Bob Kendrick grew up in Crawfordville, Ga., about 80 miles outside Atlanta. He grew up an Atlanta Braves fan and Hank Aaron was his baseball idol. In later years, Kendrick’s appreciation and admiration of Aaron moved well past baseball.
Now the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., Kendrick, along with thousands across the country, mourned the death of Aaron on Friday at the age of 86.
Kenrick spoke with Lagniappe about his admiration and respect for Aaron and of the first time Aaron visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He said the moment will forever be etched in his memory, and Aaron will always be his idol.
“I actually met him for the first time in 1998 at the All-Star Game in Denver,” Kendrick said. “Coors Brewing Company was a part of the museum and they were hosting a luncheon. This was my first year of working with the museum and my first All-Star Game.
“I didn’t know Mr. Aaron was going to be there. All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I look around and he’s coming up the escalator and I’m like, oh my God, this is Henry Aaron. And I’m like, I’ve got to be cool; now on the outside I was cool, but on the inside, my heart was fluttering.”
The second meeting between the men would be more personal.
“In 1999, he made his first visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum,” Kendrick said. “Major League Baseball was celebrating 25 years of Mr. Aaron breaking (Babe) Ruth’s (home run) record. The Kansas City Royals were playing host to him and they had arranged for him to take a tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Buck O’Neill (who led the establishment of the museum and was its chief spokesman until his death) was out of town, so guess who draws the assignment of taking Mr. Aaron on a tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum? Yours truly. And I was a nervous wreck.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’ve had a plethora of amazing people here to visit — Presidents and First Ladies of these United States, dignitaries like Gen. Colin Powell, legendary athletes and entertainers; I’ve never been starstruck — until I was around Henry Aaron.”
The nervousness of being in the company of Aaron, his boyhood idol, never went away for Kendrick.
“Every time I was around him, not just in 1999, but every subsequent time that I was around him, I was always reduced to that almost 12-year-old kid who circled the bases in his mother’s living room when Henry Aaron hit home run No. 715 at Fulton County Stadium; I was circling the bases in my mother’s living room in Crawfordville, Ga., jumping for joy,” he said.
“Here I am now, taking him for a tour of the museum with a throng of media following us, he and his wife Billye, and it was just surreal. After we finish all the festivities we go off to a conference room inside the theater right across the street from the museum and I get the honor of sharing a platter of Gates Barbecue ribs with my childhood idol. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Kendrick said O’Neil, who was also a beloved figure in baseball circles, had an Aaron story as well, one he enjoyed telling from time to time.
“I’ll never forget, Buck O’Neil told me the first time he saw Henry Aaron was at a spring training game down in Mobile,” Kendrick said. “And the (Kansas City) Monarchs were playing the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 with Buster Haywood, who was the Clowns’ manager. Buck looked at the lineup card and noticed there was a kid named Aaron who was batting in the three spot. And he knew all the Clowns’ players and he said, ‘Buster, who is this kid Aaron?’ Buster said, ‘Buck, you’ve got to see him.’ So Buck says, ‘OK, we’ll see what he’s got.’
“Henry went 4 for 4 with two home runs. So that night Buck took Buster out to dinner, and Buck told Buster, ‘I ain’t going to have to worry about the kid Aaron by the time you get to Kansas City. And Buster said, ‘What are you talking about, Buck?’ And Buck said, somebody’s going to sign him (before then), and sure enough the Boston Braves signed him away. Buck recognized greatness and Buster knew he had greatness, and it was only a matter of time (before another team signed him away).”
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