WASHINGTON -- On the ninth floor of the historic Hay-Adams Hotel, with a spotlighted White House and Washington Monument serving as a backdrop, the two old friends caught each other's eyes across the room, approached, embraced.
"Mr. Commissioner," Hank Aaron, eyes twinkling, said formally.
"Mr. Aaron," Bud Selig replied in kind, before the two turned and smiled for the cameras.
They first met in 1958, and both went on to extraordinary careers. Selig has been Commissioner for more than two decades, presiding over an era of unprecedented change and prosperity.
Aaron has earned just about every honor that baseball has to offer. Forty years ago, he broke Babe Ruth's career home run record. He was an All-Star fixture during the course of his 23-year career. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. Statues of him stand outside Turner Field in Atlanta and Miller Park in Milwaukee.
His wife, Billye, and Selig threw the 80th-birthday bash for Aaron Friday night that was attended by some 300 friends and dignitaries. Yes, there were baseball people, including several Hall of Famers. Reggie Jackson, Jim Rice, Robin Yount, Frank Robinson, Ozzie Smith, Rickey Henderson. An old teammate, Wade Blasingame, came all the way from Alaska. Brewers announcer Bob Uecker, a Hall of Famer in his own right, was on hand.
But it was clear that Aaron has transcended baseball. Also in the audience were Alexis Herman, Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton. Cecilia Marshall, widow of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Former Virginia Governor and Senator Chuck Robb and his wife, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of former President Lyndon Johnson. Oh, and the Attorney General of the United States of America, who spoke movingly of what Aaron meant to him and other young African-Americans while they were growing up.
"He was a pioneer for civil rights and social justice. He inspired millions of Americans, including me, a young kid from New York. He made it less difficult for others, including the man who lives over there, made his path easier," Eric Holder said, gesturing slightly toward the executive mansion below.
The celebration was to continue Saturday with a reception at the Smithsonian Institute and the formal hanging of Aaron's painting in the National Portrait Gallery, one of the few African-Americans and few athletes represented.
"That's getting into the big leagues," Aaron said appreciatively. "My mother always said, 'Son, take it one step at a time.' And this is about as far as I think I can go, really. All of my friends here from Atlanta, from all over. It's wonderful. It makes me feel great."
Selig believes this is long overdue.
"I take nothing away from anyone else, but I always thought Henry was a great, great player," he said. "But I think it was only after he broke Babe Ruth's record and in the last 20 years that he's gotten the recognition he deserves. This is great. And he's the same wonderful human being he's always been. Quiet. Thoughtful. Sensitive. A rare human being in a lot of ways, because he never let all his success change him.
"He had a brilliant career. In my opinion, he was the greatest player our generation. And I believe his contributions off the field have been even more wonderful. He's become an American icon because of the way he's conducted himself."
Said Jackson: "When you're honored like this, I guess it just goes to show your character. It sets a tone that my words, my vocabulary, aren't broad enough to express. But I'd say dignity and integrity. The way he carried himself at a time, in the '50s and '60s, that was very different.
"He was a young gentleman. He stood for dignity and speaking out and doing it at the right time. And he took the hits. But he stood his ground with such dignity that I think every American is proud of how he handled himself. So you come here on a night like this to say, 'Thank you. I'm honored to be here.'"
Yount joked that when he joined the Brewers, he wasn't even his mother's favorite player. "I'm sure you can guess who was," he added dryly. "I stole his jersey from him after the last game he played. He signed it for me and I gave it to my mother.
"He was the greatest player I've ever seen. But in the clubhouse, you couldn't tell if he had hit 755 home runs or one."
Robinson said he admired Aaron as a player. "And I've admired him more since he stopped playing. What a tremendous man he has become," he said.
Selig summed it up: "He has become an American icon because of the way he's conducted himself," the Commissioner said. "And wherever you go, all you have to say is 'Henry Aaron.' That says it all."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less