Hank Aaron never forgot his short time in the Negro Leagues
On April 8, 1974, the night Hank Aaron circled the diamond as baseball's all-time home run king inside Fulton County Stadium, a 12-year-old Bob Kendrick took a similar route inside his mother's living room 80 miles away in rural Georgia.
Home plate was her recliner. One couch was first base. The television served as second, and another couch was third.
Kendrick's work as president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, took him away from the comforts of that living room but didn't diminish his admiration for Aaron, whose professional career actually began in the Negro Leagues — a stark reminder that the days of segregated baseball are part of modern history.
In 1999, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Aaron passing Babe Ruth's record, the Kansas City Royals arranged for Aaron to visit the museum. Then-museum co-founder and former Negro League player/manager Buck O'Neil was out of town; Kendrick drew the assignment of being Aaron's tour guide.
Since its founding in 1991, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has hosted presidents and first ladies, other dignitaries, entertainers and famous athletes.
"And I oftentimes say, with no disrespect to them, they are not Henry Aaron in the eyes of this kid from Crawfordville, Georgia," Kendrick told USA TODAY Sports by phone on Saturday, a day after Aaron died at the age of 86. "It was the first time I’ve ever been starstruck and the only person I’ve ever been starstruck by. And even to his dying day, whenever I was around him, I was always reduced to that 12-year-old kid in his parents’ living room … when Henry Aaron hit No. 715."
'I'm glad that he lived long enough'
It took all of the 25 years between that April night and his visit to 18th and Vine for Aaron to finally find joy in the record he'd set, Kendrick said.
"To the point where he could exhale and celebrate that milestone, what he had accomplished," Kendrick said. "And I’m glad that he lived long enough that he could relish what he was able to do. And I think people became more accepting and appreciative of that through the years. He was a special human being."
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Aaron endured racism and hatred on his way to passing Ruth's record. Bags upon bags of hate mail arrived.
Even with his family in hiding, Aaron found the wherewithal to take the field and focus on the task ahead of him. There were no idle death threats for a Black man.
"You don’t know if you’re going to make it around the bases," Kendrick said.
"He never got to celebrate, really," Kendrick added. "Because for him, it was not joy, it was relief."
That perseverance makes it irresponsible to reduce Aaron’s historical relevance to strictly baseball. He was a successful businessman, civil rights icon and philanthropist, Kendrick said, "trying to make life better for those who had been marginalized in this country."
"Trying to fight for justice and equality for all citizens," he added, "but particularly who shared the same skin color as he did."
And until Jackie Robinson in 1947, the color of one's skin determined where he (or she — the Negro Leagues has a history of female players) played. For Aaron, that meant a contract with the Indianapolis Clowns.
In some ways, Kendrick said, Aaron’s presence on 18th and Vine validates the museum. One of Kendrick’s favorite pieces in the place is a non-descript photograph of a teenage Aaron standing at the train station in Mobile, Alabama, from 1952 as he’s about to depart to join the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues.
"And all he has at his feet is a duffle bag," Kendrick said. "And he told me, he said, ‘Bob, I may have had two changes of clothes in that bag, $1.50 in my pocket and a ham sandwich that my momma made me, going to go chase that dream.'"
Almost immediately, those in the Negro Leagues knew Aaron wasn't long for the league. O'Neil — Kendrick's mentor who passed down tomes of knowledge and lore vital to the game's history — once told a story from a spring training game between the Monarch and Clowns in 1952.
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O'Neil and his managerial counterpart and friend, Buster Haywood, exchanged lineup cards prior to the game. O'Neil knew the opposing roster up and down, so the name "Aaron" in the three-hole took him by surprise. He asked Haywood who the kid was.
"Buster started grinning," Kendrick said. "He said, ‘Oh, Buck, you’ve got to see him.’ By the end of the game, young Henry Aaron had gone 4-for-4 with two home runs. So that night, Buck says he and Buster go out to dinner. They sit down and he says, ‘Well, Buster, I’m not going to have to worry about that kid Aaron by the time you get to Kansas City.’"
“(Haywood) says, ‘Buck, what you talking ‘bout?’ And Buck says, ‘Somebody going to sign him!’”
O’Neil knew greatness, and the Boston Braves signed Aaron after three months with the Clowns.
'The plight of the Negro Leagues'
Major League Baseball long shunned the history of the Negro Leagues. Last month, the league announced plans to include the league's stats as part of the game's official record. Still, the majority of fans who pass through the museum, regardless of their baseball history acumen, are stunned to learn that Aaron's career began in the Negro Leagues.
"That’s the plight of the Negro Leagues and why the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is so important," Kendrick said. "It’s always an awakening for the majority of the people who come to visit us."
But Kendrick believes the Negro Leagues experience impacted Aaron forever – and Aaron went on to leave an indelible footprint on society.
"Those grown men of the Indianapolis Clowns, they put him under their wing. They took care of him. They nurtured him for that short period he was there. They protected him," Kendrick said. "And when he left to go to the major leagues, he understood that he was taking them with him – a part of him. They were past their prime and they were not going to get that chance; they were living through Henry Aaron. That never escaped him.
"So his Negro Leagues were very important to him, but for the better part of the time I’ve been at the museum, it’s been an eye-opener for fans. They just simply did not know. But you think about it, you don’t know what you don’t know. In this case, you have no way to know because it merely hasn’t been documented in the pages of American history books ... we're so proud those roots began in the Negro Leagues."
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.