This was the best possible baseball day, in this spring when there are no games. This was as much baseball as you could ever want, the great Hank Aaron on the other end of the line.
“What do you want to talk about?” he said.
I smiled at the sound of his voice.
“Everything,” I said.
We started with Jackie Robinson, because Jackie Robinson Day was just last week, and because Mr. Robinson’s struggles in 1947, and the way he handled them, so much informed the way Mr. Aaron handled racism a quarter-century later when he was on the way to breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did if I didn’t have the memory of what he did, and the courage he showed,” Aaron said. “I got all those hateful letters at the time. I had to walk my children to school. I had to go in the back door of some ballparks and leave the same way and sometimes I slept at those ballparks. And the thing was, I never thought I was trying to break Babe Ruth’s record. I was just trying to set my own.
“I was thinking later on, when Pete Rose was trying to break [Ty Cobb’s] all-time hit record, how much people loved Pete and were rooting for him. I wish I could have had a little of that love.”
Then he was back to Jackie Robinson. Henry Aaron was 13 years old when Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
• An April date links Robinson, Aaron in Atlanta
“He was good at everything,” Aaron said. “I mean everything. Even cards!”
He laughed again, full of fun and memory on this day, making it a fine baseball day all by himself. I told him I had just written about Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal, trying to decide who was the ace pitcher when you looked at the 1960s from end to end.
“I know he didn’t come along until later,” Aaron said, “but there was a young man who came along at the end of the decade who belongs in that conversation, and that was Mr. Seaver.”
I asked how he’d done against Koufax.
“Well,” he said, “I guess the best way to explain it to you is this: We had an understanding, Sandy and me.”
Now I laughed.
“And what exactly was that understanding?”
“That sometimes he was gonna get me,” Hank Aaron said, “and sometimes I was gonna get him.”
Then I wanted to know if he thought any active player might ever make a run at his total of 755 home runs.
“My goodness,” he said. “Now I don’t want to evade the question, I really don’t, so let me put it to you this way: I don’t know of anyone at this moment who will be able to have enough good years. They can all have a good year. A great year. And more than one. These kids today, not just in baseball but basketball and football and ice hockey, they can do three times the things we could do in my day. But I just wonder which one of them will be able to do it long enough, or want to do it as long as I did, with all the money there is nowadays.”
We were talking then about this modern, analytic notion that RBIs don’t matter as much as we once thought they did, only because No. 44 had more career RBIs (2,297) than any ballplayer who ever lived.
“Oh, my, are they wrong,” he said. “To me, a run batted in was the greatest thing in the world. I am telling you the truth now, but I would feel so horrible when I was at the plate and would leave a runner on second base or third base and not get them home. All night long, I’d feel as if I’d let my team down. My whole baseball career, there were two things I didn’t want to do: I didn’t want to strike out, and I didn’t want to leave a runner in scoring position.”
By the way? He played 23 years in the big leagues and never once struck out 100 times in a season. And only went past 90 three times. Hitting all those home runs. Finishing with a lifetime batting average of .305. I asked on Thursday if he had any regrets and his response was immediate.
“I know I had a fantastic career,” he said. “But if there was one thing I did not like at all was that I never won the Triple Crown. I look back now and can’t figure out how I didn’t win two or three.”
I asked him what he does to fill the baseball void in his life right now. Hank Aaron laughed again and said, “Why, I watch those classic games [on MLB Network] and pretend I’m watching them for the first time.”
We were talking then about how the season didn’t start when it was supposed to at the end of March, and how Spring Training ended prematurely before that.
“You want to hear a story about Spring Training?” he said. “I can remember three straight springs in Bradenton, Fla., where I didn’t miss a single game. Not one. I finally went to the manager and said, ‘Am I supposed to be playing every day?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You’re the one they all came to see.’”
He talked on Thursday about how much he hated hearing about the sign stealing done by the Astros and — to a lesser extent — the Red Sox.
“They cheated,” he said. “I don’t know what else you could call it. They cheated themselves and they cheated our game. It made me very sad.”
He is 86 now. His friend Willie Mays turns 89 at the beginning of May. “Tell Willie I’m gaining on him,” Hank Aaron said. All they did and all they saw in their sport after they made it as kids from Alabama to immortality, and now they see a spring like this, without baseball.
I asked Hank Aaron, the conscience of this game and as much the soul of this game as Willie, if he thought we will have baseball this year.
“Put it this way,” he said. “I weep at the thought that we might not.”
He paused then and in a quiet voice Hank Aaron said, “I love baseball.”