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:
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.