The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART FOUR. FREE
Chapter 16. DRIFT
HENRY AARON’S FIRST two decades of retirement were good years for the memories business. Many of the prewar, preintegration legends—Williams, DiMaggio, Greenberg, Feller, Spahn, Musial—were still alive and lucid, telling the stories of what would be called “the Greatest Generation.” Alive, too, were their less-known, uncelebrated shadow counterparts: the ignored Negro Leaguers, whose institutional memory was now suddenly a valuable asset, both to be mined by historians and a book industry that fell in love with baseball. Baseball sought the survivors of the old Negro Leagues, too, as a sort of social penance. They would now, far too late, be called heroes by an industry once convinced their participation would undermine the standing of the sport.
The confluence of history continued with the first generation of the integrated era—Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Joe Black, Larry Doby, and, of course, Henry—entering its golden years. The living memory of the sport went back to before World War II. Henry was still in the public eye, simultaneously present and curiously distant, a visible member of the Atlanta Braves front office—having finally been brought back by Bartholomay months after retiring—yet still uneasily removed from his contemporaries. When the public or the writers would seek out Williams or DiMaggio, it was often with wistfulness, the words on the pages of the magazines and the newspapers willfully compliant to create that special frothy brand of nostalgia: Williams’s cantankerousness was no longer uncomfortable and unrefined, proof of the Splinter’s classlessness. Now, a Williams broadside was reshaped into an endearing virtue—a throwback forgotten in favor of an emptier, valueless time. The longtime baseball man Joe Klein would reminisce about the time Williams managed the Texas Rangers. It was 1972, and Ted sat in his sweltering office, watching a fuzzy black-and-white television. Klein was just a pup, a kid working in the Rangers front office, bubbling at the privilege of sitting next to the great one. On the television screen was Henry Aaron, thirty-eight years old, trotting around the bases after yet another home run, and right then, as the television replayed in slow motion Henry’s home run, Williams shot out of his chair, fizzing like a bottle rocket. Just the sight of Aaron at the plate had set off in confounded admiration his cranky perfectionism.
“He was just raging,” Klein recalled. “I mean, just yelling at the television: ‘HOW THE HELL DOES HE DO IT? THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A FRONT-FOOTED POWER HITTER! YOU CAN’T HIT FOR POWER OFF YOUR GODDAMNED FRONT FOOT.’ That was Ted. He loved him because Hank Aaron did everything right as a hitter to Ted, except that. Ted used to say it was impossible to do what Henry did, to drive the ball out of the ballpark off the front foot. You just weren’t supposed to hit that way. But Hank did it, what, seven hundred and fifty-five times?”
In retirement, Williams grew larger still in all of his fiery impatience. So, too, did DiMaggio, tailored, silvery, and elegant, a distinguished gentleman at seventy-eight years old. A PBS documentary in 1994 by the filmmaker Ken Burns unearthed another invaluable baseball artifact: the Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil, whose love of the sport and unfailing optimism during segregation blunted the game’s institutional guilt and, in turn, made O’Neil into the unlikeliest star for the rest of his life. They were celebrated as the living treasures of the game. That was the deal.
Then there was Henry. With Henry Aaron, it was all just a bit different, just a bit off, the sepia longing missing from his aura—and everybody knew why. The writers knew it, and it was the big reason someone always made the trek to Atlanta. Henry knew it, and that was what made him different from all the rest, for what he held close to his breast was a big piece of Americana, cold and irrefutable and terrible, and, unlike Williams’s misanthropy, impossible to massage into wistfulness. When the writers came looking for him, they came looking for one thing—the letters, the physical pieces of paper Henry’s fellow Americans had sat down and written, one by one, threat by death threat, during the record years.
The stories would grow in psychological complexity. Stan Kasten, who worked with Henry as a kid with the Braves under Ted Turner, had heard the stories for years: that when Henry left the Braves in 1974, he took the letters with him as dutifully as he took his spikes, bats, and a few jerseys. Some people said Henry still kept the letters in the attic of his house. Other times the story went a step beyond: that in numerous instances during a calendar year, Henry would go upstairs, walled off from the world, and revisit his America, the America that robbed him of his joy, reading and rereading the threads of his country that were now fused into him like a skin graft. Some people heard the letters were in shoe boxes; others were told he kept them in an old burlap mail sack or a plastic mail tub.
The writers would come to find out if the rumors were actually true, and when he grew tired of it all, of being both reduced and defined in equal measure by the same moment, he would say, “Hate mail and home runs. You know, there’s more to me than that. But nobody cares. It’s the only thing people care about.”
The newspapermen perked up, usually months before one of the standard milestones of his record-breaking accomplishment. April 8, 1994, for example, was a particularly big one—the twentieth anniversary of his immortality. By then, Henry was sixty years old. An unstoppable battalion of gray hairs had overtaken his dark hair, and the long parenthetical creases that bordered his mouth deepened further into his cheeks. Billye Aaron always said Henry was his mother’s child, and as he aged, Henry looked even more like Stella: powerful cheekbones suppressing an arresting, wide smile, small eyes alert, surveying, flashing spontaneously at a pleasing sound. Henry wore glasses full-time now, and though he had continued to exercise, the weight he had gained began to settle at his waistline.
WAITING FIVE YEARS to be immortalized is, usually, easy-chair living. The endorsements begin to line up, almost as quickly as the various and lucrative offers to serve on this board or that charity, but from retirement in 1976 to his Hall of Fame induction in 1982, tranquillity and Henry did not spend much time together. Henry would find himself in a drift. He would always draw a paycheck from baseball, and during this period he began to make business connections that would serve him for the next three and a half decades. Yet he spoke of himself as intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied, searching for that greater purpose, in constant conflict about finding that proper balance of activism, expressing his opinion when and where it was most needed. He would often reiterate that he wanted to belong in the world of baseball, but despite his accomplishments as a player, finding his place after retirement was a challenge that proved difficult.
He would say with great frequency that he wanted baseball to be “one chapter of his life, not the entire story,” and yet even as this vision crystallized, Henry was unsure exactly of what that meant in actual practice.
As the 1976 season ended, Henry had resolved to return to Atlanta. In a sense, he had it right: There’s no going back. Milwaukee would never lose its emotional and personal appeal, its place in his story, but he was no longer a kid. Atlanta, for all of its seeming ambivalence toward him and baseball in general—the city would always be a notoriously poor draw, even during the years the Braves fielded a championship-caliber team—was now his home.
The real reason the promise of Milwaukee did not materialize as he had expected had less to do with nostalgia and longing and more to do with business. When he retired, promises were made, gifts exchanged, but the reality never quite matched the handshake. Bud Selig was somewhat vague about Henry’s place in the organization, though without the bitter edge that poisoned Henry’s final days in Atlanta.
There was talk about managing the Brewers, talk that intensified after Del Crandall was fired. In later years, both Henry and Bud Selig would say they had “discussed” the idea of Henry’s becoming a manager, but the truth was that Henry was as noncommittal about managing as Selig was about making him a hard offer to take over the club. The beer-distributorship offer fell through, too, not that Miller failed to keep its word in taking care of Henry. Instead, Henry did not particularly care for the fine print attached to the deal: He could have the distributorship, but he would have to put up some of his own money: a million dollars’ worth.
And the matter of what territories Henry would oversee—possibly Baltimore or Cincinnati, possibly elsewhere—was equally ambiguous. He was a big name, national news, but one was an American League city and the other had no great relationship with him. He had been burned in business during his first decade in Atlanta, and it took years for him to recover financially. He thanked Selig for his time, and the lifetime deal never took place.
At the same time, the Braves had made subtle overtures to Henry during the waning months of 1976, raising the possibility that he might return to the Braves following his retirement, overtures that took on a certain intensity following Bartholomay’s sale of the club to Ted Turner.
Turner was many things—bombastic, erratic, eccentric, brilliant, visionary—but he wasn’t part of the staid baseball establishment. He was not a member of the old-school club, whose members used the veneer of tradition to maintain their curmudgeonly positions of authority and, by extension, to keep the players in their place. That alone made Turner an immediate threat to the old guard. He was a businessman who could see further and wider than most anyone else in the media or baseball and he understood immediately the value of Henry Aaron. Already a millionaire at thirty-four, Turner had purchased WTCG-17 in 1974. A year later, after gaining permission from the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast nationally via satellite to a nascent cable-television viewership, Turner recognized the power and utility of sports as a programming tool. He purchased the Braves the following year and Turner had immediately thwarted baseball’s rigid structure—especially its tight rules on broadcasting rights—as his cable station, renamed TBS, broadcast the Atlanta Braves in every television market in the country. And there was nothing baseball could do about it.
If one thing was clear about baseball, it was how tightly controlled the job market was. Henry himself had complained about baseball’s culture of retreads, of how difficult it was to get new blood into the pipeline for managing and front-office jobs. Turner was a starting fresh, and as such, the old prejudices and baseball customs did not always exist around him. He had already hired Bill Lucas, Barbara Aaron’s brother and Henry’s ex–brother-in-law, to be the team’s general manager.
“Bill was farm director when I promoted him to GM,” Turner recalled. “And then I find out later that he was the first black person in baseball to be a general manager. Then I find out that he was the first black person in any sportto be a GM. When I see a person, I don’t see color. I wasn’t looking for points with the civil rights movement. It just didn’t seem to be out of the ordinary.”
Turner was bigger than life. He had no time for baseball’s silly little conventions, and for Henry, that meant an opportunity. What Henry was not completely aware of was the opposition to his returning to the Braves, especially in a front-office capacity. It explained why the club had been so willing to let him go following the 1974 season. There were some men, like Dan Donahue, the Braves chief operating officer, who viewed Henry only as a hitter, not as a person who could contribute to the front office. He was a former player, and former players belonged on the field, or on their fishing boats. Superstar ex-players were even less complicated: They were given no-show jobs or jobs as spring-training instructors, an easy way to titillate the fans and keep a famous name around while the person was drawing a paycheck. In other words, Henry should have been content with the job of being Henry Aaron—leave the heavy lifting to the professionals.
But when Henry and Turner discussed Henry’s return to Atlanta, it was with a real job, with an actual title and responsibilities. As Turner recalled, he asked Henry what jobs he was interested in, and Henry told him farm director because it was a position that required talent evaluation.
“When I bought the team, naturally I wanted Henry. It was the right thing to do because he was so important to the Braves,” Turner recalled. “I asked him what he wanted to do and he told me he wanted to be farm director because that was a job with some teeth. I didn’t worry about whether he could do the job. I didn’t know very much about baseball when I came in. If I could go from nonbaseball person to owner, he could go from baseball player to the front office. After all, its not rocket science we’re talking about here.”
With that, Henry rejoined the Braves, but it likely would not have happened without Ted Turner. Henry, Turner told him, would have a job for life with the Braves. Henry’s official position was director of minor-league personnel. He would oversee the 125 players the Braves farmed out through the five clubs, from A ball to Triple-A. He would be paid fifty thousand dollars annually. Five years after Jackie Robinson’s death, Henry became the first black ex–major-league player making front-office player-personnel decisions for a major-league club.
Paul Snyder worked closely with Henry during those years as director of minor-league personnel. Snyder recalled that early on he sensed a certain tension between them, now that he was Henry’s peer. Henry, Snyder believed, understood that there were those within the Braves management who did not want him to have the job and thus were interested in undermining his success. Henry responded by being outwardly withdrawn—which is to say, polite but distant.
“We were sitting back in our conference room in our old stadium, at Fulton County. I was sitting straight across from him. He was being a little bit distant to me,” Snyder recalled. “I assured him I didn’t want his job. I had a job. I was strictly trying to help him. I was trying to make the best decisions for him and for the Braves. I had a department to run. We weren’t spending a lot of money on scouting, so we had to make the most of our decisions.
“From that day forward, I felt better. Inside of that first year, he was still trying to figure out who was on his side and who wasn’t. I was a minor leaguer. He didn’t have to worry about me.”
FOR A SHORT time, Henry seemed to embody the next stage of the Robinson mission. In addition to him, there was Bill Lucas, who was the Braves general manager. Lucas and Henry were not always on the best terms after the divorce, and Henry would admit that the relationship could be tense at times, but they maintained a mutual and professional respect. Meanwhile, Henry’s sister Alfredia had married David Scott, a rising member of the Georgia House of Representatives.
Not only was Lucas an executive; he had begun to create opportunities for others to have upper-management positions. Though Bill Lucas and Henry were no longer connected by marriage, they had known each other since Bill was a freshman in college in early 1953 at Florida A&M. After that, Lucas was a Braves prospect, until, during a minor-league game, he attempted to beat out an infield hit and crashed into the first baseman. Lucas blew out his knee and his career ended.
Then, in 1979, while watching a Braves game on television, Bill Lucas suffered a severe brain aneurysm. He was admitted to Emory Hospital for five days but never regained consciousness. He was forty-three when he died.
TOMMIE AARON retired as a player in 1971. He had played parts of seven seasons in the minors and had been named Most Valuable Player at Richmond in the International League in 1967. He had worked in the organization as a player, a roving hitting instructor, and a minor-league coach. Upon taking the job, Henry pushed for Tommie to become manager of the team’s top farm club, Triple-A Richmond. There was even talk that Tommie Aaron could become a big-league manager. By 1981, only three black men had managed a big league club and none of them—not Frank Robinson, nor Larry Doby, and nor Maury Wills—lasted more than three seasons.
Tommie had served as a big-league coach since 1979, first under Bobby Cox and then in 1982 under Joe Torre, another of Henry’s old teammates who became a manager. It was with Torre that Tommie headed for spring training as routinely as he had for the previous twenty-five years. Only this time, following his annual physical, it became apparent something was wrong.
“He went to spring training. They did the normal blood work, and something wasn’t right,” Carolyn Aaron recalled. “They told him he had a certain type of anemia. That turned into the leukemia.”
As much as Henry, Tommie Aaron was a member of the Braves family. Where Henry had been serious and unsure, Tommie Aaron was loose and gregarious, thought Paul Snyder.
“He played all over our system. He loved shooting craps. I remember him in that rinky-dink clubhouse in Eau Claire,” Snyder said. “He loved to roll the bones. Tommie had a lot of ability. He could play six or seven positions, everything but catch. He was very genuine.”
Tommie Aaron was the one person who had bridged that gap with Henry, perhaps, apart from Billye, better than any other person in Henry’s life. Henry possessed a deep laugh, and a broad, engaging smile, but it was Tommie who, friends said, was able to make Henry laugh from his insides, deep from his gut. Tommie could swear and joke and loosen Henry up in public to the point where, around Tommie, Henry Aaron was a different person.
“He was just so different from Hank. Hank was so reserved,” Carolyn Aaron remembered. “He was so outgoing. All the kids on our street in Mobile would come to the house and Tommie would be the one to take them to the Mardi Gras parade. He would be out raking the yard and the kids would always be there. He taught them baseball. The kids in the neighborhood talked to Tommie more than their own fathers.”
Every day for over two and a half years, both at home and at Emory Hospital, it was Henry who came by with food, who called every day. Periodically, there would be hope of remission, only to have the disease return anew. On August 16, 1984, eleven days after his forty-fifth birthday, Tommie Aaron died. Henry was at the hospital that day, broken. And it was there that Carolyn watched Henry Aaron burst, his right fist slamming into the reinforced hospital window.
“It upset Hank very much. Everybody jumped when he hit that glass window,” Carolyn recalled. “It was normal to grieve, normal to cry. I can’t remember when I stopped crying, but when I was in public, no one knew my heart was just broken. Then, one day, you wake up and you say, ‘I didn’t cry today.’ ”
BY TEMPERAMENT, Henry was not an orator or an activist. He preferred to work through channels and to collaborate. His commitment was solid, but he did not need to be in front of the camera, at the top of the headlines. He had, in fact, discovered that very little good came from taking a personal, public stance, and his edgy relationship with the press always seemed to intensify. Behind the scenes, he lent his name and gave his time to fight teenage pregnancy, a topic most professional athletes would avoid. What made Henry’s approach even bolder was his announcement that he would do a speaking tour of high schools on behalf of Planned Parenthood. On a Sunday morning, April 30, 1978, Henry arrived at Grady Memorial Hospital to lend support to a national conference on teenage sex and sexuality. After the buzz caused by his presence had subsided, Henry listened attentively to the figures: The hospital had delivered an average of six hundred babies per year between 1967 and 1977 to girls whose age ranged from twelve to sixteen. The staff told Henry that two-thirds of teen pregnancies were unwanted and that a third of all abortions in the United States were performed on teenagers. At the press conference announcing his involvement, Henry took the podium and took a prepared text from its folder.
“Something’s got to be done about it,” he said. “Young boys are talking about ‘scoring’ on dates every day. When you’ve gone all the way, you’ve scored. But I want to tell you something … you’re not a champion in my book if you cause a young girl who doesn’t want to become pregnant to become pregnant and have to drop out of school.” In meeting with the Grady doctors, Henry took a modern approach toward sex education. Kids did not need to be lectured about sex, he said. “They need to know what they’re doing when they do it, and accept the responsibility.”
He was applauded for his principles and commitment.
But when he stepped too far out on the ledge, he was not often deft enough to avoid trouble, for he had both crafted a reputation as the mild-mannered Henry Aaron and begun to challenge conventions during a time of transition. Baseball wasn’t yet prepared for this dimension of Henry. He was tired of being slapped in the face.
In 1977, a month before Henry’s forty-third birthday, Fred Lieb, who had been writing about baseball since the Dead Ball Era, listed his all-time team over the past one hundred years. Lieb was white, born in the previous century, weaned on the game when it did not include blacks, and his list reflected as much: It did not contain the name of a single black player. Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Collins, Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Babe Ruth represented Lieb’s position players. Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Lefty Grove, and Sandy Koufax were his pitchers. As far as other writers were concerned, it was Henry who seemed the clearest omission, and they questioned Lieb about this.
NO PLACE FOR AARON WITH ALL-TIME STARS. AARON NOT AN ALL-TIMER?
“I was fully aware of the racial question,” Lieb told the Chicago Tribune. “I had to ponder for a long time about leaving off such great players as Hank Aaron, who has broken many of the records of both Ruth and Cobb; the fantastic Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson. However, I have to be true to my convictions. Having seen most of the great players, past and present, I honestly believe this is the best team one could field.”
While his friends could not understand why Henry would let a dinosaur like Fred Lieb—an unimportant man from another century—get to him, Henry broiled. And some friends also wondered why the attention of a stuffed shirt like Bowie Kuhn meant so much to him. There was one problem with that elevated logic: It mattered to him. To Henry, this was just another injustice, another way to slight him for surpassing Ruth. Billye would attempt to soothe Henry’s ire, but his anger was inspired not so much by Lieb as by an accumulation of slights.
DAYS BEFORE Willie Mays was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, Henry gave an interview with Doug Grow of the Minneapolis Star Tribune regarding his pessimistic outlook about opportunities for blacks in baseball. Henry, perhaps thinking of Bowie Kuhn at the time, or the black players of his day who were now retired and could not get a job in the front office, was withering in his criticism of the sport.
AARON HAMMERS AT RACISM IN MANAGEMENT AND MEDIA
Hank Aaron burns with a deep rage. It’s as simple as black and white.…
“Look around the stadium,” Aaron said. “There’s not one memento of what I did. There’s nothing about what I did in this stadium, but they’ve got a statue of Ty Cobb sliding into a base.”
… he is baseball’s only black executive. The ball is white. The game is white.… It is because of all the whiteness around him that Aaron discourages young blacks from considering baseball.
Then there was Kuhn, whom Henry had never forgiven for not appearing when he broke the home-run record. The wound bore deep, and it became exposed and raw at unpredictable moments. In 1980, Baseball Magazine named the night Henry broke Ruth’s record as the most memorable moment of the decade. The magazine also named Pete Rose the player of the decade. Kuhn would be on hand at a dinner in New York to present the award, but Henry had payback for 1974 in mind. He wouldn’t show up in New York. “If he couldn’t spare the time for a trip to Atlanta, I don’t have time to go to New York,” he said.
He had said nothing that Frank Robinson had not said, nothing that Jackie Robinson had not said a decade earlier. The crime Henry had committed was not one of candor, but that he’d changed the perception of who and what he was supposed to be. He had also let his guard down. He revealed that streak in him that could not brook slights or disrespect. Wayne Minshew, the reporter who had covered Henry as a player when the team relocated to Atlanta, was now the public-relations man for the Braves. Minshew brokered an uneasy peace meeting in New York with Kuhn, at Kuhn’s Rockefeller Center office.
These months were turbulent. Dick Young attacked Henry for being small in his attitude toward Kuhn and disrespecting an award in his honor. He had stepped outside of his public persona, and then came the backlash. Lewis Grizzard, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, struck.
WHEN DID “THE HAMMER” TURN INTO “BAD HENRY?”
… Did Henry Aaron get hit in the head with a foul ball?…
Maybe it’s his wife. You know how wives can be.…
The writers used to write of Henry Aaron, “This man quietly goes about the job of being everybody’s superstar.” But oh, Henry, how you have changed.
… you sounded off because there was no … mention of … the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. Suddenly, you’re Hank Aaron, activist? Who put you up to that? Jesse Jackson?…
You could give us another great moment, Henry—a moment of silence.
It was the part of the game at which he was the least adept. He spoke the truths of his America, of what he saw, yet he was especially sensitive to the backlash. At one point, Henry told friends in frustration, “They criticize me when I don’t speak, and then when I speak up, they say I’m talking too much.”
CAUGHT IN THE drift, easing its force, was Billye. They had been together ten years, celebrating a decade of marriage in 1983. Henry had always been surrounded by strong women in his life, starting with Stella and his older sister, Sarah. His first wife, Barbara, had been direct, and in many ways she was placed in an impossible position. She was present for a wholly different and fundamentally difficult period, both for Henry and for America. The road for a black baseball player was a harsh one during the 1950s and much of the 1960s, a road even more difficult for a wife during those times.
If there were cliques inside the clubhouse that left the black players excluded, black women often felt isolated from the social networking that took place among the wives. Barbara, Dusty Baker thought, in a sense got the worst of the deal: She endured the crushing period when black players, regardless of their skills, would never receive their full measure of respect. By the time society had changed, she wasn’t in Henry’s life to enjoy the benefits.
“Any woman who had to go through what she went through, especially in the South during spring training,” Baker said, “well, I don’t have a bad word to say about Barbara. She took care of me like I was one of her own.”
Billye did not have to make peace with the same debilitating societal forces as Barbara had, for Billye met Henry when he was Hank Aaron, His Legend and society in general had removed the barriers created by segregation, dissolving those harsh environments that had existed in the foreground of Henry’s first marriage. Those old, hostile spring-training towns had been integrated for years. The fans could be vicious, but Billye’s post–civil rights movement stadium environment was worlds apart from the stands in which Barbara had sat, both in Milwaukee and in the South. Both Billye and Henry were much older than most of the other families on the team, with more world experience and less necessity to assimilate. Billye attended games, but as a career woman, she wasn’t there as often as the other wives. Many of the players’ wives were young girls who had met their husbands early, in high school or in small minor-league towns. Many had not attended college and possessed a far different worldview than did Billye Aaron, who by the time she had met Henry had already lived through the high-pressure, high-profile civil rights years in Atlanta with her first husband, Sam Williams. While many of the wives often saw themselves as rescued from the drollery of an average life by being married to baseball players, Billye had never considered herself a “ballplayer’s wife.”
Billye struggled through her years in the public eye, but there was something stately about her. Her voice was lavender-soft, and she spoke with a disarming and melodic southern lilt. It was the contrast between Henry and Billye that strengthened them. Henry may have felt uncomfortable as a constant public figure, but Billye seemed the stylish natural extrovert, someone who enjoyed the perks that came with being at the very top of a world that received so much attention. She wore elegant, expensive jewelry and furs. She was tickled by the banquets and the balls and the travel. She did not avoid the spotlight, but, rather, embraced it. And that made public life easier for Henry.
There was a part of her, she often felt, that had yearned for public attention as far back as childhood. She would refer to attaining such recognition, to actually realizing so many of her daydreams, “as a miracle.”
“Maybe somewhere on the periphery of my personality I secretly wanted fame. Since I wanted to be a singer when I was young, I imagine that would mean that I wanted to be noticed. It would be hard to want to be a singer and not be noticed,” she said.
Her ambitions stood in direct contrast to her realities. She had grown up Billye Suber in Palestine, Texas, the fourth of eight children—six girls and two boys. Her earliest memories were of desolation and segregation. Still, education was central to the family. Each of the eight kids attended college. Her mother left Butler High School in Tyler to marry Nathan Suber. She would always say her greatest regret was never finishing high school. Nathan Suber was a professor; he worked on the docks in Galveston part-time and was killed in an accident when Billye was twelve.
The white high school in Neches had been closer to the family’s home, but Billye was bused to Clemons High School. “We got our books from the white high school and I remember that every book I got from Clemons had someone else’s name in it.” Billye had ambitions and wanted to go to college. Palestine, she recalled, was “too dark and isolated.” For her senior year, she moved to Dallas to live with her aunt, Reba Baker, on Pennsylvania Avenue. Billye was immediately taken by the size and energy of Dallas, especially when driving down Oakland Avenue, then the black thoroughfare of the city, in her aunt’s green Studebaker.
“I wanted to be a singer. My name was Billye and I wanted to be Billie Holliday. I thought she was so pretty,” Billye recalled. “She had this voice and she wore a gardenia in her hair, and I just loved that. There was a theater on Hall Street, and it was for the colored people, so we didn’t have to go around the corner and up the stairs into the balcony. That was our theater. Looking back where we came from,” she said, “being here is almost miraculous.”
In the summers as a teen, she would return to work in the fields, picking peas and cotton, laughing at her deficiencies. “I never could get the hang of it. The most I ever picked in a day was thirty-seven pounds. There were kids who could pick eighty pounds of cotton in a day.
She was adventurous. She attended San Francisco State University before receiving a fellowship opportunity in Atlanta. She felt trepidation about returning to the South. The early skirmishes of the civil rights movement had made a deep impression on her, especially the confrontation in Little Rock, as it occurred the same year, 1957, she set out for California. “It was a wonderful opportunity, but when I thought of Atlanta, all I could visualize were men hanging from trees,” she recalled.
She met Samuel Williams in Atlanta, and after marrying both were active in the Atlanta civil rights movement of the early 1960s. At their house on Fair Street in Atlanta, she had dined with Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, James Bevel, and the other powerful figures of the movement. They had a daughter, Ceci, and in October 1970, five days before her birthday, Samuel Williams died suddenly, due to complications following surgery.
At this time, Henry was also undergoing changes in his life, and this was the true source of their connection. When Billye met Henry on the set of WSB-TV, Henry had recently been divorced from Barbara, while Billye was in the throes of her own depression. Increasingly, during the time just prior to when she met Henry, suicide had been in her thoughts.
“I can’t pinpoint how things happened in this direction except for the fact that I was very lonely. I found myself at thirty-four a widow and really thought for a short time that I wanted to die,” she said. “I saw no purpose in life, no purpose in going forward. Except, when I saw my three-year-old daughter needed milk or bread, then you had to snap out of it and say, ‘You have to take care of this child.’ ”
One of her coworkers at WSB suggested she do a series of light features on the Atlanta Braves players. The assignment, she later thought, was an attempt by the station to help her begin her reentry into the world. She had interviewed Rico Carty before Henry and immediately realized that “those two didn’t want anything to do with each other.” She had little, if any, interest in sports. As part of her assignment, she was given two tickets to every home game, but she had trouble finding anyone to go with her.
In 1971, when she was first scheduled to interview Henry, he did not show up for the interview, and he was late for the second. When the interview finally took place, Henry was embarrassed for Billye, due to her utter lack of baseball knowledge. He even offered to help her write her scripts for interviews with other players. Their dialogue had begun.
Billye described Henry as kind and sweet but, in their early meetings, not terribly romantic. Billye recalled one of their first dates. “He asked me to meet him at this little soul-food restaurant across the street from the stadium. He wanted to go there because it was comfortable for him and because it was close, because he had a game that night. Let’s just say I was used to better. So I said to him, ‘Mr. Aaron, the next time you call on me, make sure it’s an off day so we could go someplace, well, a little nicer.’ ”
He did not write letters or send flowers spontaneously, but he was grounded, and that was important. During those years, she did not need to be swept off her feet as much as she needed comfort and stability. “He always appeared to be a family man, and that was important,” she recalled. “I had heard stories about what ballplayers were like, having a woman in every port. And he could have been, but he didn’t impress me as a womanizer or whatever. When he approached me, I thought he was sincere.”
She carried herself with confidence and elegance. She was disarming, but that did not mean Billye Aaron was any more forgiving of the racial climate than Barbara. Her demeanor may have seemed more polished, less confrontational, but she was, friends believed, far fiercer than Henry on most racial subjects. During the home-run chase, she was particularly sensitive when it came to the pressures Henry faced and how much of it was directly attributable to his being black.
“I used to think being an athlete was the same as being an actor, but they are different. As an actor, you are playing a role. You are purposely playing someone else. As an athlete, Henry was simply expressing his talent, and the actor doesn’t have to get booed, every day, in living color. I think some people can’t wait for the spotlight. Either you have it or you don’t. Henry does not need one iota of it.”
Though Billye appeared more comfortable at public functions and was able to mingle with a natural ease, she appreciated Henry’s reticence. Together, they had come to a conclusion: They would use Henry’s fame for something more than wealth. For years, Henry had talked about foundation work and trying to find the proper vehicle to set his philanthropic visions in motion.
“You don’t grow up in poverty and want to see other people in poverty. You know what it feels like. You know what it looks like, and you see exactly what it does to people’s ambitions,” she said.
WHEN IT CAME to the Hall of Fame, Henry played the waiting game on a different plane, in a reserved, exclusive strata. As they approach induction, even the best players wait and wonder about admittance. Joe DiMaggio was not inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Others worry about securing the 75 percent of the voters needed for induction. Jackie Robinson received 78 percent. Aaron’s old teammate, Eddie Mathews, corralled 79 percent.
In 1982, when it came Henry’s turn, he was not worried about induction on the first ballot, but he was worried about the percentage of votes: He wanted to be the first unanimous inductee in history. In a sense, it was a cheeky thing to want, for nobody had been a unanimous choice. Ty Cobb, during the first induction in 1936, received the highest vote percentage, 98.2 percent. That was more than Ruth and Walter Johnson would get; Ruth received 95 percent, Johnson 84 percent. Mays had received 95 percent of the vote when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.
The day arrived, January 13, 1982. Juan Marichal was on the ballot. So were Henry’s old teammates Lew Burdette and Orlando Cepeda, and another Mobile legend, Billy Williams. None of them would make it this day. Four hundred and fifteen ballots were cast. Henry received 406. He missed unanimity by nine votes. The 406 votes made him second only to Mays, who had received 409. Henry’s 97.8 percent of the votes was second only to Cobb’s.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be unanimous, but I realize nobody has been,” Henry said. “I’m happy with the number of votes I received.” He would be inducted with Happy Chandler, the commissioner who succeeded Landis and integrated the game, the old Giants shortstop Travis Jackson, and Frank Robinson.
ON FRIDAY, JULY 30, Henry, Billye, Stella, and Herbert, as well as Gaile, Lary, Hank, Dorinda, and Ceci, arrived in Cooperstown and toured the Hall of Fame Museum. Stoic Henry Aaron was emotional. He slowly lowered his guard as he walked into the old museum and saw his Braves locker, which had been donated seven years earlier by Bill Bartholomay, and the symbols of his life’s accomplishments. He had long been used to being famous, but that did not diminish the feeling of seeing his life on display. He had his picture taken with his parents, with Billye, and with each of the kids. He joked with Dorinda, saying that she had always wanted to go into the locker room and now was her chance. He softened at the sight of his first pro contract, which called for two hundred dollars per month, and stared at a picture of himself when he was first called to the big leagues. Embarrassed by his youthful awkwardness, or pained by the years that had passed, he asked a Cooperstown official if the photo could be replaced by one “more recent.”
Induction weekend called for the lowering of swords. At the Hotel Otesaga, Henry met Bowie Kuhn for breakfast. The history between the two had been bad for years, dating back to when Kuhn failed to send Henry a telegram congratulating him on his seven hundredth home run. “Only a sick man carries grudges,” Henry said. “And I’m not a sick man.” After a peace meeting, they played tennis and Henry destroyed Kuhn, with a smile. The day of his induction, he awoke at 7:00 a.m. and played tennis with Frank Torre, then prepared for his speech at the Hall of Fame Library.
HAPPY CHANDLER, 84 years old, spoke first. The official transcript of his Hall of Fame speech filled three full pages. Frank Robinson’s was just as long.
And then there was Henry. His speech lasted just eight minutes. Gaile, wearing a white dress dotted by a light floral pattern, wept as she mouthed parts of Henry’s speech:
I also feel especially proud to be standing here where some years ago Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella proved the way and made it possible for Frank and me and for other blacks, hopeful in baseball. They proved to the world that a man’s ability is limited only by his lack of opportunity.
The sheer majesty of this occasion and its significance overwhelms me. For truly I reflect on my life and particularly on my 23 years in baseball. I am reminded of a statement I once read, and I quote, “The way to fame is like the way to heaven. Through much tribulation.” It had been for me, to quote a very popular song, the long and winding road. Nevertheless, I have been extremely blessed.
I stand here today because God gave me a healthy body, a sound mind and talent. For 23 years I took the talent that God gave me and developed it to the best of my ability.
Twenty-three years ago, I never dreamed of this high honor would come to me. For it was not fame I sought, but rather the best baseball player that I could possibly be.
I grew up in a home where there was little in the way of material goods. But there was an abundance of love and discipline. We, therefore, had much to share. And so too is this occasion an occasion for sharing, an occasion for thanksgiving. For I did not make this journey alone.
Henry said he did not speak longer because he was on the verge of tears. If nothing else, he was generally overcome by the weekend, for he and the Hall of Fame had not enjoyed an easy relationship. Grievances rested on both sides. Henry felt the officials at Cooperstown had not treated him as they had the other greats. He believed he had donated graciously, but his items were not treated as carefully or respectfully as the donations from other great players. It started back in 1973, when the Hall of Fame published a flyer on its new exhibits. No mention was made of Henry’s donations, which included the ball and bat from his three thousandth hit, and the balls for his five hundredth and six hundredth home runs. “With all the things I’ve done,” Henry told the New York Times, “you’d think they could mention my name in the magazine.”
And there was that eternal slight that pierced his pride the minute he walked into the building: the two statues—one of Ruth, the other of Ted Williams—that greeted each and every visitor.
Meanwhile, the collective attitude of those at Cooperstown toward Henry over the years had been that he had no tolerance for honest, simple mistakes. Henry went public with problems that could have been solved with a phone call. He read malice into the relationship, and that made him difficult.
But now he was officially a Hall of Famer. No player in the integrated era, not Mays, not Gibson, not Jackie Robinson, had received a higher percentage of votes. But Henry could not escape the nagging annoyance in his own mind that baseball had relegated him to a one-event player, and even that moment—breaking the home-run record—always came with a qualification. In a final interview in Cooperstown, Henry voiced an opinion that explained his unresolved turmoil.
I’ve never been able to live down breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. They say, “If Babe had played in this park … if Babe had not been a pitcher all those years.” But I personally had nothing to do with those things.…
I’m a little too busy and a little too old to have any bitterness about anything. I would like to remain in baseball the rest of my life. I would like to see the Braves, my club, win a championship, and then another championship. That’s the last thing I want out of baseball.
Then he flew home to Atlanta, he said, unburdened, all hard feelings dissolved by his induction, or so he claimed. His actions told a different story, and actions were the defining trait of Henry Aaron. Over the next seventeen years—when living members of the Hall of Fame were invited to welcome in the new class of inductees—Henry would return to Cooperstown exactly once.
Home run no. 703. By nature, Henry did not offer entry into his inner circle. The exception was Dusty Baker (number 12), whom Henry adopted as a mentee, just as Bill Bruton had done with him years before. Davey Johnson is standing behind Baker. (illustration credit i2.1)
With Rev. Jesse Jackson during the height of the home-run chase (illustration credit i2.2)
By 1973, Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts was appearing in nearly a thousand newspapers nationwide. Perhaps no other individual was as adept at capturing the country’s attitude. As Henry approached Ruth, Schulz inserted him into the strip during the week of Aug. 10–17, 1973, solidifying his place at the center of the national conversation. (illustration credit i2.3)
With his second wife, Billye, and Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, on April 8, 1974, hours before he broke Babe Ruth’s thirty-nine-year-old home-run record. Carter would say that Henry Aaron “did as much to legitimize the South as any of us.” (illustration credit i2.4)
Henry at the summit. Widely considered the greatest moment in the history of the game, April 8, 1974, the night Henry broke Babe Ruth’s record, would hold only bittersweet moments for him. He would not talk often about that night or reflect easily. “What should have been the best time of my life was the worst, all because I was a black man. Something was taken from me I’ve never gotten back.” (illustration credit i2.5)
Outgoing and gregarious, Tommie Aaron (right) joined the Braves in 1962. No other teammate could bring out the lighter side in Henry like his younger brother. Tommie had been forecast as one of baseball’s first African American managers in the major leagues, until leukemia ended his life in 1984. (illustration credit i2.6)
Henry Aaron said he would never be one of those players who hung on past his prime, yet in two years with Milwaukee he hit .232, with 22 home runs and 95 RBIs. “There’s something magical about going back to the place where it all began … Everybody wants to turn back the clock. But I discovered the same thing that Ruth, Hornsby, and Mays did: you can’t do it.” (illustration credit i2.7)
Henry, in his final year in the big leagues, with Willie Mays, then a coach with the New York Mets, at an exhibition game. The two held a fierce rivalry as players, but in the next chapter of their lives Henry would escape the shadow of Mays with significant successes in the business and philanthropic worlds. (illustration credit i2.8)
Henry and Billye in front of his plaque at the Hall of Fame. Henry Aaron and the Hall of Fame did not enjoy an easy relationship. Following his induction in 1982, he would return exactly once over the next sixteen years. Only a greater appreciation of his skills and depth by a new administration healed the wounds. (illustration credit i2.9)
Henry had always considered himself a mama’s boy, but while his features resembled those of his mother, Stella, his unpretentious approach to work was a paternal trait that would forever define the son. (illustration credit i2.10)
Despite his accomplishments, Henry Aaron never wanted to be defined by baseball. “I want it,” he said, “to be a part of my life, not the whole thing.” It was his friendship with President Bill Clinton that began to elevate him from baseball great to American icon. (illustration credit i2.11)
In June 2002, Henry flew to San Francisco to celebrate Barry Bonds’s 600th home run. The two had been cordial in the past, even friendly, but the growing scrutiny over Bonds’s use of performance-enhancing drugs in pursuit of the all-time home-run record forever strained the relationship. (illustration credit i2.12)
For thirty-three years, Henry Aaron stood alone at the top of baseball’s all-time home-run record. On August 7, 2007, Bonds replaced him at the top of the numerical list, but not the emotional. “Bonds may have the record,” Reggie Jackson said, “but people still believe in Henry. He’s the people’s home-run champion.” (illustration credit i2.13)
For much of his public life, Henry had been considered distant, brooding, and embittered, but it was his bursting smile, generosity, and dry wit—a side of him suffocated by the demands of fame and his discomfort with celebrity—that his inner circle of friends recalled fondly. (illustration credit i2.14)
Henry Aaron (illustration credit i2.15)