The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART THREE. LEGEND
Chapter 10. RESPECT
You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all of the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.
IN FEBRUARY 1964, Henry celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and the various rivers of his life, both competing and complementing, reached a critical convergence. Gaile was ten, Hankie six, Lary six, and Dorinda two (she was born on Henry’s birthday, February 5, 1962). Months earlier, he and Barbara had celebrated a decade of marriage. So much of what he had envisioned had coalesced: Months before, he had completed his tenth season in the major leagues, his position not only as a premier player in the game but as quite possibly one of the greatest to have ever played the game cemented. All of his benchmarks, active or retired—Robinson, Musial, DiMaggio, and Mays—were now peers.
For a place that had once been foreign and unsettling, Milwaukee was now home. The family had lived in the suburb of Mequon for five years, Henry’s connection to the city and its people growing only stronger. He at once understood the contradictions that came with his stature: He was often subject to the humiliations and limitations that came with being black, and yet his fame insulated him from some of the very conditions suffered by the average black family. Indeed, Henry was aware that the Aarons were allowed to move into Mequon in the first place only because he was the Hank Aaron, a fact Father Groppi and his supporters often noted with increasing volume during the turbulent rallies for housing desegregation that came to define 1960s Milwaukee.
There was a reason, the Groppi followers always said, that the Aarons were the only black family living in Mequon, and the reason was certainly not the city’s heightened level of tolerance. Groppi and Aaron did not have any formal relationship. Henry was not active in the desegregation battles in Milwaukee, but Groppi nevertheless used Henry and his fame as an example of the racial inequities in the city’s housing practices.
If Henry remembered the difference between how he and his fellow black teammates were regarded and the treatment afforded Willie Mays back during his barnstorming tour of the South following his second year in the league, he also now understood that in Milwaukee, being Hank Aaron represented no small advantage, either. In certain situations, the disparity between the famous Henry Aaron and the common black person in Milwaukee was so great that it made him uncomfortable, for Henry’s internal compass had never been turned toward superiority over others—especially other blacks—regardless of the perks gained because of his talent. While he would for fifty years hold a special place in his heart for Milwaukee, he would acknowledge the painful merits of the Groppi argument: It was definitely his fame, he later decided, that had made his time there so special.
This was a position common to famous blacks in the 1950s and 1960s, the movie stars, singers, and athletes whose talent provided opportunities that otherwise did not yet exist for the general black population, and being able to taste, even briefly, a world where color was not the defining aspect of life created a bittersweet worldview. There were some players, such as the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, who were cognizant of being treated with more humanity and dispensation by whites simply because of their athletic gifts. Gibson understood the uneasy balance of his position, and the worst part of it all was how immediately transparent the change in disposition of those same whites could be once they discovered he was not Pack Robert Gibson, taxi driver from Omaha, Nebraska, but Bob Gibson, the great Cardinals pitcher, who provided so much success and glory to the home team and enjoyment to the paying customers, the majority of whom were white. “It’s nice to get attention and favors, but I can never forget the fact that if I were an ordinary black person I’d be in the shithouse, like millions of others,” Gibson once told the writer Roger Angell. “I’m happy I’m not ordinary, though.”
Similarly, such discomfort did not fail to have an effect on Henry. As he grew more prominent, he resolved that he must do more with his special status than buy a house in a nice neighborhood or receive a better table at the exclusive restaurants that did not admit blacks but made exceptions for him. His abilities, he believed, needed to translate into his having greater significance than those vapid, individual perks. As he rose, Henry believed his responsibility included helping the less fortunate.
For his years in public life, Henry would become known for his consistency on the baseball diamond, far past the point of weary cliché. Yet, to the people closest to him, it was his sense of duty, combined with a certain steely, uncompromising compassion, that struck them the most. One example was his friendship with Donald Davidson, the Braves publicity man, who went back with the franchise to its days in Boston. Davidson happened to be a dwarf, all of four feet tall, and if the news stories always contained a mention of a black player’s race, Davidson could not escape mention of his diminutiveness. There were some members of the Braves who played tricks on him—Spahn and Burdette, naturally—but Henry was very protective of Davidson.
“You always knew he was a serious man,” said Joe Torre, Frank Torre’s kid brother, who joined the Braves in 1961. “You always knew he had strong commitment to people. And it’s not something that he bragged about. And I think that was one of the most admirable things about Henry. He was quiet. He didn’t advertise it, but you just knew.”
HUNTING SATISFIED Henry’s need for adrenaline. It also served as an extension of his desire for open space and solitude, in a sense no different from his days as a boy in Toulminville, when he would escape to an isolated fishing spot on Three Mile Creek, being at a peaceful distance, seeking a retreat from the world. Early in his career, he and Barbara would return to Mobile almost as soon as the season ended, but after Henry had purchased the Mequon house, he would spend at least part of the off-season in Milwaukee, even though Lary and, periodically, Gaile still lived in Mobile with Estella and Herbert. In 1960, an old friend of Henry, Lefty Muehl, who played in the long-since-vanished Illinois-Iowa-Indiana league and was a part-time scout in the Braves organization, invited Henry to Doland, South Dakota, to shoot pheasant, and fall hunting became something of an annual pastime for him.
Soon, a routine formed: Henry would leave Milwaukee and head west, through Minnesota and into South Dakota, at some points along Route 90 and Route 94, stretches of the nascent Eisenhower Interstate System, the new superhighways that were connecting towns and cities across America. Henry and Lefty would scour little Spink County, the cluster of a half dozen cities nestled in the northeast corner of the state, hunting game. There were Doland (population 267, boyhood home of Hubert H. Humphrey), Frankfort (where Lefty Muehl grew up), Ashton, Conde, Mellette, and especially Redfield (known locally to South Dakotans as the “Pheasant Capital of the World”). Henry and Lefty would snare the legal limit (and maybe then some). Muehl told Henry he would introduce him to a hunting paradise. He was not exaggerating, for the region was famous for its pheasant, attracting hunters, as well as celebrities from the sports world and from Hollywood, the enclave rich who fancied shooting. There was just one problem: When the rich and famous arrived in Spink County, everyone knew who they were. Privacy and discretion were essential, and that was where Audrey Slaughter came in. She and her husband, Rich Wilson, were the proprietors of the Wilson Motel. According to local legend, Audrey ran the tightest switchboard in America. The kids in the neighborhood may have heard the rumors that a big name was in town—the great stunt cyclist Evel Knievel would be a frequent visitor in the 1970s—but the phone at the Wilson Motel leaked no secrets. Once, word swept through Redfield like a dust storm that Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter himself, was in town. “My mother was so mad,” recalled lifelong Redfield resident Ted Williams, who as a teen heard that his namesake and hero was staying at the Wilson. “She knew the woman who ran the hotel. They were friends and she still wouldn’t tell us what room Ted Williams was in.”
It was while hunting in Doland that Henry met State Senator Lawrence E. Kayl, whose daughter attended the school. When the hunting ended, Henry would not return to Milwaukee immediately, but would leave Doland and drive twenty miles to Redfield, continuing along State Road 212 until he reached a cold eleven-building complex that stood ominously above the reddish clay flatlands. Each time when he arrived, the children were waiting for him.
THE MISSION STATEMENT for the Northern Hospital for the Insane, written near the turn of the twentieth century, stated the complex was not designed for the mentally ill, but for people suffering from a “developmental disability.” In 1913, the institution was renamed the State School and Home for the Feeble Minded, and it would be officially known as such for nearly the next four decades. Between 1951 and 1989, the name changed once more, to the Redfield State Hospital and School, and today, the buildings still stand, though in a time when attitudes regarding mental illness are more tolerant. Officially, it is now known as the South Dakota Developmental Center, a kinder, more clinical name, for certain. But for generations of South Dakotans, the old name stuck, and locally and colloquially the hospital would always be known as the “Feeble Minded School.” Ted Williams, the Redfield boy once rebuffed by Audrey Slaughter at the Wilson Motel in his attempts to meet his namesake, would years later become superintendent and resident historian of the school. He would accept the former names of the school as at once embarrassing, painful reminders of the society’s lack of sensitivity toward mental disabilities, but he also understood the terminology reflected the orthodoxy of the day. In that, Redfield was not alone. In 1881, years before the school first opened, Minnesota dedicated the Minnesota Institute for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, adding a wing to that institution in 1887, officially known as the School for Idiots and Imbeciles, the critical difference between the two—according to medical definitions that would in later years be recanted—being that an idiot maintained an IQ under twenty, an imbecile slightly above. In 1890, Indiana opened the Indiana School for Feeble-Minded Youth, and the famed American eugenicist Henry Goddard, generally credited with inventing the term moron as a clinical definition, was the director of the Training School for Backward and Feeble-Minded Children, in Vineland, New Jersey.
When Henry arrived in Redfield, he would be surrounded by hordes of eager small children. Some inmates, institutionalized for life, were nearly adults, and some were within five or six years of Henry’s age. Henry would stay for hours, spread out with the residents on one of the two large baseball diamonds on the property, patiently instructing the young ones how to run and throw and swing a baseball bat, encouraging strong throws and vigorous swings, the actual lessons far less valuable than the time spent. “I remember it well. I was working with one of the youngsters and he was about three feet away from me. He took the ball, wound up, and threw as hard as he could. He hit me right in the chest,” Henry recalled with laughter. “I was happy to go up there and spend time with the children, but it was dangerous.” Howard Chinn, superintendent of the school from 1961 to 1973, recalled that Henry was eager to organize a game with the kids, except for one major problem, which scotched the idea: gopher holes. Chinn remembered gophers burrowing into the grass, creating dangerous divots in the field, and Henry had no intention of having to explain to Lou Perini that he was out for the season because he’d snapped one of his brittle ankles by catching his foot in a gopher hole in South Dakota.
The practice of an athlete visiting sick children dated way back, like so much in American sporting culture, to the legend of Babe Ruth, and over the years, in the face of image burnishing, it would be met with great and often deserved cynicism, considered hardly much more than an exercise in manipulation: the fail-safe photo op. Against the current backdrop, such visits are often viewed as the ultimate cliché, athletes paying social penance for enormous salaries that in years to come would engulf and distort the sports culture. And, worse, they are often viewed as a self-serving opportunity for athletes to cleanse their reputations, thereby increasing their own marketability. In today’s world, even a nonpublicized visit can hold great currency in the image-making business, transparent acts of self-aware selflessness. But 1963 was different. With Henry, there were no television crews in tow, no photographer, and no publicist. There were no friendly local columnists trading access for some good publicity (who knew the real Henry Aaron sneaked away on goodwill missions to South Dakota, and snagged a bagful of birds, too?), and there were no well-timed, perfectly managed news leaks designed to get the word out that a big-time ballplayer hadn’t forgotten the little people. On the dusty plains hundreds of miles from his own cultural sphere, there was no advantage for Henry to gain except in whatever he offered of himself to the children of the Redfield school, and whatever emotional currency they could return to him. Henry told virtually no one about his visits. He never even told anyone on his own team. In later recollections, his closest teammates—Mantilla, Mathews, Covington—had never heard of the school, and they certainly didn’t know Henry knew anything about South Dakota. Howard Chinn did not remember Henry as a celebrity making an electric appearance that kept the town buzzing for weeks. Nearly fifty years later, living in Enid, Oklahoma, hard of hearing but sharp of mind, he recalled “a lone black fellow who played baseball” coming by for several years.
Even when he was finally exposed as a Samaritan, Henry still refused the opportunity to engage. Once in 1964, Al Stump, biographer of Ty Cobb and prominent freelance writer, profiled Henry for Sport magazine. The two met in Los Angeles before a series with the Dodgers. In Henry’s hotel room, Stump asked him about Koufax and Drysdale and then about his trips to South Dakota. About everything except the hunting, Henry was frustratingly vague. When the article was published, Henry, if not enshrouded in mystery, remained distant—not hostile, but certainly private. The story did not mention Redfield as the location of the school, stating only that it was “near Frankfort.” Stump did not mention the name of the school or explain why Henry seemed drawn to it. Though the piece promised an opportunity for Henry to present himself in fuller dimension to a national audience, he did not seem interested. Stump came away with a story for Sport, a lengthy profile (“Hank Aaron: Public Image vs. Private Reality”), where the hook was the contradiction between the Henry Aaron who slept except in the batter’s box and this other Henry Aaron, who took an interest in the mentally disabled, grew anxious about civil rights, and breathed a simmering political fire. Thirty years later, in his own autobiography, Henry never mentioned the quiet but important visits to the little school in South Dakota, though the people of the town never forgot.
WHAT HENRY AARON desired most during the first half of the 1960s was to be complete, to be more than just a guy who could rip a line drive to center. He wanted to be considered great in his profession, certainly, but given the framework of the 1960s, when at last the time had come to redraw the lines of society, he also sought to be a person of substance. For his decade in baseball, Henry’s place on the diamond was undeniable, but being known as an athlete of social impact seemed far less certain, even inadequate within the confines of the sport upon whose record books he began a massive and methodical assault. Henry was in conflict not only with society but with his caricature—uninterested in things apart from hitting—both by a press corps that continually seemed to misread him and by many of his peers, who took his silence to mean he was uncomplicated.
The reality was that Henry craved to be part of the larger world, contributing to important subjects and issues beyond athletics. Even some of the people closest to him did not understand his own yearnings, and they would find themselves off balance in those instances when they saw Henry on the political offensive. He sought to cultivate an important voice about the significant issues that were shifting the ground underneath his feet, and it was a desire that that had always been present, even if invisible to his closest contemporaries.
In baseball, he never worried about his voice or his impact or his abilities; on the diamond, Henry Aaron always knew he could play, and his sheer talent gave him instant credibility. Yet credibility was not the same as respect, and one lost its full value without the other. During the spring of 1960, Henry, along with Covington, had spoken to Tebbetts and Lou Perini about the spring-training conditions for the black Braves players. Henry and the other black players had begun to take Billy Bruton’s lead. Henry, now one of the veterans on the club, second in seniority to Bruton among the Braves black players and clearly its most important, began to speak more actively about the daily inequities of spring-training life.
The black players had lived in Mrs. Gibson’s Bradenton house each year Henry had been in the big leagues. Like their peers in most ball clubs, Tebbetts and the Braves management had not used their leverage in the cities where spring training took place, and they told the players there was little they could do to improve conditions for black players. The team members were merely six-week tenants in a town, and they could not interfere with local customs. Years earlier, Henry had lobbied Perini and John Quinn (who left Milwaukee for Philadelphia after the 1958 season) to abolish the policy of maintaining separate facilities at the ballpark, for it stung each time he walked around the Bradenton park, where the Braves played their games, and saw white and colored seating sections, water fountains, and rest rooms. The worst parts for blacks weren’t just the rusted fountain pipes and filthy toilet bowls, but the signs reinforcing every inferior accommodation, as if blacks weren’t sure which water fountain—the one a person would want to drink from or the one that awaited them—was meant for them to use without being given a humiliating reminder.
Quinn, following the missteps of baseball men before him in completely misreading the social landscape, told the press (via Bob Wolf of the Journal) that not a single black player had complained about the accommodations of the boardinghouses in the Negro section of town. It was an old saw. When that explanation failed to mollify the players, Quinn would say the club lacked the political influence to affect local custom.
Segregation issues consumed the Braves black players and had been gaining momentum with all the clubs that trained in Florida and Arizona, and the fight for equality was led by Bruton and Bill White and journalists in the black press like Wendell Smith. Even Judge Cannon, the figurehead of the largely ineffective Major League Baseball Players Association and target of Father Groppi’s protests in Milwaukee—Groppi periodically sent hundreds of protesters to Cannon’s house when it was revealed that Cannon had maintained his membership in the Hawkeye Club, a restrictive organization prohibiting blacks and Jews—began to press teams to adopt an aggressive position with regard to integrating the team accommodations in Florida. Across the American landscape were signs that the old customs were finally vulnerable, and this was a fight in which Henry wanted to play a part.
Even as he expressed an opinion on racial matters—a voice that, to him, was clear about the injustices and humiliations of segregation—Henry was nevertheless wary about being labeled a troublemaker. In many ways, the appearance of caution he presented to the public undermined his true passion for civil rights. One example could be found in his words. He was convinced that the time had arrived to press for equality, and yet he referred to the louder voices in the movement, the ones who clearly stood on the right side of the issue, as “agitators.” He would refer to himself as a person interested in the cause of change but not one who would instigate. “I don’t consider myself an agitator,” he would often say, thus indirectly creating a certain degree of distance between himself and the public figures whose positions he admired and encouraged.
Why Henry did not hurl himself into the burgeoning civil rights movement in the driven, public manner of the handful of his contemporaries had much to do with his natural reticence, and the reticence of professional athletes in general. Certainly a more aggressive approach would have left no question as to his feelings about the necessity for change—and the imperative of speed to effect that change—but Henry did not see appealing to the public as anything but a last resort. His political strategy would always begin behind closed doors. Part of his reasoning was practical: Using the public for leverage could be embarrassing to the people he most wanted to cultivate, and while he might have scored points with the public by being audacious, making people look bad would tend to harden their stance and thus make achieving the ultimate goal that more difficult.
More important, Henry dreaded public speaking. He was, thought Felix Mantilla, self-conscious about his southern accent, an insecurity Mantilla (whose English was layered with a strong Puerto Rican accent) could appreciate. Henry was particularly self-conscious in northern or East Coast settings—in interviews with New York newspapermen, for example. He did not trust how his words would be interpreted.
Indirectly, his pragmatism led to another enduring label from which he could not escape: that Hank Aaron was accommodating on civil rights. In his heart, no conflict existed: Civil rights was precisely the onrushing movement he had craved since he was a boy. It was, in fact, not a topic at all, but the story of his life. Henry was as passionate about equal rights as any of the more outspoken voices around him. In later years, he would express a certain regret that he had not been more firm in his conviction. “I know I did not make it easy for people to understand me, but there was nothing to me more important than civil rights and what Jackie Robinson and Dr. King started.”
In many ways, he was more passionate than most of his contemporaries, for Henry was a child of the South, and the distance between his rights and equal rights was as wide a gap as existed in the country. Henry knew how much change was needed, for his examples were so distinct and so personal. He would never forget how Herbert had labored each day with such nervous uncertainty, unsure from week to week if work would be plentiful or sparse, and yet each day, no matter how hard he had worked or how dutiful and disciplined he had been, Herbert would always have to relinquish his place in line at the store whenever a white man entered. Better than most, Henry understood the debilitating effect of segregation, not only on society but on the individual family, and too often he could summon a litany of offenses, which now suddenly seemed right to address.
Henry would always be reluctant to speak out, both because of his lack of formal schooling and his desperate fear of addressing people in public, but in the first half decade of the 1960s, he began to sharpen his own attitudes on racial equality. He found himself taken with the writings of James Baldwin, whose position that blacks had persevered despite their overall condition and could no longer wait on the goodwill of whites resonated deeply with him. There was a particular passage in Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time that seemed to illustrate Henry’s attitude precisely at this moment in time: “Things are as bad as the Muslims say they are—in fact, they are worse, and the Muslims do not help matters—but there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites.”
For a time, Henry had been interested in Baldwin, but he had never actually read his books. He had learned of Baldwin from seeing the writer on television. Like most baseball players, Henry was a night creature; he would flip channels, hoping for a Western on the late show. He first saw Baldwin by accident, on a late-night talk show, and the writer’s words clicked with him in an important, personal way. Baldwin initiated the type of dialogue Henry had sought, and he was impressed by Baldwin’s considerable ability to articulate the frustrations of his fellow black citizens, the imperative of taking advantage of this special moment in time. In later years, Henry would say he felt the urgency of the times not because of his own experiences but because of his childhood recollections of Herbert. Herbert was powerless to challenge the impenetrable white structure that had been in place for his entire life and that of his father, Papa Henry. These two people had been the most important male figures in Henry’s life and he remembered the immense power whites had held over both.
And here Henry was, up late, watching the black-and-white television, hoping for a Western but finding something else instead, unsure of exactly what he was watching. It might as well have been science fiction, but all the while Henry was completely riveted as he watched the small-shouldered, large-eyed Baldwin broadcasting the singular, clear, and ferocious message across the entire nation that the time had come to challenge openly the smothering social conventions that had suffocated three generations of men like Herbert Aaron and Papa Henry. The particular Baldwin theme of rejecting the idea of waiting for change resonated powerfully with Henry. “We’ve been waiting all this time. My parents are waiting right now in Alabama,” Henry said in a profile piece. “The whites told my parents, ‘Wait and things will get better.’ They told me, ‘Wait and things will get better.’ They’re telling these school kids, ‘Wait and things will get better.’ Well, we’re not going to wait any longer. We’re doing something about it. That’s what Baldwin says, and he’s right.”
It was a revelatory moment, for Baldwin had articulated the very sentiments that Henry had long believed but had never thought the time would be right to voice outwardly. Henry may not have considered himself an agitator, but certainly in private he adopted a position to the left of the black mainstream.
As a teenager, Henry had bet on his athletic ability, forgoing higher education and sailing through high school with only minimal interest, but as a parent he was bitterly strict when his children spoke of skirting the educational system and relying only on their own talent (as he once had). More upsetting to him was when his children believed in their elevated position, when Gaile or Henry Junior anticipated an easy and bountiful road ahead because of their father’s celebrity. When he believed that the children grew a bit too spoiled, he would recoil, Gaile recalled, reminding them, “I’m Hank Aaron, and you’re not.”
“I was sensitive to what they would face out there in the world, but I also did not want to do anything or say anything to my children that would break their spirit,” Henry said. “I didn’t want them to think my experiences had to be their experiences, but I also didn’t want them to just think it would be easy, just sticks and stones. It’s not just sticks and stones out there.”
Henry’s public positions during the mid-1960s shook those who thought they knew him. In 1964, he was approached by a representative from J. B. Lippincott, the Philadelphia book publishers, on behalf of Jackie Robinson. Robinson was writing a book of profiles of players, white and black, about their roots and experiences in the game during the first generation of integrated baseball, and he wanted Henry to be a part of the project. Henry agreed, and his first-person transcript appeared in the book as a thirteen-page chapter, which was entitled “Baseball Has Done It.” Henry’s contribution would be remarkable both for its content and because it represented the first moments Henry would begin to strike back at the press.
I’ve read some newspapermen saying I was just a dumb kid from the South with no education and all I knew was to go out there and hit. They didn’t know how to talk to me and then wrote that I didn’t know how to talk to them … you know how newspapermen build up a lot of stories, and they built ’em about me, me saying this and me saying that. I got wise to ’em, but what could I do? In spring training I hit a triple off Curt Simmons. Well, you know how it is in spring exhibitions, when they keep bringing in pitchers after pitchers. So, when one newspaperman asked me if I knew who I hit that triple off of, I said, “No.” He said, “That was Curt Simmons.” And then they wrote that I didn’t know who the pitcher was … that’s how the story started.
I’ve saved my money. I have four kids. We live, my wife and me, in a little country town 18 miles from Milwaukee called Mequon. Living’s been very good there. The kids go to school and don’t have any trouble; they play with other kids in the town. Of course, Milwaukee is a pretty good city as far as Negroes are concerned, but all places could stand improvement regardless of where you go. There’s no other Negroes in Mequon but us. My wife has one friend across the street; we have other neighbors who talk to us. Baseball has done a lot for me, given me an education in meeting other kinds of people. It has taught me that regardless of who you are and how much money you make, you are still a Negro.
Periodically, Henry would question whether he was doing enough. His public position was never as outwardly firm as his inner convictions and the result was a public position that did not always represent his passion for civil rights issues. Everyone in America was watching, watching to see who would step up and speak out, who was standing on the sidelines, and who was standing in the way. Jackie Robinson himself was watching, and though Henry did not know it at the time, Robinson had been as quietly impressed by Henry as he was vocally disappointed by Mays. It wasn’t that Robinson doubted Mays’ enormous power as the premier player in baseball, but that he wanted Mays to use his influence in a way that Mays would not. Robinson was deeply disappointed that Mays refused to be part of Baseball Has Done It, and criticized Mays heavily for it. Over time, Robinson deepened his conviction—and would say as much in interviews—that if his mission of integrating all levels of baseball were to go forward, Henry was the active player most capable of carrying the responsibility. “I never knew Jackie said that about me,” Henry recalled. “I knew that I couldn’t go forward with my life saying things were all right because they were all right for me.”
I COULD DO THE JOB
By Hank Aaron With Jerome Holtzman
The Braves’ star names the Negroes—and includes himself—who could manage in the major leagues. He also discusses the problems they might have.
—SPORT, October 1965
The writers listened to Henry and did not believe he had simply evolved politically, as had so many Americans during that period. Instead of approaching him as a serious political athletic figure, the writers attempted to ascribe a motive for Henry’s sudden interest in topics that went beyond the batter’s box. Who was putting ideas in his head? The Henry they knew cared only about hitting and sleeping. He did not fire political torpedoes. That was territory belonging to Jackie Robinson or Jim Brown, Bill Russell or that new explosive upstart Cassius Marcellus Clay. This new Henry, quoting Baldwin, channeling Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., analyzing the philosophies of both, clearly had to be the by-product of outside influence. Somebody had to be whispering in his ear.
Henry’s initial approach to the disbelieving press was to forgive their past indiscretions and move forward, which revealed a larger question: Why didn’t Henry turn on the press? He was famous and powerful. He was, by the mid-1960s, on a clear Hall of Fame path. He was at long last bigger than anyone else on his team, and that included Mathews. And yet he did not make the writers pay for the past transgressions of characterizing him so poorly, even cruelly. He would be angered by Furman Bisher’s original profile in The Saturday Evening Post nearly a decade earlier, carrying the scar from that original article into his sixties. Bisher stood by his profile of Henry even decades later. Instead of excommunicating the people who had hurt him in the past, Henry in later years would collaborate on a book deal with Bisher.
One easy way to ignite Henry’s fuse was to assume (as so many writers did) that he rustled himself out of bed and hit line drives. He would read the local papers and The Sporting News and crave that the writers would understand the work that it took to read pitchers, to learn their deliveries (Drysdale, for all his fearsome power, always released the ball from the same point), and what pitches they threw when the sweat began to pour (Gibson? Hard inside, but always think slider away). But when the students of the game got their due, Henry was rarely if ever listed on the attendance sheet. They said this new kid Pete Rose kept a book on how every pitcher in the game got him out. Maury Wills had his own book, a list of pitchers he stole bases against and their strengths and weaknesses. There was a story that went around that Lou Brock even filmed opposing pitchers. Henry was every bit a student of hitting, but he felt the writers treated him as a savant, a freak of nature who was given a gift that did not require honing.
His friends would describe him as gentle and nonconfrontational, inwardly driven but outwardly cool, and that was the reason he didn’t often correct the misconceptions. In later years, when he would become a transcendent figure in his sport, beyond daily characterizations, Henry would merely give up, saying he did not feel any sentiment he projected would be accurately portrayed in the press and thus he summarily ignored the image shapers. They weren’t going to give him the respect as a smart hitter. They weren’t going to allow him living space other than in comparison to Mays, a comparison he would always lose on style alone. They weren’t going to take him seriously as an influential social figure. They would never listen to him the way he wanted to be heard, so what was the point of explaining his positions to the writers? On this point, Henry was resigned. “It never did any good,” he would say. “I would try to correct them, and they would get the correction wrong, and I’d have to correct that. So I just let people say whatever they were going to say.” That left it to the growing and committed horde of Aaron protectors. “People have been treating this man like he is dumb for 35 years and it gets so tiring,” recalled Allan Tanenbaum, who first met Henry in the early 1970s and would be a business associate and friend for nearly forty years. “Henry doesn’t seem to mind. He stopped caring about that stuff a long time ago, but I certainly do. He does not deserve this.”
Bill White, who also considers Henry a lifelong friend, believed that a little bit of Mobile always lurked inside of him. He didn’t confront because the South was still talking to him. “It always bothered me when people would criticize Henry for not being more vocal. People don’t understand how ingrained that hesitation about talking to whites in a certain way, or giving the impression that you’re getting out of line really is for blacks from the South. When you come from other places, you can say, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ When you’re from down there, talking like that could cost you your life.”
As Henry began to cultivate his new outspokenness, the baseball insiders first looked to the woman in Henry’s life, Barbara. They felt it was Barbara, considered more short-tempered than Henry, who was the one pushing him to be more public on behalf of blacks.
Henry would voice displeasure regarding the state of race relations in his sport and he would be dismissed as channeling Barbara, who had put “big words” and “big ideas” into his head, but the sentiment never lost its intensity. The writer Furman Bisher would consistently parry Henry’s latest stance on civil rights by essentially calling him a pawn. “Henry Aaron is a nice man,” Bisher said of Henry in 2008. “But he is easily led.”
BY PURE HAPPENSTANCE, it was Jackie Robinson who indirectly wound up being responsible for Henry’s half century of loyalty to the Democratic party. For years, Henry had sought to pattern himself after Robinson in being a person of substance outside of the baseball diamond. And that was fine, except that Jackie Robinson was a Republican.
Almost as soon as the 1960 presidential campaign began, there was no greater irritant to John F. Kennedy than Jack Roosevelt Robinson. From the start, Robinson was unimpressed with the junior senator from Massachusetts, from his noncommittal position on civil rights to his woefully limited personal contact with black people to his lack of intimate knowledge of the black condition in general. Robinson was especially annoyed by Kennedy’s early and mistaken belief that he could cultivate many of the southern politicians responsible for some of the most oppressive racial conditions in the country and still count on blacks to support him. Robinson had first met with Kennedy in 1959 and came away convinced that he could not support Kennedy for president. Aside from Kennedy’s politics, much of the reason was personal style: Robinson did not think the Kennedy brothers—John and Bobby—were particularly good listeners.
Robinson developed important relationships with two men who would cause considerable consternation to Kennedy. The first was Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr., the Minnesota senator, who was running for the Democratic nomination for president against John F. Kennedy.
The second was the vice president himself, Richard Milhous Nixon, who was seeking the Republican nomination and was virtually unopposed. Nixon and Robinson had met years earlier, and Robinson was taken by Nixon’s impressive recall of his career at UCLA, and the two would forge a warm—if not curious, given both the cultural leanings of both men and the period of seismic change occurring in America during the growth of their association—and lasting friendship. Politically, Robinson was registered as an independent, but his politics leaned toward the Republican party of the early 1960s, which had not yet adopted the rigid platform that would define it a generation later.
ROBINSON DECIDED EARLY that either man would be better for black America than would Kennedy, and early in the political season, both Nixon and Humphrey made earnest attempts to cultivate Robinson. Robinson was a tireless correspondent, and in personal letters to both men, his voice was fiercely single-minded in the area of civil rights, but also tinged with a certain element of romance, perhaps a hope that, like he had on the baseball diamond, individuals committed to civil rights could overcome both party and societal opposition to advancements of civil rights legislation. Thus, Robinson’s letters contained a certain personal fondness for Nixon. It was a position that would gain Robinson great criticism, especially from black members of the Democratic party—Adam Clayton Powell, for instance—who believed Robinson relied too heavily and too naïvely on his belief in Nixon the man, instead of following two far more telling indicators regarding the vice president: his voting record and the company he kept. It was an incongruity that exposed Robinson to the stinging charge that off of the base paths, perhaps the most daring and courageous baseball player of his time was well out of his league.
When Robinson corresponded with Humphrey, he wrote directly and boldly, both men speaking candidly of their common purpose in expanding civil rights legislation as well as changing the attitudes of the country’s populace. Unlike Nixon’s, Humphrey’s voting record reflected his passion for civil rights. With Nixon, the letters took on a more personal approach, but Robinson regarded Humphrey as a serious man of honor and principle.
As the Wisconsin primary neared, Robinson decided he would campaign for Humphrey, with one caveat: Should Humphrey fail, he would dedicate his energies toward a Nixon victory over Kennedy.
ON FEBRUARY 3, 1960, Humphrey had been alerted by Frank Reeves, a black Democratic operative, that Robinson could be a potential ally. Among the states that held primaries, Wisconsin represented a key battleground, and in the weeks before the primary, Reeves attempted to cultivate Robinson, hoping he would use his formidable influence with black voters to gain support for the Humphrey campaign.
February 3, 1960
MEMORANDUM TO SENATOR HUMPHREY FROM FRANK D. REEVES
SUBJECT: Jackie Robinson
Pursuant to general agreement, arrangements were made for me to discuss personally with Jackie Robinson whether a) he would be willing to sign a letter to be sent to a selective list of Negroes, endorsing and urging support for Senator Humphrey’s candidacy, and b) he would be willing to go to Wisconsin and D.C. to support and campaign. Bill Gruver arranged a luncheon meeting for me with Robinson in New York City on 1 February, 1960.
On March 30, 1960, Vice President Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, typed a letter to Nixon that explained Robinson’s potential interest in the Nixon campaign.
Fred Lowey called and wanted to talk with you. I told him you were completely tied up and he left the following message.
He would like very much to talk with you for one minute in the next couple of days in connection with the following: He had lunch yesterday with Jackie Robinson. He stressed, of course, he did not need to tell you how important Jackie was as far as the Negro vote was concerned. He feels that with the slightest persuasion Robinson could be swung around and would come on the Nixon bandwagon. To use his terms, “Robinson is more or less considered a God up here.”
I asked him specifically what Robinson said and Lowey said the story is he is first of all interested in Humphrey but he feels Humphrey doesn’t have a chance and his second choice would be you. Fred Lowey thinks it is very important that you get together with Robinson so that he can get to know you better. I told him that you had talked with him and that you have had correspondence with him in the past.
Ten days later, Nixon wrote that Robinson could be an asset to his presidential campaign. The letter also underscored Nixon’s inherent suspicion, a characteristic that would define—and in time ultimately destroy—his political life.
April 10, 1960
I think Fred Lowey has a point with regard to seeing Jackie Robinson. I would suggest the next time we are in New York that we arrange to have him drop in for a visit. Of course, we must remember that he is now employed as a columnist for the New York Post and that he will be under great pressure from his editor Wechler to take whatever nominee the Democrats select. As a matter of fact, I think a letter from me to him at this point might be in order.
To the Kennedys, friends could be more important than money. Friends, in certain cases, were like money, and, like any important form of currency, they existed to mitigate the effect of unexpected eventualities. That Robinson posed a powerful, unpredictable threat in what was expected to be an extremely close race was obvious, both to Kennedy and his staff, to Humphrey, and certainly to Robinson. Not so obvious was exactly what to do about him.
And it wasn’t just that Robinson was a living legend; he was a legend with a platform. In 1959, Robinson agreed to write a thrice-weekly column for the New York Post. The column appeared on the sports page, but Robinson was given leeway to write about any subject that interested him. To the dismay of Kennedy, Robinson, by the end of 1959, wrote of politics almost exclusively.
That was when the old man—Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the family, whose financial wealth was rivaled only by the wealth of his connections, former ambassador to the Court of St. James—stepped in. It was the resourceful Joe who knew whom to talk to in Wisconsin. Kennedy contacted Joe Timilty, one of his flamboyant and loyal (if not completely scrupulous) Boston associates and directed Timilty to get in touch with Duffy Lewis, the Braves traveling secretary. The connection with Lewis came, naturally, from Boston, when Lewis was (with Harry Hooper and Tris Speaker) part of Boston’s Million-Dollar Outfield, winning championships with the Red Sox back in the teens, and when Joe Kennedy was what he always would be: the power behind the power. It was Joe who understood at once that the best way to neutralize the famous Jackie Robinson was to enlist the most famous black man in the state of Wisconsin, Henry Aaron. Understanding the power of advantage, Joe also asked Lewis to recruit the second most popular black man in the state, as well. And that was how both Henry Aaron and Billy Bruton enthusiastically agreed to campaign on behalf of John F. Kennedy for the 1960 Wisconsin primary.
For the first time, Henry was in the act, beyond the batter’s box. Bruton and Henry traveled throughout the state on behalf of Kennedy. In the heavily black areas of Milwaukee, where the city’s black population comprised virtually that of the entire state, Henry stood firmly for Kennedy while his hero, Robinson, went on the attack, both in his Post column and on the campaign trail.
When the primary ended, Kennedy had scored a decisive victory over Humphrey, beginning the end of Humphrey’s campaign. Henry would always talk about his campaigning for Kennedy as one of the significant moments in his life. Two years later, with Kennedy in office, Timilty wrote to Larry O’Brien, Kennedy’s top aide, about obtaining a token of appreciation that Henry would treasure.
March 3, 1962
My Dear Larry,
You will recall that during the Wisconsin Primary Campaign we needed the services of some Colored ball players to offset Jackie Robinson who appeared for Humphries [sic].
At the suggestion of the Ambassador I consulted Duffy Lewis and he obtained the services of the following players, who made personal appearances and speeches for us:
I would greatly appreciate it, Larry, if you would honor this request.
A month later, on April 3, Timilty received the signed glossies (did they really think Burdette, of all people, was a “Colored ball player”?) of President Kennedy and passed them on to Duffy Lewis, but Henry would never know the backstory—that his usefulness to the campaign was not simply to help Kennedy win but to parry Robinson. Had Henry known that Robinson had chosen Humphrey, he might well have joined Robinson in supporting Humphrey against Kennedy. But he had no way of knowing he was being cultivated to neutralize the most iconic black athlete in the country’s history. Henry would call his association in the 1960 campaign an “honor,” and for the next half century, he would support Democratic candidates at every political level.
Although Henry had always considered Jackie Robinson his standard of courage and commitment, the perfect blend of athletic achievement and social conscience, he would not approach his activism in the often isolated, crusading Robinson manner. Following Humphrey’s withdrawal from the presidential race, Robinson campaigned vigorously for Nixon against Kennedy.
Robinson seemed particularly wounded by the Nixon defeat, and even as Nixon reached his first political nadir, Robinson continued to believe in him. On Chock Full o’ Nuts stationery, Robinson wrote to Nixon on November 12, 1962:
Mr. Richard Nixon
c/o Republican Headquarters
Los Angeles, California
It is difficult to write a letter such as this, but I shall do the best I can.
The only regret I have in supporting you twice is that I was unfortunate not to have been able to help more than I did. I am sorry also that most Negroes were unwilling to believe the promises you made. I personally was, and still am, convinced that you were the best candidate for the presidency in 1960 and a man we need very much in Government Service.
I am concerned because you have said that you have had your last press conference. I hope that you will reconsider, Dick, be cause it is the great men people attack. You are good for politics; good for America. As one who has great confidence in you and who sincerely appreciates the opportunity of having known and worked for you, I urge you to remain active. There is so much to be done and there are too few qualified people to do the job now. Your loss would be an added blow to our efforts. Do not let your critics cause you to give up your career. Each of us came into this world for a purpose. I believe that yours is service to our country.
Cordially, Jackie Robinson
Robinson would always pay the heavy price of loneliness for his activism and his headfirst approach. Passion is often uncomplicated, and in complex political waters, Robinson flailed admirably and desperately, seeking a similar commitment for civil rights.
Yet in the end, before history would completely recognize Robinson’s passion triumphing over his strategy, he lived as the single-minded outsider, loyal to the cause, at the cost of his allies ignoring him. Once it became clear that whatever Robinson saw in him as a man, Nixon’s loyalties were with a Republican party that regarded civil rights with hostility, Robinson would eventually even break with Nixon on a political level, while maintaining a personal fondness for him.
On July 25, two days after being elected to the Hall of Fame, Robinson seemed melancholy, his fire submitting to his heart. In a sentimental moment, he wrote a letter to Walter O’Malley, an attempt at reconciliation, or at least closure.
Dear Mr. O’Malley,
Sunday night, as I had dinner with my family at the Otesago Hotel in Cooperstown, I had the opportunity of chatting with Mrs. O’Malley briefly. We talked about things I am sure she does not remember, but I really wanted to talk with her about you and I.
I couldn’t help but feel sad by the fact that the next day I was entering the hall of Fame and I did not have any real ties with the game. I thought back to my days at Ebbetts Field, and kept wondering how our relationship had deteriorated. Being stubborn, and believing that it all stemmed from my relationship with Mr. Rickey, I made no attempt to find the cause. I assure you, Rae has on many occasions discussed this, and she too feels we should at least talk over our problems. Of course, there is the possibility that we are at an impasse, and nothing can be done. I feel, however, I must make this attempt to let you know how I sincerely regret we have not tried to find the cause for this breach.
I will be in Los Angeles on Friday. If you feel you have about fifteen minutes, I’ll drop by. I shall call your office when I arrive.
After writing the letter, Robinson lived ten more years, O’Malley for another seventeen. Robinson grew as an unquestionable American icon, while O’Malley would live as one of the venerable family names in baseball. For the sake of scrubbing history, Peter O’Malley, who succeeded his father in running the Dodgers for nearly another two decades, would say that Walter never held Robinson in anything less than admiration. Of course, as Robinson grew beyond baseball to the top shelf of American legend, O’Malley criticizing him was about as smart as trading Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas. Regardless of the reason, one fact remained throughout the lives of the particulars involved: The reconciliation Robinson sought between himself and Walter O’Malley in the summer of 1962 never took place.
Henry learned a valuable lesson. Beginning in the early years of the 1960s it would be Henry who often articulated the cost of Robinson’s passion, noting in interviews that Robinson was never offered a coaching, managerial, or front-office position at any level of the major-league baseball system. Nor was he asked to manage in the minor leagues or to scout. Even Branch Rickey, who had been part of two organizations, the Pirates and Cardinals, following Jackie’s retirement, did not offer him a job. Where baseball was concerned, he was the loneliest immortal in history, his isolation comparable only to Babe Ruth’s, who was discarded by the game as casually as a hot-dog wrapper.
INSIDE THE GAME, Henry was famous and respected and comfortable. He appeared on the television program “Home Run Derby,” set out of Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, winning six straight episodes and $14,000, the most prize money during the show’s run, before losing to Wally Post. When he’d arrived in Milwaukee a decade earlier, the heart and soul and imagination of the team had begun with Mathews and Spahn. Now, he was ten years older, and so, too, were the fans who had come to the ballpark for all those years. The kids who used to line Wisconsin Avenue for the parades of the 1950s had now gone to college and built families and careers, the younger ones—now that Spahn had aged and Mathews was less dominant—having grown up with Henry as their unquestioned star. Even fans like Bud Selig, who were the same age as Henry (Henry was six months older than Selig), knew the Henry Aaron routines by heart and would be as tickled by him as when they were teenyboppers looking for a prom date: the two bats he swung in the on-deck-circle dress rehearsal, no batting gloves; the front-foot stomp and drive as the pitch approached, leading easily into that signature flash of violence; the lightning spark of his bat slashing through the strike zone. They emulated him in their slow-pitch softball games, copied his moves in the backyard with their kids while playing Wiffle ball, and recalled from their lush reservoir of memories Henry’s limp during his home-run trot. There was the way he stood impassively on deck, on one knee, watching the pitcher solemnly, awaiting his chance. These traits, the kids rattled off by heart. Even when he struck out, especially on a slider, Henry would pirouette, a futile corkscrew following a swing and miss, before walking, head down, toward the dugout, rarely giving the pitcher the satisfaction of that over-the-shoulder peek back at the mound. Fifty years later, Bud Selig still delighted in all of these unique stylistic traits, how Henry’s bat would lash so viciously across the plate, lacing home runs into the Perini pines that didn’t seem to lift more than ten feet off the ground, simple doubles in the alleys for other players. “Nobody,” Selig would say, “hit more home runs that everyone else thought might hit the wall. With Henry, you looked up, and the ball was gone.” Henry would lope stoically around the bases, stern as a lumberjack, only to break into smile once safely in the dugout.
The Milwaukee fans even knew how Henry held his cigarette, right arm tight to his body as he took a long drag, head always facing in the opposite direction from where he would eventually flick away the spent butt. Henry had smoked since he was a teenager shooting pool on Davis Avenue. During the 1950s, advertising campaigns often featured major-league players (how to smoke like a big leaguer), the perfect recruiting tool for a new generation of tobacco consumers. Sometimes, the fans with the best angle could look into the dugout and catch Henry stealing a drag before walking to the on-deck circle, extinguishing a butt on the bottom of his spikes. Like his idol DiMaggio, Henry adopted Camels as his cigarette of choice. It would always be unclear whether Henry succumbed to advertising, but DiMaggio once appeared in a Camel ad: “Joe DiMaggio has something to say about how different cigarettes can be.” Henry never admitted it to be true, but some Aaron fans distinctly remember Henry taking a drag once or twice near the on-deck circle. Take your pick of the magazines—Sport, Sports Illustrated, The Saturday Evening Post, and you would likely find a ballplayer selling cigarettes.
THE CAMEL MILDNESS TEST
How thorough can cigarette mildness be? Here’s your answer!
In a coast-to-coast test, hundreds of men and women smoked only Camels for 30 days, averaging 1–2 packs a day. Each well-noted throat specialist examined their throats. These doctors made 2,470 careful examinations and reported not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels!
VIC RASCHI—“You can’t beat ’em for flavor—and they’re mild!”
BOB LEMON—“Camels are great tasting, and mild!”
MEL PARNELL—“I like the taste and they get on fine with my throat. It’s Camels for me!”
Seven years later, Henry got his turn, appearing in his own ad for Camels. Gracing the pages of a 1958 Life magazine advertisement, Henry wore a tweed jacket, a cigarette resting carefully in his left hand.
HANK AARON HIT MORE HOMERS than any other ballplayer in the majors last season. He also led both leagues in total runs batted in, won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, and paced the Milwaukee Braves to their world championship. This real pro smokes Camel, a real cigarette. “Can’t beat ’em for flavor. And Camels sure smoke mild.”
The fans were protective of their hero, and he made them feel safe and good about their unexpected, glorious moment in time. The only problem was that in the 1960s, for the first time, the graphlines of Henry Aaron and those of the Milwaukee Braves trended divergently. In the beautiful 1950s, with the Braves challenging for pennants, Milwaukeeans raced through the turnstiles as if it were ten-cent beer night, and Henry was just another one of the players, an undeniably outsized talent to be sure, but without the clubhouse influence (and responsibilities) of Mathews and Spahn, Burdette and Logan and Bruton.
Within a decade, though, Henry had run right past them all. Some of the distance from his early years certainly benefited him, for he was eager to escape so much of the old life, starting with the tiresome act of having to accept the daily humiliation of being depicted as a simpleton. He had actively begun to reinvent himself, augmenting his awesome statistics with political awareness and social clout, while all the while growing more resolute in his belief that his baseball talent meant nothing if it did not translate to improving the general condition of the world around him. He was a man rounding into substantive form. Some of the changes were dramatic. He had made the conscious decision to be more outspoken on racial issues, striking up a friendship with the football player Jim Brown, then considered the most politically minded black athlete in the country. He had chosen to be more active in politics. These characteristics were easily detectable to his teammates (if not exactly understood), while others were deemed only superficial. One such change was in his dress. In the 1950s, Henry dressed like an insurance salesman—short-sleeve oxford-cloth shirt, dark, thin tie with a half Windsor knot, dark pants. Into the 1960s, as he began to make more money and grew more into himself, compared to his first years in the league, Henry looked more like a kaleidoscope: plaid and checkered suits, sunglasses, Afro, and, that great staple of the 1960s, turtlenecks with a sport coat. Both poles, those of politics and fashion, however, represented a singular truth: Henry had left one stage of his career and entered another.
And as he grew, the Braves just could not keep up. For 130 games in 1960, Milwaukee fought emerging Pittsburgh for the pennant, only to finish second, seven games back. The key sequence between the two clubs occurred in late July, with the young Pirates—led by the hard-nosed shortstop Dick Groat (who would win the league MVP that year) and featuring the passionate, determined right fielder Clemente—holding a half-game lead. Two years earlier, when the Braves won their second pennant, the Pirates had challenged but wilted at roughly the same point in the season, late July, when pitching arms die and the bats feel more like lead than lightning. And here it was, poised to happen all over again, the Braves, veterans at breaking pretenders as the summer intensified, ready to catapult the Pirates back into the land of the almost ready. On the night of July 26 in San Francisco, Sam Jones blinded the Braves lineup for six innings. He would strike out eleven, including a furious Henry, to lead off the seventh. But Milwaukee pushed home a run in the seventh, and then Henry singled and scored off Jones for payback, as well as making an eighth-inning insurance run, in a 3–1 win. The lead was still wafer-thin. Spahn and Burdette were next in the rotation, while Pittsburgh was in St. Louis to face a Cardinals team that was just beginning to show threats of being dangerous. The pressure was on the Pirates.
Then, over the next fifteen games, the Braves lost eleven times, five to the Dodgers, dropping them down to fourth place, while Pittsburgh, green to the fight, embraced the pressure and won eleven games during the same stretch. The lead was seven, and the pennant was gone. The following year, it was an inspired Cincinnati team that clubbed its way to the pennant, while Milwaukee dropped to fourth, ten games back. Nineteen sixty-two belonged to the West Coast, the renewal of the old New York rivalry to a new time zone. The Dodgers and Giants won 205 games between them, and played an epic three-game play-off that ended with Mays once again in the World Series. The Braves didn’t overcome the .500 mark for good until July 25 and finished as poorly as they’d ever had since arriving in Milwaukee, fifteen and a half games out, in fifth place.
The only thing that gave 1962 special heft was that Henry’s little brother Tommie made the big-league club out of spring training. For the first time in organized ball, Henry and Tommie would be teammates. Five and a half years younger, Tommie Aaron was a big kid. He stood six-one, and weighed 190 pounds, fifteen pounds more than Henry had at eighteen. He had played baseball as religiously as Henry, but also football at Central High.
The Braves had signed Tommie back in 1958, but, unlike Henry, Tommie Aaron was not a can’t-miss prospect. Henry played a total of just 224 games in the minor leagues, and hit .353 in those games. Tommie followed immediately in Henry’s footsteps—two seasons in Eau Claire, Class C ball, then a full season at Class B Cedar Rapids of the Three-I league in 1960, with cups of coffee in Jacksonville and Louisville. In 1961, he played 138 games in Double-A Austin of the Texas League, but the game did not seem to come easily to him. Henry believed he indirectly affected Tommie’s progress, for the Aaron name produced expectations that the little brother would possess the same magic of his older, famous sibling.
For Tommie, just reaching the majors, to be on the roster, he would need to study and learn the game, find coaches interested in his success, and work at it. In the minor leagues, he was a respectable hitter—.274 his first year in Eau Claire, .299 both at Cedar Rapids and Austin—and had power. In the majors, hitting—which was the difference between staying with the club and being sent back down—would be the weakest part of Tommie’s game.
Yet having Tommie in the big leagues changed the dynamic of the Braves clubhouse, and the other Braves asked themselves that old saw: How could two people who grew up in the very same circumstances, in the same house, with the same parents, be so different?
While Henry kept his distance, Tommie was the gregarious one, navigating each clique that existed in the room, soaking up the clubhouse energy, recycling it back. Henry loved baseball, but Tommie seemed to love it and enjoy it simultaneously. Joe Torre used to marvel at just how fast after games Henry would dress and leave the clubhouse, but Tommie was the opposite. He talked the game, chatted up the coaches and the managers and the clubhouse kids. It was part of Tommie’s personality that had been evident even back in Mobile.
“He was such a good, open man,” Joe Torre said. “A really good man with a really good baseball mind. Tommie was always quick with a laugh, and he made it easier for Hank.”
For a time, Tommie lived with Barbara and Henry. He hadn’t been on the big-league club long before he met a girl, whom he would marry. Carolyn Davenport had been a friend of Nancy Maye, wife of Braves reserve outfielder Lee Maye. Carolyn had grown up in Little Rock, but the family moved to Milwaukee when she was fifteen. Her father, Willis Davenport, was a steelworker and relocated the family after finding work at Inland Steel.
She had little interest in baseball, but she and Tommie connected quickly. “It was almost from the time we met,” she recalled. “I met Tommie at the ballpark and little did I know. I didn’t know the rules, but it became normal fast. I just got used to it.”
Having Tommie on the club brought Henry even closer to the city and the club, but one by one, the old cast who’d whooped it up at Ray Jackson’s faded. Pafko was finished after the 1959 collapse to the Dodgers, remaining with the team as a coach. Johnny Logan lost his starting job to Roy McMillan, and he was traded to the Pirates for Gino Cimoli in June 1961. He played two more uninspired years for Pittsburgh and retired to his house on the South Side. Joe Adcock’s last big year came in 1961; then the bottom fell out and he was done in Milwaukee the following year. Bruton was never again the same player defensively after the collision with Mantilla in 1957. He led the team in hits in 1960, then was sent off to Detroit that winter for Neil Chrisley and Frank Bolling, the Mobile boy against whom Henry played as a kid in the sandlots but never as a teammate, since whites and blacks were prohibited from competing in Alabama. Mantilla, who never could convince management he was good enough to be an everyday player, was gone in 1962, sent to the hapless expansion Mets, where he played for Casey Stengel. Frank Torre got hurt in 1960, played just twenty-one games, and was released, replaced in 1961 by his talented little brother Joe. There were two whippersnappers, Tony Cloninger and Joe Torre, who were destined for long, productive careers, and another, the talented Ricardo Adolfo Jacobo Carty, whom Henry would take under his wing, but many of the new faces wouldn’t last. Chuck Dressen, Jackie Robinson’s favorite manager, took over the club in 1960; he talked tough but lasted just two seasons. Dressen never blended with this club; he lost Spahn and Burdette almost immediately, reduced to calling the two “the Katzenjammer Kids.” Birdie Tebbetts, the general manager, came down from the front office and guided the team right into fifth place. Bobby Bragan, the southerner who once preferred to be traded than to have Jackie Robinson as a teammate, took over, and the results didn’t get any better.
Some of the names were still there, but they were just ghosts, closer to the Old-Timers Game than a September pennant race. Spahn stubbornly beat back time, winning twenty-three games as a forty-two-year-old in 1963, but he would be gone a year later to the Mets and Giants and Cooperstown. Burdette won eighteen games in 1961 but would never win more than ten in a season thereafter. By 1963, he was traded to St. Louis for Gene Oliver and Bob Sadowski. Even Mathews, once projected to give Ruth a run for his money, wheezed to the finish. He would remain with Henry in Milwaukee, but he could never drive in one hundred runs or hit better than .265 after 1961. Mathews, in his time the greatest power-hitting third baseman ever, would hit thirty home runs only once more. In Milwaukee, the names were just that, names that produced a seductive whiff of sentimentality, giving off a teasing and bittersweet aroma no different from that of the old bread factory, which had long ceased production.
AND THEN THERE was Henry. As a player in his prime who could conjure up the old wistful magic and still put a hurting on Koufax, Drysdale, and the new kids who were starting to dominate the National League, there was, in Milwaukee, only Henry. And he was brilliant: .292 average, 40 homers, 126 RBI, 11 triples in 1960; 34 home runs, a .327 average, and 120 driven in the following year. Then came the two monster years that dwarfed Mays, Mantle, Maris, all of them, and put Henry on the Cooperstown track, an equal with the greats but second to nobody: .323, with 45 bombs, 128 driven in 1962, backed up by a torrid .319 average, with 44 homers, 130 RBI, and 201 hits in 1963.
Nineteen sixty-three was the big one. At the plate, nobody was better. He led the league in home runs, but only once, on September 10 against Cincinnati, did he hit two in a game. He led the league in runs batted in and runs scored, was second in the league in stolen bases and hits. He lost the batting title to Tommy Davis by seven points—finishing third behind Davis and Clemente—and those seven points would have given him the Triple Crown. The future Hall of Famers on the mound didn’t want any part of him. Henry hit .471 against Drysdale with four homers and .318 off Marichal (though one, Bob Gibson, handled him easily, holding Henry to just two hits in fifteen at bats).
Perhaps more than any other period in his professional life, the years from 1960 to 1965 would define the enduring parameters of the Henry Aaron story, for it was during those years when the common and convenient belief that Henry Aaron played his entire baseball career in relative obscurity was born. The press was rightfully blinded by Mays and Mantle, but the professionals knew the Aaron presence. It was after 1963 that Drysdale and Koufax nicknamed Aaron “Bad Henry,” and why not? At Dodger Stadium, even though Koufax kept Henry mortal (no homers, three RBI on the year), Henry hit .406.
“The two things I remember most about being behind the plate when Henry came up was that you really couldn’t pitch to him in any sort of pattern and this wonderful sound he made when he came to bat,” said Tim McCarver, the Cardinals and Phillies catcher. “He would step to the plate, settle in to hit. But before he did, he would give this noise that came from the bottom of his throat.
“There were only two hitters I ever remember making that, that sound when they came to bat: Henry Aaron and Mike Schmidt,” McCarver recalled. “It was so regal, the gentleman clearing his throat before going to work. Never forgot it.”
The greatest Aaron protectors in the press were on the West Coast, the most prominent being Jim Murray, the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist. Murray believed Henry to be a better player than Willie or the rest. Henry was not exactly pleased, but he adopted the persona of the stoic construction worker building a skyscraper in the Midwest while the entire world was paying attention to Yankee Stadium to the east or to Willie Mays to the west, his peers only reminded by the enormous shadow of his cumulative achievements when he quietly passed another milestone. The other was Frank Finch, the Los Angeles Times writer who covered the Dodgers. Few of his paragraphs regarding Aaron were not prefaced by Finch calling Henry the game’s most devastating hitter.
Though for all of Henry’s determination to be that person of substance and value, to make his presence as a dominant one on the field and in the public eye, a perfect storm was taking place during these years that would permanently conspire against him and his legacy.
THE VAUNTED CHARGE that turned Spahn and Burdette, Mathews, and Aaron into superstars never again materialized. Over a span of 959 games over 1,052 regular-season days between opening day 1960 and the close of the 1965 season, the Braves never spent consecutive days in first place, and in those six years, they spent just four days total in first place, easily counted on one hand: one April day in 1961 (record 7–2), another April afternoon in 1963, and August 18 and 20 in 1965.
And because of that, nobody cared that Henry was making a ferocious charge toward Mount Olympus, toward Cooperstown, toward respect. As the Braves disappeared in the standings, Henry was transformed from a phenomenon to the same unassuming, workmanlike figure they remembered from the 1950s, defined by the stilted commentaries of Furman Bisher and the imperceptive beat coverage of his earlier seasons. Even when a new breed of better educated, younger reporters arrived in the clubhouse, Henry was cold. The new generation viewed race differently from their predecessors and were clearly more sympathetic, but it did not matter. By this time, Henry was no longer a kid, willing to forgive. He had built up a protective wall around his heart, his privacy, his feelings. By this time, Henry had quit trying to cultivate the press.
“Anytime you went to talk to Aaron, he wouldn’t let you in. You couldn’t get through. You knew that it was rough for him and you tried to let him know that, but he was just mean,” said Jack O’Connell, who has covered baseball for half a century.
Aside from the periodically jarring wire headline that that quiet Henry Aaron was upset about the sport’s paternalistic role with regard to blacks (“WHEN WILL BASEBALL ADMIT WE HAVE BRAINS?”—AARON) the public at large did not take real notice, either of his dramatic personal evolution or the fact that for six full seasons on top of the five he had already produced during the glory years, he was absolutely killing the baseball.
He suffered from the fact that his team had lost its relevance and from the unfortunate curse of geography, but he did not know just how right he was about money. His ambitions were easy to misread, for he did not boast as Ruth and Williams and Foxx would, nor did he roil competitively in the mold of a Robinson or Cobb. Still, he knew whom he had to beat to secure his place in the order and he also believed that, to a degree, respect was reflected in money. He had eclipsed many of his teammates on the field of play and yet could not pass them in salary. In 1960 and 1961, Henry earned $45,000, $47,500 in 1962, followed by $53,000 in 1963, $61,000 in 1964, and $63,000 in 1965, according to salary data maintained by the National League. It would not be until 1963 that he would pass Burdette in salary, and he would not pass Spahn or Mathews while each wore a Braves uniform.
Over the history of the game, there had been only a few players who could bend the system. The original, of course, was Ruth, whose first contract in 1914 called for a salary of $350 per month, but by 1921 he was earning $40,000 per year. In 1927, Ruth earned seventy thousand dollars, and by 1930, with the country in the clutches of the Great Depression, eighty thousand.
Ted Williams was another. Williams received bonuses based on the Red Sox home attendance. By 1950, Williams was earning ninety thousand dollars.
But Willie Mays set the pace. In 1960, he signed for $80,000, $85,000 in 1961, $90,000 in 1962, and $105,000 in 1963, 1964, and 1965. During the same period, Mantle earned $60,000 in 1960, followed by $70,000 in 1961, $90,000 in 1963, and $100,000 in both 1964 and 1965.
Henry did not receive substantial raises, but it was the great Clemente who was clearly the most underpaid player of his era. Clemente earned $17,500 in 1960, the year the Pirates won the World Series, and did not receive a raise. By 1965 he was earning $34,000. For his career, Clemente topped out at $63,333, which he earned in 1972, the final year of his life.
Henry understood that playing in Milwaukee may have meant free gas from Wisco, but being situated away from the marketing and intellectual capitals of the country would have a significant cost.
I don’t think I’ve earned my due in publicity or money. I’ve had a few magazine stories, a few endorsements, mostly when we had a strong club in ’57 and ’58. A ballplayer felt it in his pocketbook when there was no National League team in New York, which is where the money is. When the Giants went to San Francisco, I never got what I should. The fans in Milwaukee have been very good to me. They never have booed me, even when I’ve been in some slumps and pulled some booboos on the basepaths. They’ve always been very courteous to me.
There’s been improvement for the Negro player these last few years, but I still think a lot more can be done. Take myself—I’d like to get the same treatment that the Mantles and Marises have gotten when I do as well as them. We have Mays and Robinson and myself over here in the National League. When we do well we don’t get the publicity and what goes with it like they do. Mays gets more than the rest of us, but he don’t get what he should be getting.
Aaron was the first of the major black stars who did not benefit from geography, either before he reached the big leagues or after, and what other black players may have lost in financial compensation compared to their white counterparts, Henry lost both in money and, in many ways, in dignity which he would fight to regain and to protect. He came from the nation’s racially charged epicenter—Alabama—where the attitudes and customs reflected those that first drove the country into the Civil War and then sheared it anew after Reconstruction.
He had sought respect, both as a man and a ballplayer. The perfect storm had conspired against him; other players better situated, with different, more marketable gifts, seemed destined always to be a step ahead of him in the public eye, even if not in the statistical columns. As the second half of the 1960s lurched forward, Henry knew what would separate him not simply from Robinson, Clemente, and Mays but also from Babe Ruth. That something was the all-time home-run record. If he corralled that, they would listen to him. They would all have no choice but to pay attention to what he had to say for the rest of his life.