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Lee Walburn


To Dance with the White Dog, 25 years later

Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion
Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion.

For no reason other than Terry Kay is a writer of novels, I sometimes imagine there is a small corner of heaven reserved for my dearest friend of 60 years. To banish him to everlasting hell would represent a clear case of literary redundancy. How else would I describe his state of mind in 1989 when he typed the words, “He understood what they were thinking and saying: Old man that he is, what’s to become of him?”

Those lines begin To Dance with the White Dog, a story Terry was reluctant to write, a manuscript more than 20 major publishers rejected, a novel whose eventual fame frightened him so much he required counseling beyond what his friends could offer. When Terry and I reminisce about his book’s painful birth, we talk about how unlikely it is that, 25 years after its 1990 publication, the book would be translated into more than 20 languages, its title more recognizable than its author.

Sometimes we ponder what it is about this myth of an old man and a stray dog that causes some readers to cherish it almost as if it were holy writ. “Perhaps,” Terry says, “it’s because in the South myth is as powerful as religion . . . or maybe it is religion.”

So who is to say that a white dog, emerging from the woods like an apparition, does not contain the spirit of Sam Peek’s beloved and departed Cora, returned to comfort her aging husband? That is the book’s simple story line. But why would it have such impact on readers? I recently asked Terry about that. “What I think readers see in White Dog,” he told me, “is obviously more than what I did in the beginning. Perhaps it’s in response to a universal search for dignity in aging.”

Now that Terry and I have neared the age of the old man in the novel, I suspect an equal number of readers might identify with his despair at no longer being able to do what he once could: run his farm business, and tend his fruit and trees. I think Sam’s frustration represents a profound question we all wrestle with if we live long enough: When does young stop being young and old start being old?

The novel’s Sam Peek is a thinly disguised T.H. Kay, whom his son Terry had lyrically eulogized in 1981 for Atlanta Weekly, a magazine once published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and edited by me. Captivated by the fruit of our collaboration, we treated ourselves to a liquid lunch in celebration of “T.H. Kay, Proprietor.” At one point, Terry casually remarked, “You know, I can’t help but wonder if I should have mentioned the white dog.”

He laid out what he vowed was a true story about a stray dog’s comforting intrusion into his father’s final days. His father was convinced the skittish animal housed the soul of his departed wife. While his family watched from outside a window, the dog would put its paws up on T.H. Kay’s walker and they would dance.

“You idiot,” I sighed. It took my relentless nagging before Terry agreed to write the magazine sequel three years later. It appeared under the title “The Strange Dance of the White Dog.”

More as editor than friend, Terry’s reluctance frustrated me. It wasn’t until the story was expanded into book length that he was willing to explain his hesitancy. His close friend, Pat Conroy, had already become one of the country’s most successful authors—in part, for never taking his foot off his father’s ink-stained throat. Terry says now that he worried a book based on his own father would lead to an inevitable comparison with Conroy.

But desperation is a powerful antidote to paralysis. Although Terry had previously published three novels—The Year the Lights Came OnAfter Eli, and Dark Thirty—most of his income came from a series of freelance articles and public relations jobs, which led to an executive position at Oglethorpe Power Corporation. The job drained so much of his intellectual energy that he felt lost in what he described as “a creative fog.” Once I dropped by unexpectedly and found him hiding under his desk, scribbling novel outlines. Occasionally I rushed to meet him after a depressing phone call, fearing I might discover him teetering on some building’s highest ledge.

Finally, in equal measures of courage and desperation, he resigned from his job. With three years’ living expenses saved, he rented a room in a cheap Buford Highway motel. He had doubts he could free himself from suspicion that a story located in the South, but lacking epic family dysfunction, would be mocked by admirers of angst-saturated literature. He anticipated editors might nudge his story toward a genre dominated by Conroy, Paul Hemphill, and other explorers of father-son drama. Nevertheless, with no other idea and no obvious line of retreat, he began writing the book about his father and a dog. He finished it in two months, straight through, no revisions.

New York publishers responded as Terry expected. “I received the most glowing rejection letters ever,” he says. “More than a few talked about how they loved the story, but just didn’t think it would sell.” Terry’s agent, Harvey Klinger, decided to approach Peachtree Publishers, the up-and-coming Atlanta-based company headed by Margaret Quinlin.

“Margaret called me and said she was sending a contract by taxi and hoped I would sign it immediately,” Terry says. “I hesitated but finally decided Peachtree was the book’s best chance for publication.”

The novel had been out for only a couple of weeks when Oxford Books hosted the first signing. “I was totally surprised that in such a brief time White Dog had already touched quite a number of people,” he says. “The store manager said something like, ‘Terry, the line is so long I can’t see the end of it.’ The first person in line was a lady who bought 10 copies. She said the books were her entire budget for Christmas gifts.”

The eventual popularity of To Dance with the White Dog now seems to trace a serendipitous trail. Neither Terry nor I had seen anything beyond the magazine stories. It took a suggestion from a reader of the second story to implant the seed. “Writers can be blind or just dumb,” Terry says. “If we weren’t, I might have seen the story’s potential myself.”

Terry sent a copy of the book to Art Barschdorf, an acquaintance in Chicago, who had a business relationship with nationally syndicated radio host Paul Harvey. One day Terry called to tell me that on Harvey’s noon broadcast he’d told his listeners, “If you have high regard for your grandparents, your elders, you really need to read a new book entitled To Dance with the White Dog, by Terry Kay.”

Suddenly thousands wanted the book. Perhaps nothing was as stunning as what occurred at a small bookstore in Narashino City, Japan. After the store’s manager, Kazuo Kinoshita, read the Japanese translation, he composed a brief commendation. In one month, the book sold 187 copies; the following month, 471. Yuri Iwasaki, sales representative for the Japanese publishing company Shinchosha, recognized that something special was happening. He persuaded the company to authorize an expanded advertising campaign. In less than a year, Japanese bookstore orders topped 1.5 million. To Dance with the White Dog inspired a children’s book version as well as a movie released in 125 theaters.

“I think one of the reasons the book has sold so many copies in Japan is because of the Japanese culture’s reverence for old people,” Terry says.

Terry’s agent began pushing for a follow-up novel. Perhaps fear of not being able to again touch readers on such an extraordinary level is not uncommon among authors of unexpected bestsellers. All I know is Terry was experiencing another mental muddle and we spent many hours together lamenting his latest creative block. But even I didn’t realize how deep his depression stretched.

“I had a total mental breakdown,” Terry says. “I would wake up in the middle of the night weeping and waiting for morning. Conroy became so concerned about me he called once or twice a week. I lied each time and told him I was writing great stuff every day. And he knew I was lying.

“When at last I admitted I didn’t have anything to write, Pat proposed a theme based on my college summer job as a restaurant bus boy in the Catskills. That story line evolved into Shadow Song.”

Shadow Song earned Terry the first of at least two separate million-dollar book contracts. The house in which we retraced the path of White Dog was paid for in total by that book. “But it was White Dog that gave me a name and a marketable craft,” Terry acknowledges. Meanwhile, the husband-wife team of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn starred in a 1993 Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie, which triggered another surge in book sales.

“Took a long time, but I finally convinced myself that while I might never write another book with the impact of To Dance with the White Dog, I might write a better one,” Terry says.

He thinks that novel is The Book of Marie, an evocative reflection on the impact that desegregation had on young whites during the civil rights movement. It was published in 2007 to wonderful reviews, but only modest sales. With last year’s publication of Song of the Vagabond Bird, Terry’s catalog now totals 16 novels. He has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. A new novel will be appearing next spring. But it is the book about an old man and a mystical dog that gets passed along, loved one to loved one. It is the book that has secured my friend’s literary legacy.

Lee Walburn was editor of Atlanta magazine from 1987 to 2002 and of the AJC’s now-defunct weekly magazine from 1980 to 1985. He’s the author of Just My Type: 50 Years Preserved in Ink.

This article appeared in our October 2015 issue under the headline “The reluctant novelist.”

Unbelievable! The Braves’ 1991 worst to first season


Who ever would have believed a baseball team could convince us eternity doesn’t last forever? Well, that actually happened back in autumn of 1991—the year October began to taste like honey, when leaves turned brighter shades of gold and crimson, and Atlanta nights felt fresh as mountain air. Who ever would have believed the Atlanta Braves’ melancholy baseball world would inexplicably explode and turn upside down—that a team enduring 22 consecutive losing months, that had not ended a season since 1983 with more victories than defeats, that in 1990 had led the entire National League in errors and finished in last place, would chase away the ghosts of seasons past?

Who ever would have believed—with half the 1991 season familiarly squandered—the Braves would catch sight of the hated first-place Dodgers, nine and a half games in the distance, and not think of it as a bridge too far? That aging Terry Pendleton would lead the league in hitting, that John Smoltz would lose 11 of his first 13 decisions then win 12 of his final 14, that future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine would win 20 games for the first time, that narcotically electrified Otis Nixon would steal 72 bases and gracefully defy gravity (before a drug test shortened his season)?

Who ever would have believed 2.1 million of us would sit in orange seats that for years collected dust from shattered dreams; that we would wave crimson tomahawks and chant throaty imitations of an indigenous war cry; that with every single heartbeat, we would feel vibrations of hope?

Who ever would have believed that in October 1991, Atlanta would drape itself in the red, white, and blue bunting of a National League pennant winner; that in the first World Series in our city’s history, every scoreless inning in the seventh and final game would become a miniature apocalypse; that it would take the game’s only run—scored in the final inning on the season’s final swing—to pierce our collective heart?

Who ever would have believed a team that for nearly a decade failed to contradict the taunting sobriquet of “Loserville” would inspire 750,000 Atlantans to line downtown streets and cheer as the Braves—losers, technically, yes—were touted with a parade celebrating their trip to the Series and journey from worst to first?

Change can cause reactions like that—the moment you realize you are no longer where you were, but you are not yet to where you will get. Who ever would have believed there would follow 13 championship seasons in Atlanta, one of them as World Champions of 1995? Who ever would have believed eternity doesn’t last forever?

Lee Walburn, editor in chief of Atlanta magazine throughout the 1990s, was the public relations manager for the Atlanta Braves in the 1960s.

Back to the 90s

This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue.

Little Town, Big Idea: Rome’s Cancer Navigators

Illustrations by Chris Silas Neal
Illustrations by Chris Silas Neal

Rome is a small town in northwest Georgia. In small towns, if someone thinks you are marching to a different drummer, they don’t mind telling you so. One day an older doctor confronted young radiation oncologist Matt Mumber and said, “What in the world are you doing? Other physicians are coming to me and complaining that you are preaching stuff like the importance of nutrition and stress management in the treatment of cancer.”

That was 2002, several years before Dr. Mehmet Oz’s television show gave Americans a general understanding of the term “integrative medicine.” Mumber showed his colleague a chapter he was writing about multi­disciplinary approaches to disease—which appeared in a textbook with contributions by doctors from Harvard, Wake Forest, and the University of Arizona. Then Mumber took his convictions a step further. Georgia’s Cancer Coalition was searching for innovative ways to treat a disease that carries a lifetime risk of one out of every two men and one out of every three women. With that organization’s encouragement, Mumber formed a self-funded nonprofit organization to test his holistic approach in a series of patient retreats. He named the organization Many Streams Healing Systems, symbolic of his conviction that healing can flow from multiple disciplines, both traditional and nontraditional. Twelve years and a name change later, Rome’s nonprofit Cancer Navigators is the heralded grown-up version of that infant idea.

“Cancer Navigators,” says Mumber, “represents a natural evolution of medicine, an understanding that fixing is not the same as healing. That is, we must be unafraid to apply every possible tool, both old and new, in the quest for healing. We must address every participant in the process, including the physicians, healthcare workers, patients, and families. Caring relationships between people are the most healing tool in the world.”

Executive director Charlotte Atkins is careful to point out that Cancer Navigators’ services are not an alternative, but rather a complement to the medical expertise of primary cancer care providers. Working cooperatively with area healthcare partners—primarily Harbin Clinic, Floyd Medical Center, and Redmond Regional Medical Center—the agency’s education, service, and nurse “navigators” act as guides, helping patients understand their diagnoses and prescribed treatments, then connecting them with relevant resources. The staff includes four licensed nurses and social workers, and this year will expand to include trained volunteers who are survivors themselves.

Since cancer happens on top of whatever else is going on in people’s lives, it creates a daunting array of needs beyond medical care. Patients may require transportation to treatments, aesthetic help with wigs and prostheses, or assistance with insurance and paperwork. Some 87 percent of patients in Harbin’s Integrative Oncology Program use Cancer Navigators. Surveys from that clinic indicate that at least a third of cancer patients suffer significant distress in at least one of six determinants of well-being: financial, emotional, social, physical, nutritional, and medical.

Mumber says, “We were shocked to discover that the needs of some patients went beyond financial resources, that simply getting enough to eat or having heat and clean clothes was beyond them. I don’t know of any other nonprofit that addresses so many aspects of patient disparity and at no cost to them. One patient stunned us when he said the most caring he has ever experienced has come after getting cancer.”

As Mumber’s example illustrates, sometimes what clients crave most isn’t medical advice or financial aid, but emotional support. Brenda Budlong, a primary care physician, certainly had a clinical understanding of breast cancer, but found she needed coping skills and fellowship when faced with the disease herself. She attended the eight-week Sustainable Wellness Program and Renewal Retreat, where she forged a life-affirming bond with the six other women who participated. She says as a result, she can now “concentrate on wellness instead of disease.”

Often patients have a combination of emotional and physical needs. Wilma Ochoa, fifty-one, was working at a Dollar General in Rome when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She tapped the full range of Cancer Navigators’ nursing, service, education, and counseling assistance. “The day I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, I didn’t have insurance,” she says. “By the following morning, [service navigator] Angela James had already set up an appointment for me to get on Medicaid that same day. The Navigators team made sure I had food and clothing and helped me pay some of my bills by connecting me with the right organizations to handle those things.

“Having [nurse navigator] Lena Crooker with me at my doctor appointments and being there the day of my surgery meant everything. She is more than just my nurse; she’s a companion who is also very knowledgeable. She made sure I understood everything that was about to happen as my journey began, then throughout and all the way to the end. Sometimes she would call me just to say, ‘Hello, how are you feeling? If you need me, I’m here for you.’”

Ochoa has also taken advantage of MyJourney Compass, an educational effort provided through a federally funded pilot program. Under the auspices of the Georgia Department of Community Health and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, the tool was implemented in collaboration with Georgia Tech, the Northwest Georgia Regional Cancer Coalition, Harbin Clinic, Floyd Medical Center, Redmond Regional Medical Center, and Cancer Navigators. Breast cancer patients receive Nexus 7 tablet computers that enable them to access health information as well as educational materials related to their diagnosis. During the 2013–2014 grant period, some seventy patients were trained by education navigator Katie Weisbecker in a model that is likely to be replicated around the country in years to come.

Ochoa calls her “compass” a blessing: “Not only am I able to have my medical records with me all the time and securely accessible on my tablet, but as my medications change, I am able to look them up and see the possible side effects and other details. And I can get my test results faster. I can also chart my pain and send it to my doctor. My favorite feature is that I can put my upcoming appointments in my tablet and get an alert when it is time for me to go. And be on time!”

“Before my diagnosis,” she continues, “I knew of breast cancer, but I didn’t know much about breast cancer. Knowledge gained through Cancer Navigators has made me more aware of and less scared of the disease. Knowledge is power. I believe that wholeheartedly. I have less stress, and I want to spread the word to others that you can get through this; you will get through this. I am more aware now to not only do the self breast exam, but to also watch my diet and get some exercise.”

Cancer Etiquette

What to say (and what
not to say) to those with cancer. Read more

Cancer Navigators provides small-group sessions and retreats focusing on a full range of positive behaviors that may affect clinical outcomes. The aim is to equip patients with tools and information that empower them to help with their own healing. Quarterly eight-week Sustainable Wellness sessions designed by Mumber allow patients like Budlong to explore the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of dealing with cancer. The newest educational offering is called Cancer to Health. It is a twenty-six-week intervention designed to reduce the stresses of diagnosis and treatment for stage 2 and stage 3 breast cancer patients. Cancer Navigators is the first in Georgia to offer this specific program. Additionally, Cancer Navigators offers classes designed to promote cancer prevention through a healthy lifestyle and diet, which are available to patients, family members, healthcare providers, and the general public.

Although Cancer Navigators originally proved a haven primarily for those with breast cancer, in recent years physicians have referred a wider range of patients. Crooker and fellow nurse navigator Julie Brown also help non–breast cancer patients, which now make up two-thirds of the nonprofit’s clientele.

John Quincy Adams of Rockmart was recently diagnosed with colorectal cancer. As a point of pride he will tell you that he is a direct descendant of the sixth president of the United States; as a point of thankfulness, however, he will identify nurse navigator Lena Crooker as his “guardian angel.” His praise echoes Ochoa’s experience with Crooker: “She has accompanied me to every meeting with doctors,” he says. “On her own she has called my niece and my daughter to keep them informed. I have surgery scheduled at Emory University and I wouldn’t even be surprised to see her there, too. After surgery I will have five or six weeks of healing followed by chemo and a liver operation on top of that. I know I can count on Lena from start to finish.”

Although Adams will have surgery in Atlanta, many local residents facing similar diagnoses have chosen to experience the full range of care in Rome. Cancer Navigators is an important factor in those decisions. Harbin Clinic’s Tony E. Warren, MD Cancer Center has twice been named Cancer Practice of the Year by the Georgia Society of Clinical Oncology.

Although Cancer Navigators’ service area primarily encompasses Floyd, Chattooga, and Polk counties, word of its good work has spread, and more metro Atlanta oncologists are referring patients. Last year Cancer Navigators helped 689 newly diagnosed cancer patients and their loved ones because, as its motto proclaims, “people shouldn’t have to journey alone.”

About cancer navigators
Cancer Navigators is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization totally funded by donations, which are tax-deductible. Donations may be mailed to Cancer Navigators, 3 Central Plaza, Suite 415, Rome, GA 30161, or made online at cancernavigatorsga.org.

About the author
Lee Walburn served as editor in chief of Atlanta magazine for fifteen years. A cancer survivor himself, he recently released his first book, Just My Type, with proceeds donated to Cancer Navigators. The book is a compilation of Walburn’s work dating back to the 1970s, from his early days at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to his current weekly column for the Rome News-Tribune. Order Walburn’s book at cancernavigatorsga.org/walburn-book or call 706-295-4119.

This article originally appeared in our 2014 Health issue.

Bill Lucas


On Wednesday, May 9, 1979, mourners gathered at St. Paul of the Cross Catholic Church in west Atlanta. They came from throughout the country, most of them from the family of professional baseball, many with names already indelibly writ in the sport’s history books, some to be enshrined eventually in the Hall of Fame in Coopers­town. The man whose life we had come to honor was forty-three and not broadly recognized by the general public.

Bill Lucas died too young to be remembered for accomplishments in terms of records. Still, he had lived long enough for Florida A&M football coach Jake Gaither to gather his emotions and call Lucas “one of God’s great men.” That was reason enough for most of us to be there, for he was loved more as a good and honorable man than as general manager of the Atlanta Braves.

I don’t recall any speakers mentioning that Bill Lucas was the first African American to be named general manager of a Major League Baseball franchise. It would have been natural to do so, since America was only eleven years distant from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But Lucas had advanced so meritoriously into his position that to mention he was a pioneer might have diminished what he had earned purely with baseball savvy and reliability. Lucas’s boss, Ted Turner, famously color-blind but stunningly inappropriate as a speaker, rendered a eulogy peppered with cliches: “Now Bill is the general manager of a team that has Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Lou Gehrig . . .” Fortunately twenty-three-year-old Dale Murphy restored dignity with thoughts about how Lucas, first as farm director and later as general manager, had become a father figure, a symbol of what it means to be a professional baseball player. “Bill’s dream was for this organization to be a success. It is our sacred honor to be chosen to fulfill his dream.”

By the time Turner promoted him to general manager in September of 1976, Lucas had spent almost twenty years in the Braves organization, six of them as a minor league player. Lucas had the slender build of a middle infielder, the speed and guts of a base stealer, and a respectable .273 batting average. But a knee injury at Double-A suddenly left him better suited for mentoring. In 1965, as the Braves served a one-year injunction that prevented the team from moving to Atlanta from Milwaukee, vice president Dick Cecil convinced Lucas, a graduate of Florida A&M, to join the front office in a community relations role.

The Braves’ arrival in Atlanta required sensitivity to the city’s complex racial environment. Cecil knew Lucas would bring crucial perspective to the relationship, as would his former minor league teammate Paul Snyder. Years later Snyder reflected on Lucas’s 2006 induction into the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame: “A number of places in the Texas League, where we were playing in 1962, Luc couldn’t sleep in the same hotel we did. He couldn’t eat in the same place we did. A lot of nights, we’d bring food down to him in the bus. A lot of nights, he’d sleep in a boarded-up hotel downtown . . . He just buttoned his lip, went out and played his heart out.”

When I joined the Braves’ front office prior to the 1966 season, Cecil, Lucas, Snyder, and others had already planted baseball’s unique seeds of emotional unity in a city where relationships previously had been forged from mutual economic interests. Those men initiated the Braves’ Good Neighbor program in underserved areas, providing athletic fields, equipment, leadership, and whatever else was needed to underscore the Braves’ appreciation for their welcome. Lucas helped Cecil bring the same attitude to building a workforce for Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium. He systematically hired one African American for every white person selected.

Lucas remained resolutely sensitive to inequality over his fourteen years in the executive suite. In the summer of 1972, my last season with the Braves, Atlanta hosted Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. Gender fairness had yet to chip away at baseball’s chauvinistic armor. Lucas was on his way to one of the glamorous event parties when he met up with Susan Hope, wife of public relations director Bob Hope. She had been turned away at the door of the all-male event. Lucas took her arm. “Let’s go have a drink,” he said. When Susan explained she wasn’t allowed, Bill said, “Look, my people weren’t allowed to enter nice places for years either. Come on, someone’s got to be the first woman to integrate baseball.” And so they did.

When Turner hired Lucas as general manager in 1976, the Braves had come off of two of the most disastrous seasons in Atlanta franchise history, losing 194 games. Lucas set to work immediately, hiring young players who would eventually win the Western Division championship in 1982. In 1978 Lucas tapped Bobby Cox to be manager, choosing the future Hall of Famer from a list that included Yogi Berra and Dick Howser.

By 1978 the strain of maneuvering through minefields strewn with Turner’s quixotic decisions began to exhaust Lucas. Increasingly, he had to defend his reputation for ironclad integrity. After Lucas and Phil Niekro verbally agreed to terms of a new contract, Turner balked, offering Niekro substantially less. Niekro asked to be traded but finally signed for three years at $200,000 annually.

That same year, Lucas drafted University of Arizona second baseman Bob Horner. Horner became an instant star at third base. The National League writers named him Rookie of the Year. The next spring, Lucas once again found himself in the middle of a salary dispute. Horner’s agent, Bucky Woy, claimed that Turner wanted to pay Horner some $83,000 less than he made his first year if the signing bonus were included. Woy publicly called Bill Lucas a liar, saying Lucas had offered a suitable contract earlier.

Early on May 1, Bob Hope overheard Turner and Lucas in “a verbal brawl” over how the deal with Woy was progressing. After work, the weary Lucas went home to watch a Braves game televised from Pittsburgh, where Phil Niekro won his 200th game. Lucas telephoned congratulations and told the pitcher to have a celebration on the Braves’ tab. Shortly after midnight, Lucas collapsed. On May 5, he died without gaining consciousness, victim of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

Four days later, hundreds gathered to celebrate the life of a man who would never become widely remembered as a picturesque national figure; pioneering, after all, isn’t always about writing your own script. It might be said, in fact, that Bill Lucas’s brief life was almost a one-act play. In a broader, lengthier tale about Atlanta, the star of Lucas’s widow, Rubye, would eventually rise as her husband’s would have. She would be appointed to the board of directors of Turner Broadcasting in 1981. (She was one of only six directors formally approving the sale of Turner Broadcasting System to Time Warner in 1995.) She would become president of the William D. Lucas Fund that sends deserving young baseball players to college. She would raise funds for the NAACP and United Negro College Fund.

At a 2009 reunion of the original Atlanta Braves front office family, appropriately arranged at Manuel’s Tavern, I chatted with Rubye for the first time in years. Rubye was radiant and smiling, as old friends exchanged handshakes and hugs, trying to fit missing pieces back into a mosaic of memories. There was little doubt Bill would be proud of the woman who remains so proud of him, a man who had epitomized the very change he wanted to see in the world.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.

Photograph courtesy of the Atlanta Braves

Regarding Henry: The 25th Anniversary of Hank Aaron’s 715th Homer


This article was originally published in our April 1999 issue.

He is easier to love as a legend than he was as Henry Louis Aaron, No. 44. Or so it seems. He’s just as black as he ever was. He still speaks his mind, unafraid to jar someone’s consciousness, even stoke the fires of anger. But even when, as a result, he receives a letter of disagreement, most of them don’t open with Dear Nigger, anymore.

Yes, definitely. He must be easier to love now. Or so it seems. Back then, back even on the night he hit his 715th home run in 1974, the night he broke Babe Ruth’s sacrosanct record for home runs, why, the lordly commissioner of baseball attended a dinner in Cleveland as if nothing special was happening in Atlanta. The year before, when he slammed his 3,000th hit and donated the ball to the Hall of Fame, the shrine just stored it in a back room instead of putting it on display.

It’s easier—let’s say acceptable—to adore him now. In the early days of the Braves in Atlanta, he wasn’t even the most popular player on his own team. But just a few years ago a poll of young people revealed him to be second in popularity only to Michael Jordan as an American athlete. The 715th homer has been voted the greatest moment in baseball history. Hank Aaron Drive runs past the Braves’ stadium, past the statue of Henry Louis Aaron in the plaza. Just two months ago, it cost the rich and famous a $500-a-plate charitable donation to eat dinner in honor of Aaron’s 65th birthday. President Clinton was there. This year Major League Baseball is dedicating the entire season, the 25th anniversary of The Homer, to Hank Aaron. And on his birthday, Major League Baseball announced the creation of the Hank Aaron Award, to be presented each year to baseball’s best hitter.

Ah, all that feels so good. Anniversary tributes and monuments are such nice ways to salve our consciences. These latter-day love fests are like giant erasers. Just erase the bad stuff from your memories, Hank, and we’ll do the same. Come on, Hank. Think about it.

Think about it. Think about it. Think about it …

The kid was carrying a little duffel bag and wearing a leather jacket when he knocked on the clubhouse door at the Milwaukee Braves spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla., in 1953. Joe Taylor, the clubhouse attendant, opened the door and after telling the kid to stay right where he was, went looking for the manager, Charlie Grimm. “There’s a black boy out there who wants in,” Taylor said to Grimm. “Says his name is Aaron.” Grimm ran his finger down a list and said, “He’s on the roster, let him in.” Grimm took an immediate liking to the kid. He nicknamed him “Stepin Fetchit,” the stage name of a shuffling, grinning Negro comedian, and the press obligingly quoted the boss man in the newspapers. Stepin Fetchit! Whoa, slap yo’ knee!

Twenty-one years later, at 9:03 p.m. on a Monday in April of 1974, I look at my watch, as I had each time Henry Aaron came to bat that year, having the idea of benchmarking the exact moment of sports history. After checking my watch, I look back at the field as Henry Aaron leaves the on-deck circle at Atlanta Stadium and approaches home plate in a routine that seemed never to vary: two bats in his left hand, the blue batting helmet with the swoop of white from bill to crest in his right. Dropping one bat to the ground for the batboy to retrieve, he balances the 34-ounce Louisville Slugger against a thigh and uses both hands to place the helmet on his head. With characteristic economy of motion that some critics have consistently, maddeningly mistaken for nonchalance, he settles comfortably in the batter’s box, hands held high and away from his body.

The Dodgers’ pitcher, Al Downing, has already walked Aaron once without a swing. This time the first pitch bounces in the dirt. There are two Braves on base and the Dodgers lead 3-1, so Downing decides to gamble with a fastball rather than risk loading the bases with another base on balls. A split second after the decision there is a cracking sound as sharp as a rifle report and stunningly, in a moment to be recollected years later as a blurred mosaic in my mind, Henry Aaron becomes the greatest home run hitter in major league history.

As he circles the bases with the same casual gait he’s used 714 times before, nearly 54,000 of us rise from our seats like a giant ocean wave churned by a sudden gust of wind. But in that muzzy mosaic of memory I cannot honestly rid myself of the feeling that we were cheering the event more than the man.

I did not know—we did not know—then, that we admired him but did not love him, and just how much he needed—no, deserved—that love. Another 24 years passed before I, at last, understood. On September 8 of last year I was watching television when Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run, breaking Roger Maris’ single-season record. Oh, how America loved McGwire that night. He blew kisses to heaven and you could almost sense that God was blowing one back. McGwire leapt into the stands to hug the family of the man whose record he had broken. They wept and embraced him. The pudgy, cherubic son of Mark McGwire was enveloped by his father’s blacksmith arms, and on television, with all the country dabbing moisture from their eyes, they shared a scene for the ages.

In a coincidence of scheduling, McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Chicago Cubs. Sammy Sosa, the Cub right fielder, was almost lock step with McGwire in a dual quest to break Maris’ record. He rushed in from right field to embrace his opponent and to blow his own kisses and to thump his heart in a symbol of unity—Sammy Sosa, dark as midnight, and Mark McGwire, red hair and freckles dotting the landscape of his pale white skin. Sociologically, it had everything that America wants to believe about itself.

Hank Aaron was also watching television that night. One day not long ago he and I sat in his office overlooking: Turner Field, a stadium many think should bear his name. We talked about our feelings as we sat in separate living rooms watching the same event. As public relations director of the Braves from 1966 to 1972, I had seen hundreds of Hank’s homers, including historically significant numbers 500, 700, 714 and 715, his first all-star homer in Detroit and even his landmark 3,000th hit. As I watched McGwire almost explode with joy, I understood the difference between then and now, and I thought, What a shame it couldn’t have been that way for Hank.

As we sat in his office, Hank took a deep breath and his eyes rolled back in memory. He almost echoed my own thoughts. “You know, as I watched, I was really excited for the fans, for baseball and for McGwire. And I said to myself, if just a little bit of that had happened for me, how glorifying that would have been.” But what really got to him as he watched was the boy hugging his father. He averted his eyes for a moment, as if some spectral memory was dragging heavy chains past the plate glass windows overlooking left field. “It’s too bad my kids couldn’t have enjoyed it like that,” he said.

His young children weren’t batboys for Hank’s 715th home run. Only a few weeks earlier there had been a false report that his daughter, Gaile, had been kidnapped from Fisk University in Tennessee. Hank, himself, was accompanied to and from the ballpark by Calvin Wardlaw, a policeman assigned to his protection after he began to receive countless death threats. How does a performer give himself to his fans, not knowing which of them might be a sniper? And it would have been a tough thing to do, this smiling, this blowing of kisses, for a man who had been reading his mail:

Dear Nigger.

You can hit all dem home runs over dem short fences, but you can’ t take dat black off yo face.

Dear Nigger Scum,

Niggers, Jews, Yankees, Hippies, Nigger Losers are the scum of the Earth. Niggers are animals, not humans. Niggers do not have souls because they are animals, have strong backs and weak minds… You niggers are no good, sorry, dirty as cockroaches and a dead nigger is a good nigger.

Dear Hank Aaron,

Retire or die! The Atlanta Braves will be moving around the country and I’ll move with them… You will die in one of those games. I’ll shoot you in one of them. Will I sneak a rifle into the upper deck or a .45 in the bleachers? 1 don’t know yet. But you know you will die unless you retire!

The U.S. Post Office estimated that Hank received 930,000 pieces of mail that year. Hank admits most of it was kind. But hundreds of the letters were not. Hank keeps them all in boxes in the attic of his home. As Jim Auchmutey wrote in 1996, “The hate mail, the death threats, the racial slurs, they’re all there, boxed up like toxic waste … Billye Aaron has read about how her husband goes up in the attic and digs out those letters and picks at the psychic wounds he suffered as a black man threatening a white man’s legacy …”

Sometimes over the years when I would read a comment by Hank in which he attached a racial spin to some current event, I would think, Why can’t he just let it go? As late as last year he voiced displeasure on ESPN’s Up Close that a USA Today poll indicated that 75 percent of baseball fans wanted McGwire to break the record rather than Sosa. McGwire is American, Sosa from the Dominican Republic, but Hank saw it more black and white than nationalistic.

I had read about Hank’s attic more than once and with each comment the attic became more metaphorical. I must admit that I approached our meeting apprehensive that I would be visiting someone who had grown into an angry firebrand. Instead, the first sound on my tape recorder is a booming laugh that was an instant reminder of the young Henry Aaron’s laugh, a laugh full of teeth and tongue and dancing eyes. Hank had just hung up the phone after talking to a lady at the Social Security office. His face, looser, rounder now, tightened with laughter as he noted, “That sure puts a lot of things in perspective.”

Perhaps, in its simplest terms, Hank Aaron has achieved, if not peace of mind in his 65th year, at least an understanding of the difference between ignorance and hatred. And if he has not developed a tolerance for either, he has apparently adopted a philosophy that allows him to deal with both. Where once he blamed the South for the hate mail in 1973 and 1974, he now acknowledges that most of it came from other parts of the country, primarily the East and Midwest. Perhaps it was the stereotype of the South that claimed his anger. More accurately, how the South’s history epitomized the hatred that he felt was levied specifically at him. After all, he was born black and raised in the South. He never needed to get the darker side of Southern history out of a book. But now he knows it wasn’t the South per se, the South exclusively.

Where he once grew colicky over the seeming lack of respect for his accomplishments by the institutions of professional baseball, he lowers his voice almost to a whisper an runs a hand across his gray-flecked hair and says how honored he is that Major League Baseball is dedicating the 1999 season to Hank Aaron, a celebration of the 25th anniversary of home run 715. The only other player similarly honored is Jackie Robinson, the pioneer who broke he color barrier in 1947.

Where once he detested old-time, cigar-chomping sportswriters who seemed to view him as an intruder in the record books, he says now that he is grateful to the media who voted home run 715 the greatest moment in American sports history. And he thinks that maybe the antagonism of the old guard press wasn’t exclusively racial. “Many of the writers in those old cities like New York and Cleveland and Chicago were old enough to have actually seen Babe Ruth play. I think that when you took Babe Ruth away from them you were taking away part of their own history, you know. If they gave up Ruth they gave up part of themselves.”

Perhaps it simply took a new generation of media to put things in perspective, to look at the record as an athletic achievement rather than a social one, a perspective that, by his own admission, has been difficult for Aaron.

And if he is not exactly reaching out, he is, at last, allowing us to reach in.

Truth is, Hank Aaron, had, maybe has, every reason to be bitter. And although his emotions have evolved healthily, there are facts that can never by entirely expunged from his psyche. Indeed, so many of the ignominies that shaped Aaron’s episodic discontent fit anecdotally into neat slots of emotional abstractions: Bigotry, Artificial Image, Absence of Affection, Lack of Recognition, Respect.

His personal experiences alone would crowd the pages of an anthology of bigotry. In Aaron’s spellbinding autobiography I Had a Hammer, his first wife, Barbara, tells of their first year in Atlanta: “We’d sit in the stands and hear Aaron being called ‘nigger’ and ‘jigaboo.’ One time a guy sitting behind me was yelling about ‘nigger’ this and ‘nigger’ that. I didn’t say anything but I went out to get a hamburger and made sure I put some extra mustard on it. The next time that guy said ‘nigger,’ I turned around and put that hamburger right in his face.”

As bad as many aspects of the major league experience were, they paled compared to what he had endured in the minor leagues. Not much is made of this part of Aaron’s history. While Jackie Robinson is rightly credited with breaking the color barrier in major league baseball, he really integrated only parts of the country—big league baseball had not ventured farther south than St. Louis and Cincinnati when Robinson began playing in 1947. When Aaron was assigned to the Jacksonville Braves in 1953, he and Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner reported to a city that only six years before had canceled an exhibition game involving the Dodgers rather than permit Jackie Robinson to play on city-owned property. Such was not unusual in Southern cities—in Birmingham, whites and blacks were forbidden by law to even play dominoes or checkers together.

Memories of that time haven’t blurred and are vividly recounted in his autobiography, written with Lonnie Wheeler. A guard who thought a black kid was trying to sneak in to the Braves’ minor league training camp barracks in Waycross shot at him. In Augusta, Garner had to ask the umpire to plead with fans in the right field stands to stop pelting him with rocks. Once, when Mantilla charged toward a white pitcher who had been trying to bean him with fastballs, Garner ran and tackled him, whispering in his ear, “You dumb son of a bitch! I know you don’t speak much English, but hear what I’m telling you. You’re gonna get us all killed.”

Someone would get a big laugh from the crowd in almost every Sally League stadium by tossing a black cat onto the field. Back in their rooms Aaron and Garner would compare insults they had heard, such as, “The big nigger (Garner), he’s got to mow the owner’s lawn on Saturday. Aaron’s got to feed his hogs,” and “Hey, nigger, why you running? There’s no watermelon out there.” In one game Garner chased a foul ball at full tilt and his momentum carried him into the crowd. A little white boy was in his way. Rather than run over him Garner scooped him up in his arms at full speed. The boy’s mother became hysterical, screaming, “My God! That nigger ‘s running away with my baby!”

When the Jacksonville team traveled, the black players couldn’t eat in restaurants.

They picked up sacks of groceries whenever they spotted a store along the roadside. When they arrived in one of the other league cities the bus would grow quiet as all the white players exited for their hotel. Then the bus would take Aaron and Garner and Mantilla to some private home in “colored town.” Sometimes it was a week before they could wash their clothes. Manager Ben Geraghty, a white man with a sad face and a hunger for liquor—a man Aaron maintains is the best manager he ever played for—would leave the hotel and come over and drink beer with the black players on their side of town. Aaron has never forgotten this simple, kind gesture.

Those events were reality. Time and social changes have dealt with reality in ways both legal and attitudinal. But as we talked in his Turner Field office, it was obvious that Hank is still mystified about certain aspects of unreality, certain themes that take on a life of their own within the media and that through repetition are regarded as history.

Because Hank was black—its own stimulus for thoughtless indignities and so graceful he seemed never to be burning an extra calorie, even writers who meant to compliment him seemed to always extend his real name with deprecating adjectives: Slow-talking Henry Aaron. Uncomplicated Henry Aaron. Anecdotes about his “natural ability” accumulated by the scores. The legend he still hates is the one where he steps into the batter’s box during the World Series and the Yankees’ catcher, Yogi Berra, looks up and says, “Hey, Hank, you holding the label on the bat wrong.” Aaron supposedly replies, “I didn’t come up here to read.”

“Stuff like that never happened, but after awhile you realize you are never going to set the record straight and you just live with it,” he told me. “Natural ability” had become, in his mind, code words for “otherwise, dumb.”

“They wrote so often about me having ‘natural ability,’ as if thinking or hard work was never a part of my game,” he said. “Well, there’s no such thing as a dumb hitter. You have to study things like what a pitcher likes to throw in a certain situation, learn to recognize the pitch from its release point, know what pitcher will get impatient and throw one down the middle if you wait him out.”

I’ve always thought the mark of a smart ball player is what he does first-to-third as a base runner and what he allows to develop with the other team’s base runners when he is on defense. In all the years I watched Aaron play, I never saw him get thrown out going first to third on a batted ball. I never saw him misjudge whether to stretch a single into a double. I never saw him throw to the wrong base or miss the cutoff man when on defense.

It was his grace, ironically, that damned him in the eyes of the unsophisticated. We used to say that he was so smooth he could steal second base and appear to walk all the way. Bob Hope, who succeeded me as public relations director, reminded me of a particular game with the Cincinnati Reds that illustrates the point. “I forget the exact year,” said Bob, “but we were playing the Reds and both Aaron and Pete Rose were playing right field. Somebody hit a foul ball down toward the bullpen and Rose flew over there, hat flying, long hair bouncing and he ran full speed into the fence and tumbled over it trying to catch the ball. The crowd just went crazy even though Rose missed it. A few innings later one of the Reds hit a foul ball to the exact same spot. Hank glided over, just reached over the fence and caught the ball. The crowd applauded politely because he made it look so easy.

Despite his accomplishments, Aaron never felt connected to the fans of Atlanta. He was not an object of affection in his playing days, like Mickey Mantle, Rose or Willie Mays. Hell, he wasn’t even as popular with Atlanta fans as Mack Jones or Rico Carty, and it perplexed him. Jones was an outfielder raised in Atlanta, a modest talent with a major-league mouth. Carty, who called himself “The Beeg Boy,” never met a reporter he didn’t like and few he couldn’t charm. Hank ‘s shyness—he dressed quickly after games and seldom offered a memorable remark relative to the outcome—was interpreted as arrogance and lack of respect by some of the press. The fans, as enamored of Carty as the press was, responded to his toothy smile and friendly waves of acknowledgment when he trotted out to position in left field.

If most of his teammates were merely irritated by Carty, Hank loathed him.

He considered Carty a racist. Carty was as black as Gunga Din; so black we couldn’t photograph him in front of a dark background lest it appear to be a picture of a uniform with eyes and teeth. Yet, Carty was wont to call the American black players “niggers.” One night on a flight to Los Angeles, Aaron heard Carty call him “a black slick.” Carty had been a boxer in the Dominican Republic, but Aaron was all over him. Hank took a swing, missed and his fist put a hole in the luggage rack. Neither Hank nor Carty was hurt, but pitcher Pat Jarvis had his shirt ripped off him trying to break it up.

Truth is, the fans might have showered Aaron with affection that exceeded that bestowed on The Beeg Boy or any other Brave had they only known how to reach him. At times he seemed impenetrable. An aura of wariness surrounded him. His shoulders would noticeable stiffen when a great play compelled of him the obligatory acknowledgement of spectator applause. He was not a blower of kisses, a thumper of heart, a pointer to heaven sharing credit with Somebody-Up-There. A quick tip of the hat was his most explosive response. Mostly he was polite and sincere during a post-game interview, but just slip and ask a stupid question, and his eyes alone could level the room like a panhandle tornado. Reporters made to feel stupid or off limits don’t often write the kind of endearing copy that attracts the affection of fans. And Hank’s straightforward answers to the press’ questions about racial matters positioned him in a way that his reserved personality couldn’t override.

“Where Hank got branded a certain way,” said Hope, “is that if you asked him a question—and it’s still true today—he’d give you an honest answer. It’s not so much that he goes seeking an audience for his views, but if a reporter asks him something he’ll give his viewpoint. Then the next day it always comes out like he was the one to bring it up.”

There have been those who insist that Hank’s second wife, Billye, widow of civil rights activist Rev. Sam Williams, turned him into a caviler, a raiser of trivial and unnecessary objections on racial themes. Actually, Hank had been outspoken even in minor league days; but without benefit of a national audience it went virtually unnoticed. The first national exposure for his views came in 1966, the year the Braves moved to Atlanta. After a day game in Chicago, he went to dinner with Roscoe Harrison, a reporter from Jet magazine. And, in answer to questions, Hank listed the ways baseball discriminated against blacks. Jet shelved its planned cover and replaced it with one that read, HANK AARON BLASTS RACISM IN BASEBALL. Shortly afterward a black former star, Monte Irvin, was named to a newly created position in the commissioner’s office. But far from musing over the connection, coincidental or not, reporters were thereafter on point like bird dogs for any comment from Aaron that dealt with a racial theme.

The odd combination of shyness and honesty was confusing. As a result, fans generally didn’t feel ownership of Aaron as a hero. To them he was a mythical mystery, to be observed with awe, but seemingly without heart-to-heart connection. Yet there were times when, if they could not adore Aaron, they at least moved him with their respect. In 1973 Aaron was closing fast on Ruth’s record. Other than Maris’ 61 homers in 1961, there hadn’t been a major record broken in baseball in decades. There was no blueprint for how fans were supposed to react. There was no ESPN, no CNN, nothing to stimulate the hoopla. Atlanta, without the pro sports heritage of northern cities, was without a behavioral road map. If Atlanta was giddy over Aaron’s move on history, they displayed it with almost British reserve. On the night Hank hit No. 711, just three away from Ruth, he played before 1,362 fans, the smallest crowd in Atlanta Braves history. Hank was angry and exhausted. The pressure, the media attention, the death threats, the hate mail had been overwhelming. His thoughts and his emotions were scrambled. He didn’t understand the lack of fan interest—even if the Braves were a fifth place team.

In the next to the final game of the season, Hank hit home run number 713. Suddenly, it dawned eve on Atlantans that something memorable was afoot. They packed the stadium for the season finale against Houston.

Aaron got three hits in the final game, but no homers. Feeling the weight of self-perceived failure to achieve his goal, he took the field to start the ninth inning with his shoulders slightly drooping, his eyes on the ground. As he trotted out to his position, nearly 40,000 people from the city too busy to love Hank Aaron rose and cheered so long it seemed that umpires would never be able to restart the game. Even today, as he remembers it, he is moved.

Aaron has never been one to ignore gestures, big or small, kind or cruel, whether an unanticipated warm accolade from the fans, a beer with his manager on the other side of town, or a cold shoulder. He doesn’t forget the night of his 500th home run in 1968. The great Willie Mays was playing center field for that game’s opponent, San Francisco. Willie had already hit his 500th home run and we asked him to have his photo made with Aaron. Willie refused. Superstars in those days didn’t gladly share their turf. There was no kissy-kissy quid pro quo when it came to superstardom.

Hank was equally a protectionist. Pride was the basis of his long-term feud with broadcaster Milo Hamilton, then lead broadcaster for the Braves. It all started when Milo put his foot in his golden mouth in 1967 by declaring that the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Roberto Clemente was baseball’s premier right fielder. We were at a Braves 400 Club luncheon when it happened. The visiting Pirates were guests of the club. Milo introduced Clemente and said that when the annual All-Star Game came around, Aaron had to play left field to make room for the flamboyant Clemente in right. To the contrary, Aaron had actually received the most votes of any outfielder in All-Star balloting. He was furious over the remarks. The next day Aaron went four-for-four with a pair of two-run homers and threw out Clemente, a spectacular base runner, trying to go from first to third on a single.

In the post-game interview he said, “When you’ re No. 2, you have to try harder.”

The closer he came to Ruth’s record, the angrier Aaron seemed to grow with everyone—the fans, the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, even the Hall of Fame. After donating the ball used for his 3,000th hit to the hall—at their request—his pride was thunderstruck when they put it in a back room instead of displaying it immediately. And at the start of the 1974 season, he became the focus of a scorching controversy involving Kuhn.

Despite Aaron’s growing antagonism toward Atlanta fans, Braves management thought it best, especially for the club’s bottom line, for Aaron to break the record at home. Braves manager Eddie Mathews announced he would not play Aaron when the season opened in Cincinnati. Commissioner Kuhn intervened and ordered Mathews to play his star.

It appeared that the controversy might suddenly become moot. Tornadoes had destroyed much of the Cincinnati area the day before and weather at game time was ominous. Nevertheless, 52,154 fans packed the stadium. In the top of the first inning, with the count three balls and one strike, the Reds’ Jack Billingham threw a sinking fastball that didn’t sink. The crack of the bat against the ball was almost like a movie sound effect, so sharp and penetrating it was to the ear. The ball jumped off Aaron ‘s bat like a tee shot and just like that, Henry Louis Aaron was lock step with the ghost of George Herman Ruth. It was the first time in his career he had hit a home run on opening day. NBC television interrupted Another World to show the historic moment, prompting soap opera fans to jam the Braves’ telephone lines with protests.

Commissioner Kuhn stepped in again and threatened to fine, even suspend Mathews if he did not play Aaron in the final game of the series, though Hank was still receiving death threats. On a Sunday, in Cincy, Hank played, but struck out and failed to get a hit.

Monday night in Atlanta, damp and overcast, was meteorologically discouraging to the prospects of a home run. As usual, Atlanta fans were waiting until the last minute and the Braves had not sold out the park until one hour before the 7:35 p.m. starting time. Ordinarily, that would have precluded a local telecast, but NBC, breaking precedent, waived the rule and allowed the game to be viewed in Atlanta.

Commissioner Kuhn was not there. He said he had a dinner to go to in Cleveland. At 9:03, I look at my watch. Hank enters the batter’s box. The first pitch arrives, a fastball in the dirt.

I look again at 9:07. Four minutes that seem hours.

Aaron twitches slightly as Downing releases a fastball. His famous sinewy wrists whip a 34-ounce Louisville Slugger through the strike zone, following the violent torque of his hips. The rifle shot report of solid contact if familiar, but startling. The ball streaks away on a line and, at first, appears to be catchable. Dodger left fielder Bill Buckner crouches at the base of the chain link fence, ready to leap. He jumps, but the ball flies over his head. It is over.

What, then, should, could Atlanta … professional baseball … America … have done? No ticker tape parades followed. No million-dollar auctions for the ball. No elaborate ceremonies presided over by the commissioner. It wasn’t even the lead story the next day’s Atlanta Constitution. It happened. Then it was as if it had never happened at all.

The Braves didn’t even bring Aaron back for another season, trading him to Milwaukee for two obscure players. The chief operating officer of the Braves, Dan Donahue, said Aaron, with a salary of $200,000, was making too much money for a player past his prime. The next spring, a preseason game against Aaron’s new team was cancelled for lack of interest. After two years and 22 more homers in Milwaukee, Aaron retired with a total of 755 home runs. By then Ted Turner had bought the Braves, and there was opposition inside the organization over his plan to bring Hank into the front office. Over protests, he hired a living legend for just $50,000 a year.

Perhaps it has taken all the years to gain true perspective on Henry Aaron, on the times. Author J. Hudson Couch had part of it right in his history of the Braves. He said that Hank Aaron was a man who played the game of baseball so well and so completely that he almost took the excitement out of watching him do it. He drove himself year after year in pursuit of an excellence even he couldn’t define. “But if there is one thing that Henry Aaron accomplished, it was to somehow be able to resist all the things that try to force a man to lose hold of his dream.”

Yes, perhaps it has taken all the years for us to understand what Hank Aaron understood all along. He was a black man who had broken a white man’s record. And without even meaning to, he had told America more about itself than it wanted to know.

Thousands of words have since been written about the night of 715. But as the 25th anniversary, April 8, 1999, nears, I think my old sports writing colleague, Charlie Roberts, captured the most poignant summary of all. After the game he cornered Hank’s dad, Herbert Aaron, and said, “Now everybody will be chasing Hank instead of the other way around. There will be fans who will be pulling for someone to break his record. How do you think Hank will deal with that?”

It was then that Herbert Aaron told Charlie about the fox.

The fox had been running from the dogs all night and finally, as he ran to the top of the hill and realized he couldn’t get away, he saw the sun coming up. And when he saw that sun, he just sat down. He looked at the blazing dawn and he said, “I don’t care if they do catch me now, ’cause I done set the world on fire!”

While serving as baseball beat reporter for the AJC, editor-in-chief Lee Walburn hit the first baseball in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the night before the first exhibition game. He had dreams of hitting the last ball, only to discover that no one remembered or believed that he hit the first.

This article originally appeared in our April 1999 issue.

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