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Hank Aaron: 44 at 80
Four decades after setting the record, the baseball legend may finally be ready to walk off
When the (first) Great Two-Inch Snowstorm of 2014 shut down Atlanta, I was waiting for my chance to meet Hank Aaron, who’d set aside an hour on a Wednesday morning in January. The meeting was canceled. Aaron was leaving for Washington, D.C., the next week to celebrate his birthday at a gala near the White House and to attend the unveiling of his likeness at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. His assistant offered to fit me in on the Monday before he left. For Aaron, this is a season of big, round numbers: eighty years on earth, forty years since breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record. Big, round numbers tend to send reporters and fans scurrying to revisit legends and milestones to remind themselves that a figure of such Rushmorean proportions in American sports is still a flesh-and-blood man among us, and to beg a moment of his time. I was one such beggar.
You can’t enter Turner Field without encountering Hammerin’ Hank. Two bronze sculptures—a bust of Aaron and a statue of him frozen in the follow-through of his swing—greet you as you pass through the ballpark’s gates. Behind them is a 100-foot-wide image of the ball Aaron hit over the left field wall of the old Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974, to become the new home run king. As senior vice president of the Braves, a position he’s held since 1989, Aaron still keeps an office at Turner Field; unlike other commuters, he must pass heroic versions of himself and his great deeds on the way to his desk.
His office is lightly decorated with lesser memorabilia (the good stuff is presumably in Cooperstown), with a window and a view from beyond the left field bleachers. Aaron didn’t get up from behind the desk as I entered but leaned forward for a handshake. A TV was tuned to SportsCenter; he fiddled with the remote control and muted the sound. He looked vibrant, though perhaps not at his most mobile, in a sweater vest and a blue button-down shirt, his gray hair close-cropped but still full—a rounder and older version of the lithe young man in a Braves uniform I knew from the page and the screen.
You bring your own acquired history to a meeting with a historical figure. As a child in rural Oregon, I think I’d read every single book on baseball in the local libraries by the sixth grade, and that was where I encountered Aaron—biographies aimed at ten-year-olds, profiles of all-time sluggers, legends of the boys of summer, portraits in courage. I memorized numbers—for Aaron it was 44 (his uniform), 1957 (the year he won the MVP), 1974 (the year he hit home run number 715 to break Babe Ruth’s record), and 755 (his staggering home run total; I knew, my friends knew, we all knew—no one could beat this). I internalized simple narratives of character, too—the prickly precision of Williams, the flash and brilliance of Mays, the tragic dignity of Gehrig, the golden aura of Mantle, the fire of Gibson, the viciousness of Cobb, the larger-than-life-ness of Ruth. And then the hero: Jackie Robinson.
And what about Hank Aaron? His name loomed as large as any of them, but it was a quieter presence, a steady rise to immortality from the sandlots of Mobile, Alabama (and that legendary cross-handed batting style he supposedly learned there), through twenty-three years of stardom in the smaller markets of Milwaukee and Atlanta, with it all culminating in The Chase to catch Ruth, to hit more home runs than anyone, to play through the storm of ignorance and hate mail and death threats and the weight of expectations to surpass the greatest figure the game had known. That was the simple narrative of Aaron.
But this was the man, days before his eightieth birthday. Before my visit I’d spoken with Andrew Young, a friend of Aaron and his wife, Billye, who gave his own version of the legend of how Aaron’s wrists became such powerful weapons in the batter’s box: It was all those years chopping firewood to heat the family’s house that enabled him to whip the bat through the strike zone at the last possible instant, to adjust to pitches and still generate such power. Aaron himself at one point claimed his strong wrists came from delivering ice as a boy. Yet what I noticed was his hand—it still felt rough in mine, as if the nearly four decades sitting behind a desk like this in the Braves’ front office, running his car dealerships, his restaurant franchises, or his Chasing the Dream Foundation, couldn’t soften the effects of all those years gripping a thirty-five-inch, thirty-three-ounce Louisville Slugger.
What do you ask a man who’s been asked the same set of questions about the same set of events hundreds—if not thousands—of times before? We spoke of the storm—“it was a mess,” he said in his deep, calm baritone, “and it’s going to be a mess next time” (and of course it was)—and then I bounced around a few questions, looking for footing in the conversation. Who was his favorite hitter? “I always admired Stan Musial,” he said. “When I got my 3,000th base hit, he was the one that showed up in Cincinnati. Wasn’t nobody else there. It meant an awful lot—I just respected him so much.”
What did he find himself teaching young players over and over again? Prospects now come out of college, with good college coaching. “I was signed from the sandlot,” he said. “I was ready to be taught everything, everything, everything. These kids have to fail first and then you can teach them. You have to wait till they fail and then they come to you.”
That sandlot was Carver Park—now Hank Aaron Park, in the Toulminville neighborhood of Mobile—near where his parents bought a plot of land and built a house mostly from salvaged wood. His father had left a sharecropping life in central Alabama and found work as a riveter in Mobile. Both parents were illiterate. The family—three brothers and two sisters, with two siblings yet to come—moved into the house when Aaron was eight. “Toulminville was strictly nothing,” Aaron told me. “Outdoor toilets. It was country. Six o’clock it was dark. We didn’t have electric. It was strictly dirt street and that was it.” Aaron and other kids drifted over to Carver Park and played baseball until sundown, using whatever makeshift equipment they could muster. “There was nothing else to do,” he said.
By the time he was fifteen he was playing on semipro teams, many sponsored by the factories in town. A local man who scouted for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League took Aaron under his wing and got him a tryout, and at age eighteen Aaron was a full-time professional ballplayer. After just twenty-six games, the then-Boston Braves paid the Clowns $10,000 for his rights, and Aaron was on a plane for the first time in his life, headed to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and the Braves farm system.
With forty years of perspective, I wondered if there was anything new he could say about that home run, number 715. If you poke around the Internet for video of Aaron, this is mostly what you’ll find: a man already forty, playing against younger men, his figure beginning to round out, making quick work of a fastball from Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. And then Aaron rounding the bases and—if you know the history of the death threats—the frisson of danger you still sense when two young white men somehow appear on the field, approaching Aaron and flanking him as he trots between second and third, and reach out to touch him—until the moment passes. They’re just fans, high school seniors from Waycross joyriding the moment. The mob of teammates wait at home plate, and somewhere among them, his mother is wrapping him in an embrace.
It was such a relief. It wasn’t just the pressure and discomfort and maybe even fear he endured as he chased down the Babe. This is the climax of every account of Aaron’s greatness, even the young-adult biographies where I first encountered the legend of Hank: the “Dear Nigger” letters, the threats of snipers. His children had to be sent to a different school, the FBI opened his mail, he stayed in different hotels from his teammates, left through the back door, was accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard. “The only thing that bothered me about the chase,” he told me, as he has told others, “was the fact that it deprived me of a whole lot of things I could have enjoyed, I should have enjoyed, but I didn’t. I had a rough time. I think it was a year and a half or two years—it deprived me of being who I could have been. I was so isolated from my teammates.”
Looking back on that day itself, Aaron is still proud of the milestone. But in other ways, the years have shifted his perspective. It wasn’t just his own rough time. There was something about the record itself—a melancholy note about the Jim Crow world into which he was born that will never detach from his accomplishments. His attitude now he describes as “wavering.” I asked him to explain.
“Back then,” he said, “when you started talking about records of that magnitude, you’d start saying, Oh my God, this is great, because they just let us start playing this game—they just accepted us in baseball a few years ago—and here I am challenging one of the most prestigious records in all of sports. It makes you feel good. And now, after forty years have gone by, you start thinking, do you still feel the same way? And you say, That shouldn’t have happened. Nothing like that should have happened. Some other players who probably had as much ability as I had were not able to play.” The record he broke forty years ago was itself tainted by the segregated baseball Babe Ruth played, facing not the best pitchers in America, but just the best white pitchers in America. “Things shouldn’t have happened that way.”
I asked him about his sense of racial prejudice in sports today, forty years after his own ordeal. “You don’t see it as much as you saw it a few years ago, but there’s still some there,” he said, and volunteered the recent case of Richard Sherman, the talented and outspoken cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. Sherman’s on-camera remarks after a game-saving play in the NFC championship game brought a sharp condemnation in the press and across social media. “People who should be worried about something else, they worried about him and what he said,” Aaron said. “Somebody called him a thug. I mean, the man just finished Stanford with a 3-point something—I don’t think he’s a thug. You have a black player do that and right away you can find out what people really think about what he is.” Aaron was so frustrated at the vilification of Sherman that he did something unusual for him: He tweeted. It was the first tweet he’d composed in six months, one of the few he’s ever posted, and he directed it to Sherman: “Hang in there & keep playing as well as you did Sunday. Excellent job—you have my support.” Sherman replied with gratitude—coming from Aaron, this was “greatly appreciated and very humbling.”
“I remember so well, as a little boy growing up,” Aaron continued, “doing nothing, saying nothing, and six or seven o’clock come around, it was getting dark, and my mother would tell me to come on in the house and get under the bed.” It’s a story he has told often, one he made sure to share with his kids and grandkids, too—he’d tell it again at his birthday gala a few days later in Washington. “I’d say, ‘Get under the bed—for what?’ A little later on I found out what it was about. The Ku Klux Klan would be marching through the area.” This was in dirt-road Toulminville. “Ain’t nobody there but just two houses—my mother’s house and another lady’s house. But they did come through there and burn a cross and keep going.”
Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues in 1947, but major league teams didn’t play in the South (not regularly, anyway—there was still spring training in segregated Florida and a few barnstorming games heading north before opening day). After half a season in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Aaron and two teammates were assigned to Jacksonville in 1953 and tasked with integrating the South Atlantic (or “Sally”) League, made up of single-A ball clubs in towns across the Deep South. Aaron demolished the league’s pitching but endured, on and off the field, all the racist indignities you can imagine. By the end of the season—the first Sally League pennant Jacksonville had won in forty years—the home team fans had mostly stopped screaming at him and his black teammates to “go back to the cotton fields”; one fan even found Aaron after a tough win to offer that “you niggers played a hell of a game.” Thanks to Robinson, the major leagues had changed forever when Aaron entered as a rookie in 1954. But it was not hyperbole when, at Aaron’s birthday celebration in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gestured toward the White House and to Aaron and said, “The young man who lives right over there—his path was made easier by this man.”
Part of the Hank Aaron story, during his playing days, was that he was both underrated as a superior talent and somewhat unknown—even unknowable—as a person. He was wary of the press, unwelcoming and mistrustful of the beat writers, who in those days had an outsize power to shape the images of the men they covered. Howard Bryant, in his 2010 biography of Aaron, The Last Hero, attributes this to the scars Aaron bore from early depictions of him—sportswriters portrayed him as a natural athlete who coasted, as opposed to an intelligent athlete who worked hard and knew his craft. Even the way his Alabama accent and diction were rendered phonetically on the page betrayed a host of demeaning assumptions about the man. Aaron didn’t see an accurate version of himself in the press, so he stopped trying to help people understand him.
While Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were the toast of New York or San Francisco, Aaron spent years in the relative obscurity of Milwaukee. But there were ways this worked to his advantage. “I was not an outgoing kind of a person in my younger years,” he told me. “I was very reserved. And I don’t know whether that would have gone over well in New York, really—I didn’t care too much for that. Milwaukee was the right city for me. It was laid-back like I was. They didn’t expect too much and they appreciated me more. I think it was great for me.” Yet as time went by and the civil rights movement gained steam, Aaron became more outspoken: “I think I grew up,” he said, “grew wiser, knew a few more things, could carry on a conversation about different things.”
The Braves’ move to Fulton County in 1966 was a major piece of Atlanta leaders’ plans to emerge from the decade as a regional capital with a national presence, and with the Braves came Hank Aaron, their star. “It launched Atlanta as a big league city,” Andrew Young told me. The city threw the team a welcome parade, and Young remembers standing on Spring Street as Aaron passed by. “I heard some good ol’ boys say, ‘If we’re gonna be a big league town, that fella is gonna have to live anywhere he wants to live.’ I was shocked, because these were two middle-aged, white Southerners realizing that an integrated baseball team had a significant impact on everything in the city.” The team made a long-awaited return to the playoffs in 1969, and Aaron’s 3,000th hit and his 600th home run came as an Atlanta Brave, but it was the growing awareness that Aaron was on pace to surpass Babe Ruth in home runs—that a black man playing for the first major league team in the South could dethrone the greatest (white) slugger in the history of the national game—that was perhaps the first Atlanta sports story to capture the nation’s attention. And it was exactly the kind of story Georgia’s business and civic leaders wanted. Governor Jimmy Carter, in the stands for number 715, would say that Aaron “did as much to legitimize the South as any of us.”
The Braves and Aaron parted awkwardly after the 1974 season when the Braves traded him to the Brewers, the American League team that had replaced the Braves in Milwaukee. He lumbered through two seasons, and when he retired in 1976, the Braves’ new owner, Ted Turner, insisted that Aaron’s permanent place was in Atlanta. “The greatest thing that ever happened to me was when Ted offered me a job,” he told me. “If I had been like any other ballplayer, just retired right after the season, after my career was over, I don’t know what I would have done, because I didn’t know anything else to do.” He started as the Braves’ farm director and has remained in the team’s front office ever since, vocal in his desire to see more African Americans in positions of management. Yet while one foot always remained in the baseball world, his career outside of baseball was also important to him—finding success as a businessman and establishing a charity, the Chasing the Dream Foundation, with the goal of financially helping 755 young people develop their talents (a goal that it has far surpassed), and eventually endowing four-year scholarships at twelve different colleges.
Aaron has spoken out about the dwindling number of African American players in the game, and Major League Baseball has made some effort to address this. Yet just one African American was on the roster of either team in the 2013 World Series. “It’s not a very popular game in black areas,” Aaron said. “For some reason, you talk to parents now about baseball, they don’t have the enthusiasm that they had a few years ago.” Still, he and his wife are helping a fundraising effort to bring a new, multimillion-dollar baseball facility to the Morehouse campus.
I wondered if, looking back on his own difficult time in the national spotlight, he thought any group of people today might face vitriolic prejudice in the major leagues, if not from fellow players then from the public. I was thinking of the still-mythical gay baseball player—this was a week before a college football star preparing for the NFL draft came out. Baseball has 750 active roster slots at any point in the season—and considerably more players if you count injury lists—and as far as anyone in the public knows, not one of these men is gay. Would an openly gay ballplayer face a backlash? “I would hope not, but I don’t know,” Aaron said. “It bothers me. Because I look at my life—I have enough to worry about without worrying about who you are and what you’re doing—as long as you don’t bother me, I don’t have to bother you. I respect you. I don’t lose no sleep at all.”
When in 1999 the Braves pitcher and Macon product John Rocker made his notorious remarks about “foreigners” and “queers with AIDS” in Sports Illustrated, Aaron was quick and unsparing in his criticism of the team’s reliever. “I have no place in my heart for people who feel that way,” Aaron said at the time, and suggested that the league step in. In the fallout, the mayor of Macon called Andrew Young and asked him to broker a sit-down between Rocker and Aaron. “It was an anger management issue,” Young recalled, “and I said, ‘There’s nobody any better at managing anger than Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson.’”
“It went well, as far as the talk,” Aaron told me. “I don’t know how much impact we had on him.” (A few years later, Rocker told a reporter, “I’ve taken a lot of crap from a lot of people—probably more than anybody in the history of the sport. I know Hank and Jackie took a great deal of crap, but I guarantee it wasn’t for six years.”)
Records fall, but the question that cuts to the heart of baseball over the past fifteen years is how much it matters how a record is broken. In a game so obsessed with numbers—with 150 years of statistics—it takes extraordinary circumstances to render numbers meaningless in the eyes of fans. The steroid era has had any number of effects on baseball, but one thing it has done is shine new light on Aaron’s career. In the lead-up to Barry Bonds surpassing Aaron’s record, the world wanted to know what Aaron thought—did he bless his heir apparent? Did he condemn what everyone supposed but no one could quite prove in court—that Bonds was the greatest juicer of them all? Aaron did his best to avoid talking about the whole thing, at times verbally contorting himself in interviews and more often than not simply making himself unavailable. He was not present in San Francisco the day that Bonds, just a few months away from indictment for lying to a federal grand jury about using steroids, hit number 756, but Aaron did agree to record a congratulatory message that played on the scoreboard.
He let something of his ambivalence about the Hall of Fame worthiness of players from the steroid era be known when he spoke to reporters at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 2009. “Do you put these guys in, or do you put an asterisk beside their names and say, ‘Hey, they did it, but here’s why’?” I brought up the steroid era—how could I not? Aaron is still the home run king in the eyes of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the voters for the Hall of Fame, who gave Bonds only 36.2 percent of the vote his first year of eligibility and 34.7 percent his second (it takes 75 percent of the vote to be inducted; Aaron received 97.8 percent his first year of eligibility). I wondered if, as the older baseball writers aged out of the voting pool, younger writers would succeed in voting in the steroid-era players who were—however they did it—the greatest players of the younger writers’ generation. Aaron had his doubts.
“If you look at the United States,” he said, “this is the most forgiving country in the world. If somebody catches you doing something, just say, ‘Yes, I did it—I ask for forgiveness.’” He brought up Andy Pettitte, the former Yankees pitcher who admitted to using human growth hormone. “He said, ‘I did something wrong.’ And now they don’t say one word about it. I saw him just the other day, and he is living his life. But you take Roger Clemens. He’s living in a shell. He won’t come out. Barry Bonds, all these guys. Something’s wrong somewhere. But if you just come clean . . . this country would just overwhelmingly say, ‘Oh, he’s already accepted—nothing else to say about it.’”
It’s not so clear this is true, not among those who saw the likes of Aaron and Mays and later sluggers—Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson—play. Look at Mark McGwire, hero of the summer of 1998, first to break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record, disgraced when he refused to “talk about the past” at the 2005 congressional hearings on steroid use. He came clean in 2010, apologized, and has still seen his Hall of Fame vote drop steadily each year.
The phone interrupted us once—another former teammate calling to say he was in town. A friend dropped in for a visit, hung around long enough to talk a little politics (Aaron asked me to turn off the tape recorder), and left with two signed baseballs. The hour somehow turned into two and a half. Aaron’s assistant brought in chicken chili in two to-go cups, and Aaron encouraged me to use his desk as a table. I asked him about the Braves leaving the city for the suburbs in 2017. “I hate that it’s going to happen,” he said. “You know, you grow with a ballpark. I look out this window and I see those signs out there: Jackie Robinson on that wall, and my name, all those guys—all except Dale Murphy—they’re all in the Hall of Fame. In two years that is no longer going to be there. And this is going to be a deserted area, no matter how you say it.”
The morning of the snowstorm, Aaron had gone out in his truck for a bite to eat, then returned home and watched the snow fall. He turned on a replay of an old World Series game on TV, admired a player’s RBI sacrifice fly on a 3–0 count, and later marveled at two unusual animals he saw loping through the snow outside his house. A fox and . . . a wolf? He thought it was a wolf—it looked like one. Speaking with his wife over the weekend, they discussed the possibility of retirement—a second retirement, a real retirement. “I don’t walk as well,” he said. “I can’t throw the ball probably to that window.” Thinking back to the day of the home run, he said, “I could run twelve laps around the ballpark. Now I couldn’t do one.” (The week following our conversation, during Atlanta’s second debilitating snowstorm of the winter, Aaron slipped on the ice and broke his hip; the surgeon who performed the partial hip replacement said Aaron would make a full recovery.)
The first time he retired he had a job waiting for him. “It wasn’t hard for me,” he recalled. “I went right out of baseball and stepped right into being farm director. I kept my hand in a mix of things.” Now he and his wife were getting ready to visit their house in West Palm Beach, not long after the festivities in Washington. They like to travel, to go on long-distance cruises. When he feels like it, Aaron will explore whatever exotic port they’ve reached, and when he doesn’t, his wife will head out on her own, and he’s content to just stay in his cabin and watch TV, “and nobody bothers me—I lock my door.” So many young athletes impress him now—he still loves to watch tennis, football, golf, the Olympics, and baseball; his favorite Braves are Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, and “that kid at shortstop.” But he could watch them from anywhere—he doesn’t need a desk at the ballpark to do that. “I think that I could move away from it now and not miss it as much,” he said, and then said it again. “I could probably move away from baseball now.”
It’s taken almost forty years for Aaron to feel comfortable with the thought of leaving the sport for good. And so I had to ask: Who would Henry Aaron have been if he hadn’t found baseball? If, back in Mobile, there hadn’t been nothing else to do? He didn’t know. “Whatever I would have done,” he said, “I know that I would have done well. I would have done very well, because I was determined to do well.”
This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.