The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)


Nearing the crest of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, all Henry Aaron wanted was a milk shake. It was June, and the weather was humid—an uncomfortable day gathering momentum toward oppressive.

Initially, the line out front wasn’t much, just a couple of kids in baseball caps and shorts, holding baseballs and cellophane-protected glossies. Then it grew longer, sloping eagerly down Ninety-third street toward Second Avenue. New York had never been one of Henry’s favorite cities, yet he had awakened on this particular Saturday at 4:00 a.m. so he could catch a 6:15 a.m. flight from Atlanta to La Guardia.

This autograph signing was the latest example of concept marketing: an event held in an upscale ice-cream parlor that doubled as a high-end memorabilia store. The idea that the upper-middle-class gentry from Westchester and North Jersey would spend their disposable income on mint chocolate chip cones and autographed three-hundred-dollar baseball jerseys was the brainchild of Brandon Steiner, the head of New York collectibles juggernaut Steiner Sports.

Inside the brightly colored, baseball-themed storefront sat Henry Aaron, seventy-four years old, in an air-conditioned back room across from clear plastic containers of Gummi Bears, Swedish Fish, and bobblehead dolls. Behind a folding table, Henry was flanked by candy and enough photographic evidence of his life to suggest a forensic exhibit.

There were black-and-whites from his high-flying days in Milwaukee, when he was all muscle and torque and potential; there were plastic blue-and-white batting helmets with the cursive letter A, for the Atlanta Braves, and pictures of when Hank hit a home run in 1972 All-Star Game, played in Atlanta, the first major-league All-Star Game played in the Deep South. And there were snapshots of his jaunty, jowly American League finale, the career National Leaguer sporting the powder blue double knits of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Overwhelming it all were images from the night of April 8, 1974, at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium. The images recorded that evening showed the follow-through from the batter’s box, when his eyes lit up, and the moment he’d made impact. They showed the two kids catching up with him as he crossed the plate. They showed Joe Ferguson, the dumpy Los Angeles catcher, looking as though he were standing on the wrong subway platform. And they showed Hank Aaron holding up the historic ball returned to him by the teammate who had caught it, relief pitcher Tom House.

The line gathered outside and Henry girded. He knew it was time to reach into himself and get into character and become, once again, Hank Aaron. Each of the hundreds of photographs of the moment that had made him an international hero filled Henry with a special sense of dread.

This had been true for the last fifty-five years, this uneasy relationship. Inside, Aaron would do an in-store interview with ESPN Radio, trying to sound as though he actually cared about baseball in 2008, about which of today’s players reminded him of himself (none!), and whether Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez could hit eight hundred home runs. (“I don’t get to see him much,” Hank said, “except in the play-offs and World Series.”)

During a commercial break, a perky staffer filling a waffle cone promised Henry she would make him a milk shake. (“Coming right up!”) Henry stood up and stretched a bit while the eyes on him—from the few dozen fans inside the store to the throng still waiting on the sidewalk, tapping on the glass—bulged at the sight of him. They didn’t yell, just stared at him, soaking in the deep creases of his face, the protruding belly, the white tennis shoes, and the limp, a souvenir from knee surgery that had left him on crutches for virtually the entire winter.

The ones who didn’t speak tried to attract his attention with hand gestures and provocative clothing (a middle-aged woman sporting a Mets cap and cottage-cheese thighs, backpack slung over both shoulders, wore a T-shirt that read 755: THE REAL HOME RUN RECORD). He smiled politely, wading easily through the crowd, unpretentiously close physically yet at a complicated emotional remove.

The words from the crowd solidified for him the idea that Hank was a necessary creation, a public conduit for his considerable fame, his tremendous ability, which had been sculpted into legend, and it was this distance, impossible to navigate, between what he represented to them and who he was, that Henry Aaron truly detested the most. The most obvious clue could be found in the name itself, for nobody who really knew him ever called him Hank. Well, almost nobody. Only one member of the inner circle, a kid Henry had met back in 1966, ever got away with calling him Hank. Henry had promised Johnnie and Christine Baker that he would take care of their son Dusty when he arrived in his first spring camp, and maybe that was why the rules were a little different for Dusty Baker.

To everybody else who mattered, he was Henry. Neither his first wife, Barbara, nor his second, Billye, ever called him Hank. As a boy, his name was Henry. That was what his mother and father and all seven siblings knew him by. His best friend from grade school, Cornelius Giles? To him, he was Henry. When he’d first entered the big leagues a lifetime earlier, the name was how he differentiated the familiar, the friendly, from the rest. “When he first came up, if you called him ‘Hank,’ he wouldn’t even hear you,” recalled Billy Williams, who grew up close to Henry in Whistler, Alabama, a fingertip’s reach from Mobile. “I remember we were in Chicago one day and everybody was yelling for him. They were screaming, ‘Hank! Hank!’ and he just kept walking. Then, when everything died down, I said, ‘Henry!’ and he immediately turned around. That meant you were a familiar face. That meant you knew him, and that was the only way he’d ever turn around.”

The adorning of him as the people’s champion (“You’re still the home run king, Hank!”) did not evoke a response. He did not respond to the dozen offhanded variations of the same theme—the Barry Bonds question. It was the public’s way to broach the unspeakable, and by his total lack of reaction, you would have thought the numbers that used to define him—714, 715, and 755—as well as the names of Mays, Ruth, and Bonds, were by now just street noise to him.

The names and iconic statistics are, of course, much more than that and the oceanic space between the public Hank, who avoids confrontation, and the private Henry, who is clear and passionate and committed, explain why he can never do enough or say enough to satisfy supporters thirsty not only for his statesmanship but his fire. Bonds was where the collision between Hank and Henry was often the fiercest, where the facade came closest to dissolution. It was Hank, the public man, the legend, who wished Barry well in his quest to break the all-time home run record, who avoided controversy. It was Hank Aaron who publicly drove down the avenue of gracious cliché. Records were made to be broken, he would say. He had enjoyed his time as the record holder, and now it was time for someone else to take over.

Aaron would be called bitter, an assessment that hurt him deeply. Henry would often say he wanted the people to know him, yet he was convinced that all the public wanted to know about was Hank. “People don’t care about me. They don’t care about the things that made me into the person I am,” he said one wintry day in January 2008. “They don’t care that I raised five children and try to help people do whatever they can to get the most out of their lives, to allow them to chase their dreams. All they care to talk about is that I hit seven hundred and fifty-five home runs or what I hit on a three–two pitch. There is so much more to me than that.” The space between Hank and Henry wasn’t supposed to be such difficult terrain. He was supposed to be like Reggie or Ruth, Ted Williams and John Wayne, where the person and the legend meshed so seamlessly that the individual became the myth. And whatever gulfs did exist, Henry believed most people felt it just wasn’t their problem. The fans didn’t care that what drove him was not the unremarkable desire simply to be left alone (many superstars before and after him were uncomfortable with the demands of fame), but the wish to use the enormous advantage of his talent, first to avenge the devastating limitations racism placed on previous generations of Aaron men, and, second, like Robinson, to be complete, to develop an important voice on important subjects beyond the dugout.

Henry believed the fans had no interest in these concepts, in his moral indignation; they just wanted Hank. He was on their baseball card. He was supposed to make them happy, and for all his gifts on the baseball field, Henry Aaron lacked the oratory skills and unrestrained charisma (he loathed public speaking) to bridge the gap between Henry’s smoldering drive and Hank’s reticent celebrity. Roxanne Spillett, a friend and philanthropic partner of Henry, said, “When I think of Henry Aaron, I see an introvert in an extrovert’s role. Anyone who has ever been put in that position knows just how difficult it truly is.”

To memorabilia collectors, Henry was nothing but a commodity. They were the ones who pushed the bats in the man’s large hands, their eyes cold marbles, devoid of nostalgia or awe. They were the ones who demanded specifics. (“This one has to say seven hundred and fifteenth home run, not seven hundred and fifteen home runs.”)

The ones in line who weren’t, however, who waited in the heat to trudge an inch closer to him, they were the ones who told him stories (or at least tried; the line had to keep moving) about what Hank Aaron meant to them, then and now. He was their happiness before and, in a baseball universe ethically complicated and corrupted by drugs and money, the person they looked to for their conscience today. (“I just want you to know you’re the real home run champion.”) It was Hank whom the public came to see, and each and every one of them, in their shorts and tank tops and Yankees and Mets caps, stared into the lines of the old man’s face, hoping—in fact, begging—to make eye contact, so that when their turn to have their picture signed of Hank breaking the record or a souvenir baseball or their tattered copy of his face on the cover of the New York Daily News, April 9, 1974 (“Mr. Aaron, I just wanted you to know that I’ve been saving this newspaper for thirty-four years.… Just to meet you … this is my pleasure.…”) finally came, they would find just the right words with just the right pitch that would separate them from the rest, and their words alone would bridge their distance, personalizing for him the impersonal chore of signing merchandise for money.

And they all so desperately wanted different slices of the same pie: for him to soak in his moment back in 1974 and carry it with him with ease and joviality and reverence, as they did. They approached the line and pleaded with their eyes for him to regale them with a story and a laugh about 715, an anecdote, one gold nugget from the man himself about that night, which would make his glory a little bit more theirs.

Henry would not accommodate this request; a photo and a handshake and a signature would have to be enough. When he did pause with a glint of energy in his eye, it was not for a fan who had triggered a warm baseball memory; it was at the moment he looked to his left up at the television, put down the vanilla milk shake he had finally been handed, and saw the tennis player Venus Williams finish off her match in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

“It’s going to be Venus and Serena,” Henry said. “And Venus is going to win the whole thing again.”

Henry always enjoyed the interaction with people that came with being Hank, but rarely the duty itself. Brandon Steiner would hand over a check for more than ten thousand dollars to Henry (Hammerin’ Hank Enterprises, to be exact), who would, in turn, donate the money to the Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church he’d been attending for forty years. He was ruefully cognizant that Hank was the one who provided the fuel, generated the interest, and provided the platform for Henry to exist as a person whom universities would line up to offer honorary degrees to, whom corporate CEOs would pay tens of thousands of dollars to play a round of golf with, and whom governors and presidents would listen to.

Hank made all that possible, and Henry knew it. With Hank’s popular muscle, Henry could continue to grow even more iconic, even bigger in his nearly invisible, powerful way, like that horrible day in 2007 when the Bluffton College team bus skidded off Interstate 75 in Atlanta, killing five members of the baseball team. Henry sat by the bedside of one of the survivors, a boy in a coma, whom Henry had never met in his life, never telling a soul about the visit. That was Henry, elevated above the creation of Hank and his nemesis, Willie Mays, who would never acknowledge that Hank had been every bit his equal in spikes and had soared far past him when the final outs of their careers were recorded. “Willie,” a Henry confidant told me bitterly, “Willie ceased being a person the day he retired. Who did Willie ever help except Willie?”

Without Hank, there were no platforms that would, he believed, give Henry a greater and more lasting significance, one that would rival whatever Hank had done in the outfield. There was only Henry Aaron of Mobile, Alabama, making deathly sure he did not look whites in the eye, a man with much to say but with no platform from which to say it.

And all of them, especially the round-bellied sports fan high rollers, would make the same mistake: They believed the way to get to Hank was to mention 715 more lovingly than they spoke of their own children, unaware of, or just tone-deaf to, the nuances (warning signs, all) that so much of that night had suffocated him like a boa. He would grow silent and distant, and they would call him bitter. Perhaps they should have listened to Henry a little bit more during those few times when he let his considerable guard down.

“It still hurts a little bit inside, because I think it has chipped away at a part of my life that I will never have again. I didn’t enjoy myself. It was hard for me to enjoy something that I think I worked very hard for,” he had said a decade earlier. “God had given me the ability to play baseball, and people in this country kind of chipped away at me. So, it was tough. And all of those things happened simply because I was a black person.”

He had been living with the conflict for over half a century, was convinced nobody cared about the price of the moment that gave them so much joy, and so Henry retrenched and let Hank play pretend, dutifully and professionally signing everything—lithographs, batting helmets, bats, baseball cards—with the remove and distance of an insurance agent. Like an insurance agent, being Hank was, after all, a job.

Yet he did not blame them for loving Hank without understanding Henry—or, more accurately, for not making the distinction between the two men who lived in one body, each providing the foundation for the other—by being surly and churlish. Hundreds of fans arrived at an ice-cream shop for their wide-angle view of 715, and he obliged.

When the afternoon of make-believe had ended, both parties were satisfied. The public was ecstatic: Fathers and sons and mothers and daughters got to see Hank, got to breathe his air. He especially softened for the impatient, uncomprehending children born three decades after he’d swung his last bat, all of them unsure why their wistful and dutiful fathers were pushing them in front of this grayed, unfamiliar man, and even more bewildered why they spoke with reverence in their creaking voices instead of displaying unbending fatherly authority. (“Son, take a good look at this man.… You’re going to tell your grandkids about this.”)

Henry won, too, for he was one step closer to sending Hank away permanently, secure in the knowledge that at this stage, the days of make-believe would become even fewer. Henry left the room, shaking hands with the staff, signing one last round of stuff while thanking them for a “pretty good milk shake.” “I wasn’t sure I was gonna get it,” he said cheerfully, “but I’m glad I did.” He seemed more convinced than ever before that it was time to head to West Palm Beach, to the secluded home he had built, where he could say good-bye to Hank Aaron and his glossies, his Sharpies, his enormous shadow and public obligations, in favor of Henry.

“You know what the hardest thing is? What nobody wants to understand—is me. People want their memories of me to be my memories of me,” Henry Aaron said. “But you know what? They’re not.”