The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART THREE. LEGEND
Chapter 11. ATLANTA
THE END OF the Milwaukee Braves was ugly and litigious, grievances thrown around like third graders do in the middle of a lunchtime food fight: the aggrieved citizens and public figures of Milwaukee versus the eager newcomers of Atlanta, lawsuits directed toward the once-beloved Braves front office, which returned fire with counter accusations and countersuits against the city that had once come gallantly to its rescue. The height of the rhetoric came courtesy of one Mr. John Doyne, an executive for Milwaukee County, who oversaw the Braves County Stadium lease. Doyne believed God and Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick (in this instance, quite close to the same person) needed to intervene on behalf of his city. “This is a moral issue. Moral law, if you can use that term, would dictate that we would not try to pirate someone else’s club,” he told United Press International in the summer of 1964.
Now that really was a cheeky thing to say. Moving the franchise to Atlanta contained precisely the same “moral issues” as when Milwaukee celebrated the arrival of the Braves from Boston in 1953. The only difference this time was that instead of benefiting from the immorality of baseball piracy, Doyne and his friends at the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce were the ones sitting in the loser’s dugout.
The Braves, meanwhile, were quite ahead of their time, which in the taverns along Wisconsin Avenue was no compliment. Even more than the Dodgers and the Giants, teams more famous for their bitter departures, the Braves had now perfected the art of playing cities against one another for the purpose of extracting more money, better leases, new stadiums, bigger wedges of the financial pie. In future years, sports and business issues between municipalities would become even more important than the score on the field, and in 1964 the Braves had engineered an enduring template. After nearly a century of being a generally nondescript franchise, the Braves had now become infamous pioneers, for teams across all professional sports would, if need be, follow their model, needing nothing more than a few years of tough times before either demanding from the city a new stadium (paid for by the public, of course) or ripping the hearts out of one fan base in search of love from another.
Unlike ownership’s old guard, which was convinced that television would be the ruin of its collective financial empire, any new owner entering the game needed to learn how to transition from the prewar box-office model to the radio model to television. To the misfortune of Milwaukee as a baseball town, Perini was one of the first owners who began to think about cities not as cities, but as media markets, best valued by the amount of revenue they could produce through electronic media.
Attendance would always be important, but over time less from actual dollars and more because of what it represented: a product with which people would want to be associated, a product advertisers would pay to support. The Milwaukee Braves radio broadcast network stretched as far as South Dakota, but the 1961 arrival of the Minnesota Twins (the old Washington Senators had run their course) began to choke the outer tributaries that once had belonged to Milwaukee. South Dakota became Twins country. Closer to Milwaukee, Cubs and White Sox games were broadcast to the city, both by grandfather rules and sheer proximity, forcing the Braves to compete with two other teams in its own city. Perini did not help matters, for he would only televise around thirty games per year, not many more than residents in the southern portions of the city and state could see from the Cubs.
ATLANTA OFFERED THE potential to own the entire region of the South. The closest baseball big-league team was the Cincinnati Reds, 450 miles away. Pro football was even more remote. Not only was it 550 miles to the closest pro city but the team happened to be those weekly Sunday football disasters, the St. Louis Cardinals. These geographic considerations represented an opportunity not to be squandered. Atlanta was the growing hub of the last region in the country not to be tapped for professional sports.
Lou Perini and the Steam Shovels packed it in in 1962, selling the team to a group of kids for $5.5 million. The head kid was an ambitious thirty-four-year-old Chicago insurance man, William Bartholomay III. The rest of the group, virtually all scions of wealthy Chicago families, wasn’t much older than Bill Bartholomay, who was the youngest of the conglomerate, but it was he who was clearly in charge. And John McHale, Perini’s general manager, who also joined the Bartholomay group, received a share, proof that the transition would be seamless.
At the initial press conference about the sale, November 16, 1962, Bartholomay endeared himself and his ownership group to city officials by vowing that being from Chicago, a mere eighty-five miles from Milwaukee, qualified them as “local ownership,” a shrewd strategy, considering that even during the winning years, Perini’s emotional and physical distance had worn thin in the city.
Thirteen years earlier, it had been Milwaukee that represented the future. Now, it was Milwaukee that was geographically challenged, flanked to the south by two teams, the White Sox and Cubs, eighty-five miles away, and now by the former Washington Senators, the American League Minnesota Twins, 375 miles to the west. The region, even though Milwaukee’s population actually increased, had simply grown too small to support a major-league ball club.
The future was what all mortal men craved, if not the whole thing, then just a slice big enough to serve as an epitaph. In this latest version, Bartholomay thought of himself as a man of singular vision, with an ambition to open a neglected but emerging region to baseball in the same audacious manner as Walter O’Malley. Atlanta was a city with a restless business community and a political landscape undergoing a revolutionary transition, one that would either exacerbate or soothe the racial conflicts that branded the region and divided the nation.
Bartholomay believed the city represented fertile territory for the right person, someone who could see opportunity where others saw only obstacles. “I thought about history,” he recalled. “The South was changing. Atlanta was the center of commerce there, with an aggressive, committed business community. I thought about how historic it would be to bring baseball to Atlanta in 1965, exactly one hundred years following the Civil War. I was very cognizant of that.”
It was a good story, and maybe even parts of it were true, but little did anyone know the fix Atlanta was already in. No one admitted it, of course, but piece by piece, little by little, the forgotten scraps of details formed the entire, cynical canvas. Bartholomay may have thought about Sherman and Reconstruction and second chances a century later, but before he had even purchased the club, Perini already had his eye on moving the club to Atlanta. During the 1962 All-Star Game in Washington, McHale met with Furman Bisher, the sports editor and influential columnist (and noted Henry Aaron nemesis) of the Atlanta Journal, requesting a private meeting with Atlanta’s mayor, Ivan Allen, Jr.
“Mr. Perini is planning to move the Braves,” McHale told Bisher. “I’m certain you’ll keep this in confidence at this time, but he’s very interested in Atlanta and wants me to look into it. I want you to take me to see the mayor, but I want to keep my visit between us.” Bisher maintained his silence for two years, and though Perini sold the team to Bartholomay and never met with Allen, events took precisely the course Perini had envisioned. Perini most likely disclosed his Atlanta plan to Bartholomay during the negotiations, and the Atlanta back channel explained why Perini did not entertain local offers to purchase the club. The secret deal with Atlanta also explained why Perini sold the club without announcing it was for sale, for perhaps a different ownership group would actually have been committed to keeping the team in Milwaukee. Moreover, the combination of forces answered the question originally posed by Doyne: The commissioner did not step in on behalf of Milwaukee because the wheels toward Atlanta were already in motion, four years before the team ever played its first game there.
The desire to move the Braves to Atlanta all along finally explained the sad case of Harry Sampson, the Milwaukee businessman who had offered to buy the Braves three months before Perini sold to Bartholomay. Instead, with an offer in hand he did not intend to entertain, Perini met with Bartholomay and another member of the ownership group, thirty-four-year-old Tom Reynolds, secretly in Toronto, and they closed the deal in just over a week.
MILWAUKEE SYNDICATE OFFER REJECTED TWO DAYS EARLIER
MILWAUKEE, WIS.—Harold Sampson, a Milwaukee businessman, revealed after the sale of the Braves was announced November 16, that a group he had headed had tried unsuccessfully to buy the club.
“We had a firm offer on file with Lou Perini since September,” Sampson said. “Our offer was kept confidential at his request. He said he did not want it generally known that the Braves were for sale. He formally declined our offer two days before he announced the sale.”
Sampson said that his group was made up entirely of Milwaukeeans.
In 1964—perhaps as a last attempt to prove to the baseball cartel that economics did not make baseball untenable in Milwaukee—attendance rose by 200,000, even as the team sank to fifth place. Eugene Grobschmidt, the chairman of the governing board of County Stadium, not only accused the team of sandbagging the city but also claimed the Braves had tried to lose their remaining games to make their departure appear less egregious. In his final year with the club, even Spahn, the greatest pitcher in the history of the franchise, said that Bragan wasn’t trying to win.
In Atlanta, Mayor Allen oversaw construction of an eighteen-million-dollar stadium that awaited a baseball team, soon to be named Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium. Bartholomay and the Braves foresaw arrival in Atlanta in 1965—that is, until Grobschmidt led a court battle that kept the Braves from leaving town until 1966.
The bitterness broke the link with the past. In a bygone era, young sportsmen had bought baseball teams to fulfill their own egos, to compensate for their own limited athletic abilities. Now, they were speculators, real estate prospectors whose job it was not only to build a pennant winner but to sense when a market had reached the point of diminishing returns, had outlived its usefulness. Milwaukee would be the city of firsts, the first in the modern era to provide a rebirth for a team that had languished near extinction in two-team Boston. And now it was the first in the modern era to suffer no obvious economic trauma and still somehow outlive its usefulness. As one embittered Milwaukee fan wrote of Milwaukee in The Sporting News when the Atlanta deal became final, “The cow had been milked.”
The players did not suffer the wrath of the city. Milwaukee was loyal to Spahn, Mathews, Adcock, Logan, and, naturally, to Henry. The players would live forever as a symbol of youth and vitality, of a nostalgic time when everything seemed good, when a person’s word actually meant something. In Henry’s case, the ignoble actions of the front office only seemed to burnish his standing, and the last of the Milwaukee years created something of a pact between Henry and Milwaukee. He would promise the people of the city that he would never forget them, never refuse their hospitality, and, in turn, they would always consider him one of their own.
Four days before Thanksgiving, 1965, the Mary Church Terrell Club held Henry Aaron night, his first testimonial dinner. Four hundred guests crowded the Sheraton-Schroeder Hotel. Henry, wearing a dark suit, along with a skinny tie and white pocket square, was presented by Billy Bruton, who had since retired and was working in public relations for Chrysler. Henry received a silver bowl, Barbara an orchid. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and he would later admit to being embarrassed by their warmth. It was not lost on him or the crowd that no one from Braves management was in attendance. No one from the Braves showed up, largely, because they had all since moved to Atlanta. Assistant general manager Jim Fanning sent a telegram.
For the better part of three years, while Perini had been playing cloak-and-dagger with Furman Bisher and as Bartholomay jousted with Milwaukee politicians, Henry had something else in the back of his mind: the prospect of returning to the South. For the team’s black players, especially the ones who had been raised in the Deep South, the prospect of returning—the prospect of reliving indignities and humiliations—was not met with enthusiasm. Lee Maye, a young black outfielder who grew up in Tuscaloosa, began voicing his trepidation about Atlanta to Henry, who went a step further. While Bartholomay and Grobschmidt traded epithets and legal briefs, Henry initially said he would not go.
MOVE TO GEORGIA PEACHY? NOT TO AARON
The Milwaukee Braves ask the National League this afternoon for permission to move to Atlanta. There are at least two Braves players, Lee Maye and Hank Aaron, who have their fingers crossed that the league says “no,” although they know that is wishful thinking.
Maye and Aaron, Negro outfielders, yesterday expressed fear of racial discrimination if the club moves to Atlanta, although both added they would go because it’s their “job.”
AARON AND MAYE DISTURBED BY DECISION TO GO TO ATLANTA
MILWAUKEE, WIS.—The Braves’ decision to move to Atlanta was accepted with regret by two of their Negro players, outfielders Henry Aaron and Lee Maye. Both said they disliked the idea and would not move their families to the Georgia city. Both have children in integrated schools in the Milwaukee area.
Aaron even planned to take a trip to Atlanta to investigate conditions for Negroes there.
State Sen. Leroy R. Johnson, the only Negro legislator in the South, said he was writing Aaron to assure the Braves’ slugger that he need have no fears about racial problems in Atlanta.
HENRY HAD NEVER considered himself as important a historical figure as Jackie Robinson, and yet by twice integrating the South—first in the Sally League and later as the first black star on the first major-league team in the South (during the apex of the civil rights movement, no less)—his road in many ways was no less lonely, and in other ways far more difficult.
He would receive credit for handling the inequities of his life with dignity, and yet he was rarely afforded the dignity of being recognized as having played a significant role in eradicating important barriers to the movement. Robinson had confronted the first, impenetrable obstacle of being allowed to compete at the major-league level; his was the first success, which made all other successes—including Henry’s—possible, and Henry was never so presumptuous as to believe anything to the contrary. But after Robinson, the integration of other levels of the sport, in regions where breaking the social customs proved far more difficult (with considerably less interest), was not a story that received much coverage.
Rather, the conventional thinking concerning minor-league integration held that sooner or later, black prospects would have to play with their white teammates. Either that or the clubs would be forced to relocate their minor-league teams, moving away from the South, at considerable expense and difficulty. Thus, the breakthrough of playing baseball in the segregated South would largely be seen as an inevitablility, no real breakthrough at all.
Henry had not been recognized for his groundbreaking achievement, and now he was being told to return to the South once more. Playing in Atlanta meant confronting the South all over again, with its contradictions and its conditions. It meant being reduced once more to a person with no rights and no dignity. That had been hard enough when he was a kid, when he knew no better. But in 1966, Henry was thirty-two years old, was earning $70,000 per season, and was on a clear Hall of Fame path. He was famous and accomplished and angered that in the South all he had produced could be taken away by a teenage store clerk or an average housewife, just because they were white and he was not.
“I have lived in the South and I don’t want to live there again,” Henry told a reporter in 1964. “This is my home. I’ve lived here since I was a kid 19 years old. We can go anywhere in Milwaukee. I don’t know what would happen in Atlanta.”
In Milwaukee, Henry fought hard for his comfort. During one off-season, he took a job as a spokesman for the Miller Brewing Company. In another, he and Bruton formed a small real estate company, the Aaron-Bruton Investment Co. When the team struggled as Perini and Bartholomay began to distance the Braves from the city, Henry volunteered to sell season-ticket packages to fans (but even the great Henry Aaron had little success once it became clear that Bartholomay had other plans for the franchise).
Bud Selig was eating his breakfast when he read Bob Broeg’s piece in The Sporting News in 1964, which confirmed what he and other Milwaukeeans had refused to believe: The Braves were leaving. The Milwaukee press was quick to cover the story, albeit slower to analyze the implications. Ollie Kuechle, the sports editor and columnist of the Journal, had maintained that the Braves were not leaving. The mayor of Milwaukee may have been a Braves shareholder, but the king of Wisconsin, Lombardi, was one, as well, and both were in the dark. “Yes, Vince was a shareholder. He was on the Braves board,” Selig recalled. “And even he couldn’t save them.”
Selig remembered finishing the story and thinking it was the “worst day of my life.” He then began to canvass Milwaukee businessmen to mount a counterattack. If the Braves were going to be stolen, he would form a committee that would attract another team to Milwaukee, taking the first steps toward becoming the man who was synonymous with baseball in Milwaukee. From watching his team be yanked away, Selig would learn the rules of power and would vow to return big-league baseball to the city. While Doyne had once denounced “piracy,” Selig was naked in his coveting of vulnerable teams. Once the Braves departed, Selig staged exhibitions for the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, with the hope of attracting them to Milwaukee.
Over thirteen years in Milwaukee, only the Dodgers outdrew the Braves on average, and that franchise played in the megalopolises of New York City and Los Angeles. As far as Bud Selig was concerned, his city had done everything right and had still ended up with a handful of sawdust. Selig was thirty-one when the Braves played their final season in Milwaukee, and he decided he would not stand on the fringes of power again. For the better part of the next half century, Bud Selig would, in his own seemingly unassuming way, become one of the game’s most astute and formidable power brokers. In later years, when baseball made both men extremely wealthy, Selig recalled that Bartholomay would often joke with him, telling him that the wrenching years of the mid-1960s were the best thing that could have happened to Selig. Without his having moved the Braves to Atlanta, Selig remembered Bartholomay telling him, Bud Selig never would have become what he would ultimately be: the most powerful man in baseball.
BARBARA AARON DID not want to believe the Braves were considering Atlanta. When the rumors first surfaced that relocation was a real possibility and that she, Henry, and the children would be moving back to the South, she felt her heart sink with profound disappointment. The house in Mequon was a handsome ranch, with a proud brick facade and a long, rambling roof that featured two cathedral peaks. The sprawling, manicured front lawn sloped sharply downward toward the street. The front of the house looked majestic in winter, a dense sheet of snow enveloping the lawn, leaving an unbroken swath of white, in contrast to the black pavement of the long driveway.
Living in Wisconsin had provided Barbara with a certain level of comfort and dignity, and she did not believe this would be true in Georgia. She was the wife of the famous Henry Aaron, and such ballplayers were always afforded special dispensation, but she also knew the codes of the South were considerably less respectful of Henry’s fame. The more notorious places, the rural areas and cities such as Birmingham, which collectively seemed to revel in their reputations, even sought out prominent blacks with the intention of humiliating them, to remind them that, despite their education or accomplishment, they were still at the core niggers, permanently beneath the lowest white man of any social class.
Atlanta’s historical personality was one of moderation and compromise, but the end result in the early 1960s was generally the same: Whites on top, blacks on the bottom. The family now risked having everything they’d earned in Milwaukee taken away by the denigrating ways of life in the South. Education was a primary concern for Barbara. Hankie, Gaile, Lary, and Dorinda were all enrolled in public school, and the thought of them having to leave an integrated school in Wisconsin to attend a segregated school in Atlanta particularly galled her. As a family, the Aarons had come too far to go back. Despite the fact that the Aarons were the only black family in Mequon (and the reality that, in ostensibly tolerant Milwaukee, only Henry’s outsized fame allowed them to live there), Barbara nevertheless had made friends and believed that she was part of a growing community.
She had been raised in Jacksonville, nearly as close to Atlanta as Henry had been in Mobile. She had heard the predictions about what Atlanta was going to be like, despite the apparent protections that had been promised the players and the team. During Bartholomay’s and McHale’s secret meetings with the Atlanta people, particularly Mayor Allen and the ubiquitous Bob Woodruff, the head of Coca-Cola and the most powerful businessman in the region, the Braves had been promised that seating in the Atlanta stadium would not be segregated. All tickets would be available to all fans. Black fans could sit in whatever seats they could afford, and Allen had promised there would be no nefarious pricing schemes that would promote de facto segregation. Allen told Bartholomay that the rest rooms, concessions, and all public facilities would be integrated.
But what if those were just words, bargaining chips necessary to get an important deal done, to keep the best player on the club from making a fuss? The Braves weren’t going to refuse a multimillion-dollar move to Atlanta just because of the racial concerns the black people or players had. Had Henry’s objections been a consideration, the team wouldn’t have considered the South in the first place. Even if the Braves kept their promises, Barbara thought, she would have to live in the world beyond the ballpark. She’d have to take the kids to school and shop and deal with an environment she regarded with dread. What most whites did not understand, and indeed it was virtually impossible to do so, was the level of humiliation blacks in the South were forced to endure. In later years, when the confrontations of the civil rights movement would be documented in film and other media, the standard humiliations of separate drinking facilities and rest rooms would become so clichéd (and completely uncomprehensible to a new generation of black and white Americans), their mention would lose virtually all power to shock. It was not just the big humiliations that had to be borne, but the constant, daily, nagging small ones, as well. The depth of the racial prejudice, of just what whites truly believed about blacks, however, could not be underestimated. About a year before Bartholomay and Allen first began secretly negotiating the move, the relationship between Atlanta’s black community and Rich’s, the largest department store in the Southeast, had begun to deteriorate. For years, blacks were angered by the treatment they encountered at Rich’s while spending their hard-earned money. “Not only were blacks forbidden to sit at the Rich’s lunch counter,” wrote Gary Pomerantz in Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, his groundbreaking book about the white Allens and black Dobbses, the political families who transformed modern Atlanta, “they also could not try on clothes before buying them. The Atlanta department store’s rule of thumb was that white customers would not buy clothes if they knew blacks once had sampled them.” When the Braves move was finalized, it was Rich’s (“Atlanta born … Atlanta owned … Atlanta managed”) which became one of the Braves first advertisers.
Bob Hope, an Atlanta teenager and rabid baseball fan who called the Braves for an internship a year before the team had finalized the move, knew how ingrained the white attitudes regarding black hygiene truly were. “When I was in high school, our football coach told us that the sweat of a black kid would burn you,” Hope recalled. “They told us black kids wouldn’t just tackle you but in the piles they would bite you and you’d get diseases. That was one of the reasons why we never played against black teams.”
Whether or not whites truly believed that blacks carried diseases was secondary to the true purpose these myths served, which was to maintain the system of legal segregation.
Barbara had always been dubious about the Milwaukee club’s commitment to racial equality. For the past thirteen years, when she and Henry had traveled to Bradenton for spring training, the team had offered no protections against discrimination, nor even made much effort for their basic comforts, despite the annual protestations of Henry, Billy Bruton, and Wes Covington. The lives of the wives of black players was one of the greatly underreported and underappreciated experiences, and moving back to the South meant relearning the rules, enduring the slights, large and small (the small were oftentimes the worst because they occurred so frequently). Women from Rachel Robinson to Barbara Aaron endured harsh treatment when sitting in the stands during games or when taking public transportation in the South. Some of the fan letters that protested the move echoed Barbara’s personal concerns, ones that she felt had not been adequately addressed by the club.
Editor of The Sporting News:
… Milwaukee … supported their Braves at an average of about 1,600,000 per season. The fans have lavished gifts upon the players and been good to those … previously … subject to racial discrimination.
The fans … went without televised games.…
In return, the new owners … have decided to pull up stakes and head elsewhere.…
Bill Bartholomay would say in later years that he understood Henry’s hesitancy about the region’s racial climate but that he was convinced of the city leadership’s commitment to break with its smothering history. Once, on a scouting trip of the area, he was immediately struck by the vast difference in racial attitudes once he arrived in Atlanta. The farther away he drove from Atlanta’s center, Bartholomay found, the harsher and more unwelcoming he found the response to any level of integration. It was like entering another world, Bartholomay thought, with sharp racial divisions being only part of the difference. Even in early 1960s Georgia, remnants of the sharecropper system existed in pockets of the state’s outlying areas. The complete lack of infrastructure—indoor plumbing, electricity, telephone service—underscored the level of poverty that still remained, unaffected by the postwar economic boom or advances in technology.
The contrast left him with a potentially devastating problem: The Braves were being positioned as a regional team, but outside of Atlanta, interracial competition was not a concept being met with great enthusiasm in the surrounding areas. Should the Braves be unable to penetrate the full reach of their territory, the potential advantages of the South would be immediately thwarted, and Bartholomay was quite possibly staring disaster in the face. “There was a real hostile feel when you went to some of the outlying areas,” Bartholomay recalled. “But I had to believe that while those areas might not be too accepting of an interracial team where the biggest star, alongside with Mathews, was African-American, the city itself was going to accept the team.”
If Bartholomay viewed Atlanta as a prime opportunity to make his mark in baseball, many of the region’s leaders saw the arrival of the Braves as key to their strategy to transform the image of the city, and by extension, the South. Geographically, Atlanta was close to perfect, and all of the reasons why it had been leveled during the Civil War were precisely the reasons why it carried such potential. Central to its value was Hartsfield Airport, named for Bill Hartsfield, the pragmatic political legend who held office for twenty-three years. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was massive airport construction that separated Atlanta from other southern cities such as Montgomery or Memphis. The massive expansion of the airport guaranteed Atlanta would be the central hub for southern commerce. Hartsfield was so ubiquitous, a running local joke was that when a person died, before going to heaven or hell, they had to first change planes at Hartsfield.
Atlanta boasted the infrastructure, the fortuitous geography, and the population to be an economic powerhouse, but its racial undercurrent prevented it from becoming a world-class city. It had been only ten years since the state flag had been redesigned to contain a confederate flag (1956), a chilling reminder for blacks of the social order and their collective status within that structure. Atlanta had prided itself on its accommodation and moderation. But between 1960 and 1962, the Atlanta student movement staged demonstrations to integrate downtown lunch counters, not dissimilar to those protests held in Greensboro and Nashville and other southern cities, disappointing proof that the old guard—both the entrenched white political leadership and the longtime black clergymen—had moved too slowly and ineffectually for what was becoming a new, powerful movement.
During years of secret negotiation, Ivan Allen, Jr.—himself a firm segregationist less than a decade earlier—held a private optimism that by 1965 the worst was over for Atlanta. He would say often that he staked his reputation and that of the city on his commitment to undoing the rigid racial customs of Atlanta, a claim that was not exactly hyperbolic. In just the previous four years, the city had undergone tremendous turmoil. The public schools had been ordered integrated. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., a new generation of black students impatient with the speed of progress demonstrated for the integration of downtown lunch counters, as well as other public facilities: movie theaters, auditoriums, swimming pools, and restaurants. In 1961, Allen was elected to his first term as mayor by defeating the segregationist Lester Maddox. It was an election that shifted the balance, but only uneasily. Allen defeated Maddox in a runoff by winning 98 percent of the black vote, but less than half of whites voted for him.
Allen represented the progressive political voice Atlanta required, but the power behind the change was Bob Woodruff. “The leaders of the city didn’t want to go the way of Birmingham, Little Rock, and other southern cities, and all of this was a prelude to major sports,” recalled Andrew Young, a former congressman and Atlanta’s mayor from 1982 to 1990. “They decided that Atlanta was going to integrate from the top down. Whereas most southern cities were trying to integrate schools and come up, Atlanta made the decision—which was different from any other city—that the business community was going to lead desegregation. And so they put two black businessmen on the chamber of commerce, Herman Russell and Jesse Hill. Herman was a major contractor and Jesse Hill was VP of Atlanta Life Insurance Company. And so you had a cohesiveness with the black business community. You also had the Atlanta University Center, with Benjamin Mays and Vivian Henderson; those two were the main ones, but from that point on the business community did very little without consulting the black community.”
Having professional sports in Atlanta, Allen believed, would bring the world to the city, would legitimize it. The city could not afford to be an embarrassment in front of the nation. Allen did not merely accept the Braves; he cultivated them. The fact that the Braves had chosen Atlanta was as important to the city as it was to the team. Allen wanted football next, and he began to negotiate with the NFL for an expansion team, which would become the Falcons.
“There was general agreement that one of the ways to make Atlanta a big-league city was to bring baseball and football; it was a concurrent proposal,” Young recalled. “When it looked like they could get the Braves, the mayor, Ivan Allen, and Mills B. Lane, who was the president of C&S Bank, which became Nations Bank, which is now Bank of America, they almost bragged that they built a stadium with money they didn’t have, on land they didn’t own, for a team they didn’t have yet. And if they tried to do that today, they’d all be in jail.”
HENRY HAD JUST missed out on the batting title in 1965, and in the spring of 1966 he said he wanted it back. He hadn’t won it since 1959, and he was suddenly being surpassed in defensive reputation by a new star, the blossoming Clemente from Pittsburgh. For years, Henry would be compared to the electric Mays, a comparison under which his playing style suffered. The same would be true of Clemente, the first Latin American superstar, but he was something more, furiously prideful, politically aware. Both Henry and Clemente possessed the political passion of Robinson, but the difference was physical. Unlike Henry, Clemente seemed to translate his fire into his physical movements. Clemente played not simply for himself but also for his people, and, like Robinson, he conveyed a message with his body. The connection of racial and ethnic pride surged through each step, each swing. Each outfield throw seemed a political statement, reminding the baseball world that he and his people had been mistreated and underestimated and he was here to address that injustice.
Clemente was a rising superstar. In addition to his consecutive batting titles, he excelled defensively. But right field was Henry’s turf. In 1957, 1958, and 1959, Henry was the king of his position, both offensively and defensively. He had been awarded the Gold Glove each year, had already won an MVP, and was an all-star.
Then, like a supernova, Clemente appeared. He won his first Gold Glove in 1960, and then another, and another. By 1966, Clemente had won six straight. Henry was aware of Willie, but Willie played center. Clemente was different. He and Clemente both played right field, and the emergence of Clemente underscored both the immense level of talent in the National League and how quickly Henry could get lost as his team grew less important in the standings. Henry found himself at another disadvantage: In the television age, it was much easier to be taken by players like Clemente, a man who played with such yearning and, like Henry, smoldered at the thought of having his talent slighted.
AARON SAYS HE COULD HAVE
WON NL BATTING TITLE
LAKELAND, FLA. (UPI)—“I had a number of opportunities to win batting titles and I purposely let them pass,” says Aaron. “… we were living and dying on home runs. So, I more or less forgot about my average and concentrated on hitting the ball hard. I believe I could have hit more than Clemente had I concentrated on it.”
That Henry purposely began to eschew batting average for home runs was a telling admission. There was the moment back in 1954 when Henry sat in the hospital in Cincinnati, having snapped his ankle and ended his season. Sitting under crisp hospital sheets, surrounded by flowers and fan mail, Henry ignored the throb in his leg and the antiseptic hospital smell for a moment and allowed himself an inner smile.
“I had read so much about Musial, Williams, and Robinson,” he said. “I put those guys on a pedestal. They were something special, Jackie above the rest because he was the only Negro player at the time. I really thought that they put their pants on different, rather than one leg at a time.”
Then Henry let free a little secret. “Yeah, that’s when I thought about eventually getting 3,000 hits. That’s always been my goal.”
It always had been. That is, until teammates began to notice a few changes in the way Henry went to bat. Joe Torre saw the subtleties, the way Henry would take certain pitches on the outer half of the plate, the ones he used to tattoo into the right-center gap. These were the pitches Mays used to complain about so often, the ones that Henry would wait on just that fraction of a second longer so he could find the gap and watch Mays run to the fence. Now Henry would let these pass, hoping for a pitch just a little more inside that he could jump on early, with the intention of pulling it down the line and out.
The swing Torre once marveled at was the swing that just might produce four thousand hits, and what he now witnessed was something different, something deadly but far less efficient. Henry had developed a home-run stroke, not the old swing of a prodigy, who was just so talented that the ball was going to leave the park about thirty times a year regardless, but a swing designed with one purpose in mind: to power the ball over the fence.
Musial had always been the target. More accurately, it was his National League hit record of 3,630 that Henry wanted. That was the only record he had ever craved; that was the true mark of an offensive baseball player—the number of times you came to bat and got a hit. But especially after Mantle and Maris put on a home-run show in 1961, Maris finally overtaking Ruth, the times were changing. Power was slowly growing more important to the people who ran and watched and reported on baseball—and Henry would change with them.
THE FIRST MAJOR-LEAGUE game in the 121-year history of the city—the Atlanta Braves versus the Pittsburgh Pirates—took place on April 12, 1966. The contest lasted thirteen innings, decided by a two-run homer by Willie Stargell. The Braves went on to lose four of their first five games. And then there was Henry, who hit home run number four hundred off Bo Belinsky in Philadelphia, only to follow this with a tie-breaking hit the night of April 29, when the Braves and Astros wrestled into the night, Houston tying the game at 3–3 in the top of the ninth.
Caroll Sembera, the new Houston pitcher, entered and retired Felipe Alou and Gary Geiger easily. That brought up Henry, who took two strikes and lashed a low line drive over the fence to end it. The Braves were just a couple of games out of first place.
And on June 3, at Atlanta Stadium, Henry hit another dramatic home run, this one off Bob Gibson in the bottom of the ninth. But it didn’t do any good, because the Braves still lost the game, 3–2. Their record was 20–30 and the club wouldn’t reach the .500 mark until September 6. Atlanta finished 85–77, and the pattern that began in Milwaukee continued. Henry was brilliant—44 homers, 127 runs batted in to lead the league—on a team that finished thirteen and a half games behind the Dodgers.
In retrospect, it was Atlanta that started him on the road to the social and political legitimacy he’d long sought. Henry preferred to remain in Milwaukee, but that was his comfort talking and, perhaps to a certain degree, his fear. Had he remained in Milwaukee, thousands of miles from the turbulence and upheaval of the South, he would have been content and praised as a solid, contributing member of a good baseball team.
To keep Hank in Milwaukee would have removed Henry from the central battleground of his life, leaving him unfulfilled. He would often say he understood his fame made it easier for him, but easy was not what Henry wanted. He wanted, like Jackie, to be counted. And there would always be that unease, that Mequon was essentially segregated, but not for him. “They don’t give me a bad time, because I’m somebody special,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1966. “But that doesn’t help my brothers and sisters because anything that happens to my race, happens to me.”
In Milwaukee, Henry would have been removed from the dynamics of the civil rights movement and the numerous remarkable people who would be influential in shaping his worldview. He would not have been as easily cultivated by the power brokers of the movement, the men and women who would help Henry emerge from the enormous shadow of Hank, the bigger-than-life baseball star. If Henry would lament a certain lack of relevance on a larger scale, remaining in Milwaukee would have diminished him as a person of substance even further, for Atlanta was where the Henry side of his personality would begin to be nurtured.
And it was in Atlanta where being born black collided with the promise of America, a Promethean confrontation that defined Henry’s life. It was a confrontation being acted out in real time, at a place and in an era of historic significance. A year before the move, Henry met with C. Miles Smith, the president of the Atlanta NAACP, who asked Henry to reconsider his stance of refusing to play in Atlanta. What Smith told Henry echoed Allen’s gambit to Bartholomay: Atlanta had not reached its ultimate goals of true equality for all citizens, but it was charting its own path away from what many southern cities were like. Whitney Young, the director of the Urban League, reached out to Henry first in private and then in a column in the black weekly The Chicago Defender. Aaron, Young wrote, needed to agree to move to Atlanta to further break the will of segregationists: “Such a sacrifice is earnestly desired by Negro leaders who are hopeful that his big bat will help them hammer out an ‘open city,’ one in which equal opportunities are translated into reality for all.”
Henry bought a handsome brick rambler that somewhat resembled the house in Mequon. It was set on two sprawling, shady acres and the address was 519 Lynhurst Drive. Almost immediately, Henry was invited to a series of informal meetings at the Braves offices, welcoming him to Atlanta. After years of being underestimated by the press and, to an extent, by the public, Henry was now in the act. Bartholomay and members of the Atlanta business community were at one meeting. At another, he met a young progressive politician named Jimmy Carter, who was running for governor against the eccentric segregationist Lester Maddox. Carter told him then and would tell him in later years, when the two men became friends, that it was not merely the arrival of the Braves that legitimized the South but the Braves specifically being led by Henry Aaron. At another meeting was a group that would not forget Henry: Martin Luther King, Sr., Martin Luther King, Jr., and Andrew Young.
“Martin was a big baseball fan,” Young recalled, adding that he remembered Henry being somewhat embarrassed that he wasn’t more publicly visible in the front lines of the civil rights movement. “We told him not to worry. When you talked to Henry Aaron, you knew how he felt about civil rights. We told him just to keep hitting that ball. That was his job.”
In early 1966, the city held a parade to welcome the Braves. Against the backdrop of triumph, the story seems apocryphal, but Andy Young recalled the moment clearly.
“I can remember standing out at the parade. The parade came down what is now Spring Street and I was standing in front of the American hotel, which is now a Marriott Suites. It was an old hotel and I was standing behind a bunch of rednecks and I kind of moved in amongst them to see what was happening,” Andy Young recalled. “Each of the major players was sitting on the back of a convertible, and when Hank came down, one guy said, ‘Now, if we’re gonna be a big-league city, that fella’s gonna have to be able to live anywhere he wants to live in this town.’ And I said, ‘Oh, shit … They said that? This must mean something.’ ”