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Aaron reflects on Robinson’s 50th anniversary

April 12, 1997

Hank Aaron believes the specter of racism that faced Jackie Robinson as baseball’s first black major-league player has never left the game.

``There’s still a lot of racism in baseball and in the country,″ Aaron said. ``I’m not at the point where I think all these things are in the past.″

As an example, the sport’s career home run champion cited the limited number of blacks in front office positions and field manager jobs. Only two blacks, the late Bill Lucas with Atlanta and Bob Watson with the Houston Astros and New York Yankees, have served as major-league general managers. Lucas, Aaron’s brother-in-law, got the job in 1976.

``I thought that would be the beginning of people being judged by their ability rather than their color,″ Aaron said. ``I thought baseball would start doing the right thing. But it’s still tied up in a lot of racism. An abundance of people talented enough to be managers and general managers are still judged by the color of their skin.″

There are two blacks and two Hispanics managing in the majors _ Cito Gaston at Toronto, Don Baylor at Colorado, Dusty Baker at San Francisco and Felipe Alou at Montreal. But this offseason, all seven managerial vacancies went to whites.

``That didn’t surprise me,″ Aaron said. ``There are still problems in baseball.″

Aaron said he was concerned that after the 50th anniversary celebrations marking Robinson’s debut are over, the pioneer player will be forgotten.

``Will they remember next year?″ Aaron asked. ``That’s the thing that bothers me. Out of sight, out of mind.

``When I was growing up, I knew Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson and what they meant.

``Today’s players make a lot of money and move out of black areas. Their kids go to private schools. They’re surrounded by white agents. They don’t have a chance, they don’t want a chance to learn how they got where they are.

``Next year, with all the patches and celebrations this year, I’m afraid this will be forgotten. And that’s the sad part.″

Aaron said he and Robinson were good friends, and that his advice helped during the pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record. Aaron broke the mark of 714 in 1974 and finished with 755 homers.

``That should have been the best time for me, but it was one of the worst times,″ Aaron said. ``I had a lot of bad happen to me simply because of the color of my skin. I was isolated on a lonely island in my own country and I wasn’t doing anything except playing baseball.

``Jackie told me to keep focused. The things I ran into were the same as he experienced.″

Aaron was a high school student in Mobile, Ala., when Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Until then, he believed the only opportunity he would have to play pro baseball would be in the Negro Leagues.

``I took that for granted,″ he said. ``There was no earthly idea of playing in the major leagues. There were no doors open at the time.″

Robinson broke down those barriers, silently integrating baseball in 1947.

``I felt Jackie gave every black child the chance to be observed,″ Aaron said. ``If I played well, I had a chance to get out of Mobile.″

It annoys Aaron when he hears today’s generation of players shrug off Robinson’s accomplishments.

``Don’t forget who got you here,″ Aaron said. ``Jackie Robinson is the reason baseball was integrated. If Jackie Robinson had failed, it would have set back baseball eight, nine, 10 years. They would have said, `I told you so.′

``Take five years off my career and I don’t have a chance to break that record. It bothers me when blacks don’t know about people who paved the way for them. These are the people who took the brunt of the abuse.

``I realize the only way I made it was because of a man like Jackie Robinson. I would like the next generation to understand a player who stood so tall.″

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