The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART THREE. LEGEND
Chapter 12. WILLIE
AS YOU ENTERED the Braves clubhouse, an oversized refrigerator loomed to the right, a frosty glass door revealing shelves of Fanta grape and orange soda distributed by the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. Next to the fridge sat the cigarette machine and a tub filled with ice and Piels beer. A side table housed assorted sundries—sunflower seeds, tobacco, bubble gum—and a jar, about ten inches high, brimming with amphetamines.
Wire-mesh dressing stalls lined the far right wall, leading to the trainer’s room, the ultimate safe haven, where players got taped and massaged, and, most importantly, could hide from the press. The center of the room featured two long rectangular folding tables that stood next to the pre- and postgame spreads. The tables served as the social epicenter of the Atlanta Braves clubhouse. It was where the Dominican Rico Carty, the self-nicknamed “Big Boy” (or “Beeg Boy” if you happened to spell his moniker as he did, phonetically) preened and boasted and flexed. Felipe Alou and Felix Millan played hearts on those tables with Dusty Baker and Phil Niekro. The tables also doubled as a makeshift dais, where Joe Torre rallied support for a radical concept quickly spreading through big-league clubhouses: the creation of a strong players union to protect their interests against the owners, led by a man Torre deeply respected, Marvin Miller.
And then there was Henry, away from the tumult, at a safe distance from the rest. His locker was located along the far left wall from the clubhouse entrance, second to last from the showers. In 1968, there was no bigger, more formidable player in the Braves clubhouse than Henry Aaron, the last link to the great old days of Spahn and championships, free-flowing beer and promise. Henry could be melancholy with his role as a bridge between eras. Eddie Mathews was gone, shipped to the Houston Astros the year before. Joe Torre, eight years in the big leagues, was a perennial all-star, but it was his brother Frank who had played with the Milwaukee pennant winners. Carty could hit with anybody in the league and cut a dashing and colorful, if not annoying, figure in the clubhouse. But Carty was talent without profile, having joined Milwaukee after the glory, having never played in the postseason, having never been there when things were in full flower. Niekro was just a kid who showed immense promise, and Tony Cloninger couldn’t get the pain out of his right arm after winning twenty-four games in 1965—the Braves last, lost year in Milwaukee. Henry was surrounded by good players with fine futures, professionals certainly, but he was set apart by his history and by his numbers, the great calling card for every player in major-league baseball.
As the 1968 season began, Henry was thirty-four, and enjoyed a position unique from that of anyone else playing big-league ball at that moment: He was the guy whose name invariably arose when the writers were sitting around during the interminable downtime of spring training, discussing just who might be up for the challenge, the long climb to the top of Mount Olympus, the summit, of course, being Babe Ruth and his 714 home runs. Maybe they had forgotten about Henry as Milwaukee grew irrelevant and the Braves sank from the annual pennant races, but without much warning, the gas tank on Willie Mays seemed near empty. Willie just wasn’t Willie anymore. He was thirty-seven years old and 172 homers shy of Ruth, but 1967—just twenty-two homers and a career-low .263 batting average—represented an obvious distress signal. The writers and the fans (and most likely Mays himself) did the math and realized that the expected narrative of Mays passing Ruth was most likely not to be. Mays would have had to average more than forty home runs through the 1971 season (when he would be forty) even to come within breathing distance of the record. Frank Robinson was fierce and dominant and heading for Cooperstown as surely as Henry and Willie, but he was never close enough to Ruth on the home-run list ever to threaten. Killebrew? Banks? Great players, Hall of Fame–bound were each, but they had no chance. It was Henry, not yet thirty-five years old, with 482 home runs and a career batting average still over .315, who had the best shot of reaching the big guy. It was Henry, therefore, who would undergo a national reassessment. With Aaron, the calculations weren’t so daunting. His back and knees were starting to give him trouble, but he was in shape. He played in Atlanta, where the ball carried, and, most important of all, he did not have to increase his production to reach the Babe. If he played seven more seasons, until he hit forty, in 1974, he needed to average thirty-three homers a year, one homer less than the thirty-four he had averaged over the fourteen years he had already played big-league ball. All he had to do to take a shot at Ruth was just be himself, be as consistent as he’d always been.
Even as he stood apart, the Braves were increasingly his team. Bobby Bragan and Billy Hitchcock were bounced as managers, and Bartholomay handed the reins to an Alabaman, Luman Harris, who held authority as manager but had no stature. Harris had pitched during the war years and held the distinction of losing big on a bad team, once posting a 7–21 record for the 102-loss Philadelphia A’s in 1943. Henry was the best player, with the longest résumé, the greatest accomplishments, and the most respect. The veterans admired how he played so well for so long, and the kids, who not too long ago had owned his baseball card, idolized him, mesmerized by the idea that they were now not just big leaguers but shared the room with the great man himself. Respect was the proper description, for Henry did not pretend that he was anything like the younger players. He lived at a distance.
Despite their admiration for him, Henry maintained a certain curmudgeonly contempt for the new generation, by which he was now surrounded. They did not study the game as his generation had, nor did they seem to play when hurt, and to Henry Aaron, playing regardless of pain represented the ultimate mark of professionalism. After the first day of spring training, pain was a part of the game, and yet younger players seemed unaffected by sitting out a day or two until their injuries healed. And yet, this new era of modern player would earn more money than he and Spahn and Burdette and Mathews—tougher players from a tougher generation—ever saw at a similar point in their careers, either individually or, for the most part, combined.
Henry had no illusions about the power of management. He had fought every year with Bob Quinn and Birdie Tebbetts, sending back his contract every January for an extra dollar. He had been in the league thirteen seasons and still wasn’t close to making $100,000.
Yet Henry could not envision baseball without the reserve clause. He believed what the owners had been telling the players and the public for a century: that free agency would destroy baseball. The league would not be able to function if players were allowed any form of free agency. Henry attended Marvin Miller’s meetings. He was generally supportive of the nascent union’s initiatives, but in interview settings and public statements, he would repeat various versions of the same theme: teams needed to control the players.
The center of the room was where the good players, the stars, the scrubs, and even the bug-eyed clubhouse kids commiserated. It was where a fifteen-year-old high school infielder named Stewart “Buz” Eisenberg had the greatest job in the world.
Eisenberg was a Braves batboy during the first two years the Braves were in Atlanta. While Bartholomay had been concerned how the big-league, integrated Braves would play in a region that for generations had remained strictly segregated and Jimmy Carter hoped that the arrival of the Braves would legitimize the South, Buz Eisenberg, throughout his high school years, lived out their macro concerns on a daily basis. His father, Dan Eisenberg, was a traveling salesman and had moved with his wife, Gloria, from Philadelphia to Atlanta in 1963. One of three children, Eisenberg attended North Fulton High School and later graduated from Lakeside High. He recalled that the family did not have much money and that they lived in Shallowford Downs, a brick-faced apartment complex on the northeast side of town. He was Jewish in the Deep South and remembered getting into countless fights for being called a “dirty Jew” on a daily basis, the worst of this occurring during his junior high years. Through Eisenberg’s experiences, it became clear that the laws might have changed but that attitudes had not, and those attitudes were held by the very people Bartholomay needed to attract to his ballpark. These people, who were unused to interracial competition, would decide if they’d allow Henry Aaron to be their hero.
Eisenberg recalled how deeply racial attitudes defined his upbringing. As a kid in Philadelphia and, later, when the family moved to Atlanta, he did not have a black friend. He made the high school wrestling team and recalled that no one on the team wanted to pair with a talented black teammate named Jack Jones.
“There were four blacks in our high school in eleventh grade. That was the first year we integrated. The kids used to say that the black kids smelled like fish. They used to say that they ate fish because they couldn’t afford meat,” Eisenberg recalled.
There was the disturbing incident as a member of the junior ROTC. The instructor in charge was Sergeant Conley (“Sergeant Conley’s turning green/Someone pissed in his canteen/Sound off … one two … sound off … say it again!”) and one afternoon the sergeant hosted a first-aid seminar in the high school auditorium.
“I remember having to go to mandatory junior ROTC, back before it was ruled unconstitutional. It was totally unfair, three days a week, weapons training and things like that,” Eisenberg recalled. “First aid was not integrated yet. Sergeant Conley showed us a short film and then gave us a scenario: ‘You’re in a truck and there’s an accident. You see the victim is a black man lying in the street unconscious. So what do you do?’
“He told us, ‘The first thing is you check to see if he is breathing. You find out that he isn’t and you must perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.’ And on it went. ‘Look into the mouth and throat to ensure that the airway is clear. If an object is present, try to sweep it out with your fingers. Tilt the head back slightly.’ Then he moved closer to the imaginary victim, approached his mouth, and instead of showing us how to give mouth-to-mouth, he yelled into it, ‘GOODBYE, NIGGER!!!’ I’ll never forget that, because all the kids in the auditorium were laughing.
“For me it was different. Being with the Braves helped me out a lot with that, because in the clubhouse you talked to everyone, so when you got back to school, everything they were saying about blacks didn’t make a lot of sense, because the Braves were all in the same room together.”
He would remember virtually every detail of those two years with the total recall of a teenager surrounded by his heroes: how being a batboy for the Braves turned a self-described “nerdy kid” into a “hot date,” both because he was associated with the hottest thing in town, the new baseball team, and because the generous tips the players bestowed upon him meant he always had more cash to take the girls out than some of his rivals at school. He remembered how the lower guys on the team, younger guys who were often closer in age to the batboys than some of their teammates, would prefer to hang out with the kids than with the established ballplayers, and how the Braves mascot, Chief Noc-A-Homa, headdress, feathers and all, always had the best weed at the ballpark, right in his tepee beyond the center-field fence. Eisenberg was particularly taken by a young pitcher named Clay Carroll, who used to go over to Shallowford Downs and swim in the pool, and how Buz and his mother, Gloria, would laugh together at just how much food Carroll could eat.
Eisenberg lived a dream. There was the time he was sitting there eating with the other clubbies when a naked Joe Torre sneaked up behind him and stood stealthily above, his penis dangling over Eisenberg’s right shoulder, dangerously close to Eisenberg’s right cheekbone. Upon noticing the laughter in the room and then recognizing why the team was busting up, Eisenberg kept eating, appearing not to notice Torre’s dangling manhood nuzzling his cheek, before quickly striking his left hand across to his right shoulder, as if he were trying to swat a fly. Torre had by then backed away, and the room was bathed in laughter at the kid’s expense, but Buz Eisenberg loved every minute of it—that just meant he was one of the guys. There was no better feeling on earth for a teenage kid who wanted to grow up to be a baseball player than to be included in the good feeling and the easy humor of the men he idolized.
He remembered Henry Aaron as a brooding figure, who always smoked and often drank a beer before and after games, at a distance from the rest. Eisenberg would recall that Henry rarely took his place in the social bazaar in the middle of the Braves clubhouse.
“Hank Aaron never even looked at me. Of all the guys, Aaron was probably the only one who I never made eye contact with, and he was the only one I really wanted to pay attention to me. I mean, here I am, fifteen and a half years old, and you’re within three feet of Hank Aaron every day. He was the guy you idolized. At the end of every season, guys would tip you fifty or a hundred dollars, and Aaron stiffed me, totally. I wasn’t sure if he didn’t see me. But he did stiff me.” The next year, as the Braves returned from spring training, Henry called out to Eisenberg and tossed him a warm-up jacket, an item that, forty-one years later, Eisenberg still owns, the jacket in beloved, precious tatters.
“I was there for eighty-one games for two seasons and Hank never, ever came over to the middle of the room. I can’t say I never saw Hank Aaron smile, but I can say I never saw him belly-laugh, rap someone’s ass with a towel … be one of the guys. I never heard what Hank Aaron’s laugh sounded like, and I was aware of it because he was such a presence. I could see if he was just another guy, then maybe I never would have heard it because I wouldn’t have been paying full attention. But I was paying full attention, because he was Hank Aaron.
“For any young teenage kid, being around this heroic ensemble, when they paid attention and spoke to you, it was a pretty awesome thing. Pat Jarvis, Clay Carroll, they laughed and joked and hung out with us,” Eisenberg recalled. “With Aaron, it was different. With Aaron, it was worse than picking on us. He ignored us.… I didn’t know the word at the time, but I thought it was arrogance, but later when you found out the life he was living, you sort of realized how he insulated himself from his teammates. You realize the defense mechanisms he had to set up, the walls he needed to protect himself.”
IT WAS THE kids who brought Henry to life—two of them, actually, who whenever he was around acted as though they were precocious and slobbering little pups, looking up to the big man with a reverence so complete that it couldn’t help but make Henry feel young and full, and, above all, appreciated. They saw him as a person of great wisdom, as somebody who wasn’t just the most feared bat in the lineup but actually a person who had something important to teach. Around them, Henry let his guard down, which he had not been able to do elsewhere. He could show the dormant, mentoring side of himself that had always been present in his first fourteen years in the big leagues. With them, he could show the smile that Buz Eisenberg said he never saw.
The fact was that whether it was when he was a kid or a big leaguer, Henry never did let a lot of people in. It just wasn’t his way. Though neither would ever quite understand why Henry had chosen them to be the ones to enter his private space, Johnnie B. Baker and Ralph Garr were the exceptions.
When Garr tore up the Texas League, playing for Shreveport, with his speed and they nicknamed him “Gator” and he was called up to the big club for that September 3, 1968, game with the Mets, it was Henry who was the first to greet the youngster at the door, to tell him to wait for him after the game and the two would have dinner. Garr, believing that Henry was aware of the number of black kids who were called up to the big leagues, having no guidance and only fragile confidence, always recalled the first significant words Henry ever said to him: “What got you here is what’s going to keep you here. Don’t let anyone take that from you. Don’t you forget that.” Garr came from Monroe, Louisiana, and attended Grambling University. Six hours away from graduation, in 1967, he was drafted in the third round by the Braves and immediately reported to Double-A Austin. The minor leagues, even (or perhaps especially because of the civil rights movement) during the 1960s, could be a harsh place, and Garr thrived under difficult circumstances due to baseball men, many of them white, who took an interest in his success. There were Mel Didier, who signed him out of college, and Hub Kittle, his manager in Austin, who worked with him on footwork, first on the base paths and then in the outfield. There was Cliff Courtenay in Austin. And in the background was his father, Jesse, who told him there was no turning back, not during the times Ralph wanted to return home, as most black players did at one point or another. The white man was in control, his father told him, whether he came back home or whether he played baseball. So he might as well keep on playing.
It was Henry who taught him how to be a professional. Once, during an intrasquad game during spring training in 1969, Garr made a late read on a base hit to right but tried to score from second base anyway. Henry did not just make the throw that embarrassingly wiped Garr out at the plate by a mile but also galloped into the dugout to find Garr and explain why the kid had been embarrassed. Getting thrown out on the base paths was not always a big deal—that is, he told Garr, unless management believed you were thrown out for not understanding the situation. White players could get away with those types of mistakes, Henry said, but blacks could not. A black player who misunderstood an in-game situation could be branded for his whole career as unintelligent, Henry told him, and Ralph Garr was not an unintelligent baseball player. During this exchange, Henry was clearly recalling his own long years of enduring the humiliating caricatures from his coaches, teammates, and the press when he was a young player. He told Garr that no matter what else they did for the rest of their lives on a baseball diamond, black players who made mental mistakes early in their careers would never be allowed to live down those first impressions, even after their careers were long over.
“He was teaching me how to play the game. He said, ‘You’ve got the speed, but watch the game. There was no reason for you not to score.’ So he threw me out and made me a better player,” Garr recalled. “Because of him, what I was trying to do was make sure I didn’t make it hard for the next black guy who came up. Henry led by example, so you led by example. I wanted to show people that we weren’t monkeys.”
Away from the ballpark, Henry always picked up the tab, for dinners and taxis and the small sips of hard liquor he was known to take, but each check he picked up came with a lesson about being a big-league ballplayer, whether it was about leaving the proper tip or understanding which sections of town in a given city were best avoided. And the messages were always delivered the Henry way: He would not volunteer his wisdom easily. He would wait. If Garr made a mistake in judgment, he knew Henry would say nothing until Garr felt embarrassed, beaten down enough to ask for help.
One day, Garr asked Henry why he did not chew guys out when they were not meeting his exacting standards, just to get it over with. Eddie Mathews, for example, who would return to the Braves as manager in 1972, was extremely rough and unpredictable with players. “I’ll never forget it. That wasn’t who Henry was. Henry wasn’t going to give you the answers. He wanted you to understand the reasons why he was going to say something to you, and that could only come when you were ready to listen,” Garr said. “He used to say, ‘If you give a man a fish, he can eat tonight. But if you teach him to fish, he can eat for the rest of his life.’ ”
Henry was pleasant to the rest of his teammates, and they often sought to bathe in his aura. But Henry Aaron was no Mickey Mantle, gregarious and inclusive, the clubhouse leader of the pack when the team landed in a city, a list of friendly joints and bartenders at the ready. Few people were ever granted the golden pass to Henry’s inner circle. That was why Ralph Garr and Dusty Baker were vital, for Henry had not been as close to teammates socially since Mantilla and Bruton. As much as these young men fed off of Henry, the reverse was probably just as true.
Sometimes he would surprise the others, like the time in the early summer of 1967 when Tito Francona came over from Philadelphia. The Phillies had just played two games in Pittsburgh, then flown home for a series with the Braves. The next morning, June 12, Francona was informed he’d been traded to Atlanta, thus beginning one of those strange adventures in employment germane only to baseball. Francona woke up a member of the home team, intent on beating the tar out of the Braves, but by lunchtime, with a simple change of laundry, the enemy had become the good guys.
Francona had been a big leaguer for ten years, having joined Baltimore in 1956, just two years after Henry, and was thirty-three at the time of his trade to Atlanta. A couple of days later, the club was in Houston. Francona showered and headed downstairs for dinner, and there, sitting alone in the lobby of the old Rice Hotel, was Henry, who asked Tito where he was going.
“I’m going to get a steak, I guess.”
“Do you mind if I come with you?”
“We used to go out all the time. Hank liked steaks, especially in the big towns like Chicago and New York,” Francona recalled. “We used to go to have lunch before a ball game and we’d flip a coin to see who would pay.”
Born in 1933, a year before Henry, John Patsy Francona came from a tough-knuckles section of Pittsburgh that everyone in the neighborhood referred to as “Honky Alley.” It was a neighborhood of Hungarians and Italians, with some Jews and blacks, neither group large enough to threaten the order. The real threat during the years leading up to the war was having enough food on the table. When his son, Terry, would become a successful manager with the Boston Red Sox, Tito would always tell any of his friends at the ballpark to yell out “Honky Alley!” if they wanted a foolproof method for the boys from the old neighborhood to capture his son’s attention.
In New York, Tito and Henry would go to Eddie Condon’s to catch some jazz and a steak. On the plane, they would play hearts. Tito never stopped being in awe of Henry’s ability, but he was not one of the players (and over the years there were many) on the team who tiptoed around the superstars. “I remember when I first come up, with Baltimore, first game in the big leagues, and you know I’m nervous. I got butterflies and all, so I get to the ballpark around six a.m. We’re playing the Red Sox and I’m walking along the tunnel and I see this big number nine coming toward me—it’s Ted Williams. And he says, ‘Hey, you’re Tito Francona.’ And I’m thinking, How the hell do youknow who I am? And he tells me he was once teammates with my roommate Harry Dorish, and Harry told him to look out for me. And Ted was great, gave me advice on hitting and everything, told me not to use such a heavy bat when the weather got warm.
“Henry had so much raw talent, it was unbelievable. I remember one game I batted after him. He hit a ball bad and he was so mad that he slammed the bat down onto the dirt and snapped the bat in half. Then he looks up and the ball went out of the ballpark. Imagine being able to do that.”
In terms of being cultivated by Henry, Tito Francona was one of the lucky few over the years who not only held warmth and respect for Henry but shared some intimate times with him. Yet Ralph and Dusty saw Henry in a way perhaps no one else in baseball ever did. Dusty was different from the start, for no one in Henry’s inner circle ever called him Hank. Hank was the name his talent created, something the sportswriters and the ball club and the fans used. To anyone on the inside not named Dusty, he was Henry. “I never noticed it, but I guess it’s true,” Baker said. “But he never corrected me, either.”
With those two kids, Henry was totally engaged, treating them as members of the family, and because of Henry’s connection to them, Dusty and Ralph became connected to each other. Both represented the third generation of black player, post-Depression, post–World War II men who had entered the big leagues with a different set of expectations both from baseball and from life. The Negro Leagues were gone and therefore no longer the expected destination, and ambition for blacks born after the war was a less dangerous commodity. Dusty Baker grew up in Sacramento, California. For a time, he had gone to college, but in 1968, he joined the marine reserves (volunteering for six years in the reserves wasn’t foolproof, but it was the best way to stay out of Vietnam). In the marines, L. CpL. Johnnie B. Baker had shown leadership qualities and was given responsibilities, yet he entered the Braves system as a nineteen-year-old kid with something of a reputation for being free-spirited, a little disdainful of authority figures, maybe one to watch. And quietly, those in the Braves front office would nudge the big man to sort of keep an eye on Dusty. But Henry was already a step ahead of the suits.
And ahead of Henry was Dusty’s mother, who when Baker signed with the Braves asked Henry directly to “take care of my boy.” Henry, traditionally distant and cool to the younger generation, agreed to to do.
“There were times I got called in for going certain places or being with certain people. They asked Hank to talk to me about certain things. Other times he would take it upon himself, getting me up to eat breakfast, putting the room-service card, all filled out, outside my hotel door to make sure I ate, make me go to church, invite me to go to certain meetings, NAACP meetings and things, freedom rallies back then and stuff. He promised my mom that he would take care of me as if I was his son, which he did.”
And it was there, by Henry’s side, that Dusty Baker saw the world. It was also where he saw the deep contradictions of race. Dusty recalled that in general the white kids and black kids and Latino kids in California were all the same. They all played together and went to the same schools. Yet when Baker considered his idea of wealth in California, the memory was always the same: whites living in exclusive neighborhoods.
In Atlanta, Baker saw just the opposite: blacks living in wealthy and upper-middle-class districts but still racially separated on a day-to-day basis. Henry’s southwest Atlanta neighborhood had a white-collar sensibility, and there were civil rights meetings. It was with Henry that Dusty met Sammy Davis, Jr., and Maynard Jackson and Herman Russell, power players in local and national politics. In Chicago, Dusty dined at the home of Jesse Jackson, with Henry, of course. In Los Angeles, Henry introduced Dusty to Flip Wilson. Backstage in New York, it was Ramsey Lewis, and the start of Dusty Baker’s lifelong love affair with jazz. They used to joke that even when Henry and Barbara thought they were eating alone, Dusty and Ralph were probably under the dinner table.
“He was a fun-loving guy, but a serious guy at the same time. He was a complex guy, but an everyday guy,” Baker said. “He only let certain people really in. He extended himself to everybody, but he only let really certain people get in.”
In Atlanta, Ralph and Dusty were part of the family. Barbara would cook for them, and they treated her as a surrogate mother, because Dusty was still a kid.
“I was there so young, nineteen years old, I was closer in age to his kids and to the batboys, so I just hung out with them all the time,” Baker recalled. “I couldn’t go to bars and drink with those guys, so I hung with the batboys. Lary, Hanky, Gaile, and Dorinda, who was just a little ole girl. They’re all like my brothers and sisters now. We’d just hang out at Hank’s house. I’d go watch their football games in high school, stuff like that.… Kid stuff, you know?”
Being that close, closer than all the rest, it was Dusty and Ralph who could best see the growing tension between Henry and Barbara, and it was Dusty upon whom Henry would rely. “Barbara treated me like a member of the family. She treated me like one of her own. There were people around the ballpark who said this or said that, but I’m not one of them. I was around Hank when things began to go sour between them, and it was a hard time. I have nothing bad to say about Barbara Aaron. I watched Hank deal the way Hank deals with everything—he tried to keep focused. He didn’t want to put his problems off on everybody else. Those times were definitely rough on Hank.”
Henry and Barbara had been together for fifteen years, since they were teenagers, were together as dreams came true and were in the public eye as America confronted itself and came steadily apart. The players’ wives were often a tight sorority, enjoying the fortunes of the baseball life, but it was different for black women. They were accepted as begrudgingly at the bake sales and charity events as their husbands often were on the ball field, but sometimes it could all be too much. In a 1995 documentary, Barbara would talk about the vitriol in the stands directed at the black players, her husband among them.
Too often, she had to sit and take it. The wives always did. The baseball world, first a boys club, then an integrated boys club, was never sympathetic toward her. Barbara was not popular among those in the Braves front office; they insulted her and Henry by accusing her of being behind his evolving politics.
And then there was the infamous evening of July 30, 1966, when Barbara entered the player’s parking lot at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium before a Braves-Giants game and the attendant at the entrance gate refused to allow her in. Words were exchanged, an Atlanta policeman intervened, and Barbara drove past. The officer, L. W. Begwood, ordered her to stop. What occurred next would become a matter of debate. Barbara would say that Begwood removed his service revolver from his holster. Begwood would say that he placed his hand on his weapon but did not remove it from its holster. What was not in dispute was Barbara’s arrest and the subsequent three-week suspension of three Atlanta police officers involved in the incident. The publicity was bad all around—for the Braves, who in their first season were trying to cultivate a fan base in a racially tenuous city; for Henry, who called the officers “incompetent”; and especially for Barbara, who Braves officials thought overreacted. “That woman,” a Braves official said, “drove everyone crazy.”
Henry would not talk much about the details of his home life, but now it was coming apart, for too many reasons to count. Henry put on a good face—the best, in fact—and Ralph loved him for it. It went back to chopping the wood. “You could never tell at the plate what was going on with Henry. We knew he had his problems, but when he came to work—professional. He might have had the worst day at home, but when he got to the ballpark—nothing. Nothing got between Henry Aaron and his business.”
And in return, he was their unquestioned hero. They called him “Supe,” short for “Superman.” And they called him “Hammer.” And they called him “44.” Maybe they didn’t invent the nicknames, but they used them with such affection and reverence and frequency that Henry was transformed into a different person, always the silent backbone of a club, but certainly now something more. He was the wise elder for this new group of kids, and they did not do anything without checking with Henry first. “You could feel it. He was that guy that you did not want thinking any less of you,” Ralph Garr recalled. “In the back of your mind, he was the standard. You didn’t want to do anything that Henry wouldn’t do. If Henry could be on time for the team bus, you could be on time for the team bus. If Henry could play hurt, you could play hurt. We saw him do things that just made everybody want to be that much more professional. You have to understand just how much we looked up to this man, what he meant to us. Nobody wanted to be the one to disappoint Henry Aaron.”
During that time, there was another youngster, too, who looked up to Henry: Clarence Edwin Gaston, who went by the nickname “Cito,” a Texan from Corpus Christi who had played in the Braves minor-league system in Waycross, Georgia, and Greenville, South Carolina. During the season in spring 1967, Henry requested that Cito Gaston room with him, and, quite likely channeling his own home life with Barbara, an education ensued.
“I had the fortune to room with a guy who was my idol growing up as a kid. He taught me how to tie a tie. He taught me how to be an independent thinker coming into the big leagues,” Gaston recalled. “He taught me that no matter what happened in the game to forget it. If you had a good game, leave it at the ballpark. And if you had a bad day at home, don’t bring that to the ballpark. He taught me about concentration.” And he told Gaston that the inverse was also true, a rule he had been practicing firsthand as his relationship with Barbara declined: If you had a bad day at the park, don’t bring it home and take it out on the family.
It was the ethic that Henry wanted to impart to the kids, and sometimes he could do it with a look. If Dusty was spending too much time in the trainer’s room, it was Henry who could give him that look and Baker would have to reassess very quickly just how hurt he truly was. Maybe he could play after all. And then, suddenly, Dusty would be in the lineup. If Garr looked gassed in between games of a doubleheader but saw Henry, nearly twelve years his senior, taped and ready and dressed, suddenly Garr knew he had better find that extra fuel reserve, lest he drop in Henry’s esteem. Being a professional meant playing through pain, and so what if Henry’s pain threshold just happened to be abnormal. Somewhere, he would always remind Dusty and Ralph and Cito (who would be with him only in 1967, although Henry would have a lifelong impact on Cito Gaston) not to forget the special burden that came with being a black player. It meant playing with pain, leading by stellar example, and being accountable, for black players were quite often the easiest ones to be gotten rid of. Make it hard on them, Henry would tell the kids. Make it hard for them to get rid of you. And it was in that context that Henry would drop his famous credo on Garr. “He used to tell me all the time, whenever something hurt and I maybe needed a break. He would always point to guys that were hurt, or maybe hurt, and maybe they could play but they didn’t, and he’d say, ‘Ralph, you can’t help your club from the tub.’ ”
And then there was the question that Ralph Garr swished around in his mouth, grading its texture before offering a verdict: how to anger the cool and even Henry Aaron. The answer would have far-reaching consequences.
“Cheating,” Garr said.
“You want to make the man angry? Just cheat. That’ll do it. Henry wants a fair match, what you got against what he’s got. I remember one time in San Francisco and Gaylord Perry was on the mound throwing them spitballs. Henry fouled one off, and instead of letting the umpire or the catcher pick it up, he picked it up. Then he took it, rubbed the wetness off the ball, and rolled it back to the pitcher’s mound, looking right at him the whole time. That was Henry’s way of telling Gaylord Perry, ‘I’m onto you, son.’ ”
• • •
THE KIDS LISTENED, but there was one who got away. When he first arrived in Bradenton from the dusty nothingness of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1964, armed with expectations of greatness but no road map on how to attain it, it was Henry who told Joe Taylor to put Rico Carty’s spring-training locker close to his. Henry wanted to teach the kid, who spoke little English—and the bit he knew was accompanied by an accent that provided an easy target for enemies—about the big leagues, wanted to make sure he succeeded. Carty was a strapping presence—six three, two hundred pounds—who swung a bat nearly as viciously as Henry. He wasn’t exactly in the millionth percentile, as Henry had been, but anyone who looked at Rico Carty, from his teammates to the manager Bobby Bragan, knew that if nothing else, Carty was a major-league hitter.
There was something in the way the kid wandered around camp that spring that reminded Henry of himself ten years earlier; a black player with ability whom no one seemed to be helping. Carty was unsure of himself. Learning language was not easy and, as Henry had learned from Felix Mantilla years earlier, the southern racial customs could be jarring to Latino players unused to the Deep South.
So it came to pass that Henry requested that Ricardo Adolfo Jacobo Carty room with him that spring. Henry watched as the press had its way with Carty, quoting him phonetically, as it did virtually all Latin American stars, the great Clemente included. “Already he ees showing me how to talk better, how to act, what to wear,” Sport magazine quoted Carty as saying of Henry. “He make me feel big, too. He ees even showing me about HEETING!”
Henry worked with Carty, taught him how to position himself in the outfield and how to set up pitchers at the plate. To the writers, Carty referred to Henry as “compadre.” Carty told the writers that it was Henry who was making him into a good player. He had taken a promising player under his wing.
Once Carty grew comfortable in the big leagues during that summer of 1964, when he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting (even if it was to Richie Allen, eighteen first-place votes to one) and his numbers—.330, twenty-two homers, eighty-eight runs driven in—exceeded Henry’s back in 1954, well, Rico Carty started to crave the lights of the big time, and, in turn, Henry became less mentor and more nuisance. Henry was too bland. Rico wanted to be big.
Carty began calling himself “Beeg Boy,” and if rookies were supposed to be seen and not heard in those days, Carty created for himself a new paradigm. He was loud in the clubhouse, full of charisma and charm and bluster, at once endearing and annoying.
He moved with a swagger. If Henry was understated in dress and public comportment, Carty had adopted an outsized personality, prone to the kind of attention seeking that ran counter to how Henry believed a big-leaguer should carry himself. Henry ran the bases, caught the ball, and swung the bat with purpose. Carty brought flair and dash to everything, from fielding to interviews. When Carty did something great at the plate, he would run out to his spot in the outfield the next inning and doff his cap to the Milwaukee crowd, waving with both hands as if he had a chance to win the Wisconsin primary. Once, after Carty tossed a ball into the County Stadium crowd after making a spectacular catch for the third out, the Texan Bragan turned to his bench coach Dixie Walker, another southerner, and said, “You know something, Dixie? I believe that fellow is capturin’ their imagination.”
When he struck out, he would slam the bat into the dirt half a dozen times, charismatic, maybe, but bush-league stuff to the pros—the kind of shenanigans that could get you a fastball stuck in your ear the next time up. When he thought the blue missed one, Carty would spin his head quickly backward, ready for debate, showing up the umpire but commanding the stage. When Carty began to encourage his flamboyant side, it could only mean trouble with Henry, who once explained his demeanor thusly: “I don’t smile when I have a bat in my hand. That’s the time for business.”
In the outfield, Henry taught Carty the classic method of catching the ball: run to the spot the ball will land and wait for it. That was the way the legends did it. That was how they made it look easy. When Carty began feeling he belonged, Henry’s teaching went the way of the dinosaurs, and Rico would run at full speed, hat flying, buttons popping, only to catch the ball at his waist, a basket catch, with Broadway flair. Some of his teammates believed the showman in him purposely started after easy flies late, to give routine catches an added panache.
In later years, Carty’s act would have been considered normal, a perfect performance for the television age, for the me show that would one day define professional sports. But in the 1960s, baseball was still a newspaper game, run by men who possessed a healthy fear of the game’s ability to humble, and humility was the only way to show respect.
“I don’t know if I’m talking out of school, but Rico just rubbed guys the wrong way,” Tito Francona said. “But Rico was kind of a showboat and a loudmouth.
“He had loads of talent, but not many guys liked him. I remember one day we’re in the clubhouse and he’s got eighty pairs of shoes, all different styles and colors,” Francona recalled. “And some of the guys are laughing, and some are just looking at him. So, I go over to Felipe Alou and I say, ‘Hey, what’s with this guy?’ And Felipe looks at me and says, ‘Well, what would you do if you had been living in the jungle your whole life?’ ”
There was one other thing: Henry hated the word nigger. Whites had used it his entire life as a way of reducing black ambitions and self-esteem. But now in the 1960s, as blacks grew more empowered and less fearful of the old guard, many young blacks called each other “niggers,” if not always as a sign of camaraderie, then certainly of familiarity. Joe Torre recalled Henry tensing whenever Carty tested the limits of obnoxiousness.
Then came the famous day, June 18, 1967, when it all erupted. It was on the team plane, flying from Houston to Los Angeles, the Braves collectively smarting after being no-hit by the Astros Don Wilson. Mike de la Hoz, Henry, and Carty were sitting in the back of the plane, while Tito Francona dozed in and out of sleep, vaguely interested in their game of hearts. De la Hoz always kept a bottle of rum in his satchel and during the game got a little rowdy. Henry told de la Hoz to put the bottle away, or some words to that effect. Francona, who had been with the club for less than a week, recalled the precise moment when the gunpowder had been sparked: Carty mumbling words in Henry’s direction to the menacing effect of “I wish that bottle was mine.” Somewhere during the exchange, Joe Torre recalled hearing Carty refer to Henry as a “black slick.”
And in a flash, Henry Aaron and Rico Carty were throwing haymakers, big punches from big men with bad intentions, Henry an overhand right that dented the overhead luggage compartment above Carty’s head, Carty connecting with a shot that struck Henry’s forehead, Henry returning the favor. Tito Francona, now awake, stood between the two punching teammates, along with the traveling secretary, four-foot-two inch Donald Davidson, trying to keep from getting slugged.
“Then the copilot comes rushing back and wants to know what the hell is going on,” Francona recalled. “He said he thought there was an emergency, because all the weight of the plane had shifted to the back. It wasn’t an emergency. It was the whole team trying to keep those two guys from killing each other.”
That was it for Carty and Aaron. No more mentoring. No more cards. From that day forward, Ralph Garr recalled, “Rico was just another teammate.”
“A lot of guys would brag about the fight, or keep it alive,” Francona said. “But you know what Henry said about it? Henry said the thing that upset him the most was that he embarrassed himself. He used to say it was the most embarrassing moment of his life.”
TO THE GUYS who mattered, the ones who played the game and bled the game and, as the bars closed, wept drunkenly because their passion for baseball was far greater than their actual ability to play it, the word superstar was no easy term, cavalierly tossed around like a Player of the Week award. In later years, when Marvin Miller broke management’s hold over the players and the baseball free market became the envy of athletes (and union members) everywhere, money was often seen as the determining factor of worth. Even the average player who signed deals with too many zeros on the check to count believed that being paid like a superstar offered instant membership to the club.
They were dead wrong, of course, and deep down in their collective heart, they knew it: There was room for only a handful on the A-list.
Superstars, the precious ones who lived in the penthouse of the Hall of Fame, were different, and with the word came a responsibility that went far beyond just talent. Being in the Hall of Fame wasn’t enough, and the players themselves were the best (or worst) at parsing and policing. Nellie Fox would enter the Hall of Fame, and so would Don Sutton. But that didn’t make them peers of Rogers Hornsby or Christy Mathewson.
The A-listers were different, went about their business differently, from the silent sweat of Musial, the power and bombast of Ruth, the demanding elegance of DiMaggio to the furious pride of Robinson and Clemente. They could simply do things on a baseball diamond that defied the abilities of the other 99.9 percent. But the A-listers all had one thing in common: Each went to the World Series. If they didn’t play for the big prize every year like the New York stars, then at least once in their careers the best of the best turned into a pack mule, carrying the franchise and the city to the top of the sport. They were the ones whose talent placed them in the millionth percentile, the ones who by simply being on a team meant the difference between winning and losing.
The experts would always say that for this one sport, baseball, one man could never be a true difference maker. How, then, to explain why in baseball the cream of the game, virtually without exception, always played for a championship? All of the New York superstars, from Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle of the Yankees to McGraw and Mays of the Giants to Robinson and Koufax of the Dodgers played in the World Series multiple times. Hornsby? Cobb? Wagner? Greenberg? Foxx? Killebrew? Frank Robinson? Check. Stan Musial played in the Series in 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1946, Feller in 1948 and 1954, and Walter Johnson in 1924 and 1925. Clemente went twice, won twice. Even the big-spending, no-result Red Sox went to the Series in 1946, and MVP Ted Williams was the engine. Henry Aaron played in consecutive World Series before he was twenty-five.
There were more A-listers in football (Simpson, Fouts, Sanders, Sayers, to name a few) who never played for it all than there were in baseball, so the facts trumped the folklore after all: Top-shelf baseball greats took their teams to the heights. Past or present, sixteen teams or three divisions and a wild card, the era did not matter: Carlton, Schmidt, Jackson, Rose, Morgan, Kaline, Brett, Yastrzemski, Clemens, Henderson, Jeter, Maddux, Winfield, Pujols, and Alex Rodriguez—all of them played for a title at least once.
History wouldn’t yet be finished with Ken Griffey, Jr., but for the guys who hung up the spikes for good, the great exception was Ernie Banks. Banks was the smiling ambassador of Chicago baseball, and he had toiled diligently, never once having a team rally around him in return for his years of goodwill. For Banks’s first ten years in the big leagues, the Cubs never even finished .500, never better than fifth place. In 1967 and 1968, with Leo Durocher revived and running the show, the Cubs finished third, and thus it was with shock and amazement throughout baseball that during the 1969 campaign it was the Chicago Cubs who were running away toward the pennant.
THE YEAR 1969 was all about change and reaction, from a nation still reeling over the Kennedy and King assassinations to protesting (or avoiding) the war in Vietnam to a man walking on the moon. And this was time for baseball, as well. The combination of television, football, and its own slow morass had rendered baseball yesterday’s game. With baseball in desperate need of a paint job, the powers gave the grand old game a makeover: an east and west division in both leagues, with a best-of-five round of play-offs between the divisions’ winners for entry into the World Series, plus a lowering of the pitcher’s mound to give the hitters a better chance to hit the ball, an essential act of the sport that occurred less frequently during the 1960s of Gibson, Marichal, and Koufax.
There were cosmetic nods to the future and one concrete sign of change: Those perennial punch lines, the Mets, were lurking, within striking distance of the Cubs at the all-star break.
But the rest of the year was all about the past. Banks, now in his seventeenth year, in his eighth year as a full-time first baseman, reached back into the vault to fish out one last vestige of what he once was. He would strike out more than one hundred times—a great stain on the players of that era—for the first time in his career and would hit just .253, the lowest he had ever hit up to that point. But Ernie Banks was in a pennant race. And nobody thought that the running joke—“We could put a man on the moon before the Cubs reach the World Series”—might actually end in a tie.
On August 31, after the left-hander Ken Holtzman beat Niekro 8–4 and completed a three-game sweep of the Braves at Wrigley, the Cubs held a four-and-a-half-game lead over the Mets entering the final month of the season. Twelve days before Holtzman beat Niekro, he was no-hitting the Braves at Wrigley when Henry stepped up in the seventh. The wind was blowing in, and Henry still rifled a drive to left that cut through the wind, seemed to bolt out of the park, and broke up the no-hitter and the shutout. Holtzman turned and watched it head toward Waveland Avenue. Billy Williams, the left fielder, stood against the ivy. So much for the no-hitter, Holtzman thought. At least he still had the lead.
But suddenly, the wind began chopping at Henry’s ball, beating it back down to the earth and into the field of play. Williams remained leaning against the wall, and the ball, which thousands of eyewitnesses say had once been physically out of the field of play, blew back in, landing in Williams’s glove. Holtzman retired the remaining hitters of the final two innings and recorded his first no-hitter.
NEIL ARMSTRONG and Buzz Aldrin, alas, could relax after all. September, and the Cubs had never come along; eight straight losses to welcome the month later, it was the Mets, who for seven seasons had never done anything but lose, who were in control of the division, staring at the play-offs. New York would win one hundred games, win the division by eight over the broken Cubs, and Ernie Banks would be gone two years later to the land of handshakes and autographs for a living, having retired without ever visiting the promised land.
Another heirloom dusting occurred during the 1969 season. Nestled amid the Braves’ new pinstriped home uniforms, the trading of Joe Torre to the Cardinals for Orlando Cepeda, and the inaugural, geographically challenged National League West, where two of its six teams—Atlanta and Cincinnati—were based in the eastern time zone, was the return of another oldie: Henry Aaron and Willie Mays fighting it out for a pennant.
So much of their circling over the years had been about ability and a place in the pantheon, air most mortals would be grateful just to breathe—Willie always on top in the public imagination, the pay scale, and the proximity to immortality by way of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, refusing to make even a little bit of room for anyone else, with Henry unfazed by Mays’s poetry and stardust, convinced of his ability to chop the wood with anyone (“No way was Willie a better hitter than me, no way,” he would say) while consistently diffusing the very obvious and very real rivalry that existed between the two men (“I consider us the best of friends,” Henry would tell the Wall Street Journal).
Mays began the season with 587 home runs, Aaron 510, and the narrative that Willie Mays remained the unquestioned leader of his generation still held. The Braves, meanwhile, tore apart their new division during April, with Henry hitting .397 for the month. The Braves held on to first place, though periodically relinquishing the lead to the Giants, Dodgers, and Reds as if handing off the baton during the 4×100 relay.
Then, near Memorial Day, Henry suddenly and completely transformed the summer. On May 30, Bill Hands of the Cubs shut out the Braves 2–0 at Wrigley, the continuation of the common summer theme of the Cubs pounding Atlanta into the dirt. But the next day, after a driving rain held up the game and turned the Wrigley turf into a dishrag, Henry started matters by hitting a two-out homer off Fergie Jenkins in the first. Jenkins and Niekro would engage in a numbing stare-down that wet afternoon, until the ninth, when Niekro blinked—a Ron Santo leadoff triple and a game-winning base hit by Don Young—and the Cubs had won again.
Another day, another loss, but this time without tension: In the finale, Pat Jarvis couldn’t get out of the third inning and the Cubs pounded out sixteen hits and three home runs in a 13–4 blowout.
The Braves were dropping games and the race grew so tight, four teams could soon fit in the phone booth, as if all of baseball popped in new contacts, rubbed its eyes, and for the first time saw the sharpness and burst of colors, the baseball world in true focus, all in the Technicolor form of Henry Aaron.
He had homered in four consecutive games, would hit twelve homers during June off big cats like Jenkins, old friends like Tony Cloninger (who surrendered home run number 531), and the usual assortment of unlucky no-names. By the end of June, Henry had twenty-one home runs, but it wasn’t the impressiveness of his single-season total that had brought him attention, but a quick recognition among those in the sporting world that Henry, not Mays, would be yelling “Timber” when the time came to shout at Ruth.
In the span of forty-five days, after Henry had hit his twenty-ninth home run of the year, a low, serious liner off Tom Seaver, Henry had passed Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, and Jimmie Foxx on the all-time home-run list. There were only two men left, Mays, still playing at 596 home runs, and Ruth, at 714.
The writers calculated that Henry would also reach the coveted three-thousand-hit plateau inside of a year, a milestone only Musial had reached over the past half century. Before that, you had to go back into the scrapbook forty-four years, to Eddie Collins in 1925. Henry had been abandoned when the Braves wheezed during those past summers in Milwaukee and Atlanta and the club was out of the money, but they were alive again, and so was he, rewriting the record book each day he woke up. The Braves barreled into September, unable to shake the Giants but tough enough to avoid swooning themselves, and Sports Illustrated first came looking for Henry, and this was just the start.
HANK BECOMES A HIT
For years, Henry Aaron performed in comparative obscurity while compiling a record that makes him one of baseball’s all time hitters. Now, as Atlanta fights for a pennant, he finds he is famous at last.
And it was there, with the arrival of the austere Sports Illustrated, that the stage for the next act began to take shape, and this stage would be a solo one. Mays would certainly reach six hundred home runs before Henry, but implicit in the story, for the first time on a national scale, was the inevitable passing of the torch: Pursuit of Ruth belonged to Henry, not Willie Mays. It was very clear that even when he reached six hundred, Mays certainly did not have 115 more home runs left in him.
That left Henry, and even though the magazine tacitly acknowledged he would run past Mays, it did not seem to believe Ruth was in any danger. “Since he is now 35, it is doubtful that Aaron will stay around long enough to hit the 176 homers he needs to pass Ruth, but attaining his 3,000th base hit is almost a certainty, and only eight men have ever done that.”
Jim Murray, the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, who had loved Henry’s game since the 1950s, when the rest of the world was focused on Willie, was next.
MOVE OVER, BABE …
AARON’S PLAYING RIGHT
Are you one who appreciates the finer things in life?…
If the answer to the above is “yes,” you have taste. Now … I am going to urge you to watch the telly.…
What Chippendale was to furniture … Henry Louis Aaron is to baseball. He is an unflawed diamond, a steak in a pile of hamburger, an Old Master in a room full of abstract junk.
The Giants were in first place on September 1, half a game ahead of the Dodgers, a game ahead of a surging Cincinnati club, and three up on the Braves, but while the teams staged a raucous pennant chase, the anticipated showdown of old lions never quite came to pass. Henry had held up his end, near the leaders in the usual offensive categories. Meanwhile, for the first time in his career, it was easier to look away from than at Willie Mays. In the final heat of the pennant race, Mays was barely an everyday player. At one stretch between August and September, he had gone 63 at bats without a home run, and for the first time in his career done something he’d never envisioned: He went an entire calendar month—July—without hitting one out of the yard.
Still, the two found a way to create electricity. The Giants and Braves met Wednesday night, September 10, Pat Jarvis against Ron Bryant. The San Francisco team arrived in Atlanta holding a game-and-a-half lead over the Braves but just half a game ahead of the Reds. It was a night of raw nerves, exposed, on both sides of the field. There was the City Too Busy to Hate being exposed as the City Too Busy for a Pennant Race, as only 10,705 showed up to the yard with their first October on the line, exposing Atlanta’s indifference to baseball. Willie Mays, a dingy shell of his Broadway star, grounded into a double play in the first, perked up by nailing a runner at the plate from center, and then allowed a cheap run to score on an error during the decisive seventh inning.
Henry continued to watch Willie grow faint in his rearview mirror: a long homer off Bryant in the fourth, plus two additional runs scored in an 8–4 win. The Braves took first place the next night, when Henry hit his forty-first homer of the year while Mays wore the collar.
Five days later, when the two teams met again on September 15 in San Francisco, Atlanta this time holding a game-and-a-half lead, with fourteen to play, Willie took a few whacks at the rocking chair, driving in half of the Giant runs (including a backbreaking homer) in a 4–1 win in the opener. Marichal was the story the next night, shutting out the Braves with a four-hitter, but Mays, not quite ready to go away, went two for four and drove in the only run that mattered, and the Braves were back in second place, behind the Giants by half a game.
For the fans who remembered (or cared to remember) the old Milwaukee Braves, the scenario was too familiar: inches from the play-offs, with a dozen games left, about to blow it. Understanding the history, wondering how many different ways the trapdoor could open was not an unkind question, especially because after getting swept by the Giants, the Braves went down the coast to Chavez Ravine, to the Dodgers, Jim Bunning, and Steve Stone. Bunning, fading, couldn’t get past the fifth, but the two teams jousted. And then there was Henry, who rapped a couple of hits and a run scored as the rivals slapped each other around into extra innings. Henry led off the top of the twelfth against Ray Lamb and smoked a fastball into the seats for a home run, one made even sweeter in the bottom of the inning when Henry caught the final out, and still sweeter when the team arrived in the visitors’ clubhouse, took a look at the fuzzy television in the room, and saw that Larry Dierker had outdueled Henry’s favorite, that cheater Gaylord Perry, up in San Francisco. Henry had put the Braves back in first.
The Dodgers would win the next night, and then the Braves wound up and delivered the knockout punch: a ten-game winning streak to ice the division title on penultimate day of the season. The scheduling gods were kind: The Dodgers and Giants beat up on each other while the Braves sliced through San Diego (110 losses) and Houston. Henry, who had finished at .300, with one hundred runs scored, forty-four homers, and ninety-seven RBI, was back in the play-offs for the first time in a decade. A year earlier, the Braves would have been packing for the off-season, having won ninety-three games but seven short of the Mets for the pennant. Now, they were in the play-offs, a young, coalescing Mets club awaiting them in the inaugural National League Championship Series.
THE PLAY-OFFS were over in an eyeblink. The Mets, racing toward destiny, finished off the Braves in three straight, but each game showed Henry in his true incandescent light.
He had never liked New York, and yet he could not escape the big town. The New York Giants beat him in 1954. Brooklyn had kept him from the World Series in 1955 and 1956. He had played in the 1957 and 1958 World Series—both times against the Yankees—and here he was once more, in the postseason in New York, playing against a team that had not existed the last time he’d played October baseball. The first game, played under the pageantry of bunting, the first big-league play-off game ever in the state of Georgia, with 50,522 aroused for baseball, was tense and muscular: Seaver against Niekro, both bound for Cooperstown, Niekro giving up two early runs in the second, the Braves nicking Seaver for three by the end of the third, both teams trading runs, getting the nerves out.
Seventh inning, one out, 4–4 game: Seaver recalled the sequence. In an earlier at bat, he threw Henry a fastball, outside corner, on which Henry was a couple of days late. In a tie ball game, nobody on, Seaver, all of twenty-four years old but winner of a league-best twenty-five games, figured he’d get ahead with the same pitch, which Henry sent sizzling into the left-field seats for a home run, 5–4 Braves.
Even Henry was no match for destiny. The Mets knocked out Niekro the very next inning with a five spot, and the Braves went quietly the rest of the way. As if discovering the painting on the living room wall was an original Rembrandt, the New York press swarmed Henry.
In the second game, the Mets beat Ron Reed, piñata-style. It was 8–0 before the Braves batted around the order for the second time. Before the series took on a decidedly lopsided shape, there was Henry. Down 9–1 in the fifth, Henry banged a three-run homer off Jerry Koosman to offer the crowd of 50,270 a faint breath, but the final score was 11–6.
The Braves went to Shea Stadium a loss away from death. Gary Gentry took the mound for the Mets, surrounded by pennant-thirsty crazies, pumping him up, readying for the coronation.
And there, once again, was Henry, who took a Gentry fastball four hundred feet for a first-inning two-run homer. Gentry would last but two innings. Up 2–0, Pat Jarvis couldn’t stop the stampede. The Braves lost leads of 2–0 and 4–3, succumbing for the final time of the year, 7–4. The hero was a twenty-two-year-old right-handed relief pitcher named Nolan Ryan, who mopped up for Gentry by giving up just three hits and striking out seven in seven innings, and it was over.
The kids on the Braves already loved Henry—there was no question about that—but what he did against the Mets elevated him to an even higher plane. Afterward, the press mobbed Henry, as if it were his team going to the World Series instead of home for the winter.
In the three games, he hit .357, homered in each one. He had five hits in fourteen at bats; none were singles. Three home runs and two doubles, and none of his hits were cheapies, either, pile-on jobs that didn’t affect the final outcome. Henry had given his team the lead or given them life. And though nobody knew it at the time, he did it, essentially, with one hand.
“We were off that night after we won the division, and I was with Henry Aaron and Clete Boyer and some of the guys, and it rained,” Ralph Garr recalled. “We were in a car and it slipped into a ditch. Henry was pushing the car and cut his hand on the headlight. It wasn’t two or three scratches. If you looked at his hand, you would have thought he wouldn’t have played in the play-offs.
“He didn’t practice, didn’t say too much, and now I’m scared to death. I’m thinking, What is Henry going to tell these people, and his team has got to play the New York Mets? Me and Dusty are talking in the clubhouse when the play-offs started and Henry walks in with Dave Pursley and the team doctor. They go into in the trainer’s room, and they shoot Henry in the hand with Novocain, right in between his fingers. He puts on a black glove and hit .360.… After that was over, it brought chills to me. You had to see that, son. You had to see it to see what Henry Aaron did to exemplify what it meant to be a baseball player.”
Henry packed his bags for the year and headed to the hospital, having played through gritted teeth all season with a sore back. There would be no World Series, and he would never again play in the postseason. But in the eyes of the country, he had been reanimated, reintroduced as a superstar. He had played brilliantly during the season and was even better in the postseason. In the meantime, a process had begun—not always undertaken with great enthusiasm—the walk toward a new chapter in his life, one that would define him as one thing only. If before the 1969 season he was, in Mickey Mantle’s phrase, the “greatest, most underrated player in baseball,” he would leave as someone who would never go unnoticed. He had not changed, and yet he had crossed an unofficial threshold: From that day forward, he was no longer Henry Aaron. He was the man chasing Babe Ruth.
THE TABLES TURNED for good right around Thanksgiving 1971, in Mexico City. Near the beach, Willie Mays was enjoying his honeymoon with his second wife, Mae, when he was accosted by an Associated Press reporter. It was there that Mays conceded what was once the unthinkable: Henry Aaron, and not Willie Mays, would likely pass Babe Ruth and break the all-time home-run record, sometime in either 1973 or 1974. Over the previous two seasons, the hard truth has permeated the soil that Mays had become a legend in cultivating, and others would recognize it faster than Willie. He was the one who was bigger than life, the product of his transcendent ability and the New York superhero machine. And yet during the winter after the 1971 season, for the first time in a career consistently overshadowed by star players with more charisma, playing with better media, Henry was more famous than even Willie Mays. He had 639 home runs, still seven behind Mays’s total of 646, but at this juncture Henry had never been closer to Mays’s career total. For the previous three seasons, with Mays in steep, heartbreaking decline, Henry had soared—44 four home runs in 1969, 38 home runs and 118 RBI in 1970, and 47 home runs, more than he’d ever hit in a year in 1971. In the opposing dugout, Mays had grown old and ordinary—as the 1972 season approached, Mays hadn’t hit thirty home runs or driven in one hundred runs since 1966, hadn’t scored one hundred or hit .300 since 1965. In 1971, he struck out 123 times in only 417 at bats, proof that his eyes and reflexes had weakened to the point where he could no longer make consistent contact. When Willie was Willie, say in 1962, he’d come to bat 621 times and struck out just 85 times. Numbers were meant to be massaged to political and partisan ends, but here the numbers were forcing Willie to face the larger truth that his run as the elite player of his time had come to a close.
There was another number Hank achieved that Willie would not, the number of which everyone in baseball was most aware: In February 1972, Henry Aaron became the highest-paid player in the history of the sport, when Bartholomay signed him to a three-year, $600,000 deal.
This, too, was Willie’s territory. Willie Mays had set the standard of salaries (at least for black players) for twenty years. Now Hank was making $200,000, the first $200,000 player ever. Actually, the real number was $165,000, as $45,000 per year was deferred over a ten-year period, semimonthly, beginning immediately after his retirement or on July 1, 1973—whichever came first—but it was still more than Mays, who was earning $150,000.
AARON—600G FOR 3 YEARS—CALLED “HIGHEST CONTRACT EVER”
ATLANTA, FEB. 29 (UPI)—Braves’ superstar Hank Aaron, the man with the best chance of breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, became the highest paid player in baseball history today when he signed a contract which will reportedly pay him $600,000 over the next three years.
He was never supposed to be the guy. He didn’t hit home runs in the big, bombastic way home-run hitters do. He’d led the league in home runs four times but had never hit fifty in a year, the way Ruth or Foxx or Mantle or Mays had. Even when he hit his career-best forty-seven in 1971, there was always something else a little better going on: Mays and the Giants went to the play-offs, Clemente was great again—.341 batting average, a legendary, victorious performance in the World Series—and Joe Torre hit .363 and won the MVP.
The record was never anything Henry verbalized for print, but at increasing points after 1968, he began to hone in on Ruth, doing so in his patented way: by staring at the number 714 as if through a spyglass, assessing his usual performance, subtracting for possible injuries and performance decline, but, most of all, determining that the record belonged to him. Periodically, he would sidle up to Wayne Minshew of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and say, “Hey, Wayne, do you think I have a chance at it?”
“It was Milo Hamilton, the broadcaster, who really started doing the math and vocalizing that the record was there for him,” Minshew recalled. “And sometimes that created hard feelings. I remember one time Hank and Milo were in a feud and Hank said to me, ‘I can break this record if this guy would just leave me alone.’ ”
Along the way, on May 17, 1970, at weathered Crosley Field in Cincinnati, came hit number three thousand, a first-inning single off Wayne Simpson, the first time Henry had beaten Mays to a major milestone—Mays would reach three thousand two months later. Henry had become the first black player to record three thousand hits, the first player in baseball history to reach three thousand hits and hit five hundred home runs. He had always said he would retire following his three thousandth hit, but by this point his priorities had changed.
Willie would never surrender the stage easily to the man who had always played in his shadow. In Mexico City that day, Mays told the reporter that, yes, Henry would likely break Ruth’s record, but he didn’t stop there. Before walking away, he added halfheartedly, “Maybe I will, too.”
And for years, that’s how it would be. They were not friends, and if Henry’d had his way, they wouldn’t have been rivals, either, because Henry truly seemed to admire Willie. The two men lived the American story with more similarities than differences. Both were black children of the Depression-era South, the defining characteristic for each. Both were unparalleled on the baseball diamond. As they aged, the similarities increased. By 1972, both men had been divorced—Barbara filed in 1970, after seventeen years of marriage, citing mental cruelty. Henry did not contest the filing, saying only that they had “grown apart.” In the smoldering shadow of Robinson, neither man felt appreciated for his position on civil rights. Neither—because of his financial position and inherent conservatism with regard to power—lent enough personal clout to the elimination of the reserve clause, the rule that kept players bound to their teams for life, kept them from the money that would change the game. When Curt Flood took baseball to court, Aaron and Mays were both curiously silent. Allowing players to become free agents, Henry told the Associated Press, would be disastrous for baseball. Mays went a step further, criticizing Flood for being ungrateful to the game.
It was true that Henry Aaron was not uninterested in yapping back and forth in the papers and closed up about Mays to avoid the headaches of he-said/she-said journalism, but there was also something about Willie that wouldn’t allow a real friendship with Henry. Willie wouldn’t, or couldn’t, ever give Henry his due as a great player, and that inability on Mays’s part to acknowledge Henry as an equal was what really burned Henry.
Periodically, Mays would soften, both men apparently recognizing there was little margin for either in fostering a narrative of the two greatest black players, from the same state, no less, at each other’s throats.
“I’ll see how it goes,” Mays said about pursuing the record along with Henry in February 1972. “But a long time ago I said Hank would pass me, and if I happened to quit within the next year or so or when he does, I’d be happy to present him with the ball that he hits out of the park.”
For years, they had fought for position, but in 1954 and part of 1958 and for the whole pivotal seasons of 1959 and 1969, they fought for pennants, too, their numbers virtually identical, their legacies cemented; they were the difference between New York and London—a can’t-miss either way, just depended on one’s preference. Over those years, Henry had gone out of his way to praise Mays. During the Fred Haney years, when he grudgingly accepted Haney’s decision to play him in center field, Henry would joke about how he would never make an all-star team because he now played the same position as Willie, a self-deprecating comment that underscored Henry’s admiration for Mays and his confidence in himself. In interviews, Henry did not miss an opportunity to say Willie was the best player going, and in later years he would acknowledge Mays’s contribution in easing the way for black players, first through his barnstorming team in the 1950s and later by becoming the first black team captain in baseball history. Mays was the first black player in the history of major-league baseball to be called the greatest player of all time by the mainstream, and Henry often concurred with the opinion. Around 1971, there was the story circulating around baseball about Tal Smith, then a young executive with the Houston Astros. The tale went that Smith kept two autographed baseballs at his home, side by side, one signed by Henry Aaron, the other by Willie Mays. One day, Smith’s house was burglarized and the thief swiped the Aaron ball, while leaving the Mays ball in its place. Henry handled the story deftly. “All that proves,” he said, “is that there’s a crook in Houston who can’t read.”
Willie returned the favor by giving Henry back nothing. When Henry began to soar up the home-run chart, Willie was loath to give even a partial nod to Henry’s ability, choosing instead to blame his own performance on his home turf, Candlestick Park, saying it was a lousy park in which to hit homers and that this was the reason for Henry’s onrush. The disadvantages of Candlestick were especially obvious in comparison to that bandbox Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, famously dubbed “the Launching Pad.”
The problem wasn’t that Willie was a proud and fiery competitor, but that he didn’t give Henry anything, not even an acknowledgment that for the first twelve years of Henry’s career, he played in a symmetrical park, County Stadium, whose dimensions did not favor him, while Mays played the early part of his career at the Polo Grounds, where the foul lines did not even measure three hundred feet. Mays’s comment on the evening of April 27, 1971, in Atlanta, when Henry hit career blast number six hundred, ironically against San Francisco, was a prime example of this attitude. “Hank might just catch Ruth,” Mays said backhandedly after the game. “He’s playing in the right parks.”
Willie never hit well in Milwaukee, for power or for average. From 1953 until 1965, Mays hit in County Stadium as a visiting player in his prime years and tallied a .289 average with thirty home runs in 199 games. Yet in his 2010 authorized biography of Mays, the author James S. Hirsch wrote, “Mays believes he would have hit eight hundred homers if he had not gone into the military and played in parks like Aaron’s.” That was what burned Henry: Willie couldn’t stop slapping him in the face.
Mays did lose two years to the army, and certainly at twenty-one and twenty-two, he would have had a better-than-average opportunity to record the fifty-five home runs he would fall short of to surpass Ruth. So much of why the relationship between Mays and Aaron was perceived, often rightly, as tense, if not acrimonious, stemmed from their personalities—the self-centered Mays and the diplomatic Aaron.
After years of being asked about his own feats, Mays almost certainly must have resented at some level being asked now more about Henry. Take the end of spring training, when, during an interview session, Henry was asked about his chances to catch Ruth. “I think I can make it if I stay healthy and if I have a strong man batting behind me, so they won’t pitch around me.”
When the scribes asked Mays the same question, Willie’s response said it all: “Well, he has to catch me first.”
• • •
MAYBE MAYS DIDN’T mean to sound like a jealous rival. Maybe it was simply Willie’s professional nod to the cruelty and unpredictability of the fates, for it was true that to reach the top shelf, everything had to go right: You had to play in the right park at the right time, you had to avoid missing time, and you couldn’t get hurt. Ted Williams might have been the one to beat Ruth, had the Splinter not missed nearly five years to war, and played in a park, Fenway Park, where the right-field power alley was a cavernous 380 feet. Williams was generally considered the best hitter who ever lived, but he hadn’t reached three thousand hits. Neither, for that matter, had Ruth or Gehrig. Maybe it wasn’t jealousy, but it sounded that way. It sounded as though Willie couldn’t accept the truth: Mays had the memories and the prose, but statistically, Henry had the numbers.
And that wasn’t all there was. For his generation, Mays exemplified the rare combination of physical, athletic genius and a showman’s gift for timing. What went less reported and, as the years passed, became an uncomfortable, common lament was just how cruel and self-absorbed Mays could be.
The veracity of one story would never be completely ascertained because Henry would refuse to discuss the details, but Reese Schonfeld never forgot it, and he believes every word of it to be true. Schonfeld would make his career in the television business, becoming a business associate of Ted Turner during the early years of the rise of cable television.
But in the summer of 1957, Schonfeld was just a kid, twenty-five years old, in Boston, excited to be sent to the Polo Grounds to interview the hottest player on the hottest team in baseball, Henry Aaron, and getting paid fifty dollars for the assignment.
“It’s July 1957, I’m working for United Press/Movietone news, and I’m up at the Polo Grounds, on assignment from WBZ Boston to interview Milwaukee Braves manager, Fred Haney, left-hander Warren Spahn, and the new phenom, Hank Aaron. WBZ wanted the interviews to promote the upcoming Jimmy Fund baseball game between the Braves and the Red Sox. The Jimmy Fund had been created by the Braves when they were still the Boston Braves, and they returned to Boston every year to help raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the name of ‘Jimmy,’ a pseudonym for a twelve-year old boy who was a patient there. It was Aaron’s first appearance in the game, and his potential for greatness was apparent to all. The Boston fans wanted to see him in action.
“The Braves were playing the Giants in a twi-night double-header. We arrived about five p.m., set up our camera in foul territory, just off third base. Haney emerged from the dugout, did the interview, plugged the Jimmy Fund, and then sent out Warren Spahn. Spahn told us how much he missed the fans in Boston and looked forward to seeing them shortly. All good PR. Then out came Aaron. Aaron was different. The Boston fans had never seen Aaron. WBZ had asked me to talk to him about baseball, particularly about his wrists, supposed to be ‘the quickest wrists in all of baseball.’
“As we changed film for the new interview, Willie Mays came trotting in from center field, where he had been shagging flies, and knelt just on the fair side of the foul line. Dusk was falling, we had no electrician, and I had to finish the interview before the light faded entirely.
As we focused on Aaron, the cameraman measuring the distance between the lens and his subject, Mays started ragging on Aaron: ‘How much they paying you, Hank? They ain’t payin’ you at all, Hank? Don’t you know we all get paid for this? You ruin it for the rest of us, Hank! You just fall off the turnip truck?’
“Aaron is getting more and more agitated. Fred Haney trots out and explains to Aaron: ‘It’s the Jimmy Fund—it’s charity. It’s okay.’ We begin the interview then to get a better shot of his wrists; we move the tripod. Now Mays lays it on thick: ‘You showin’ ’em how you swing? We get paid three to four hundred dollars for this. You one dumb nigger!’ And he laughs. Finally we were done. Aaron shakes his head, I thank him, but half angry, half bewildered, he spits at my feet.
“When he gets back in the dugout, Haney tries to calm him down. It doesn’t work. Mays has gotten into Aaron’s head. Haney recognizes it and takes Hank out of the lineup. He plays not at all in the first game; in the second game he pinch-hits and walks. Willie had harassed Hank right out of the batting order. The New York Times cites the Mays-Aaron ‘years of friendship.’ I wouldn’t bet on it.”
If the idea that Henry Aaron, leading candidate for National League Most Valuable Player and one of the toughest, most focused clutch players in the history of the game, could be psyched out of the lineup by pregame chatter, even from Willie Mays, sounded apocryphal, it was. On July 21, 1957, just as Schonfeld recalled, the Giants and Braves did play a twi-night doubleheader at the Polo Grounds. In the first game, the Braves behind Spahn held a 4–3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but the Giants rallied for two runs off Don McMahon and won, 5–4. Mays went one for three with a double and a run scored. Schonfeld’s memory fails him in that Henry did play in the first game, walking as a pinch hitter in the eighth. Dick Cole pinch-ran for Henry.
Henry did not play in the nightcap, a 7–4 Braves win, but it seems apparent that his absence had nothing to do with Mays. Four days earlier, in a 6–2 win in Philadelphia, Henry went on a rampage, a perfect day: three for three with a mammoth home run off Harvey Haddix, two batted in and two walks, one intentional. In that game, he injured his ankle. He missed the next three games and wouldn’t start again until July 23 in Milwaukee against the Phillies. The ankle injury, and not Mays’s banter, is the more likely explanation for why Haney would scratch Henry before a doubleheader in the middle of a pennant race. It also explained why Henry, second only to Bruton as the fastest man on the Braves, would be removed for a pinch runner in a tight ball game. Clearly, he had attempted to return to the lineup too early and couldn’t run.
Nevertheless, the important kernel in Schonfeld’s recollections is how Mays apparently treated Henry that day, and Henry’s reaction for the next fifty years—to diffuse, while not forgetting, the original offense—would be consistent with the shrewd but stern way Henry Aaron dealt with uncomfortable issues. The world did not need to know Henry’s feelings toward Mays, but Henry was not fooled by his adversary. Mays committed one of the great offenses against a person as proud as Henry: He insulted him, embarrassed him in front of other people, and did not treat him with respect. Such an exchange was not the kind Henry would be likely to forget. As they say in the news business, Schonfeld stuck by his story.
“I was just a kid, and it was exciting to me to be there. It was pregame. There was nobody in the stands. I wanted to interview Warren Spahn, and I remember them playing a joke on me, because I was a rookie, too. They sent Burdette out. Luckily, I knew what Spahn looked like,” he said. “You could see Hank was getting really worked up through the interview, and I thought we did a really good piece. I don’t think he spit at me, but it was at my feet, like something left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Willie was calling him ‘farm boy’ and saying stuff like ‘You’re in the major leagues now.’ I specifically remember Willie using the word nigger, but I didn’t think a lot about it, because that was how a lot of blacks talked to each other. I always thought it was bench jockeying, or maybe Willie just didn’t like to see the next guy coming up being just as good as he was.”
BY THE EARLY months of 1972, time was breaking Henry, too. He reported to West Palm Beach in February and headed straight to the trainer’s room. His ankles hurt, and so did his right knee, injured in a home-plate collision during spring training, and his back had hurt for nearly three years. And that was how in 1972 Henry would play 105 games at first base, both to ease his physical trouble and, mostly, to replace an injured Orlando Cepeda, as well as Rico Carty, who had shattered his leg.
On the good days, Henry would tell the writers during spring training that he felt like he was a kid again. “I feel like I’m eighteen again,” Henry said. On the bad days, when his right knee would buckle and bite, he explained he had not elected to have off-season surgery because of his age. And there was the matter of his arthritic neck, which seemed to flare up with regularity.
The season did not start on time—the first-ever players strike made sure of that—and when it did, Henry victimized the Reds (first Don Gullett, then Jack Billingham) and then the Cardinals (Bob Gibson, then Rick Wise) during a four-day stretch in April at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Ten days later, on May 5, he returned the favor in St. Louis with a two-run shot off Gibson. The next day, May 6, 1972—also known as the forty-first birthday of Mr. Willie Howard Mays, Jr.—Henry caught Wise again, for career home run number 645. Willie, meanwhile, hadn’t yet hit his first of the season. Henry was one behind Mays. Nineteen games into the season, hitting .184, with no bombs and three RBI, on May 11, the spiral was complete: The Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets for pitcher Charlie Williams (who would produce an 8.68 ERA for his new team) and fifty thousand dollars in cash.
The showman was back on Broadway, in his town, and Mays provided a nostalgia burst. May 14, in his first game as a Met (against the Giants, of course), Mays walked and scored in the first, then broke a 4–4 tie in the bottom of the fifth with a home run that stood as the game winner, 5–4 Mets. At Veterans Stadium in Philly a week later, May 21, Mays shook that year-old concrete bowl. This was a Phillies team that would win just fifty-nine games all season, and yet on this night they weren’t pushovers, because of Steve Carlton, who would win twenty-seven games all by himself. The Phillies led 3–0 in the sixth with Carlton, on the hill when Willie led off with a double and scored on Tommy Agee’s home run. On his next at bat, with one on in the eighth and the Phils up 3–2, Mays broke Carlton’s heart with a two-run homer, for a 4–3 Mets win. The leader was back.
Willie would be respectable for the rest of the year, hitting .267, but alas, that was it for the heroics. On May 31, at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, Henry Aaron caught Willie Mays with home run number 648, a first-inning drive off San Diego’s Fred Norman that snaked around the left-field foul pole.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT: AARON TIES MAYS FOR 2D PLACE
It took Hank Aaron 18-plus seasons to catch Willie Mays. His next target is Babe Ruth’s record.
Aaron hit his 648th home run Wednesday night.…
Aaron also became the second player in history to attain 6,000 total bases, reaching 6,001. The record of 6,134 belongs to Stan Musial.…
Ten days later, also at the Vet, Henry passed Mays with a little sizzle of his own: a grand slam against hulking six-foot-six-inch, 215-pound Wayne Twitchell.
Henry would never look back. He would never chase Willie Mays again as much as he would stalk the record book, passing whoever was next on the page. For the first time in his career, that next person was not Willie Mays.
Now, Henry made a marathoner’s final kick toward Ruth. Atlanta hosted the All-Star Game in 1972, the first held in the Deep South, the young blazer Jim Palmer against the old pro Bob Gibson. Palmer froze Henry with a called strike three in the first and Mickey Lolich induced a lazy fly to right. But in the sixth inning, down 1–0, Henry faced his favorite spitballer, Gaylord Perry, and launched a two-run home run to deep left-center field. It was the first home-run hit in an All-Star Game in Atlanta.
The rest of the year, he followed this star turn, backing up his forty-seven-homer year with thirty-four more in 1972. That put him at 673 for 1973. The hype machine, which had generally left him alone during the 1960s, had returned for a sober, often unflattering reappraisal: to assess whether Henry was worthy of surpassing the iconic Ruth. As early as the end of the 1971 season, as Henry assaulted the record book, the combination of journalists who pointed out that Henry’s consistency did not match Ruth’s dominance and a segment of the public that sent him death threats returned the favor.
And it was there that Henry Aaron retrenched. He had escaped Mobile. He had realized his talent, played the game hard, and yet for all of it he was being reminded that none of it mattered, that he was again reduced, in his words, to “being just another nigger.”
THERE WAS PERHAPS no better barometer that Henry was now a central figure in the national conversation than that fact that he was included in the comic strip Peanuts, Charles Schulz’s daily masterpiece.
Schulz was the most famous cartoonist in America, and more: Peanuts uniquely represented the heart of the American mainstream as well as baseball’s place in it. According to Schulz’s biography, by 1967, the strip appeared in 745 daily newspapers across the country and in 393 Sunday papers. According to United Feature Syndicate, more than half of the nation’s population made the travails of Charlie Brown part of their daily reading.
Even in the funny pages, Willie held dominion. “It’s kind of fun now and then to use the names of real people in my comic strip, Peanuts,” Schulz once told Mays biographer Charles Einstein. “And after looking over about twenty-five years’ accumulation of strips, I discovered that I used the name Willie Mays more than any other individual. I suppose it’s because to me, Willie Mays has always symbolized perfection.”
Yet from August 8 to August 15, 1973, Schulz featured Henry, and it was a seminal moment for each. Henry was national now, and it was widely assumed that as he continued his ascension, he could pass Ruth in 1973. As such, he had taken over some of Willie’s real estate.
Simultaneously, Willie had fallen once and for all. Though his team, the New York Mets, would advance to the World Series, Mays would play out the rest of the 1973 season hitting .211.
Schulz created a prescient story line, where Snoopy needed one home run to break Babe Ruth’s home run record while facing a hostile public. If Henry had always been handicapped by playing in markets that were a shade below prime time, Schulz, in his ubiquitous way, had elevated Henry and the politics of the chase into the mainstream discussion, while at the same time providing a clever, biting social commentary:
Snoopy [wearing a baseball cap, reading a letter on his doghouse]: “Dear Stupid, who do you think you are? If you break the Babe’s home-run record, we’ll break you! We’ll run you out of the country. We hate your kind!”
Charlie Brown: Is your hate mail causing you to lose any sleep?
Snoopy [now lying flat on his doghouse, a rising tidal wave of letters hovering high over him]: “Only when it falls on me.”