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. 

RIP HANK: I'll never forget my afternoon with Hank Aaron, a true American hero

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." 

Baseball great Hank Aaron stands next to a statue of Satchel Paige while touring the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Saturday, July 10, 1999, in Kansas City, Mo. (Photo: Orlin Wagner, Associated Press)

'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. 

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