowers at the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum. He was too broken up to talk to reporters.
Ari Rosenbaum, president of the company that manages the museum, said it is a “crushing day” for Mobile.
“The world's gonna miss him,” said Rosenbaum, president of the Mobile Sports & Entertainment Group. “He’s a very important figure, and not just sports but his humanity. He did a lot for a lot of people, and he’s from out city of Mobile.”
Hope, the former Braves public relations staffer, said that transformation did not happen overnight. He recalled that as a white kid growing up in Atlanta, when the Braves then were in Milwaukee, Aaron was his favorite player.
And all the hate letters during the chase for Ruth’s records represented a small fraction of the mail, Hope said.
“The vast, vast majority of the mail was paying tribute to a great man doing the best he could,” he said.