Hank Aaron Turns 80 and Speaks at National Portrait Gallery (photos)

Hank Aaron
Jeff Malet
Hank Aaron

Baseball great Hank Aaron, in celebration of his 80th birthday, discussed his life and accomplishments with ESPN personality and Aaron biographer, Howard Bryant, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Feb. 8. Aaron spoke as part of the Living Portrait Series in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery's Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium. An oil painting of Aaron by artist Ross Rossin of Atlanta was also unveiled in the National Portrait Gallery. Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron was born on Feb. 5, 1934, in Mobile Alabama. On April 8, 1974, as a player for the Atlanta Braves, Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record, which had stood for 39 years.

Some highlights of Hank Aarons remarks at the National Portrait Gallery:

Aaron spoke about his boyhood in segregated Mobile Alabama as one of 8 children living in a three bedroom house. "The first one that got into the bed got all the covers". He was a "skinny" kid and was initially overlooked by many of the clubs offering tryouts in his home town. But he always had confidence in his ability to succeed as a ballplayer.

Aaron did not enjoy the year and a half leading up to his breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. He was not able to stay at the same hotel as his teammates. A fellow ballplayer had to bring him his meals in his room and Aaron had to leave the ballpark through a back door. His children felt threatened and had to be driven to school. Today he tries to remember the good things about "that chase" like the thousands of pieces of mail he received during that time wishing him the best.

Alluding to the current controversy about Hall of Fame voting and drug abuse, Aaron simply encourages fans to make their voices heard by writing to the Commissioner of Baseball.

Aaron is disturbed that more African-American youths have been opting for different sports like Football. Baseball, according to Aaron is the safer sport and "you can play much longer". (Aaron played for 23 years).

Aaron maintains that his 1957-58 Braves were one of the best in baseball, noting their great pitching staff led by Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette. The toughest pitcher Aaron faced was Stan Williams of the Dodgers, a big strong pitcher with wild control who knocked him out with a high pitch and subsequently hit him again on a pickoff throw to first base. Aaron's favorite city to play in was Chicago because "they played all day games, and gave me a chance to move around at night".

Aaron's advice to any athlete: "Give it all you've got and do the very very best that you can do, and do it honestly".

"I'm so blessed that I've been able to play ball in Milwaukee, and making a career in Atlanta Georgia", and associating with civil rights leaders such as Dr. Benjamin Mays. "Hitting a baseball was easy to do compared to what he had to go through."

Aaron and his wife started "Chasing the Dream Foundation to help kids all over the world". "Its not how much you achieve in life but what you can give back to help other people."

The event concluded with two rousing choruses of "Happy Birthday" sung by the hundreds in attendance.

View our photos of Hank Aaron at 80 by clicking on the photo icons below.

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