WASHINGTON — At a hotel overlooking the White House, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder motioned toward a window and paid Hank Aaron a huge compliment.
“The young man who lives right over there,” Holder said Friday night, speaking of President Barack Obama, “his path was made easier by this man.”
Forty years ago, Aaron broke the hallowed record of Babe Ruth on his way to 755 career home runs, all while combating racism with quiet dignity.
On Friday evening at a private party celebrating his 80th birthday, friends, former teammates and baseball luminaries paid tribute to “Hammerin’ Hank.”
Slugger Reggie Jackson compared Aaron to Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Frank Robinson spoke of the thrill of entering the Hall of Fame with Aaron in 1982.
Former teammate Robin Yount said he was his mother’s second-favorite player — right behind Aaron. Aaron was last to speak and grew emotional as he talked of his parents, recalling an afternoon when he and his brother were called into the house and ordered to hide under beds. Minutes later, members of the Ku Klux Klan marched up their street.
“I don’t know what that could have done to me growing up but my mother – she was uneducated and father, too – but they always taught me and all of my siblings that ‘the thing I want you to remember is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’” That’s been my philosophy,” Aaron said.
As the ceremony came to a close at the Hay-Adams hotel, Aaron and his wife of 40 years, Billie, beamed as the crowd sang Happy Birthday.
Aaron turned 80 on Wednesday. His tribute continued on Saturday, when he spoke as part of the Living Portrait Series at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In addition, a painting of Aaron, done by Ross Rossin of Atlanta, was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. Other speakers on Friday night included Hall of Famers Jim Rice, Rickey Henderson – and Ozzie Smith, who grew up in Aaron’s hometown of Mobile, Ala., idolizing the outfielder who played for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers.
“He showed me the way a person should be,” Smith said. “He inspired me and thousands of others.” Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball, spoke of his friendship with Aaron which dated to 1958.
Selig also talked of the overdue acceptance of Aaron in a career in which he was often overshadowed by Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
“I’m not so sure people understand what a great all-around player he was,” Selig said. “He played in Milwaukee. He played in Atlanta. I think it was only maybe after he broke Babe Ruth’s record – and in the last 20 years – that he’s got the wonderful recognition that he so extraordinarily deserved.”