"Growing up in Mobile, Alabama," Henry Aaron was saying the other night, "I remember my mother calling us in at 4:30, 5 o'clock, telling us, 'Get under the bed!' because the Ku Klux Klan was marching through."
And so a 12-year-old child would run into the house that he helped his father, Herbert, build from bricks and wood salvaged from a shipyard—625 square feet, without electricity or plumbing—and hide under a bed he shared with two of his seven siblings. "I don't know what that would do to a kid," Aaron said.
The man who wasn't allowed to stay at the Dixie Grande hotel with his white Milwaukee Braves teammates at spring training in the 1950s was feted last Friday night, two days after his 80th birthday, in Washington's venerable Hay Adams hotel, where the Obamas lived for two weeks in 2009 before moving into the White House. Eric Holder, the first African-American attorney general, looked out the window to the klieg-lit White House across the street and said, "There's a young man who lives right over there whose life's path was made easier by Henry Aaron."
It wasn't just the President. Ozzie Smith looked at Aaron and said, "As a kid growing up in Mobile, you inspired me and thousands of others." Rickey Henderson: "At Technical High School in Oakland, I wanted to be him." Jim Rice: "In South Carolina we called him the Hammer; now I call him Mr. Aaron."
Long before Mr. Aaron went to Washington, Henry went to the Mobile train station in 1951 with two dollars and two sandwiches in a paper sack, bound for Winston-Salem and baseball immortality, never having traveled, in the first 17 years of his life, beyond the four square miles of his neighborhood.
If he wasn't always as expansive or extroverted as a baseball hero was expected to be, that was America's failing, not his. And anyway, Aaron has long since rounded into regality, his life chockablock with children and grandchildren and a later-blooming love from the public that surpasses mere admiration.
His name is on statues, streets, state trails, city parks. He accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom and sat for a magisterial biography, The Last Hero, by Howard Bryant, who recounted the heartbreaking indignities Aaron suffered early in his career. Aaron's self-respect in the face of such ignorance grew more profound with the passage of time, the loud echo of quiet dignity.
So his friends and family gathered in Washington, summoned by Billye, his wife of 40 years. The couple presides over the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, which has provided hundreds of grants to children who couldn't otherwise afford—for example—private training or musical instruments or sports equipment. Last Saturday, Foundation alumni played chamber music for the Aarons at a dinner at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, where Henry's friend, civil rights leader Andrew Young, said of Aaron, "He doesn't know he's important."
Herbert Aaron never moved out of the house he built. He doubled its size, plumbed and electrified it, and stayed there until his death in 1998, at 89. Henry's mother, Estella, died 10 years later, at 96. Last summer Aaron lost his friend Calvin Wardlaw, the Atlanta policeman who was his bodyguard and confidant when Henry received death threats during his pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record. "There's just three of us now," Aaron said softly of his seven siblings. "My sister Alfredia and my brother James."
In 2008 the house in which Henry hid under the bed was trucked seven miles from Edwards Street and set down outside the Double A Mobile BayBears' ballpark—Hank Aaron Stadium—where it is now preserved as a museum, like the boyhood homes of Lincoln and Twain and Elvis. He is, as his friend of 56 years Bud Selig put it, "an American icon."
And so an oil painting of Aaron was dedicated in the National Portrait Gallery, sharing a hall with Mathew Brady's photographs of Civil War generals. As friends from Rachel Robinson to Reggie Jackson to Bob Uecker looked on, two treasures were joined—the Smithsonian and Henry Aaron, Institute and institution, twin repositories of our national memory—and the great man himself revealed the hard-won wisdom of his remarkable life: "My mother always taught us to do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Hank Aaron's name is on statues and parks—Bud Selig calls him "an American icon." And yet, one friend says, "he doesn't know he's important."
Who should be the next athlete enshrined in the National Portrait Gallery?
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DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED