The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART THREE. LEGEND
Chapter 14. MORTAL
ON APRIL 8, the record-breaking home run had been Henry’s only hit in three at bats. In his first three games of the season, he’d hit two home runs, and then came the swings and the misses, and, following them, the embarrassed looks, the pity, and the doubts. The night after Henry broke the record, a kid named Tommy John collared him zero for four. So did Andy Messersmith, Clay Kirby, and Randy Jones, the future winner of the Cy Young Award, who at that time couldn’t get anyone out. Jones would lose twenty-two games for San Diego in 1974. Over the first sixteen at bats after hitting 715, Henry produced exactly one hit, home run number 716, off the Dodger knuckleballer Charlie Hough. His batting average was .179.
With each weak swing against a weaker opponent, Garr and Baker looked at Henry, and you could see the hurt in their eyes. Nobody wanted to suggest that Supe, of all people, could no longer get around on a fastball. It was one thing to accept on an intellectual level that eventually baseball would get all of them, that even the immortals would inevitably sag and succumb as the calendar flipped forward. But it was quite another to see the Hammer getting beaten inside by a ham-and-egg fastball, needing a two-hit game, as he did April 21 in Houston, to get his average over .200. As the sun set, Henry fell deeper into himself. He was in the lineup less, playing left field now (Garr was the everyday right fielder), producing a running commentary of rejuvenation and avoidance, of willpower and resignation. “The problem is, when you’ve pounded baseballs for twenty years, it takes a lot of convincing to make you believe you can’t do it anymore,” Henry would reflect years later in his autobiography, I Had a Hammer. “I didn’t believe it yet.”
Henry did his best not to let on that he was spending more of his time in the company of doubt. “You have to understand that we looked up to him so much,” Garr said. “Sure, there were pitches that he wasn’t getting anymore. He was definitely missing a few, but that was what made him great to me. If you came around looking for someone to cry, you came looking for the wrong man.”
THE RECORD NOW broken, the easier it became for the Atlanta front office to reach the inevitable, hard assessment that Henry Aaron could no longer play. The record belonged to him and his name could never again be mentioned without the accompanying appositive, Hank Aaron, Home Run King, but Henry was also something far less regal: a forty-year-old outfielder making $200,000 a year, a player who was a full nine years older than Davey Johnson, the next-oldest position regular on the club. He was a player for whom—at least while wearing a baseball uniform—the past held far more glory than the future. The physical traits, certainly, were still apparent and they still gave Aaron watchers a nostalgic tingle: Henry resting on one knee in the on-deck circle, sometimes holding two bats to limber up, walking slowly to the plate, batting helmet in his right hand, Del Crandall–model bat dragging along behind him, leaving a caterpillar’s trail. He still stepped into the batter’s box as he always had, adjusting his helmet and scooping up a cupful of dirt (even in 1974, when the modern kids wore wristbands and sometimes two gloves, Henry did not wear even a single batting glove), as always his hitting prefaced by that deep, majestic clearing of the throat, an operatic harbinger. The routines were familiar and, in many ways, even more poignant as they yellowed.
It was his consistency that had always left his contemporaries in so much awe, how he could always hit, regardless of the circumstances, and his ability to dial it up against the best fastballs, adjust to the sharpest curves. That was what was missing right now. “With Henry Aaron, it didn’t matter,” Ralph Garr reflected. “He could have just come back from a funeral and you wouldn’t know. You never knew what was weighing on his mind, what his mood was. You wouldn’t know, because his approach was always the same to hitting. Nobody ever had that kind of concentration. If he had problems at home, you’d never know. You couldn’t do anything to break him of his plan.” Garr used to watch Henry’s computerized mind dissect a pitcher’s patterns while he sat in the dugout waiting his turn. He could be in the tunnel smoking a butt and yet he knew that he could apply the snippet of information he’d gleaned when it came his time to hit. The macho guys trying to establish themselves, guys like Kirby and Billingham, might start him out with a fastball away, a curveball in, then try to finish him with the one pitch Henry would never completely master, the slider away. Starting Henry off the plate meant that a pitcher believed he had his good stuff and could come in hard with a fastball, but only when absolutely necessary. When a pitcher started him off with a fastball in, well, that was just a show-me pitch, because unless your last named happened to be Gibson or Koufax, you didn’t dare try to come inside twice on Henry in the same at bat. Gibson never gave you a chance to guess whether or not he had it on a given day, so Henry knew never to look for anything but hard and inside, and then adjust. Approaching Gibson any other way was just asking for it, for the last thing Bob Gibson would do was show weakness to a hitter, even if it meant throwing a substandard (by Gibson’s measure) fastball in a dangerous location to a dangerous hitter. Against the rest of the league, Henry had the pitching sequences against him so perfectly memorized that Garr would sit back with delight and watch the guy on the mound take his inevitable pounding at the hands of the master.
The difference now was that Henry possessed the knowledge but was not producing the results, and day after day, the great man lunged where he once strode. The swagger remained intact, but now it was accompanied by fewer hits. The vaunted wrists were still plenty quick enough—until the day he walked off the field for good, nobody would easily strike out Henry Aaron—but instead of providing the gunpowder, the wrists now provided only protection, keeping him from striking out. There were times when the kids, with their hormones and muscles, would fire a fastball past Henry early in the game, thinking time had gotten the better of him. And then there he’d be, watching the fastball, sensing its movement, just as always, as some young catcher sat back, self-satisfied, waiting to watch the ball zip past the old man once more in a rush of hot air … only then, the wrists would spark to life, and the old baseball men, the scouts, with their Cadillacs and suspenders and their round bellies, their pens and pads and charts (in a few years, they’d be carrying radar guns, too), sitting behind the backstop would give one another that wry, wrinkly nod. That’s Henry for you. He’s still got it. And they would dig deep into their endless bags of folklore and chuckle. You got to get up early in the morning to sneak a fastball by ole Henry Aaron.… And it was right there, at that hundredth of a second in time—that unit of measure for the millionth percentiles that differentiated Mount Olympus from Cooperstown—when the universe, once so predictable, flew completely off of its axis. Once, there had been that automatic thunderclap. Now, when Henry swung, the baseball would just slide weakly off of the barrel of his bat and ricochet backward into the netting, and Henry would turn and watch the ball sail foul, poker-faced, trying to ignore the doubt. The next night, he might be beautiful again, slashing through the zone, doubles one-hopping deadly off the base of the outfield wall. And on the very next night, an average fastball might catch the bottom of his bat and trickle harmlessly toward the third-base dugout, coughing up chalk as it spun along, giving life to more whispers. And his guts would churn, because he knew better than anybody that those were the pitches that through two wars and five presidents that had routinely gotten tattooed. The wrists were no longer sparking fires, no longer doing the executioner’s work. Once they’d been torpedoes, but now the legendary wrists of the great Henry Aaron were just life preservers, prolonging hopeless at bats for one more pitch.
HE WAS STILL Henry Aaron. That was why Eddie Mathews batted him fourth the whole season, the same spot he had hit since the Korean War. Whatever changes Mathews might have made to the lineup, he didn’t mess with one spot: When Henry played, he batted cleanup, which, whatever evidence to the contrary, made life feel normal. He fought time, even as he increasingly lost the battle. Every now and again, the old Henry would rise.
“When we would fly from Atlanta overnight to California, he normally wouldn’t play the next day. We did a cross-country trip to San Francisco one time and when we got there there was a newspaper article in the San Francisco Chronicle about this ‘Count’ Montefusco, a young pitcher, maybe twenty-two years old,” recalled Davey Johnson, then a Braves infielder. “He had great stuff, a nasty slider—an unhittable slider. He was complaining that he was having to pitch against the Braves. He said something like ‘They’re not a good team; why am I pitching against them?’ And Henry read the paper and he went to [Clyde King] and said, ‘I’m in the lineup.’ And it was a day game after an all-night flight. I’ll never forget it. We all knew what was going to happen. We’d seen it too many times. A couple of guys got on base in front of him and Henry looked for his best pitch, which was a nasty down-and-away slider. He reached out there and popped it over the left center-field wall. He came back into the dugout and said, ‘I hope that kid gained more respect for us now.’ Henry put him in his place. This kid was cocky. He had a really great year and felt above pitching against any club. That’s what Henry said, ‘We can’t let this go.’ And I mean to tell you, it was a wicked low-and-away slider. That was in 1974, Montefusco’s first year.”
Johnson could be forgiven for flashbulb memory, but the kernel of the story is nevertheless true. The game was September 18, 1974, the finale of a three-game set in San Francisco. It was true that Henry did not usually play in the opener of a West Coast series following a cross-country flight, nor did he play in this case: a day-game travel day following a night game. John Montefusco woke him, and Henry had been scheduled an off-day but put himself in the lineup. Montfusco was a rising star, twenty-four years old. He had been called up fifteen days earlier and the next year would win Rookie of the Year in the National League.
Henry led off the second, and boomed home run number 732 off Montefusco, a long, slashing drive to left center. In his next at-bat, with two on in the third, Henry singled home another run off Montefusco. Henry had put the kid down, but what didn’t make sense was why Montefusco would want to upset any opponent, as the Giants would finish sixteen games behind the Braves in 1974. Pressure was like the wind, unseen by the human eye, but it could easily and obviously be detected when it descended, exerting its suffocating, downward force. The pressure Henry felt stemmed not only from his inability to catch a fastball but from why he couldn’t. The truth was that he had indeed started the marathoner’s kick to get to Ruth, gave it everything he had and soared at an age when so many of his contemporaries were washed up. Between the ages of thirty-five and thirty-nine, Mays had wilted as a baseball player. So had Frank Robinson and the rest of them. But Henry had hit 199 home runs, so suddenly, at age forty, it did not compute that the skill was no longer there. Even when he was hitting under .200, his strikeout totals were still low, and that was all the more reason for him to believe that he suffered from mechanical flaws more than from physical erosion.
In the years to come, with reflection, Henry understood the reasons were not mostly physical (other than that the nagging aches persisted a bit longer), but mental: There was, after Ruth, nothing left to chase. For five years, Ruth had been the obsession, and for the ten before that, the goal had been to prove he belonged with Mays, Mantle, and Musial, on the red carpet with the all-time greats, the ones who defined Cooperstown, instead of the other way around, and during his initial five years in the big leagues, the motivating force had been proving to himself that there was a bigger, more rewarding life beyond Mobile in which he was entitled to share. He would say he always believed he would quit the game after he had achieved three thousand hits, but the proximity to Ruth kept him going, five years after that milestone. He had wanted desperately for the chase to be over, to put an end to the pressures and the anxieties and the fears. Billye and his closest friends would spend the next three decades trying to repair the blows to his humanity that had been exacted during the chase. “There is no question he lost something he could never get back, a piece of himself,” said his close friend and attorney, Allan Tanenbaum. “The chase did that.”
But now that the record belonged to him, Henry realized how much the goal of vanquishing Ruth had gotten inside of him. He had weakened as a complete player since 1968, harassed by his back, his ankles, all the parts of his body that hurt. He had stolen at least fifteen bases a year for nine straight seasons, but since turning thirty-five in 1969, he hadn’t stolen ten in a single season, and would not again. He did not know what would provide the inner motivation to continue playing ball.
For a time, it appeared that the pennant race would energize him. In the month before the all-star break, the Braves contended with the Reds and Dodgers, both hungry, muscular clubs. June 21, opening game of the series at Riverfront Stadium, Carl Morton against Jack Billingham: The two traded zeroes until the seventh, when Henry stroked a one-out double and later scored on a ground ball. The rest was tension, the Big Red Machine loading the bases in the bottom of the ninth, Tom House facing the murderous Johnny Bench for the game. Bench flied out to left, and the Braves took a 1–0 win. They were in second place, only five games behind Los Angeles and two ahead of Cincinnati. The Braves were making a pennant run, and it was Henry who had scored the only run of the game. Intermittently in 1974, he had spoken of retirement, but maybe there was some fun to be had after all, one last charge. Phil Niekro, the other old head on the club (even Niekro, who looked like he was seventy even when he was in his thirties, was five years younger than Henry), led the pitching staff. The kid Buzz Capra was surprising the league at 7–2, and that self-described “low-end guy, happy to be there” Tom House possessed a microscopic ERA. Where there was pitching, there was October, so even though he was no longer as dangerous, Henry somehow still found himself in the middle of big wins as the summer progressed.
A month later, the day before the all-star break, Dock Ellis beat the Braves 6–2 at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, and the only thing October signified to any of the long faces on the bench was uninterrupted fishing trips. The Braves had lost twenty-two of their previous thirty-three games, their record plummeted to a mediocre 50–49—a hearty fifteen games out of first—and the smiles disappeared. The loss also spelled curtains for Eddie Mathews, who, following the final out of Ellis’s complete game five-hitter, was fired before he could leave the building.
Out of the race, Henry would then have to generate his own fuel, and that was precisely the problem. The ghost of Ruth had been vanquished, and even his personal life had grown normal once again. He and Billye began to sow philanthropic seeds in Atlanta, forming charitable foundations and working with others. Gaile returned to school, largely without incident, and during the early afternoons before night games it was a common occurrence to see Henry, in turtleneck and plaid pants, leaning on the fence at Marist High School, watching Henry Aaron, Jr., play linebacker on the school football team.
Henry had even outlasted most, if not all, of his contemporaries. Mays had gone, quietly, the last hit of his career driving in the go-ahead run in the twelfth inning of the second game of the 1973 World Series against Oakland, partial redemption for the moment that would become the universal, chilling reminder for gods who can’t quit: falling down in the outfield while chasing Deron Johnson’s liner in the bottom of the ninth. Ernie Banks had retired in 1971. Mantle and Drysdale had been gone six years, Koufax nearly ten. Robinson and Clemente were dead, and Frank Robinson was at the end—it was heavily rumored that he would become the first black manager in the game at season’s end. Even the roaring lion Gibson had already announced that 1975 would be his final year. The old foes were gone, and spiraling out of the race had cost his old comrade Eddie Mathews his job. Henry had already achieved every important milestone in the sport, had, in the words of Dusty Baker, broken a record every time he climbed out of bed, and had caught every standard-bearer against whom he had once measured himself. Stan Musial’s National League record of 3,630 hits was within striking distance, but once Ruth’s record was already under glass, rapping out singles to pass Musial lacked the requisite emotional punch. There was nothing else for Henry to do in the game.
THE SIGNS WERE everywhere, and had been since the beginning of spring, when he announced that 1974 would be his final year, that the end of Henry’s career possessed the potential for trouble between him and the Braves, the kind of trouble that could sour a legacy. One such warning signal was that Henry was hitting less often but challenging the baseball establishment more. He was the home-run king and, he later said, believed he had accrued the appropriate political capital to press for rights. But there was the delicate matter of just how the Braves felt about him as a player. His contract was up at the end of 1974 and the Braves had not initiated any discussions about renewing it. Part of the reason for this was that Henry had said during spring training he believed he would retire after the 1974 season. There were words of surprise and encouragement when Henry mentioned quitting, but no one in the Braves management really pulled on his emotional coattails to coax him to stay, and they certainly did not offer him a contract for 1975. He had become that Gibraltar of professional sports—the aging superstar too big, too accomplished, and too familiar and popular with the fans to be casually cast aside simply because his skills had eroded. History had shown that these endings were rarely resolved well. Ruth left the Yankees with an unrequited longing to manage and a sagging belly. Robinson left the Dodgers with bitterness that so heroic a journey could culminate in such cynicism, while Mays left the Giants ragged and hollow. By voluntarily retiring, Henry was following the Ted Williams model, walking away unlined, indomitable. No one in management wanted to say it, but, by retiring, Henry was solving a potentially messy problem for the Braves.
Into the season, he slogged his way through the .200s and took more days off (day games following night games, mostly and Sunday get-aways to let his body regenerate) as the club began drifting toward the future, a future that for the first time since he became the Rookie Rocket did not include him. When any chance of winning the pennant was beaten out of them during that heinous July, the end of the Aaron era became merely a matter of ripping days off of the summer calendar.
It was precisely during this time that Henry began to change his mind about the future. He had always said he would not be the ballplayer who quit only after he looked ridiculous on the field, but neither could he quite stand the idea of walking away in the grips of his mortality. Maybe he did not want to quit after all, not with a .225 batting threatening to be his final memory of wearing a big-league uniform. Maybe he would shake the tempting hand of Faust and enter into the same fatal deal that had finished other athletes, from ballplayers to boxers: He would tell himself that he would be the one who could deny time. He would say nothing, but his mind was changing about playing in 1975; he was giving himself one more chance to leave the game on top.
If the Braves were willing to reassess and allow Henry to return to the team in 1975 (and there was no evidence that they were), the series of simmering events at the end of the July appeared to end his relationship with the organization. Soon after Mathews was fired, Frank Hyland of the Journal asked Henry if he was interesting in managing the club. Henry retreated. “No, no, no,” he replied. “I’m not interested in managing this club, or any other.” Hyland went with the story and the rest of the press followed.
IT WON’T BE HANK
The job of replacing deposed Eddie Mathews as manager of the Braves is still up for grabs.… People are asking “could it be Tommie Aaron, Hank’s brother who manages the Savannah farm club?”
It won’t be Hank Aaron. Hank didn’t say “no” to the suggestion. He said, “No, no, no, no, no. It won’t be me. I don’t know who it will be.”
Then Eddie Robinson, the Braves general manager, said Henry was not a candidate for the job, and neither was Tommie, and that was when Henry began to boil. When Hyland and Wayne Minshew asked Robinson if he believed Atlanta was ready for a black manager, Robinson demurred with a terse “I’m not prepared to answer that. No comment.” Two days later, Henry Aaron, batting .235, with ten home runs, flew to Pittsburgh for the All-Star Game, his twentieth consecutive one. He was voted in as a starter and shook hands with his teammates, but the game on the field was only part of the story. Baseball, commissioner Bowie Kuhn in particular, was under fire from the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP and the Catholic Interracial Council. The two organizations had joined forces to criticize baseball’s failure to hire a black manager, with three days of protest leading up to the game. As the new home-run king, Henry smiled as a goodwill ambassador, but he was furious that neither he nor his brother had been taken seriously by Robinson as managerial material. While the NAACP protested in Pittsburgh, Robinson was making his own deal in Atlanta: Clyde King, a baseball lifer, had the job.
When the game commenced, Henry took two uninspired at bats against his old nemesis Gaylord Perry—a weak pop to left and a grounder to first—before being replaced by César Cedeño. Some of the old faces remained—Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, and Joe Morgan—but Robinson remained the only other player in the game who, like Henry, had begun his career in the 1950s. The changes were obvious, from the soft cuts he took in the game to the new generations of stars on both sides—Rollie Fingers, Mike Schmidt, Bobby Grich—suggesting that maybe it might be time to let someone else put on the spikes.
“It’s an honor,” he later told Dusty Baker privately. “But I don’t belong here anymore.”
Almost immediately after despairing, Henry tried once more to pull himself up off the mat, giving in to will.
“The way I saw it, I had three options: hang on past my prime, do some hitting, or retire,” he recalled in I Had a Hammer. “The option I preferred was number two.”
When the game ended, Henry Aaron, white-hot, gave a nationally televised interview to Tony Kubek of NBC, where his frustration welled up into a supernova.
“I think they owe me the courtesy of asking me,” Henry told Kubek, speaking of the managerial job. “I believe I deserved to be asked if I wanted it,” he said. “And if they offered it to me, I would have taken it because there are no black managers.”
The next day, above the news of Greece and Cypress and the Nixon impeachment and school desegregation stood Henry, above the fold, page 1A of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Aaron Reverses Field … But Braves Name King to Manage
PITTSBURGH—Clyde King … will be named manager of the Atlanta Braves … but Henry Aaron said he would have taken the job if asked.…
“I still prefer not to manage,” Aaron replied, “but it is time he had a black manager in the major leagues.” …
“I think Robinson should have at least had the courtesy to ask me if I was interested.”
Over the next three days, Henry boiled, at the present and the past, at all that had been said and quite likely all that he had not said over the years. On Thursday, July 25, Jesse Outlar further steamed Henry with his insinuation in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Henry was nothing more than a puppet for black leaders.
PRESSURE FROM INFLUENTIAL BLACKS LIES BEHIND AARON’S ABOUT-FACE
Henry Aaron obviously has agreed to become the Jackie Robinson of the major league dugout. He is taking the lead to change the times in baseball, even if he has to manage, something he has always vowed he did not want to do.…
Robinson broke the color line in baseball in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now influential black leaders such as Jesse Jackson apparently have persuaded Aaron that he is the man to end the managerial boycott. That’s the only logical explanation of Aaron’s sudden about face.…
The next day came the ground war—an omitted word in Jesse Outlar’s column headline transformed AARON SAYS HE HAS NOT CHANGED, BUT HE’S STILL OWN MAN to AARON SAYS HE HAS CHANGED, BUT HE’S STILL OWN MAN—followed by the atom bomb: a photo accompanying Outlar’s column of a cheering Billye, with the caption “Wife Billye: Trouble?”
That did it. He could take being called Stepin Fetchit by Furman Bisher, and a pawn by Jesse Outlar, and being left out in the cold by management, which lauded his contributions to the organization but did not seem to think enough of him to ask him if he was even interested in managing the club before announcing to the world he wasn’t being considered, but putting Billye on the front page of the sports section was just the low blow required to set Henry Aaron aflame. It was also the second time Henry had seen Billye become the target. The first was months earlier, on opening day in Cincinnati, when the Reds refused his request to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., with a moment of silence. The whispers had started then, that it was Billye who was planting ideas in Henry’s uncomplicated brain, that Henry had been just the nicest fellow until he married her. Now her picture was in the newspaper, adjacent to a story about him with an erroneous headline.
The cutline infuriated Henry, but it only represented a flash point. He had already been seeing red for a week. The Outlar story contained a damaging piece of fiction, one that had been voiced before and that Henry could never live down. The article suggested he did not possess the intelligence to comprehend the scope of his own struggle, whether it be the civil rights movement or the necessity for the next level of integration in his own sport, and that he needed his wife to put ideas in his head.
It all came to a head later that night, Farmer’s Night at Atlanta Stadium, a quaint tradition since the Braves had first arrived in Atlanta. Each player received a carton of produce and the local farmers were celebrated in a pregame ceremony. The game with the Padres was being delayed, and while the tarp still covered the infield, Garr and Baker both told Frank Hyland to steer clear of Henry, which piqued the reporter’s curiosity. Henry wanted a piece of Hyland, too, for Hyland had written that Henry had “double-talked,” either to the Braves about not wanting to manage or in the NBC interview about his newfound interest. Either way, Hyland wrote, the organization could not be blamed for Henry’s indecision. Henry saw Hyland and motioned for him to come to his locker. Ron Reed, the six-foot-six former basketball player, and Henry’s pal Paul Casanova stood, Dusty Baker recalled, “like bouncers about to break up a bar fight.” For a moment, it appeared the two were speaking civilly, and then Henry, for the first time in his career, lost it, letting Frank Hyland have it: a carton of strawberries to the face.
SPLAT! IRATE AARON SMACKS WRITER WITH STRAWBERRIES
“Henry was pretty hot … he told me he had never double-talked anyone.… I reminded him that he had told writers one thing before the game about wanting the Braves’ managing job and had said something else on television the same night.
“All of a sudden he shot out with those strawberries he was holding in his hand.… I don’t know whether he hit me right or left-handed—but it was flush in the face.”
THE TWO WORDS the writers used almost interchangeably when describing the opposite poles of Henry’s personality were dignity and bitter, the former during times when he seemed to exude uncommon patience with the world’s nuisances and injustices (which was another way of saying that Henry often let go unpunished transgressions that a more temperamental person would not have tolerated), the latter when his moods and reactions to seemingly benign situations (or worse, incidents largely of his own making) appeared to the writers incomprehensible. In later years, Henry would admit that he was not an easy man to understand, and throughout his public life he would often find himself reluctant to enter public discourse, expecting little clarity or understanding from the press, believing that any extended attempt to explain his positions would only make matters worse. The result would be a deepening gulf between the writers and Henry, each growing more suspicious of the other. In Henry’s view, the writers never understood him, did not take the time to understand him, and thus he did not trust them. To the reporters who covered him, Henry was oversensitive to slights and unaware of the power of his own words until they produced headlines. As far as they were concerned, Henry wanted to have it both ways, to be provocative but not to be criticized when his comments provoked.
If a modern term could be used to describe Henry during this period of his life, passive-aggressive would seem the most appropriate. He enjoyed his fame, if not the constant attention, then the recognition of his position as one of the all-time great players. He accepted the spoils of his achievements as well earned, never falling into the category of athletes who called attention to themselves either by audaciousness on the field or obnoxiousness in front of the press, and he followed in the Robinson tradition of taking a public stance when he believed progress for blacks was being stalled.
But that did not mean that Henry was always comfortable with how the baseball hierarchy viewed his worth, which, off of the field, was not as a valuable asset. He demanded that he be taken seriously for his accomplishments, and over the years he would often be caught between conflicting positions. Breaking Ruth’s record only emboldened him more. He fought with reporters during the month of July. “I’ve been saying the same things since 1963!” he would say. He took on Jesse Outlar in a wide-ranging interview, chastising him and anyone else who called Billye “militant.”
And there was one real, unforgettable piece of evidence that Henry wasn’t the Henry of yore. Ralph Garr’s Henry could hit in a fog of controversies. But during July 1974, feeling assaulted by the papers, the front office, and isolated by a new generation, Henry hit just .212 for the month.
In future years, the scenario would repeat itself: Henry avoiding directness, only to bristle at what he would consider a lack of respect for his stature. What he wanted, and admitted later, was inclusion—in the case of the Mathews situation, to be afforded the courtesy of being asked if he was interested in the job, based on his credentials as a player. That was how it was supposed to work. He was baseball royalty, after all. When Mathews was hired, he didn’t have to call Bartholomay and ask for the job. Bartholomay had reached out to Matthews, yet in Henry’s case, no one seemed to be reaching out.
And he burned because he felt that was what happened when you were black, and if the ultimate goal of the Robinson mission was equal partnership, it was only natural that he be given consideration without having to apply, based on what he had done in the game. The number of players who had become managers was too great to count. Yogi Berra had been a Hall of Fame player and slid immediately into management, managing the Yankees when he was still playing in 1964. That same year, Stan Musial, without a day of experience in the front office, became general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Henry had been playing twenty years and three of his white teammates—Mathews, Red Schoendienst, and Del Crandall—were already managing in the big leagues.
What Henry discovered in a hard and embarrassing way was the curious dichotomy in baseball: It was easier for management to compensate black players for their talent than to promote them to the front office for their intellect. Compensating a player for what he could do on the field was the easy part. Understanding Henry Aaron’s value to a lineup took no more acumen than picking up the sports page and perusing the daily averages. A team with Henry batting fourth every day for 162 games was a better team. But adding a black player to the front office, giving him the authority to evaluate talent, to promote and demote white players, to hire and fire white personnel, well, that was a different concept altogether. Taking such a step would not provide enough of an obvious benefit to risk upsetting the order.
And to the black players, watching Henry be treated like a beggar by upper management, despite his 725 home runs, only reinforced another long-held belief in the black baseball community: Once a black player’s career was over, opportunities beyond playing did not exist.
HENRY KEPT HIS desire to continue playing largely a secret as the Braves fell behind the surging Dodgers and Reds. In the meantime, the Braves planned to send their legend off into the sunset. Even as late as September 25, a week before the season ended, the position of management was to “keep Henry around” in some undefined front-office capacity. The club had already determined to retain Clyde King as manager. The transition, at least from the management perspective, was supposed to be seamless. Henry would play his final game with the Braves, retire, and let the company take care of him. There had even been rumors that the organization had set him up with a $75,000-a-year job as a special assistant to Bartholomay.
But as the final weekend approached, Henry voiced different plans. The summer had clearly hurt him, and the desire to continue playing, he finally began to admit in his own, deliberate, cryptic way, had not yet extinguished itself. For starters, he publicly stated two embarrassing pieces of information about his organization: The first was that there was no $75,000 offer on the table; in fact, there was nothing but vagaries about what Henry’s responsibilities would be when he retired; the second was that the organization had never offered him the opportunity to return to the team as a player in 1975. Henry repeated often that he did not want to “stand in the way” of the club, a passive way of reiterating that the club had not asked him back.
So when the final game of the season approached, Henry did not say good-bye to baseball. There was no pageantry. He simply said, “I’ve played my last game in Atlanta,” which was the equivalent of taking the Braves gold watch and chucking it into the Dumpster. Henry was establishing his independence. He would play baseball in 1975, most likely in the American League as a designated hitter, maybe for the Boston Red Sox, a title contender not quite able to overcome Baltimore, or maybe he would return to Milwaukee, playing for his old pal Bud Selig and the Brewers. But he would not say good-bye to baseball, only to Atlanta.
The ripples reverberated all the way to the front office, from a chagrined Eddie Robinson, who called the announcement “a surprise,” to an unaware and unenthused Bartholomay, who had been with Henry for years, since Milwaukee. Bartholomay shrugged his shoulders, offered a purple stare, and said acidly, “There’s no reaction from me,” then walked away. The Braves had signaled a youth movement, as Henry said often during the final two months of the season when he felt marginalized and unappreciated, and he was, it seemed, returning the favor by carving out a new path for himself, as eager to leave the Braves as the club was to look to 1975 without him. “The bottom line was that they were businessmen,” Ralph Garr said. “All of Henry’s people, the ones he grew up with in the game, his peers, they were all gone. The people who ran the club at that point didn’t have a lot of sentimentality about him.”
October 2, Atlanta, with a sparse but enthusiastic crowd of 11,081 fans on hand to say good-bye, Henry popped out, walked, and grounded out the first three at bats of the rest of his playing life with the Braves. On the fourth, in the seventh inning against a rookie named Rawlins Jackson Eastwick III, Henry launched a vicious liner over the left field fence, the ball sizzling into the bull pen. Henry trotted around the bases, head down, and ran into the dugout, the crowd begging for a curtain call, for one last look. But Henry kept going, down the stairs of the dugout, down the tunnel, and into the clubhouse, moving, he would later say, to keep from crying. He took off the uniform and would never come back.
AARON’S LAST HURRAH …
The Hammer Slams a Homer, And Looks to the American League
In the final swing of his 21st and final season with the Braves, Henry Aaron said farewell to Atlanta fans with a home run in the seventh inning.…
The Hammer said before his record 3,075 game in a Brave uniform that he would like to bow just like Ted Williams did by hitting a homer in his last time at-bat.
Henry could have been Williams, walking away with one shining last moment. He would have been even better than Ted, and people would have deified 1974 in a way that gave Henry his own special wing in the hero worship Hall of Fame as the guy who hit a home run not only in the first at bat of his final season but also in his last. In between, he broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record and, just for kicks, called his home-run shot in his final at bat before the game. That was the kind of stuff people talked about for decades, the kind of legend that inspired the poets, the kind of outsized feats that synthesized the man and his numbers.
But after the game, Henry was not full of poetry or melancholy or reflection, content on freezing his moment. He was evasive and, in the minds of some, the Atlantans who sometimes felt as underappreciated by Henry as he did by them, sarcastic. And in his own way, he was unburdened, his mind focused on the next chapter of his life, one that did not include Atlanta. “I’m hoping that was not my last one,” he said, laughing and talking with members of the Atlanta press for the final time at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium. “I might hit my last one against Cleveland, Chicago, somebody.…”
Even Wayne Minshew, who felt an uncommonly close connection to Henry, was unclear about the reason for Henry’s buoyancy and the lack of statesmanship on both sides. After all, he had played three thousand games with one organization.
“His mood was flippant following the homer, however, his voice teasing,” Minshew wrote. “Nobody was sure how serious Aaron was. But it appears he is ready to part company with the Braves.”
As had been true with the writers in Milwaukee, Henry did not have that great or lasting a relationship with any member of the Atlanta press, Minshew perhaps being the closest. But Jesse Outlar, who was not an Aaron adversary but could not be called an ally, knew he was writing for the history books. After the game, he wrote of Henry with an understanding of his weight and significance, both as a player and as a legitimizing force for baseball during his nine years in Atlanta.
AARON’S BRILLIANCE LEAVES A MEMORY
The greatest Brave obviously isn’t departing on the best of terms from the only team he has ever played for.
Ironically, Ruth ended his career with the Braves, disenchanted with the Yankees.…
Seeing Aaron take off no. 44 for the last time was a sad scene.… The long summer and the longest career had ended. You see a Henry Aaron once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky.
For the next month, as football season raged through the South, and Henry and Billye flew to Japan for a home-run exhibition against the Japanese home-run champion Sadaharu Oh, Bud Selig and Bill Bartholomay began private negotiations in earnest. The Red Sox were in contention to trade for Henry, but no team could compete with Milwaukee.
While Henry was in Tokyo, Davey May, still wrestling the cobwebs free from a season during which he had hit all of .226, called his home in Milwaukee from Chicago to check in on his wife, who immediately after picking up the phone informed her husband that he had been traded.
“What? Where are we going?”
“Yes. Hank Aaron is coming here.”
“Me for Hank Aaron?” he said, then hung up the phone and repeated the exchange to Wayne Minshew. “I had to call her back to make sure I heard it right.”