FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – It’s fitting that the United States Tennis Association, decided to honor baseball Hall of Famer Henry Aaron in its annual “Breaking the Barriers” Reception, because it happened in the shadow of the US Open’s centerpiece Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Actually, the former home run king actually met Ashe a few times during their storied careers.
“I met Arthur twice,” said Aaron, who was honored along with former USTA president Judy Lavering and AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega. “Once when he was about to do a television show with my wife. She used to do a television show in Atlanta. And then I met him in Milwaukee, but I read so many things about him, I knew I admired him and what he stood for. He was an example of what I always wanted to be in my life.”
Aaron sees Ashe as a mirror to his own career. When he came up to the Milwaukee Braves back in 1954, he experienced the same racism as the former US Open Champion did in the 1960s. “I think he handled it some of the same,” he said. “I would say Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson almost had the same kind of reaction as Jackie [Robinson] and me or everyone with some color.”
Things on the racial front have gotten better according to Aaron, but he does feel that there is still room to improve.
“One of the things that bothers me is that after Jackie Robinson broke in 1947, we had so many American blacks playing baseball,” he said. “It’s not that case anymore. It seems like it has gone backwards and it’s gone the other way around. Had things had gotten better, yes. We can stay in the hotels we want to stay at and we can go wherever we want to go. But if you don’t have the money, then you don’t have the money to do those things.”
Of course there are reasons for it. Economics for one, according to Aaron, as young African Americans are choosing to go the quicker money in football and basketball, rather risk a longer career in baseball. So, he feels baseball needs to get the message out and get more and more athletes playing the sport.
The same holds true for tennis, but events like tonight’s, of course improve the sport’s standing in the community.
And maybe one day Aaron will see another African American champion on at the US Open. Although James Blake was the sport’s top player, he never won the big match.
For now, though, Aaron will enjoy the game as it is. A follower of the sport since John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg had their epic battles in the last 1970s and early 1980s; Aaron likes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to meet in the finals during this tournament, and is a real big fan of Kim Clijsters.
“She showed that she can weather some adversity when she went to have her family and now she’s back and on top,” he said. “I wish her all the luck in the world.”
Fitting words from a fitting honoree.