The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART FOUR. FREE
Chapter 17. CARS
OUT OF THE wasteland of the players strike of 1994—a strike that undermined baseball’s credibility and lasted 232 days—came an industry-wide gospel, one with which the sport had been unfamiliar since the dawn of the Dead Ball Era: Baseball would go into the nostalgia business. It would sell its moments, its heroes, its history, and itself. The strike served as a reminder that the resilience of the game, the fact that people cared so much no matter how dysfunctional its leadership, was precisely what had saved it. Gone (at least publicly) was the standard orthodoxy of tolerating the players as an unfortunate by-product of the owners’ moneymaking enterprise. Refusing to recognize the wattage of the players might have watered down salaries, but it also made for lifelong enemies, and enemies got in the way of business.
The fact was, 150 years of infighting had obscured what baseball was supposed to be all about: making people feel good. A labor war had prevented baseball from making money off memories at a time when everybody else—card-show hawks, home-shopping and classic sports channels, book publishers, individual collectors—was making a killing in the memorabilia business. This was the 1990s, the information age, where promotion was not only a virtue but, in a stratified world of two hundred TV channels and the untamed Internet, an absolute necessity. The sport had already mastered warfare, its history built on grinding, century-long animosities, but now baseball had found its new religion. From now on, moments would be cherished. Players would be celebrated by the sport as the gods they were to the public. Records, milestones, championships—the history of baseball—were valuable commodities being squandered by three decades of infighting about labor.
The Yankees, of course, had always known the value of hyperbole, of feeding the hero machine. They knew it better than anyone. It was history that separated your team from the rest, history that gave baseball its special currency, made you call it the “national pastime” even though football had long dusted the national game in television ratings and popularity since before men landed on the moon. It was history that gave you pride and pedigree and protected you from the lean times, kept you from being average. It served as the reminder that you stood for something permanent, something important, that you weren’t part of the latest popular fad, but the standard of a continuing tradition. Even the name Yankee Stadium had withstood that latest sign of the sports apocalypse—corporate naming rights for stadiums—which produced so much money that teams across all sports were willing to sell off their identity, their roots for the short-term gain. The great stadium names, the ones that gave the eye a picture of a city and a team—Comiskey, Candlestick, Tiger, Oakland, Veterans, Three Rivers—all got swallowed whole for the money. But not Yankee Stadium, even with all the money that the Yankees could have fetched by giving that piece of itself away. History was the reason the Yankees were the only team in the game never to change its home uniforms once the pinstripes and the interlocked NY became standard. It was the reason the great glories of Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, Reggie and Munson were passed down through generations of ticket buyers who wanted to identify with this New York family heirloom, fans who wanted to belong. Regardless of the team’s current record, a trip to Yankee Stadium meant being force-fed two heaping tablespoons of the dynasty, and that made everyone feel good and close. Pregame, postgame, and in between innings, the Yankees reminded everyone in the stadium that there might be no time like the present, but yesterday, if marketed properly, was even more salable a commodity than the fleeting lilt of today’s pennant race. History only increased in value. The Yankees knew that they weren’t just in the business of selling hot dogs and home runs. They were in the business of selling memories.
And as it turned out, nostalgia was big business. Baseball was about the generations, father to son, son to grandfather. But for all the sugary rhetoric of how baseball linked the generations as no rival sport could, the game had no mechanism to sell its most marketable quality. The plan been for baseball to partner with the corporate world to sell its history to the public, but even before the 1994 strike exposed baseball, insiders knew it was the marketing equivalent of the Titanic. After the strike, the depths of the disaster became frighteningly clear.
To make it all work, baseball had to rebuild its marketing and promotions departments from within, no easy task when the talent and direction had been torpedoed by two unnatural disasters—a calamitous television deal with CBS and the mahatma of boondoggles, a failure called the Baseball Network. Both cost baseball a fortune, leaving the promotional end of the business in shambles.
And it had to undo all the old rules. Baseball didn’t just play nasty with the players, but because its economy had been local for a century, it was every owner for himself. Publicity was not run from above, by the umbrella of major-league baseball. Rather, it was a mom-and-pop operation. The two leagues had been, aside from meeting in the World Series, separate entities. The American League marketed itself, as did the National. Publicity and promotions were handled at the local level, meaning the Red Sox and Yankees and Royals and Padres promoted their teams, but a coordinated national marketing for common projects—say the game itself—did not exist. Whatever national marketing did exist was left in the hands of the television-rights holders, who could choose to market selectively, or not.
It was, in short, a complete and total mess. When veteran marketing and promotions man Bill Henneberry signed on as a consultant to major-league baseball, he used an old Yiddish word, fercockt, and when pronouncing it, he would say it meant just what it sounded like: fucked.
Henneberry had started out in the business in the early 1970s, as a vice president of marketing for Hertz. One of his first accounts was the campaign that featured O. J. Simpson running through airports. He had worked for Colgate-Palmolive for eleven years before consulting for First Fidelity Bank and the NFL. His idea was a winner: team logos on credit cards. A credit card with a New York Giants helmet on it? Fans could feel connected to their teams, Henneberry argues, receiving discounts or bonus points to be accumulated like frequent flier miles on each purchase, double points if used at The Meadowlands or when purchasing tickets. Henneberry was twenty years ahead of his time. It was a moment of genius—the kind that can make a career—but Henneberry never got to expand the program to the other twenty-nine teams. The league licensed the idea to Citibank. Henneberry was out (inches from a lucrative seven-percent commission), smoldering mad that life wasn’t fair (you can’t copyright ideas, after all). Citibank later sold the portfolio to MBNA, which made a fortune.
When Henneberry joined baseball as a consultant, he found a sport that was “virtually leaderless.” For its promotional budget, baseball produced less than four million dollars in revenue. By comparison, the promotional budget of a pro sports league tended to be nearly three times that amount. Sports advertising was all about beer and cars (Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, Chevrolet!), but when Henneberry arrived, baseball’s sponsors were lightweights: Scotts lawn fertilizer and Kingsford charcoal briquettes.
“We had no car, no beer. We had nothing much above one million dollars,” Henneberry recalled. “We were walking into an empty room, a completely empty room. No one was running advertising that supported the theme of baseball and using baseball to build their brand. Licensing got hit like you wouldn’t believe. Trading-card revenues were cut in half. And on top of that you had the CBS and Baseball Network fiascos, and then the strike. Baseball left it to whatever television network gave it the most money to market the game. It was an absolute fucking disaster.”
Two accounts—Pepsi at $1.2 million and MasterCard at a contentious $1 million—accounted for more than half of the total revenues at MLB Properties. There was no money, but worse, baseball had let its most marketable quality—its history—atrophy to a fatal point.
In the years immediately following the strike, baseball got lucky, and as ballplayers always said, sometimes it was better to be lucky than good. Two strokes of good fortune hit almost simultaneously. First, the Yankees were good again, which always meant more money and more exposure for the game. As fashionable as it was to complain about the dreaded pinstripes, the facts were immutable: Good Yankee teams meant higher attendance throughout the American League, higher ratings, and increased interest. The Yankees were the rising tide that raised all boats.
On top of that came another lucky bounce: Henneberry met with representatives from MasterCard, which had an uneasy relationship with baseball. It could, then, only be described as providence that it was the credit-card company that sought out baseball and presented a golden opportunity.
The MasterCard reps unveiled a campaign they believed would work perfectly with baseball. They had even made a demo tape as part of their presentation. The video began with a young boy and his father attending a baseball game, a soft voice-over following each frame.
Hot dog … $3.50
Program … $1
Pennant … $5
Watching a game with your ten-year-old son … priceless
MasterCard called it their “Priceless” campaign and wanted baseball, the American game, to be its centerpiece. MasterCard was eager, and there was no reason to shop for a better deal—neither football nor basketball could pull as powerfully on the emotional father-son heartstrings as baseball. Baseball was already angry at Visa, which demanded exclusivity as a part of its proposal. Like the Olympic games, Visa did not want vendors to accept rival American Express cards at baseball’s signature event, the World Series (“… and they don’t take American Express” went the Visa ad campaign). MasterCard was waiting, and baseball had lucked out again, a sweetheart deal in their laps. MasterCard re-upped at $1 million, but with an ad campaign totaling $29 million.
HAVING RECOGNIZED ITS good fortune (instead of noticing the suspiciously increased size of its players and their subsequently ballooning offensive numbers), baseball was now hugs and kisses and Kodak moments. When Lou Gehrig played in his 2,130th consecutive game, a ceremony did not mark the occasion. A later event, which included easily the most memorable speech in baseball history, was held July 4, 1939, because everyone knew “the Iron Horse” was dying. But in the new world, there were balloons and pageantry, game stoppages and handshakes (even from opposing players, in the middle of a game) that night in Baltimore when Cal Ripken broke Gehrig’s streak.
During the apex of the resurrection—the home-run chase of 1998—two opposing players, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, held joint press conferences. When McGwire passed Roger Maris’s record, Sosa sped from his position in right field to give McGwire a hug. McGwire, nodding to history, reached back and embraced the Maris family. Roger Maris had been dead for more than a dozen years, but the family was able to enjoy a moment of closure and recognition.
It was all so mushy—Sosa and McGwire even said they loved each other. Judge Landis may have rolled over in his grave, clutching his “no fraternization” rule to his breast. Bob Gibson may have looked at the sport he once dominated and thought it unrecognizable with all this lovey-dovey crap, but the cameras, the fans, and the country ate it up.
Baseball had become the king of schmaltz. But to complete the circle, the contemporaries would not be enough. The legends had to be brought back, dusted off, and restored to their rightful place as the game’s living elders, as a link to the past, the conscience of the future.
In preliminary meetings, one man seemed unanimously perfect to be the centerpiece of the initiative, especially because 1999 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the all-time home-run record falling. Henry Aaron was the one the public relations and promotions departments wanted. He was, went the thought, perfect.
Yet the marketing executives in the room generally viewed the prospect of approaching Henry with a certain amount of dread, because the word had been out for years, and, unchallenged, it became fact: Hank Aaron was too bitter, too angry about baseball to be the face of any kind of promotion. The word was that he was too difficult to work with. He had already soured on baseball because of the Al Campanis affair in 1987. Besides, he probably wouldn’t want to be part of it anyway.
IN THE MONTHS following Tommie Aaron’s death, two major events occurred in Henry’s life, one by happenstance, the other by perseverance. In 1985, Henry attended a function in New York City where he met Frank Belatti, a native New Yorker who was an emerging power player in the Atlanta business community. Belatti stood in the lobby and the receptionist, not a baseball fan of any sort, asked Belatti if he was Hank Aaron, providing Belatti a natural icebreaker when they eventually met later that night. “Henry,” he said, “I’ve just been mistaken for you.”
Bronx-born, and a lifelong baseball fan, Belatti had been chief operating officer and president of Arby’s, the fast-food chain. He worked with MLB properties on the RBI/Arby’s award, which had been given to each league’s leader in runs batted in. The two talked about business opportunities, specifically whether Henry was interested in becoming a franchise partner with Arby’s. Belatti recalled Henry demurring. The restaurant and real-estate failures of the past still carried a fresh scar, and Henry had decided he did not have the business acumen to try again.
“He told me he hadn’t had much success in business,” Belatti recalled. “I asked him to think about it and also I remember asking him if there were any organizations that he felt strongly about. He said the United Negro College Fund. That started the business side of things.”
Henry moved with trepidation, but over time Belatti learned how important it was for Henry to have success away from the ballfield. In many ways, being a baseball player was perhaps the only area in his life where he could assume success. He had always been self-conscious about his level of formal education, and his past business ventures were not fruitful. Even inside of the baseball world, he did not feel particularly comfortable off the field, he did not feel well-regarded for his abilities in teaching, talent evaluation, or motivating players, the elements that would have made him a good executive or field manager. Thus, it became clear to Frank Belatti that Henry did not view another foray into the business community cavalierly.
Henry entered the world of fast food, obtaining his first franchise, an Arby’s restaurant, in Milwaukee. He would grow his chain to sixteen before selling them to acquire a Church’s chicken restaurant franchise—the competition to Kentucky Fried Chicken—in Atlanta, which would grow into a twenty-three-unit chain including Popeye’s chicken, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and Burger King.
“It was clear that success away from baseball was very important to Henry,” Belatti said. “He wanted to raise money for children. I think in order for him to fill that gap in his life he needed to be, always wanted to be, more than just a former baseball player. I was very proud that Henry Aaron told me he had only done two handshake deals in his life,” Belatti said. “One was with Ted Turner, the other with Frank Belatti.”
Belatti felt Henry’s distance, as had so many others. They came from two different worlds, Henry from the Deep South, Belatti from Arthur Avenue and 187th Street in the Bronx. Belatti recalled that the relationship warmed over time, mostly because of their conversation about ethics. Belatti impressed upon Henry that he was sympathetic to the notion of creating business opportunities for African-Americans.
Trust was something Henry did not extend easily, and in his recollections Belatti does not remember a breakthrough moment between the two men. Rather, he recalls their relationship growing from business to friendship. “Why did he trust me? Hank is a very honorable man and while he is somewhat suspicious and rightfully so, he believes in people’s good nature,” Belatti said. “He accepted my gesture in good faith. He realized I was only determined to make him successful.”
Belatti had been a Yankees fan all his life. He remembers respecting Henry and rooting against him in the 1957 and 1958 World Series. He had worked with baseball as an adult and thus was not necessarily awed by the size and aura of professional ballplayers.
Then, on Opening Day 1986, Belatti asked Henry if he wanted to join him for a ballgame. Henry agreed and the two went to the game at Yankee Stadium.
“We got out of the car, and of course, the masses started to circle. You could hear people screaming that Hank Aaron was here,” Belatti recalled. “That was when it occurred to me that this was no ordinary man. I saw how upset he got when these things happened. He just couldn’t go places. People wanted things from him. They weren’t there to give him respect. They wanted to get something from him. They wanted to touch him or get an autograph and he resented that. He would say to me, and he was serious, how dangerous people were, and how he did not feel safe. We realized that watching the game from our seats wasn’t going to work. I sat in my seat and George Steinbrenner wound up getting Henry a seat up in a luxury box, away from everyone.”
The second event that began to change Henry’s outlook occurred without his knowledge. Over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a chorus of people from far-flung areas of Mobile began unrelated campaigns to celebrate Henry. Kearney Windham, a diehard baseball fan and self-made sports historian, concocted the idea of a Hall of Fame for Mobile athletes. Henry would become a charter member of the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame. It was a significant start, for Henry and for Mobile, and endured a prickly relationship.
During the same period, the city of Mobile, led by a new wave of younger, diverse politicians, began a drive to improve relations with Henry. In 1977, the city named a stretch of downtown after him, the Hank Aaron Business Loop. In 1991, Mobile mayor Mike Dow was pushed by city councilor Irmadean Watson to rename Carver Park, his boyhood playground, to Hank Aaron Park. After years of frost, the city’s political leadership had begun to reach out to Henry.
Where Major League baseball was concerned, however, Henry had adopted the position that given the opportunity to do the right thing, baseball would disappoint him every time. It had been that way since Bowie Kuhn chose the Yahoo Club over him. The succeeding years hadn’t been much better, and the likelihood that baseball would approach him with good intentions and then do him dirt in the end became something of an expectation in his camp. His relationship with individuals inside of the game had always been solid. Ted Turner made sure he had a job for life, and Bill Bartholomay now spoke of Henry as one of his dear, dear friends. But whenever the commissioner’s office got involved, whenever he had hopes that the game would finally place him in his proper context, finally give him what he believed to be his due, his first reflex was to anticipate the very worst.
For example, there was the time Henry met with Greg Murphy, the new head of MLB Properties, ostensibly baseball’s marketing and promotions wing. Murphy was considered by some coworkers to be a prickly, unpopular man, but he was passionate about the necessity to cultivate Henry. Murphy told Henry that he was a baseball treasure, a true living legend. He told Henry about baseball’s new initiative to revive the game’s heroes with a major public campaign. The two shook hands. Months passed. Nothing happened.
Times, though, were different. After Fay Vincent’s successful ownership coup, Bud Selig, who still owned the Milwaukee Brewers, was now the commissioner of baseball. There was something else about the new baseball: The sport would no longer foster the charade that the commissioner was the objective protector of the game’s interest. Still, Selig at the helm meant Henry had a man in the top chair whom he absolutely trusted. Selig never missed an opportunity to elevate Henry, and the praise was genuine. It wasn’t lost on the major-league executives throughout the years that the commissioner’s office was supposed to give the impression of being impartial, yet Selig would routinely state publicly that Henry was the greatest player of all time. “If you noticed, he never even said ‘one of the greatest,’ ” Henneberry said. “It was always unequivocal.”
That meant that anybody at MLB who wasn’t completely sold on Henry (and there were more than a few unconvinced that Henry was charismatic enough to be a leading man) now had to deal with the wrath of Bud. Mess with Henry, mess with the commissioner. Even worse for the unconvinced was the lurking notion that should things not progress to his liking, should someone at MLB treat Henry poorly, there was the probability that a phone call was being made from Atlanta to Milwaukee and that the offending parties would be swiftly punished. Selig made it a point to note that he and Henry spoke constantly, “almost daily,” the commissioner would say. That kept whatever hostile elements in New York on their best behavior.
Henry also had some true believers at MLB in Henneberry, Bob Gamgort, and Kathy Francis, the lead marketing team that made the decisions on which players would become the official face of the game. The trio did not consider another legend, not Williams, not DiMaggio, not even Mays. To the group, Henry was the obvious choice, partly because it felt the need to honor Greg Murphy’s agreement with Henry, and also because there wasn’t a time Henneberry would look at the record book and not be absolutely blown away by Henry’s career numbers.
“Hank was the only choice. I think because the promise that was made to him by Greg Murphy. I always thought there was a little bit of guilt that they had never done right by this guy,” Henneberry recalled. “I mean, okay, he had the home-run record. Everybody knew that, but there was the stuff only a real aficionado would know. Thirty-seven hundred hits? First in RBI, first in home runs, first in total bases? Third in hits? I mean, come on. What else did this guy have to do?”
One the other hand, the whispering campaign that Henry had turned crotchety was just prominent enough to give the marketing people pause. There had been talk that Henry had a reputation for being impossible to please. Baseball would accommodate him, make good-faith attempts to placate him, to close the wounds of 1974, but it was never enough, or so went the thought.
The first meeting was in Philadelphia in mid-1998. Henneberry, Gamgort, and Francis met Henry and Allan Tanenbaum at the Four Seasons in Logan Square. The meeting did not exactly get off to a rousing start. Henneberry, like Frank Belatti, was Bronx-born, a diehard Yankee fan, tried to break the ice with Henry and was met with the sound of crickets.
“I walked in, and I remember him being standoffish,” Henneberry recalled. “I made a comment about him breaking my heart in ’57.”
“I was fifty years old, and I was starstruck,” Henneberry said. “He didn’t give a shit about that story. He’d heard it a thousand times. What he wanted to know was if he could trust me. I think he was reassured that I wasn’t a kid, that we came to him and put serious, experienced marketing guys in charge of this. Baseball had not been doing much for him and he was a bit dubious about whether we could pull this off. He just didn’t trust baseball to do the right thing by his image. And you know what? He was right. Baseball never before had a plan.”
Over the course of the meeting, Francis, Gamgort, and Henneberry laid out the ambitious multipronged strategy to market and promote the twenty-fifth anniversary of the record. A commemorative coffee-table book, Home Run, written by the respected Dick Schaap, was already in the works. Ted Williams had already agreed to put his name on the foreword. The trio told Henry the league would back a tour to a dozen parks, where, at each, Henry would throw out the first ball. There would be sponsorship and licensing opportunities, a radio and television tour. This time, they were going to do it right. He was going to be treated respectfully and regally, in the mold of DiMaggio.
And then MLB unveiled the big one to Henry and his people: The Hank Aaron Award, a new award named after Henry, honoring the best hitter in each league. He already had peripheral involvement with the Arby’s RBI award, hardware given out annually to the league leader in runs driven in. Henry was, after all, the career leader in runs batted in, but his real affiliation with the award stemmed mostly from the fact that the acronym corresponded with his ownership of numerous Arby’s fast-food restaurants.
The RBI award was a lesser award, a trinket few paid much attention to. The Hank Aaron Award, Henry was told at the meeting, would be different. It would be big. Henneberry’s original blueprint was wide in scope. In his vision, the Hank Aaron Award would represent the player leading or near the top in each of the chief offensive categories, which made sense, because for his career, Henry had finished in the top three in each of the categories: home runs, RBIs, and hits. Henneberry also thought the award should be interactive, meaning that players and fans would be able to track the major contenders for the award during the season.
“My recommendation was a quantitative award. Most hits, HR and RBI together. We could track it throughout the year. I wanted to make a big deal out of it,” Henneberry recalled. “We had the greatest living iconic player. He was first in home runs, and RBI, third in hits, first in total bases? I mean, come on. It was so obvious.”
The meeting ended in success. Henneberry recalled that Henry was “ecstatic.” By the end of the meeting, Henry had thawed. Where he had once been cool to the marketing group, he now told jokes, spinning yarns about the time he passed up a chance to go on The Ed Sullivan Show because Lew Burdette had begged him to be in the lineup so he could snare his twentieth win of the year. Cost him two hundred fifty dollars, Henry said, and the biggest laughs came in the context of 1999, when a player’s average annual salary was well over one million dollars. Henry delivered the line perfectly. “Two fifty was big money back then.”
OVER THE NEXT five months came the hard part: selling Henry. The group first had to find a major sponsor that could back a major campaign, lest Henry get slighted again. Henneberry placed his target figure for the campaign between $800,000 and $1 million, but no one was biting at that figure. Over the years it would gall Henry that he was perceived as simply not charismatic enough to carry a promotion, or, worse, that he was a grumpy old man with little to offer. Henneberry accepted the talk because it was out there and the first thing a marketer does is deal with the situation instead of complain. What bothered him was how shortsighted the presumptions could be.
“Part of it was because of the perception that Hank was difficult to work with. No one knew the value of what Hank would bring to the party,” he recalled. “But the big thing was this: Everything in baseball at the time was about labor and making money. MLB Properties was gutted and the baseball Network failed. No one was promoting the players that were gone. No one had touched them for fifteen years.
“We were asking for a million bucks. A few years earlier, we were selling the whole league for a million. No one was tying the players of yesteryear to the current game. Nobody touched anybody. It wasn’t Willie, Duke, Stan, Hank, nobody. So, Hank was forgotten along with everyone else. It wasn’t that he was unpopular or cast aside. Nobody was getting any support. It had nothing to do with Hank.”
So it came to pass that the year 1999 revitalized Henry Aaron. The promotions coalesced and, in the end, baseball did not betray him as he had feared. The book, Home Run: My Life in Pictures, was handsome and classy, first-rate all the way. The sponsor, Country Time Lemonade, came through. The numbers were not astronomical—the $450,000 it took to get the deal done was far below Henneberry’s seven-figure target—but Country Time treated Henry with the respect he believed had been nonexistent, and the executives at Country Time were delighted by his affability on the promotion trail, even if they winced each time Henry mangled the product’s name.
“Hank could never say ‘Country Time.’ He would always say ‘Country Times,’ ” Henneberry recalled. “It was the southern way of saying it. I told him a hundred times to say it right, and he said it wrong ninety-nine times. It drove them nuts.”
Henry turned sixty-five that February and was feted with a gala event that he would never forget. The Hyatt Regency Atlanta was packed, lined with limousines, luxury cars … and the Secret Service. President Clinton made a surprise appearance.
That night, the Hank Aaron Award was unveiled (Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa would be the inaugural recipients), announced to a rousing ovation. Bill Henneberry wasn’t pleased, though, for his original concept never got off the ground. Baseball stepped in and took a scalpel to the idea. Rich Levin, baseball’s top public-relations man, thought Henneberry’s vision encroached upon sacred turf, which was the Most Valuable Player awards, given out to each league by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the most prestigious awards, which went back to the 1930s. The MVP was the award of Williams and Mays and Mantle. Nothing could be introduced to reduce its impact. During that time, the players union tried to compete with the BBWAA by creating the Players Choice Awards, but it didn’t work. Players wanted to be associated with the hardware Hall of Famers held.
Levin was also concerned that a quantitative award based on the top offensive categories was too close to the Triple Crown, which marked the leader in batting average, home runs, and RBI.
“What we ended up with was different than what I had envisioned,” Henneberry said. “I have nothing but respect for Rich Levin, but I thought it got totally screwed up. I thought we could have done more. The Triple Crown? The Triple Crown is a total anachronism. I mean, who was the last guy to win it? Yastrzemski forty years ago? The award never became as important as it should have been.”
Throughout the years, Henry had met presidents. It never failed to tickle Billye that she could say without exaggeration that she and Henry had slept at the White House more than once. They had traveled the world and dined with kings and queens and prime ministers. Usually, however, he went to them, the Home Run King as invited guest. But seeing Bill Clinton, a sitting president at the Hyatt, in town just for him, well, it touched a nerve in Henry Aaron that softened and humbled him.
Bill Clinton traced the roots of his relationship with Henry to March 1, 1992, when the Democratic party was slugging it out in a primary with no clear front-runner. One day it was Tom Harkin, the next day Paul Tsongas. For a time, even Jerry Brown was leading in the polls. Not that who won would matter anyway, because the winner, the pundits said, would only get demolished by the invincible sitting president, George H. W. Bush, fresh and muscular after winning the Gulf War, his approval ratings making him, if numbers were to be believed, the most popular president in history.
Still, in desperation, the phone call was made the way all important calls are made, through a maze of high-rent channels: a campaign operative called Sam Nunn, the powerful Georgia senator, who located the civil rights giant and former U.N. ambassador Andy Young, who found Henry. When he picked up the telephone, Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor, still trying to gain a foothold in the presidential race, was on the other end, asking for Henry’s help.
Clinton was holding a rally at Georgia Tech, he told Henry, and he was desperate to pump some life into his campaign. He had not yet won a single primary. Would the Home Run King allow the Clintons to use his name to raise the turnout, especially among the black voters, who, when properly motivated, could swing an election in Georgia? And one other thing, Clinton asked: Would he be willing to appear himself?
Henry told the governor he would be honored to do whatever he could to help the Clinton campaign.
On October 29, 1999, after he had won a second term, President Clinton regaled the audience at a Democratic National Committee function in Atlanta with his reminiscence of his 1993 comeback. According to the official White House transcript of the president’s remarks, Clinton was consistent in his praise for Henry:
“Georgia was good to me. I remember when I ran in the Georgia primary, all the Washington experts said that Governor Clinton heads south to Georgia in deep trouble. If he doesn’t get at least 40 percent in the Georgia primary, he’s toast. By then, I’d already been clear dead three times. Now it’s happened so often, I’m going to open a tombstone business when I leave office. (Laughter.)
“But anyway, and the people of Georgia in the primary gave me 57 percent of the vote in 1992, and sent me on my way. And I’m very grateful for that. (Applause.) And then I remember, we had a rally in a football stadium outside Atlanta, in the weekend before the election of ’92. You remember that, Max [Cleland]? And we filled it. And I think Buddy Darden was there. We filled the rally. And I remember Hank Aaron was there, and there were over 25,000 people there. And we won the state by 13,000 votes. So everyone who spoke at that rally can fairly claim to have made me President of the United States, since there were twice as many people there as we won the state by. But we made it, and the rest is history.”
Over the years, President Clinton would use his oratorical masterstrokes to massage his message to fit the contours of his audience, but Henry always found his way into every anecdote, and in return, Henry and Billye would give the Clintons their loyalty.
“We were in a tough, tough campaign,” Bill Clinton recalled. “Hank Aaron had always been a hero of mine, and at the last minute he and Sam Nunn organized a rally. It turns out that we get twenty-five thousand people to fill a football stadium, mostly, I believe, because Hank Aaron was there. We held a tremendous rally and went on to win fifty-seven percent of the vote, and later I became the first Democrat to win the state of Georgia since 1976. And no Democrat has won it since. So, when I tell everyone that Hank Aaron is a big reason I became president of the United States, it’s not just hyperbole because I love the man. I say it because it’s true.”
At his birthday party, Henry was tearful when the president spoke, and so many emotions over the past year seemed to rush for space behind his eyes at exactly the same time. There was, always, the simple triumph of his life, but this time combined with the losses, losses he dealt with quietly and stoically. There was the photo of Henry in black suit, wearing dark sunglasses at the funeral of his father, Herbert, who had died quietly May 21, 1998. Herbert was eighty-nine years old and through his son had lived the triumph of the American story. As times changed, Herbert had been a legend in Mobile, the father of Mobile’s most famous man. He had been visible around town, always known as “Mr. Herbert” or “Mr. Aaron.” He had been fastidious and proud of his son. At the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Henry eulogized Herbert. “He was poor and unlearned,” Henry said. “Yet he was rich and wise. You might say he had a Ph.D in common sense … we should all be so blessed to live a long and successful life. He did his share of bragging about me. Now, I’m bragging about him. Farewell, Dad.”
A little more than two months later, on August 1, Henry held a family reunion in Atlanta. Three hundred relatives attended. Two days later, Henry’s youngest brother, James, and eldest sister, Sarah, drove back to Mobile, while Henry and Billye flew to Tokyo to attend the World Children’s Baseball Fair.
The next day, Sarah complained that she had trouble lifting her leg. She was admitted to the hospital, where she suffered two heart attacks. Following the second attack, Sarah slipped into a diabetic coma and never regained consciousness. She was seventy-one when she died.
Henry’s brother Alfred never survived past birth. Tommie had died fourteen years earlier. Over a sixty-day span in 1998, his father and eldest sister were also gone.
The president of the United States however, had held the microphone at his birthday party, and the big man began to crack, puffy with tears. Periodically, he would talk about how fortunate he had been to be born with ability and the desire to hone his talent, but at the birthday party the words were distilled into something tangible, something real. The party would be the highlight of his life, providing him a certain energy, from which he would often draw. The emotions of the evening reinforced his desire to build a foundation that would have impact. And that wasn’t all. Before President Clinton left, his presence had generated more than a million dollars for Henry’s foundation.
“You never know what it means to me to have the president say those things about me,” Henry recalled. “I think he was exaggerating, because he didn’t need me, but it gives you a warm feeling that the president of the United States would take the time. It told me that what we were trying to do for young people was the right thing to do.”
Henry sought to capitalize on his momentum by strengthening his philanthropic mission. All professional athletes touted their charitable foundations, but few of them did more than host an annual golf tournament and fly their friends around the country, tax-free. Henry felt an opportunity existed to create a model that would be truly lasting. It was, thought Frank Belatti, an opportunity for him to fuse together his two passions: separating himself from being just another ballplayer and taking an interest in the future of children, particularly children of color, who often lacked the parental guidance and educational opportunities to have a real chance in the world.
“Henry would always say, ‘If you’re going to influence a child, you have to do it early. Even high school is too late,’ ” said Allan Tanenbaum. The roots of Henry’s foundation work owed its origins to an initial contribution of $100,000 from Ted Turner in connection with an Oscar-nominated documentary called Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, by an unknown film director named Mike Tollin in 1995. The foundation, now named the Chasing the Dream Foundation, was created to help 755 children—symbolically, one for each of Henry’s home runs—with educational and financial support from grade school through graduation, and was aided by major fundraising coups—Bill Clinton’s million-dollar birthday crash of Henry’s sixty-fifth birthday, for one.
It was an ambitious project, and an expensive one that required corporate partnership. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America were in. Henry turned back to baseball, to his relationship with Bud Selig. Times had changed: the corporate and sports worlds relied heavily upon each other. The foundation needed to raise $2.5 million.
Selig was in, using his considerable muscle to further legitimize Henry’s charity work. After reaching Henry’s goal of sponsoring 755 kids through high school, Selig agreed in 2007 to help permanently endow the foundation with a $2.5 million gift for a new program: 44 Kids Forever, in cooperation with the Boys & Girls Clubs. In 2010, Henry took another ambitious step: a plan to fund twelve permanently endowed college scholarships, the twelve being symbolic for the number of times Henry went 4 for 4 in a game.
“Bud had a year left on his contract. The Hank Aaron Award was special to him,” Tanenbaum recalled. “This wasn’t a project you could execute on your own. It was more challenging. The baseball partnership recognized it’s potential.”
Billye had always described the motivation behind the foundation work as an opportunity to balance the scales.
“Both Henry and I had come up always being on the receiving end,” she recalled. “When I look back on my life, I had someone helping me at every turn. I remember being called the teacher’s pet, always into things. I remember wanting to be part of a production at school and not having the clothes. A woman named Mrs. Phillips bought me clothes. And I remember saying, ‘One day, I’m going to have so many clothes.’ We believed that in this position, we had a responsibility.”
Henry said he knew it years before, but after the birthday party, when the president and the Secret Service and all the guests had left, his vision had crystallized: He would immerse himself in his foundation work.
PERHAPS JUST SLIGHTLY, Henry felt a certain satisfied restitution. The night did not change the hell he had endured while seeking to break the home-run record, or cure the wounds that had been so deep, but 1999 represented a breakthrough for Henry.
“I wouldn’t say that the twenty-fifth was a major success for baseball, but it was a major success for Hank,” Bill Henneberry said. “People said, ‘We can use him,’ because he can speak. He can’t speak for five minutes, but he can do Q and A for an hour. He’s funny, had a great sense of humor. It rebranded him. People began to find out: ‘Hey, he’s a wonderful guy.’ He’s sweet more than anything else. People didn’t know that.”
MasterCard hadn’t backed Henry’s anniversary rollout, but now it had a problem and needed help: what to do about the end of the century. The millennium was coming and baseball’s biggest sponsor didn’t have a plan. The year 2000 was a tailor-made marketing opportunity, and MasterCard, with $29 million invested in baseball, needed to hit a tape-measure home run. Kathy Francis went back to Bill Henneberry and asked for a concept. The result was the All-Century Team, where fans would choose the greatest lineup of the century. But there were two problems. The first was that baseball, parochially clannish to the end, could not reach a consensus on this promotional idea. The Red Sox wanted to do their own all-century team, with Red Sox players only, and Ted Williams as the centerpiece. The second problem, from a national standpoint, was finding the right person to be the face for this promotional campaign.
“The question was, Who was the most marketable? Who was still alive? Ted was sick. Musial was one hundred and five years old. So MasterCard came up with Hank, Willie Mays, and George Brett and Barry Bonds,” Henneberry said. “But Brett wasn’t on the All-Century Team, and nobody wanted to work with Bonds.”
Henry did a commercial with the three and spent part of the year doing public appearances with Mays. The All-Century Team was a great thing for fans, debating players of different eras. It was all fun, the preferences for one player over another as harmless as choosing Kobe beef over caviar, or a Bordeaux rather than a Burgundy. But the old wounds were always close to the surface, especially when it came to competition with the two professional baseball players who always seemed to define Henry’s time: Ruth and Mays.
Bill Henneberry had come a long way with Henry since their first conversation in Philadelphia. Now, when MasterCard wanted Henry to appear during the All-Century campaign, Henry would specifically request that Henneberry be the representative who traveled with him. The two crisscrossed the country.
And then, days before the public announcement of the All-Century Team, Henneberry received a phone call.
“MasterCard had done this silly online promotion, not well publicized. Only ten thousand people voted, and they told me it was Ruth, Willie, and Ted Williams. Overall, 2–3 million people voted, and Hank had gotten the second-highest number of votes, behind Ruth. MasterCard hadn’t yet announced the starting lineups and didn’t want to lose face for having a New York–New England-centric online vote. I’m sitting with him when I get the call. When I told Hank the news, he didn’t say a word. He didn’t make a sound. But you could see it in his face, that I’d hurt him. And I immediately wanted to take it back. I ruined his afternoon.”
IT WAS THE corporate world that had resurrected Henry. During a period of less than three years, he had undone twenty years’ worth of public perception about him. He had shown that he could be funny and engaging. His was a modest balance. In the right environment, he could take the floor. He had to open up, relax, for his true charisma to show through. During the mid- to late 1990s, he had assuaged whatever doubts existed among the sales and marketing people. He could be, in his own way, a leading man. In sporting parlance, he had made the adjustment. It was either that or the scouting report on him had been dead wrong all along.
And in so many ways, it was fitting that his revival occurred only within a particular corporate setting: He thrived behind the scenes. He still did not do many commercials, did not hawk products, did not offer his personality to every living room in America. Unlike Joe DiMaggio with Mr. Coffee or George Foreman with an electric grill, Henry would never become synonymous with a single product. He cultivated the corporate types in small gatherings, often private or semipublic. It worked better that way. Henry had always remained not only close to power but on the right side of it, and now his pragmatism was being rewarded. It was pragmatism that made him different from his idol Jackie Robinson. In Robinson’s time, the issues were clear and Robinson was uncompromising: equal citizenship, nothing less. Henry took the responsibility of carrying the Robinson mantle seriously, as his politics and public statements often reflected, but his manner had always been different. Henry had always been methodical in dealing with the men in suits who controlled the money. It was not only political passion but also money that allowed projects to progress beyond the idea stage, and if Henry did not inspire in the Robinson mode, he nevertheless possessed a deft touch, to which executives tended to respond. He made the money men comfortable, and such a disposition had two consequences: The first was that he would often be exposed to the charge that he did not use his influence. The second was that making powerful men comfortable often led to financial opportunity. Now that he had been resurrected, the offers started coming in: fifty thousand for this, twenty-five grand for that. He was now part of the inner circle.
He had always loathed public speaking, but now when some corporate giant wanted him to come speak to the sales force about how to be home-run hitters in business (and in life), Henry was commanding upward of $35,000 per appearance. His foundation was growing, the backbone of his philanthropy, and lucrative invitations to serve on corporate boards followed. Ted Turner had contributed to making Henry a very rich man. Henry had served on the board of directors of TBS Broadcast Systems for a decade and a half, and he was also on the board of directors of the Braves, the Atlanta Falcons, the Atlanta Technical Institute, and Medallion Financial Corporation (“In niches there are riches,” so went the company motto).
So much of it all was happening the way Bud Selig had believed it would, if baseball could just stop fighting with itself over money. Big corporate sponsorships would lift the game out of the haze of the strike. Baseball would do its part by putting a dynamic face on the game—less Bud Selig and Don Fehr, more Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. The game was fun now, built on an anabolic cocktail of muscles and home runs and scripted Hallmark moments, mandated directly from the commissioner’s office, moments that took the rough edge off of the game and replaced sharp elbows with a “field of dreams.”
The highest (players would later call it the lowest) point came during the 2003 World Series, when Roger Clemens, who said he was leaning toward retirement, left game four after the seventh inning. Clemens, pitching on the road against the Florida Marlins in a World Series game, walked off the mound to a standing ovation from both teams.… And that was the first time baseball may have overdone it with the orchestrated moments, because after the tearful, hackneyed good-bye, Clemens changed his mind. He wound up pitching for four more years.
There was the money, and the feel-good mandate, but during the great home-run chase of 1998, the summer of Sosa and McGwire, both men with different but equally powerful appeal, USA Today released a poll that revealed 75 percent of the country preferred that McGwire break the record, rather than Sosa. Henry appeared on an ESPN interview program soon after the poll numbers were released, and he said publicly what blacks and Latinos were saying to one another.
“It’s just absolutely ridiculous that you could have that lopsided an opinion about who should break the record,” he said on the air. “And I’ve seen other little things that happened that make me believe that McGwire was the favorite rather than Sosa. And I think the reason for that is because he’s from the Dominican [Republic] and also happens to have black skin. I just don’t think it’s fair to him or his family or his country.”
What followed was the requisite beat-down: that Henry Aaron was bitter after all. And how dare he inject race into the home-run race?
“I received hundreds of calls to do interviews,” he told the Mobile Register. “I turned them down because I was afraid if I did it, I would be misquoted. Finally, I said yes to one, and, lo and behold, I was misunderstood.”
The point was it wasn’t a question of the public, or the press, misunderstanding Henry. There could be no misinterpretation of what Henry had said or what he had conveyed during the interview. Even though McGwire hit home run number sixty-two during the first week of September, the general reaction was that the record belonged to him, simply because he had surpassed the sixty-one milestone first. Three weeks still remained in the season, and for one afternoon, Sosa had tied McGwire at sixty-six, but the story line had been set: The record belonged to McGwire. Sosa would have to be content to play the stereotypical sidekick, the happy Latin.
The problem was that Henry had the temerity to talk about a real issue in this land of make-believe. He had sparked a fire with a Robinson-like resolve, and gotten smacked down for it. He had found out what was being discovered across the country: Dissent, whether it was right or wrong, was unacceptable. It got in the way of the money machine.
Henry responded to the backlash by saying nothing else on the subject. Despite the criticism, Henry held firm privately: McGwire was the chosen one because he was white, and that’s the way it was in America. Publicly, however, he rushed back to the reservation, reprogrammed. “It couldn’t have happened at a better time for baseball,” he later said of the home runs of 1998. “Baseball had some problems because of the strike and this has helped. It’s been great.”
Though it had been Henry who defended Sosa, it was Sammy who eventually ran afoul of Henry. This happened a couple of years after the 1998 frenzy, when John Hancock, another big baseball sponsor, announced plans to sell its stock to the public. To commemorate the occasion, it wanted a big name to ring the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, one of the fun perks that came with being the person of the hour. It was an honor designated for visiting dignitaries, Super Bowl winners, and famous sluggers, to name a few.
Hancock, naturally, wanted McGwire, but he said no. But Sammy Sosa said yes, as did Henry. The deal was going to be simple: Two legends from their respective eras would celebrate Hancock’s IPO. They would shake hands, sign autographs, and have lunch with the big shots, who then could brag to their friends. Bill Henneberry brokered the deal. Henry negotiated his usual fee, and agreed to a couple of additional events to push the numbers above a hundred grand.
But to the surprise of the Aaron people, Sosa cut his own deal: $135,000 for just the one afternoon. The day before the event, Sosa canceled, telling the firm he wouldn’t be attending. Stiffing Hancock meant stiffing Henry, who was left alone to carry the event.
“So, we’re going to meet and sign a hundred bats, then go to breakfast with the market makers,” Henneberry recalled. “Then they get a call from Sosa’s agent, who says, ‘Can we do this another time?’ ‘What do you mean? We’re going public tomorrow!’ The John Hancock guy is freaked. There’s all kind of shit flying around. They come back and say Sosa isn’t showing. He had a signed contract. He doesn’t show. I know I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but people think he’s this great guy. He’s not.”
And for the entire next day, a solo act instead of a duo, Henry was the star. He rang the bell on the exchange floor. He had them eating out of his hand. He told stories about the old days and gave that big laugh and made the executives enjoy being around him, their silvery hair turned dark and youthful for one afternoon. Everyone was taken by Henry’s gentleness and humor.
“Hank had to do the whole thing, and he was delightful,” Henneberry recalled. “He shook hands. He was great.”
IT WAS A piece of popular fiction that Bud Selig was responsible for initiating Henry’s second act. Selig’s family roots were in the car business and thus it made sense to think that when Henry created the Hank Aaron Automotive Group, the umbrella for a string of car dealerships he would begin in 1999, Selig had been the inspiration.
Not only was that not the case but Selig recalled warning Henry to think twice, and then think some more, before entering the car game. “Everybody was going to blame me if it didn’t work,” Selig said. “So I wanted him to know exactly what he was getting into.”
It was Henry’s old friend Jesse Jackson who indirectly got Henry involved in cars. It turned out that, even as the millennium neared, not a single American distributorship of Bavarian Motor Works, the great BMW, was owned by an African-American. When this situation came to light, the corporate types at BMW grew skittish, at first denying the charge, while refusing to name the black-owned distributorships. This was embarrassing, even more so when Jackson began to advertise the fact. Like other status symbols, owning a BMW meant you had made it. It meant class, speed, and enough disposable income to accept no substitute. An African-American who owned a BMW represented a significant financial achievement; thus Jackson did not relent in his criticism of the company. The criticism of BMW resonated especially in Atlanta, the city that came, not always accurately, to symbolize the success of black capitalism. That meant in Atlanta, a lot of successful black people were driving BMWs, and they could afford to change allegiances, switching to, say, Mercedes-Benz. Offending such an influential constituency was not good business.
And thus it came to pass that Henry Aaron became the first black majority owner of the first BMW franchise in the country, Hank Aaron BMW, located in Union City, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Vic Doolan, the president of BMW, understood the importance of being on the right side of a potentially explosive issue. He reached out to Henry and his people, and from protest came progress.
As a condition of ending the pressure, which had first been exerted on luxury import car makers for years by the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, BMW agreed to attract black ownership of BMW franchises, starting with Henry.
That was sweet, but not as sweet as the deal Henry received. Allan Tanenbaum brokered the deal. He demanded two things, both non-negotiable: Henry would receive majority control of the dealerships and not have to put up any of his own money. After BMW, Henry acquired Jaguar, Range Rover, Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota.
Initially, not everyone was happy with the deal. The fact that Henry was receiving such a golden deal ruffled the minority professionals who had struggled and sweated in the low margins and glass ceilings of the car business. To them, it was just another example of a celebrity handout.
HANK AARON GOES TO BAT FOR BMW
But while industry insiders don’t necessarily begrudge Aaron’s accomplishment, some question the wisdom of appointing a high-profile franchiser with little to no automotive experience.
“Quite frankly, we were surprised,” says Sheila Vaden-Williams, executive director of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers. “Especially since we’ve provided BMW with names of established dealers with an interest in the Atlanta market.”
Undaunted, Henry almost immediately recognized how powerful an asset the Hank Aaron name was. He had impressed skeptics by choosing a location, Union City, that had no previous client base. He hadn’t cherry-picked a ripe location, but he was determined to build a business. In the first twelve months, Hank Aaron BMW raked in $32.9 million in sales. Fans wanted to be associated with Hank Aaron, and for every new BMW he sold, he gave the buyers a Hank Aaron–signed baseball. Hank Aaron Toyota followed. As did Hank Aaron Range Rover.
Henry was vindicated, but some of his people seethed at what they considered to be more jealousy on the part of fellow professional blacks, the crab-in-a-barrel mentality that often stifled success. “There were some black folk that he knows who were calling him ‘Uncle Tom’ behind his back, and he wanted to prove them wrong,’ ” Allan Tanenbaum said. “He wasn’t trying to prove anything to the white man; he wanted to prove it to other black people. I really resented that.”
And it was a family affair. The kids never went into baseball, except for Lary, who became a scout with the Braves. Henry Aaron, Jr., worked at his father’s dealerships. And Henry’s son-in-law Victor Haydel oversaw Henry’s restaurant enterprises.
“Why was I chosen?” Aaron said in an interview in the magazine Black Enterprise. “Just because I had been a baseball player didn’t mean I didn’t know how to run a business. I have 17 successful fast-food restaurants with Church’s, Popeye’s, and Arby’s. They knew I had some experience running a franchise operation. I accepted the challenge that I could put minorities in charge and run a dealership.”
When the business press came to him, it found a different Henry from the one the sporting press had been accustomed to. He was still not particularly talkative, but he seemed to regard his business successes with a heightened pride. Perhaps the reason was that because he had been so comfortable in the sports world, he now enjoyed the challenge of succeeding in business. It was this success that allowed him the opportunity to disabuse whites of the notion that blacks could not succeed in business. He found himself more engaged with sports figures who had made the transition to real business ventures (as opposed to lending their names to a product and leaving the daily operation to others). He was particularly impressed with the basketball player Magic Johnson, who had parlayed his on-court success into a financial empire of banks, movie theaters, and restaurants. Johnson did not merely own the local movie theater; he had used his clout to appeal to corporations to invest in areas heavily populated by African-Americans. Henry had done the same with his fast-food chains, but an upscale operation such as BMW would require a different approach. The result was that, as Magic Johnson had done, Henry traded off of his name to create scholarships and internships in the auto industry. Three years after entering a new business venture, BMW had (with a significant nudge from Henry) launched its first minority training program.
ON OCTOBER 10, 2002, HENRY had purchased a house at 2029 Embassy Drive in West Palm Beach, Florida—more than 3,500 square feet, nestled on the golf course of the President Country Club—for $461,250 from Anthony and Patricia Lampert. Presidents had grown upscale and exclusive, emblematic of the real estate boom sweeping the country. Just four and a half years earlier, the Lamperts had purchased the house for $97,500, but West Palm, despite an unusually high crime rate, featured enclaves of star power. Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, and Tommy Lee Jones all owned houses in the area. Henry was sixty-eight at the time and intimates knew the West Palm purchase was part of his master retirement plan. Periodically, he would drop hints that his active participation in all of his business interests was finite. In interviews, he would say that he expected to be less involved, that “he wouldn’t stay in the car business forever.” He remained fourth on the Braves masthead and still maintained an office at Turner Field, but even though his title grew in importance, Henry hadn’t been involved in the daily operation of the Braves in years. In addition to the 755 Restaurant Corporation, he was part of various business partnerships, but in many of those he was being paid for lending his name to bring prestige to the enterprise.
His longtime assistant, Susan Bailey, who had worked with Henry since she was a teenager, was so successful at shielding him from requests (and even from people who knew him best) that she was often nicknamed “Dr. No” or “Horatius at the Bridge” by the foiled. Her stance represented Henry’s increasing need for distance. And these days, Henry was saying no more than ever: no to most honorary degree offers (yes to Wisconsin’s Concordia University—anything for Wisconsin; yes to George Washington University, no to Williamette College), no to speaking engagements, no to most interviews, no to commercials. You didn’t see Henry pitching products as other players might. His schedule was still full, but to his inner circle, the signals were clear: He was ready to leave public life.
What was there left to prove? As he approached seventy, he had grown in stature and status. The decade had been a total success. The drift and pessimism from the 1980s were gone. The Henry Aaron of the millennium was now a regal figure. In 1997, the Mobile Stadium, which Henry could not enter as a kid and which housed the team the Mobile Bears, on which he could not play, was renamed Hank Aaron Stadium. The people in Mobile told stories about seeing Henry’s dad around the ballpark, as if it were a celebrity sighting.
It was never going to be possible that Henry would be as well known for his cars as he was for his home runs, but he had nevertheless succeeded in his second act, a feat that most celebrities found increasingly elusive. He had become a wealthy man in two fields. It was during this time that even his greatest lament—that he had been rendered one-dimensional by the hate mail and the home runs and his fame—had been overcome. During the All-Century Team campaign, MasterCard ran a contest, the grand prize being dinner with Hank Aaron. The winners, a husband and wife with a couple of older children, met with Henry at the 2000 World Series.
“Hank asked what they did, and as it turned out, they owned car dealerships,” Bill Henneberry recalled. “It was the perfect match. They sat down in a small conference room at Shea Stadium before one of the games and neither mentioned a word about baseball. I’ll never forget the look on their faces. Their eyes were as big as saucers. They asked Hank about cars and he asked them about their dealerships. They thought they’d died and gone to heaven.”
Twelve days before he left office for good, President Clinton invited Henry to the White House to honor him with the Presidential Citizens Medal for “exemplary service to the nation.” A new generation of politicians—and it helped that the two most important, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were southerners—had recognized him in his fullness. The Citizens Medal, Clinton told Henry, was for his non-playing contributions as much as for hitting home run number 715.
“In the spotlight and under pressure,” Clinton said during the ceremony, “he always answered bigotry and brutality with poise and purpose.” He had always burned that his interest in the world outside of baseball never seemed to translate, but apart from Muhammad Ali—who also received a medal that day—no other recipient was affiliated with sports. Henry sat next to Fred Shuttlesworth, the civil rights leader whose house was bombed by segregationists on December 25, 1956, and Dr. Charles DeLisi, the first government scientist to outline the feasibility of the Human Genome Project. Henry had become transcendent.
Eighteen months later, Henry was at the White House again, before another president, George W. Bush, to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award.
The truth of it all was that Henry was never completely comfortable with the cloying demands of public life. Unassailable as he was in his position as public treasure, close friends noticed that he still never talked about 715, even though at every public appearance he signed eight-by-ten glossies of the Moment, the day he’d not mention. No one brought it up, nor did he volunteer, and that was fine, because he seemed to have softened as the years mounted.
“I don’t want to say that all the wounds from what he went through were healed, but definitely it had eased some,” said director Mike Tollin, who was one of the few people Henry said yes to (he allowed Tollin into his inner circle for a 1995 documentary). “I can’t say for sure, but I think the way he had been so totally embraced, that times were finally different, helped a lot.”
Dusty Baker would see Henry a couple of times a year, at a celebrity golf tournament or some other function, and he could sense that Henry was shifting down. One day in 2006, during his final, turbulent days managing the always tempestuous Chicago Cubs, Baker tried to explain the Aaron paradox: “The thing about Hank is that he really doesn’t need any of this. There are a lot of guys who say they don’t need the attention, but then you see them get mad every time someone gets mentioned ahead of them. Then all of a sudden they start giving interviews and now they’re all over the place. Hank is content with what he did. He doesn’t need to defend it, to compare it, nothing. He did what he did and that is enough for him.”
If the private Henry sought solace as he always had, the public had one last job for him.
WHEN A TRAIN comes speeding right at him, engines roaring, exhaust choking the easy blue sky, the instinctive man leaps blindly, hoping he will be fast enough and lucky enough to find safety. The hopeless man stands firm in the face of onrushing violence, resigned to his grisly fate. But the truly confident man, the man who knows himself, lies flat between the two rails, convinced the train will pass him by.
Beginning in 2005 and intensifying over the next two years, a locomotive of circumstances not of his own making headed directly toward Henry Aaron. And over the course of those two years, he would have to decide which of the three men he was going to be.
The amount of money was bigger than ever, and yet Bud Selig’s master plan of rehabilitation through corporate synergy, orchestrated set pieces, and runaway profits, had, in less than a decade, collapsed. That great elixir, the home run, was now baseball’s most discredited commodity. The cacophony about performance-enhancing drugs and loss of integrity was very real, even though the players, the union and the owners, all grew even richer. Alex Rodriguez earned $22.7 million in 2008, but Bud Selig was not so far behind, at $17.5 million. But because they chose money over authenticity, the heroes once credited with bringing the game back, well, they didn’t look so heroic anymore.
By the time Mark McGwire had been retired a measly five years, the period most Hall of Fame–level players prepare for a lifetime of bronzed immortality, McGwire was a six-foot-five-inch, 245-pound symbol of fraud. Baseball’s most carefully constructed monument, the home-run summer of 1998, was no longer a baseball heirloom, but the family disgrace, the open secret no one dare mention, in the hope it would just fade away.
No home run could ever cleanse McGwire’s disastrous public appearance March 17, 2005, in front of the House Committee for Government Reform, when he was reduced to a buffed-out con man, his magical summer rendered inauthentic. The train sped toward McGwire, too, and it overwhelmed him. McGwire was unable to defend—in front of his government and his country—the outsized feats of his career that once had been celebrated. He had nothing to say, repeating the phrase that would become a punch line as well as an epitaph: “I’m not here to talk about the past.” He had nothing of which to be proud, nothing at all to add. When he left room 2154 of the Rayburn Building that windy March afternoon, only the tatters of what was once his reputation remained.
Sitting next to McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro famously pointed at the committee and swore, under oath, that he’d never taken steroids. “Period,” he said, only to test positive for steroids two months later. As the afternoon wore on, Sammy Sosa, McGwire’s 1998 accomplice, feigned he understood not a single word of the English language, and did not answer a single question. In 2009, Sosa’s name was leaked as one of dozens of names to have tested positive for an anabolic substance in 2003.
In one afternoon of stunning, devastating clarity, the years that built a renaissance not only came completely undone but proved fraudulent; a Superfund site sold as beachfront property.
The toxicity levels of what was now being called the “Steroid Era” were lethal, and it was the numbers, always the lifeblood of the sport, that contained the most cancerous cells. From the time not long after California had still been part of Mexico until 1997, the sixty-home run mark had been reached just twice, by Ruth in 1927 and by Maris in 1961. Yet between 1998 and 2001, while the profits soared, sixty had been topped six times and the seventy—seventy—home-run mark reached twice. The top six single-season home-run seasons had been recorded over a four-year period. In a four-year period, Sosa hit sixty home runs three times but didn’t win a home-run title in any one of those years. Meanwhile, the cash registers ka-chinged melodically and the people cheered, while men like Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, and Mike Schmidt did a slow burn.
McGwire had hit seventy home runs in 1998, and after the last one, he said in an interview room, arms puffy and eyes shifty, that his record would never be broken.
But three years later, Barry Bonds hit seventy-three home runs.
Baseball had gotten other numbers it liked—revenues from $1.2 billion in 1994 to $6 billion in 2007 and $6.6 billion in 2008—and the public had gotten its thrills. If Bill Henneberry remembered when baseball was radioactive to advertisers and sponsors, nobody else did. But suddenly—or maybe not so suddenly—it had all gone too far, the joyride topped by one ice-cream scoop too many. McGwire-Sosa 1998 was supposed to be that ridiculous, magical year that made no earthly sense, wouldn’t happen again, and gave the people who saw it that special generational unity, like DiMaggio-Williams in 1941 and Mantle-Maris two decades later. Instead, as the numbers kept increasing, one fraudulent scoop after another, the authenticity of the game seemed increasingly remote. And now, chasing Aaron, there was Bonds, already viewed suspiciously by the public for his obdurate disposition and growing head size, chased by the federal government because it believed he’d lied to a federal grand jury about taking muscle-making drugs. Bonds was so dominant and so prolific when it came to hitting the ball out of the ballpark that by 2005 he had become Henry, circa 1969: the guy for whom breaking the home run record was no longer a question of if, but when.
Historians had clung to the Black Sox—the infamous 1919 Chicago White Sox team that had thrown the World Series—as the standard of malfeasance in professional sports. They claimed that this was the cataclysmic moment when the game had been wrenched from its moorings. Steroids, they said, weren’t nearly that disastrous in terms of historical importance. The contemporaries liked to point to Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time leader in hits, now reduced to a cheap Las Vegas sideshow, as being worse than the rampant drug use that undermined the game.
But neither came close.
The apologists in the locker room, the front offices, and, worst of all, the press box said there was nothing in a bottle that could help you hit home runs. They demanded proof that their golden heroes would do something, anything, to run faster, hit harder, play more, earn more. When the information finally appeared, in the form of positive tests, grand jury investigations, sting operations, federal indictments, and empty, implausible lies, the apologists spun deftly, claiming that drugs were old news, that everybody knew players were using, and asking, Couldn’t we just move on? In the face of crumbling reputations and laughable, desperate denials, the apologists turned off their brains and their intellect and their enthusiasm for the great glory of the pastime, vigorously and petulantly shaking their heads in denial.
THE PUBLIC DIDN’T want numbers anymore, not with the IRS and the federal government hunting down MVPs and Cy Young winners as though they were La Cosa Nostra. Numbers were too suspicious. Numbers just confirmed the con game. Now they wanted a hero, someone who could remind them that the currency of baseball wasn’t something as unimportant as the number of times a man could hit the ball over the fence, but about the value systems and virtues that worthless feat once represented.
Reaching back into the past wasn’t going to be enough. Ted Williams, the cantankerous but hearty, authentic American, was gone. So was the immigrant hero DiMaggio (though it was virtually impossible to envision the embittered, mysterious Joe leading a public debate on values). Jackie, of course, was long gone, while Willie was making more a fool of himself every day he opened his mouth about a subject he knew little about. (I just don’t think steroids help you at all. They just don’t do anything.) Mays exhibited a combination of loyalty to his godson, Barry Bonds, and a severe tone deafness to the severity of the public breach. Star power and nostalgia alone weren’t going to do it this time. The word integrity was back in vogue, even if it was needed less as a guide and more to assuage the collective guilt. The public, as much as some of the people associated with the game, realized too late, and without enough response, that what had been lost—the belief in the difficulty that came with the game—was the very quality that gave the sport its power.
The apologists and the disbelievers and the ones who couldn’t be bothered, they all tried to minimize the effects of a game without integrity. Those effects, for once, could not be measured by money, but by numbers that could not be argued: McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa, Clemens, and Bonds, one hundred combined seasons, forty-seven all-star appearances, 2,523 home runs, 354 wins, nine MVPs, seven Cy Young Awards, two single-season home-run records, and the most famous sports record in the history of the country, all publicly disgraced during the same era by the same issue.
No other sport, at no period in the history of the republic, could ever say that. No other sport could point to half a dozen of its greatest players, and a dozen more of possible Hall of Fame caliber, all from different teams, who couldn’t show their faces in public. And now the greatest record in the country was about to fall. Another tainted record. The public wanted someone who could provide a moral compass, someone who could bring them and their game back into the light.
So they turned to Henry.
There had always been a gap between Hank and Henry. Introverted and unsure in large settings, Henry thrived in tightly controlled private gatherings. There, he could relax and allow his natural suspicions to melt. He would be genuinely warm and funny and gentle, disarming his audiences with his easy laugh and quickness, like when he would take his grandson, Victor junior, to school every day. Friends would marvel at how he hated public speaking and yet shone so well in those small-group Q and A sessions, when members of the audience would file out, feeling as though they’d been talking to a familiar uncle. It was in these settings, with corporate executives, manageable groups of lucky fans, and children, where his charisma flowered.
But now, with the sport in moral crisis, the public wanted the other half of the man, not intimate-chat Henry but the great Hank Aaron, the leader of men, out in front and in public. They wanted his presence to make them feel better about a sport he hadn’t played in thirty years. In the months following the 2005 congressional hearings, the number of times the public yearned to hear the voice of Henry Aaron were too numerous to count.
The old guard came out, crotchety and indignant, in defense of their time.
“Go ask Henry Aaron,” Jim Bunning, the Hall of Fame pitcher turned Kentucky senator, thundered. Henry had worn out Bunning, hitting .323 against him in sixty-five at bats. In the first game of a doubleheader, May 10, 1967, in Philadelphia, Bunning gave up home run number 448 to Henry. “Go ask the family of Roger Maris,” Bunning said. “Go ask all of the people who played without enhanced drugs if they would like their records compared with the current records.”
On the face of it, one might have thought that Henry would have welcomed the attention, his inner desire for respect finally converging with the public’s appreciation of him. For years, Henry would argue that records were always valued until they landed in his hands, the hands of a black man. He used to say the all-time home-run record was the most hallowed in all of baseball—until he broke it. Then it wasn’t so important anymore. Later, he would say with no shortage of acidity that Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak seemed to carry more value to the establishment than his record. Yet as Bonds approached, Henry only grew in stature. The New York Daily News, once the home of one of Henry’s great journalistic nemeses, Dick Young, now referred to the record, his record, as “sacred.”
After years of being dismissed as bitter and largely incurious, or disparaged and accused of being easily led by the more dominant female figures in his life, he was now an important man, the person who was being asked to be the voice of authority on the most important subject of the times. During the Steroid Era, there was no person in baseball whose word was more anticipated or carried greater moral weight than that of Henry Aaron. He had reached the position Jackie Robinson had so many years before, an athlete sought out more for his moral standing than for his past heroics.
And it was there, at the precise moment when he finally had the floor all to himself, that Henry Aaron chose not to engage. Henry’s old contemporary Frank Robinson was fierce and unequivocal. “Any player found to have used steroids, well, I don’t think their records should count,” Robinson said. “I think they should be wiped out.” It was a powerful, direct statement, emblematic of the uncompromising Robinson, who had been fourth on the all-time list for what felt like forever, with 586 home runs. “Pretty soon,” Robinson said, “I’m going to be way, way, way down the list.”
Robinson, Bunning, and so many of the old-timers were fierce, not just because their places in the continuum were being erased but also because for this generation of Americans, drugs were about as low as a person could go. Henry himself had been driven to action by what he saw drugs doing to black communities. He had struggled with his own brother James’s drug and alcohol addictions. James was the youngest of the Aaron siblings. He had remained in Mobile and at one point was living at the Salvation Army building.
But Henry was evasive on the ethical question of steroids, about whether he believed using performance-enhancing drugs was cheating, and nobody could understand why. He refused to engage about his feelings toward specific players and their chemically enhanced accomplishments, offering vague statements about how “unfortunate” the current situation was. Henry distanced himself. Even Bud Selig had reversed field, acknowledging the degree to which his sport had been derailed. In the spring of 2006, Selig announced he would launch an investigation, headed by former senator George Mitchell, into the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
A week into the 2006 season, Henry attended a dinner in Milwaukee, where he gave an impromptu press conference, and it was here that he would begin to define his public position about Bonds.
AARON PREFERS TO FOCUS ON THE POSITIVES
“I think what the commissioner is trying to do is trying to put an end to all of this,” Aaron said after a news conference at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee. “I know people have said, ‘Where is this investigation going, and what purpose?’ But I think he’s trying to put an end to it.”
Aaron said Selig was trying to do what is right. Asked if the allegations about drug use hurt the game, Aaron sidestepped the question.
“This game has got so much to offer,” he said.… “Yet we are focusing on one thing, and that’s steroids. We need to get rid of it once and for all and, hey, let’s get on with the job of playing baseball.”
He frustrated certain elements of the press, which believed that Aaron was being passive-aggressive: He complained about not being taken seriously and yet shrank when the world looked to him on a serious issue. Even his supporters were often perplexed by his lack of a position, for it was incongruous with the man they knew.
“The one thing Henry hated was cheating. The whole thing bothered him,” Ralph Garr said. “Why do you think he and Gaylord Perry never got on well? He might not have said anything, but anyone who knew Henry Aaron knew that the whole thing about drugs, that really bothered him.
“You’d have been ashamed to do stuff like that around him. He’d form his opinion from the inside. It wasn’t Henry Aaron’s way to tell you about your business. That’s why he’s not going to mention Barry. He’s gonna let that train pass.”
That Henry was quiet about steroids was to some degree generational. For a man of Henry’s time, drugs were designed to alter the mental state of the user. Drugs made you dopey—hence the slang term dope. But the sophistication and purpose of designer steroids and human growth hormone—There were drugs that could improve your eyesight?—were outside of his sphere. Dusty Baker thought that while Henry appreciated his status as baseball royalty, he did not want this issue, so tawdry and difficult, to be the one that forced him back into the public eye. Drugs were, as they say, a dirty business. On the one hand, he was still a ballplayer, and he bought into the rhetoric that there was nothing in a bottle that could help a player once he stepped into the batter’s box. The batter still had to see the ball and make contact. Yet he knew simply by looking at the numbers and the immense size of some of the players that something was amiss. “I played the game,” Henry would say. “It’s just not possible to hit seventy home runs.” In interviews, however, such as before game four of the 2007 World Series between Boston and Colorado, he referred to performance enhancers as he would a dime bag of marijuana.
“I just don’t want to get involved with conversations about dope,” he said.
Yet another reason was political. His friend of a half century, Bud Selig, was under assault—from the union, from the players, from the fans and writers, and from Congress—for not being swift and decisive on the issue, and Henry was careful with his opinions. A blistering indictment of steroid use would indirectly be a criticism of his ally Selig and Selig’s handling of the situation.
THE REAL POINT was, Henry thought he could not win on the Bonds issue. He would tell intimates that Bonds was a “lose-lose.” If he spoke out against Bonds, then he risked the criticism that he was just a bitter old man who could not deal with his record being broken. There were people close to Henry who believed that he enjoyed being the all-time home-run leader. He had held the record for so long that it had become a part of him. It had given him the sort of legitimacy that being a transcendent player did not. And what was not to like about holding the record?
Yet, this was not a reason for Henry not to want his record broken. What Billye Aaron admired most about Henry was the comfort he seemed to have within himself. “He knows what he did,” she said, “and he knows that the time would come when the record would belong to someone else. That part of it didn’t bother him, as far as I’m concerned.” Henry himself would repeat the same refrain: Records were made to be broken. It was a shopworn cliché, and it certainly masked whatever complex feelings he held toward Bonds, but it was true.
Henry also believed that if he said nothing, or supported Bonds in his quest to break the record, if for no other reason than to be a good ambassador to baseball, he would be tacitly condoning steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Throughout his life, he had been proud of how he approached his profession. He didn’t want to be associated with the drug culture, which had changed the game and the way the sport was viewed.
For all of his fears, there was still another section of the press that knew Henry was being placed in an impossible position. Even saying nothing about Bonds was, by definition, a statement in and of itself.
During each public appearance, he invariably would be faced with a question about Bonds. His responses were often odd, and for a press that felt Henry was in a position of leadership, this was maddening. There was, for example, the day in Milwaukee when the Brewers were dedicating a plaque for Henry’s 755th home run, his last big-league home run, the record.
“Barry Bonds?” Henry said. “I don’t even know how to spell his name.”
To Henry’s inner circle, it was a great quote, one that made everybody laugh. Henry was showing his dry sense of humor to break up a tense moment. However, the press had the opposite reaction. Flippant and evasive comments did not endear Henry to the press. And then there was the bizarre interview he gave to the Associated Press:
Q: In fact, I was just going to ask you, how closely do you follow the games?
A: Oh, I watch the Braves play every day.
Q: How many games do you go to a year?
A: I don’t go to too many. I don’t attend too many, but I watch on television every day.
Q: Do you have any advice for Barry Bonds?
A: For who?
Q: Barry Bonds, because he went through so much, as you did.
A: I don’t have any.… As I said before, I don’t have any advice whatsoever, no advice to anybody.
Q: Have you spoken with him?
A: No. I have not talked to anybody, really.
Q: What will you be doing when he’s on the brink of tying or breaking your record?
A: I have no idea, probably playing golf somewhere.
Q: Would you reconsider your decision to stay away?
A: I will never reconsider my decision.
Q: That’s pretty strong. Why is that?
A: Nothing. Just that it’s the way I am.… I traveled for 23 years and I just get tired of traveling. I’m not going to fly to go see somebody hit a home run, no matter whether it is Barry or Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or whoever it may be. I’m not going anyplace. I wish him all the luck in the world.
Q: Well, if it happened in Atlanta would you go?
A: No, I won’t be there.
Q: If he breaks your mark do you think it’s an accomplishment on par with what you did?
A: I don’t know, and as I said before, I don’t want to discuss him, really. Really, I don’t mean to discuss anything about it.… I’ve stayed out of this.
Behind the scenes, Henry and Bud Selig spoke numerous times each week. Henry would ask Selig for advice on how to handle the mounting questions about Bonds. Selig told Henry to speak his piece if he chose, and said the two would always be friends. It was Henry, in fact, around whom seemingly everyone in the game tiptoed. Dusty Baker found himself in the most awkward position: a commentator for ESPN during the year Bonds neared the record. Baker was trapped: For forty years, Henry had treated him like a son. But Baker had managed Bonds for ten seasons in San Francisco.
“I was caught in the middle,” Baker recalled. “I’m on the air and they’re asking me about steroids and Barry, but in the back of my mind I’m also thinking about Hank. So what did I do? I called Hank every week, just to make sure he was cool. He told me, ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m fine with it.’ But I did worry about it, because it was Hank.”
As usual, it was Selig who remained the ultimate power broker. While he remained loyal to Henry, Selig was also fielding calls from Bonds during the summer. Bonds wanted to know why Henry had not contacted him.
As Bonds approached the home-run record, members of Henry’s inner circle believed he needed to take on the Bonds issue directly and candidly. There was no point, one adviser told him, to believe “this thing” could be avoided. At a meeting, Henry was inundated with ideas for how he should handle confronting the public as Bonds neared his record. One suggestion was to cultivate a friendly journalist and offer the exclusive story—Henry Aaron on Bonds and the record—to Sports Illustrated. It would be a cover story, of course. The people closest to him, who had known him for decades, including Bud Selig, all thought it a splendid idea: a controlled environment, with Henry on record, the kind of preemptive move public-relations experts loved. Another suggestion was to find a friendly television journalist (Tim Russert and Bob Costas were the top candidates) and have Henry do an hour-long sit-down. The freight train approached. And Henry would lie between the tracks. He said no to each strategic suggestion. And then he cut off all discussion of the matter.
The truth was, Henry was personally and permanently offended by Barry Bonds. The reasons were always sketchy, for Henry did not talk about Bonds specifically. To understand Henry, you had to know how to read body language, facial expressions, and sounds. You had to understand that Henry Aaron did not always speak with words. It was often what Henry didn’t say that carried all the meaning. And during those two summers of 2006 and 2007, you had to be truly illiterate not to understand what he was trying to convey about both Bonds and the record.
Members of the inner circle may have sounded conflicted about the Bonds conundrum, unsure of what to say publicly (mostly out of loyalty to Henry’s friend Bud Selig), but Henry shared no such uncertainty.
Bonds and Henry had done business before, back in 2002 for a Charles Schwab Super Bowl commercial, which showed Bonds taking batting practice as a mystical voice whispered in the background that Bonds needed to retire, to begin thinking about his future, in the mode of Field of Dreams. Finally, Bonds stopped hitting and yelled up to the press box, “Hank, will you cut it out?” The camera fixed on Aaron’s surprised face and Henry delivered the commercial’s punch line. “Hank? Hank who?”
It was a hilarious spot, but there was talk of a falling-out between the two men after. But what really frosted Henry was when in 2005 the Bonds people invited him to be part of what could only be termed a Barry Bonds victory tour. Bonds already had his godfather, Willie Mays, on board. Celebrations would be planned, the first when Barry hit home run number 661, passing Mays on the all-time list. The second would be after home run number 715, when Ruth was passed again, by another black man. Finally, the big fireworks would go off when Bonds hit number 756 for the all-time record.
The underlying incentive, the Bonds people told Henry, was race. Just imagine: the three greatest black players in history combining forces, finally taking history and reshaping it, turning the Bonds moment into something black America could be proud of. And there was big money to be made: exclusive appearances, limited-edition signed balls, bats, and merchandise (how many people owned memorabilia that contained the signatures of Bonds, Mays, and Aaron anyway?). The pitch ended with Henry being told his share alone might net three million dollars.
Henry spurned each overture by Bonds and his handlers to cultivate him, to make him a partner in the creation (or at least the marketing) of the beginning of a new history, the beginning of the Bonds era as home-run king, anointed by his legendary godfather, blessed by Henry. Henry made it clear to his closest advisers he would have nothing to do with Bonds. No Sunday conversation on ESPN, no traveling with Bonds to market or even aid in rehabilitating a game wounded by drugs. In a culture where everything, especially ethics, seemed to be for sale, Henry thought marketing the home-run record perhaps the crassest thing he’d ever heard. Bonds needed Henry for legitimacy, perhaps even for his own baseball salvation. But Henry Aaron needed Barry Bonds like he needed a root canal. No one would know what was exactly said during that phone conversation between the two, but there was no ambiguity about Henry’s position. Confidants recalled Henry’s words afterward as being “He’s trying to buy me. And I resent that.”
AT HIS LOS ANGELES office, Mike Tollin received a call from Rachael Vizcarra. Vizcarra was one of two women who did personal public-relations for Bonds, outside of the Giants official team sphere. She went back to Bonds’s days with the Pirates and was Bonds’s special envoy to Tollin, who now sat on the board of Henry’s Chasing the Dream Foundation.
Tollin and Bonds had crossed paths before: A dozen years earlier, Tollin had interviewed Bonds for his documentary on Henry, Chasing the Dream. Given how events would ultimately unfold, it was more than a little ironic to watch the end of the film, with its interviews of stars from the mid-1990s—Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, Jr., David Justice—and see Barry Bonds offer the last word of the documentary on Henry.
Around the same time, Tollin had been executive producer of Arli$$, the HBO comedy series that starred Robert Wuhl as a high-powered sports agent and featured cameos by numerous professional athletes. During the show’s first two seasons, 1996 and 1997, Bonds agreed to appear, and he impressed Tollin and Wuhl (who was also an executive producer) with his professionalism and surprising seriousness and perfectionism. What impressed Wuhl most was the time Bonds was on the set and a particular scene had not been done to anyone’s satisfaction. At the time, Bonds was represented by Dennis Gilbert, and Gilbert reminded Bonds they had another appointment, a lucrative commercial for a high-powered client. They were late, he said, and would have to cut the filming short. But Bonds remained while all the necessary takes were shot and the scene was correct. Wuhl and Tollin never forgot that side of Bonds. Tollin, especially, believed it was an untapped side of Bonds that could be mined.
Now, years later, Rachael Vizcarra was calling on behalf of Barry Bonds. It was during the off-season before the 2006 season and Bonds stood at 708 career home runs. He had missed nearly the entire 2005 season due to an injury, but he came back to hit five home runs in fourteen September games. The strong finish gave the impression that Bonds would hit not only the seven homers he needed to pass Ruth in 2006 but also, the forty-eight he needed to pass Aaron to become the all-time leader.
The conversation was brief. Tollin mostly listened carefully, waiting for the upshot. And then, finally, he heard it: “Barry wants you to do for him what you did for Hank Aaron,” Vizcarra told him.
Tollin was intrigued. As a next step in the process, he requested a meeting with Bonds. A few weeks later, the two met in Los Angeles at the apartment Bonds kept in the fashionable Wilshire Corridor. He actually kept two condominiums, one as an office, the other as a residence for when he was in town. During their talks, it seemed that Bonds was almost auditioning for the show Tollin had in mind. He told Tollin stories about growing up, about how abusive his father, Bobby Bonds, had been. He talked about the unfair treatment baseball had levied upon Bobby, and how his father’s alcoholism in part could be traced to how poorly he had been treated by the game. Bonds took Tollin through the condo and Tollin found himself intrigued by Bonds’s range of interests. He was interested in photography and Wall Street, movies and technology, and was in the process of a new project: a photo montage for his daughter. Yet despite the intrigue, Tollin also recognized an insulting red flag. Later that day, Bonds took Tollin to the residence portion of his condominium where his private chef was preparing lunch. Tollin was not offered any.
The discussions proceeded in earnest. Tollin wanted to know if Bonds was serious about moving forward. The project, he said, would not be hagiography: There were going to be controversial topics, such as the drug issues that swirled around him. Bonds said he was in the right frame of mind to proceed.
Tollin had been concerned about artistic integrity, and thus he demanded he have the final cut. Bonds didn’t have any formal requests of his own, but wanted to know if Henry would be part of the program at some point.
After the meetings, Tollin was convinced he had sufficient cooperation from Bonds—and enough of a creative vision—to produce a compelling work. His vision was a singular one-hour documentary on Bonds. Bonds, of course, would be the star, and Tollin’s challenge would be to present him in a dimension different from what Bonds believed to be the incorrect public perception of him.
Then Tollin followed up with another mantra that came from doing business in Hollywood: First you get the goods, and then you figure out where to sell them. ESPN was a natural, and the network was immediately interested—but not in a single show. Tollin recalled a conversation with Disney CEO Bob Iger at the premiere of the film Glory Days during which Iger told him a one-hour documentary was “leaving money on the table.” The show’s scope increased and Tollin agreed to film a full-season miniseries. The title Tollin wanted—I’m Barry Bonds and You’re Not—was a nod to the seminal 1993 Sports Illustrated cover story. ESPN’s choice—Bonds on Bonds—would be the title.
They made the deal, and then Tollin prepared for what he expected to be an interesting phone call—apprising Henry of the project. They had a good conversation, Tollin recalled, and Henry appreciated that Tollin showed him respect by asking him, in effect, to bless the project. But Henry was not interested. “I told him it wasn’t about me taking sides. It was a chance as a filmmaker to tell a compelling story. Henry was typically gracious. Implicit in the message was that he didn’t mind me doing it, but he didn’t want any part of it.”
BONDS WAS A polarizing figure, but also a fascinating one. John Skipper and John Walsh, two of the ESPN top executives who gave the show the green light, were enthusiastic and prepared to swat away the internal and external concerns that a reality-television show on Bonds would compromise the news operation. Walsh was particularly fascinated by Bonds, and according to intimates, he did not feel Bonds had ever been covered properly. After all, not only was Bonds bearing down on the home-run record but he was also being investigated by the federal government for perjury. Tollin and ESPN, so went the criticism, were providing a public-relations forum for a bad guy desperate to rehabilitate his image. Yet there was something of value to the show: Tollin had exclusive interviews with Barry Bonds during the season, Bonds in his own words—and nobody else had that.
That exclusivity, it turned out, would be the leverage that would ultimately destroy the show after ten episodes. Like a good-natured woman who really believes she can change that troubling, intriguing man she’s fallen for, Tollin found out what so many people before him had discovered: There was no working with Barry Bonds.
The show debuted April 4, 2006. As the show progressed beyond the first few episodes, it was clear that Bonds believed the interviews gave him leverage over Tollin and the network. Tollin had already sensed possible trouble when, during the early blueprinting of the show, Bonds made Tollin sign a confidentiality agreement, opening him up to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit should he discuss anything that took place behind the scenes.
And then came the moment that, to Mike Tollin, said it all. Bonds had wanted Henry to be part of the project, and Tollin had an idea. If Bonds and Tollin split the cost of sponsoring a Hank Aaron scholar—roughly $25,000 apiece—Henry would most likely agree to a Chasing the Dream scholarship in the Bay Area and an appearance on the show. But Bonds just didn’t get it. According to intimates, Bonds wanted nothing to do with the charity.
Later, Tollin had informed Bonds that he had a preexisting agreement with Disney to produce a $50 million film called Wild Hogs, a John Travolta–Martin Lawrence comedy vehicle, and he told Bonds that another producer, Fred Golding, would be taking on some of the show’s duties. It was during this time that Bonds attempted in meetings to take more control over the direction of the show, which Tollin believed was in direct violation of their deal. The show was supposed to be independent, and now Bonds was trying to dictate the content during weekly planning meetings. Tollin went to ESPN, but the show was at an impasse. Bonds continued exerting control and the relationship soured. After Bonds hit his 715th home run, he insisted in dictating the content of the next week’s show. “I refused and insisted on maintaining creative control,” Tollin recalled. “And Barry said, ‘If that’s the case, I’ll stop participating.’ He wanted this to be his deification. I basically refused to give Bonds control. I went to John Skipper. ESPN supported my position, and we walked away.”
Ultimately, the show fell flat for other reasons. Ratings were poor. Tollin believed Bonds felt betrayed over Wild Hogs. Yet there were a few moments he was proud of. The show captured Bonds’s 715th homer, when he passed Ruth’s record. After that game, Tollin went into the clubhouse to congratulate Bonds, who signed a ball for Tollin’s son, Luke. The inscription was classic Bonds. “To Luke, God Bless Barry Bonds.” Tollin always wondered with a certain amount of humor if the omitted comma was intentional.
And worst of all for the show, the dynamic, electric Bonds, who was expected to chase the home-run record with a fury, was hardly electric. He was a haggard old man, a sagging forty-two-year-old who, like most forty-two-year-olds still playing professional sports, accumulated numbers for a living. He could hit—occasionally. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t field his position.
“There’s a heart beating there, but there are so many layers. I think the hardship growing up with his dad and Willie starts with mistrust,” Tollin recalled. “They would tell him, ‘You’re better off without those people, and it’s up to you to find out who those people are.’
“It was a shame. We could have made a nice show, but it became a test of wills, which wasn’t what it was all about,” he said. “This was his deification. So that was that. We’d rather walk away and prove to the media that we insisted on creative integrity. I saw Barry at the premiere. He was friendly. No hard feelings. It was a case of moving on. I’m not in touch with him.”
THE GIANTS DESPERATELY wanted Henry to participate in the Bonds coronation. It wasn’t just that a nod from Henry would give class and dignity and legitimacy to the whole sordid affair, perhaps soften the public mood that the record would always contain a steroid taint if Bonds surpassed Henry. The other reason was Henry’s potential influence on Bonds himself. Perhaps having Henry involved would propel Barry into a feeling of magnanimity. Inside the Giant organization, everyone knew the real fiction surrounding Bonds was that his blood feud was a solo affair between himself and the press. That always made people who worked for the Giants laugh. The real truth was that Bonds treated Giants employees as badly as he did the writers. In some cases, certain Giants employees thought, the writers had it easier than club employees, because at least the writers could leave. They could get away from Bonds. The writers could retreat to the press box or the field or anyplace where Barry was not. They only had to deal with Bonds the player for about three hours per day. Maybe having Henry on board would give Bonds more incentive to enjoy the journey toward history. Maybe it would make Barry be nice, just for a month.
Of course, Larry Baer did not know that Bonds had already insulted Henry, and Henry Aaron wouldn’t have gone to San Francisco in a million years for ten million bucks.
But Baer was persistent. Susan Bailey, upon orders from Henry and Allan Tanenbaum, was an even more ferocious gatekeeper than normal as Bonds approached the record. “Susan wouldn’t even let most people finish their sentences,” Tanenbaum recalled. That made one of the stories floating around—that the television network Fox had offered Henry $250,000 per day to travel with Bonds once Bonds came within a home run of 755—virtually impossible.
“I know that story wasn’t true for two reasons,” Tanenbaum said. “The first was that nobody could even get to Henry during those final three weeks. The second was that Henry had already said he had no interest in this. No amount of money was going to get him to change his mind.”
Baer, though, slipped through the protective shield once, to the fury of Bailey and Tanenbaum, reaching Henry at home and asking him one final time if he would fly to San Francisco for Bonds. The Giants would cover the tab, naturally: flights, hotels, meals, transportation—everything first-class.
Henry said no.
That didn’t stop Baer, who, at the league’s New York offices, met with Henry and Tim Brosnan and John Brody, two members of the MLB Properties division. At that meeting, Baer told Henry he was interested in having him explain his position. Why, Baer asked, was he being so vague about his plans? Henry told Baer he did not judge Bonds but that as a seventy-three-year-old man he had no interest in following another baseball player around. He’d had his time as the record holder, he told Baer, and he wished Barry well, but he was not interested.
“Would you at least consider a taping?” Baer recalled asking, fully expecting a no. “Would you tape a congratulatory message we could show on the video board whenever he breaks the record?”
“That, I could do,” Henry said.
To Henry’s recollection, he had not completely committed. To Baer, Henry was on board.
Baer sprang into action. He prepared a film crew to fly to Georgia to tape Henry. He even wrote the script, telling Henry just what to say. Henry informed Baer he would do the video but that he would write the words himself … and he added a special caveat: Should anything “extraordinary” occur during the time between the taping and the day Bonds broke the record, he reserved the right to prohibit the Giants from airing the video. That something “extraordinary,” as everyone knew, was the federal indictment for perjury that had hung over Bonds for three years.
For weeks, the video sat in a vault in the Braves offices. When Baer finally received the video—which arrived when Bonds was two home runs away from the record—he did not tell anyone he had snared the great and reticent Henry Aaron, Bonds included. The only people who knew, apart from the principals, were the scoreboard operators (who had to be sure the tape was compatible with their systems) and the commissioner’s office, which had had a hand in brokering the deal.
AUGUST 7, 2007, SBC Park: fifth inning, one out. In his first two at bats, Bonds had doubled and singled against Mike Bacsik, the Washington Nationals pitcher. The day before, Bacsik had fielded the inevitable questions of what it would be like to serve up the record-breaking home run. “I dreamed about this moment since I was a kid,” he said. “Except I was the one hitting the homer, not giving it up.”
The record had turned into a slog, a forty-three-year-old antihero playing for nothing but himself, in joyless pursuit of a record only he wanted broken. The Giants were in last place and would stay there. If there was any suspense at all, it was about whether Bonds would be indicted before he broke the record, and, if so, whether Bud Selig would suspend Bonds immediately and save the record, an eleventh-hour clemency not so much for Henry but for the relentless assault of performance-enhancing drugs on his sport.
In the press box, the writers lived for these moments. Sitting in on history was one of the biggest reasons to be in the news business. You get only one shot to write it big, and write it well. And Bonds, with all of his bitterness and contradictions, his talent and hubris, made for great theater, if nothing else.
Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post was in the press box, enjoying a unique vantage point. Two years earlier, when baseball’s equivalent of the Blue Wall finally crumbled in Room 2154 of the Rayburn Building during the devastating hearings on March 17, 2005, Sheinin covered Mark McGwire’s disintegration and the nadir of the Steroid Era for the front page of the Post, and now just one Bonds home run would provide the coup de grâce.
Now the game was tied at 4–4. Bacsik threw Bonds a fastball, which he did not miss.
“I remember the moment he hit it. I was like, ‘Here we go.’ And at that moment, it felt historic,” Sheinin recalled. “For about as long as it took for him to circle the bases, and of course you see Hank’s face on the Jumbotron, all of that felt really huge to me. There was a ten-minute window when it really felt immense. But that was it.”
Bonds’s ball cleared the field of play, soaring into discredited space. He was facing an imminent federal indictment, which would come less than four months later. He had determined that the moment would belong to him, that because he cherished owning the record, the record would be cherished. Weeks earlier, Bonds had sparred with the writers again about the legitimacy of his holding the record. Finally, he attempted to curb debate by declaring, “Once I break the record, it’s mine.”
“It’s weird. It cheapened the moment but elevated the moment at the same time. It didn’t feel legit. It didn’t feel real. It felt fraudulent. But from a pure story standpoint, it made it richer,” Sheinin said. “If it was regular old Barry Bonds with no steroids who broke Hank Aaron’s record, it wouldn’t have been strong. But the way it occurred made it important for society because of what it meant. It was paradoxical.”
In 1998, when McGwire hit number sixty-two, every member of the Cubs infield—Mark Grace at first, Mickey Morandini at second, the shortstop José Hernandez—embraced him as he rounded the bases. Bud Selig and Stan Musial sat next to each other. The Chicago third baseman, Gary Gaetti, pounded his glove with excitement as McGwire passed. The Cubs catcher, Scott Servais, hugged McGwire and didn’t seem to want to let go, even as McGwire’s own team, the Cardinals, rushed to mob the hero.
Nine years later, orange-and-black streamers rained from the upper deck, and San Francisco, isolated in its joy, whooped and hollered. Bonds gave a two fisted-pump to the heavens and began his historic trot, but not a single Nationals player shook his hand as he rounded the bases. No one slapped him on the back, or even smiled. As he reached home plate, the Nationals catcher, Brian Schneider, stood away from the dish, as impassively as if play had been stopped to clear a stray beach ball from center field.
As Bonds and Willie Mays stood with their backs to the field, waving to the crowd, there came a roar within the roar. On the Jumbotron, wearing a charcoal suit and a striped tie was Henry. Those in the Nationals dugout along the first-base line, showing emotion for the first time, clapped politely.
Henry squinted and spoke his words. Bonds and Mays turned around to watch the video display.
“I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home-run leader. It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity and determination,” Henry said. “Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.” Upon completing the final sentence, Henry offered a soft little smile. Janie McCauley, a reporter for the Associated Press, put in a call to the Aaron residence in Atlanta. A woman answered the phone. “Mr. Aaron is asleep,” she said, and hung up the phone.
IT TOOK SEVEN takes to complete the forty-five-second video. On the first six, Henry seemed fine, but he looked weary and tired, like he’d rather have been in West Palm or … Pluto … or … anywhere else. The words were his, but they were a scripted, clandestine, collaborative effort. E-mails circulated from Allan Tanenbaum to Henry to Mike Tollin to some staffers in the commissioner’s office to Bud Selig. The message had to be subtle, yet energetic and graceful, lest Henry open himself up to the charge that, yes, he congratulated Bonds, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Of course, that part was true: His heart was miles away from this compromise. But Henry had given his word to Larry Baer and the Giants, and thus he would tape a congratulatory message.
In Atlanta, Billye Aaron read each new incoming message—a word tweak here, a change of emphasis there—a working draft for the digital age. Henry and Allan Tanenbaum proceeded to a studio in downtown Atlanta for the taping. The dark backdrop was accompanied by a montage—an Aaron home Braves jersey, a replica of the Hank Aaron Boulevard street sign.
Henry read the words carefully and dutifully, but after the sixth take, a young technician stopped him, summoning the courage to offer an artistic appraisal of the filming. Henry’s delivery was fine, he said. His pacing was good. But, the young man said, this tape was being made for a celebration, for history. Was it possible, the technician asked Mr. Aaron, for him to show a little more joy? Perhaps a smile would be good.
Henry looked at the man and delivered a line that, in the face of Bonds, would forever make him the people’s champion.
“Young man,” Henry Aaron said. “Do you really think I have anything to smile about?”
AND SO, after thirty-three years it was over. Henry was no longer the home-run king. Bonds would hit six more that season, finish at 762, and, for his effort, never again be allowed to wear a big-league uniform.
“What was happening is that, for the first time, unlike when Babe Ruth held the all-time home-run mark, the standard-bearer and the record holder have been separated,” Harry Edwards, the famed sociologist, said of the tainted Bonds surpassing Henry. “Henry Aaron, Roger Maris, these are the standard-bearers. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, these are record holders. For the first time ever, the standard of excellence and the record holder are totally different people.
“If you’re going to maintain the integrity of the sport, the standard-bearers and the standard of excellence have to again become the same person. Right now, they’re not. Henry Aaron is the standard of excellence. Because of this drug thing, baseball doesn’t care about the record holder. He’s just standing out there. Baseball cares about the standard of excellence, and that means people will always look to Henry Aaron.”