The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART THREE. LEGEND
Chapter 13. RUTH
ALL WEEK LONG, Bob Hope dreamed of naked people. In the morning, he could see them, bare feet tramping blissfully across the cool, crunchy grass, bodies flapping, arms cutting feverishly in free release through the humid air. When Hope lay down to sleep, the naked people followed into his bedroom, giggling with delight as they ran him straight into ruin.
It was perfection that stood at the center of his anxieties, and so far, even as ulcers pierced his gut, he felt he was close to achieving it. He believed he had done everything right in managing the demands of Henry’s pursuit of Ruth, and now, following the first week of the 1974 season, Henry stood on 714 home runs, an eleven-game home stand all but guaranteeing that Bill Bartholomay’s engineering to have Henry break the record in Atlanta would pay off.
Hope had tried to provide Henry with some semblance of personal space, an oasis to ease the ordeal. Hope loved baseball so much that he was all too aware of Roger Maris—the last person to challenge Babe Ruth—and all that his team, the New York Yankees, had not done for him in 1961, when Maris would break Ruth’s single-season record of sixty home runs. With history in mind, he was determined to protect Henry. Once, during the chase, word got out that the Braves had arranged for a dying boy to meet with Henry briefly before a game. “He had leukemia. He was dying and he asked can he meet Hank Aaron. Well, suddenly our phone started ringing, and with every one of these calls, every kid had one disease or another,” Hope recalled. “As the pressure is growing and we’re getting faster and faster toward the record, I go to an NL meeting, and the league adopted a rule that no youngsters would be allowed in the dugout before games. I told Hank we had all these requests and now we could get out of it. I told him I could get him an extra twenty minutes. And besides, I told him that all these kids, well, most of them, aren’t sick. I can just tell them it’s against the rules. So we go back and forth and I keep telling him, ‘Hank, they aren’t sick.’ And Hank said, ‘Yes, but some of them are.’
“So after it’s all said and done, years later I’m walking through an airport or something and a man stops me and recognizes me as being part of the Braves. He tells me that his son got to meet Hank Aaron and not long after that he died on the operating table. So you can imagine how I felt.”
Hope was convinced that he had successfully executed the virtually impossible balancing act of providing Henry privacy without alienating the throng of journalists, well-wishers, and dignitaries who wanted to be close to him.
Over the winter, he and his staff had updated a growing pamphlet chronicling Henry’s career; the booklet had now swelled to dozens of pages, opening with the words “The Greatest Sports Story in America Is Taking Place in Atlanta.” The Braves had issued daily press credentials to an average of four hundred journalists per day, forcing Hope to open the football press box at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium for the spillover. “It was,” Hope said, “like doing public relations for two teams at once: the Braves and Henry Aaron.”
Bob Hope did not fear the alleged assassins who were now attracting so much attention. Since the early part of 1972, when the mathematics of Henry hitting 715 home runs grew closer to a certainty, and his was the only name to challenge Ruth’s record, the threat of death increased. Carla Koplin served as Henry’s personal secretary and Calvin Wardlaw, an off-duty Atlanta police officer, was assigned to Henry as a personal bodyguard. As ubiquitous as his home run total were the letters he would receive from his fellow Americans, guaranteeing his death should he continue the quest.
Hope believed that so much of the talk of murdering Henry Aaron was just that, the work of a lunatic fringe just unbalanced enough to threaten anonymously and ruin Henry’s peace of mind, but not sufficiently motivated to kill. The letters Henry had received were real enough, and existed in great enough volume that Hope was not cavalier about the possibility of violence. But Hope felt that the combination of the FBI, the Atlanta police, and the two-man personal security force of Wardlaw and Lamar Harris would be sufficient to deter any maniac who may have thought his bullet could change history.
Instead, a more likely and embarrassing image continued to dominate his thinking: the sight of Henry Aaron hitting the momentous record-breaking home run, rounding first under a deafening, triumphant roar, the nation and the world’s journalists chronicling every detail of the moment by typewriter, microphone, and television camera, Ivan Allen’s dream of the country focusing its collective eyes on Atlanta for something other than the collision between blacks and whites at last realized. And then Hope could see the rest of the scene unfolding in his mind’s eye, almost in slow motion: Henry rounding second and then, there they were, a couple of streakers running onto the field, as naked as the day they were born, zigzagging away from security, probably freaked out on LSD, upstaging Henry, embarrassing the Braves, baseball, and the city of Atlanta, his perfect night lampooned for all time.
“That’s all I could think of,” Hope recalled. “Can you imagine that? You have to remember that those were the days of Morganna the Kissing Bandit and kids taking off their clothes and jumping onto the field. At that moment! We would have never, ever, lived something like that down.”
BOB HOPE WAS convinced that by virtue of his connection to Henry, who was challenging the home run record, he was party to something truly historic, especially in the South. The arc of his own personal life told him so, for a black person attaining such a valued place in American history in of itself represented the promise of dignity for black people that had not existed during his upbringing. Hope had grown up in the twin gulfs of class privilege and racial segregation, a classically southern motif, in an affluent section of Atlanta. His parents and grandparents routinely used the word nigger in their common speech, as did all of their friends. The Hope family owned a vacation home at Lake Lanier, in Forsythe County, and for years a black maid, a woman named Johnnie Lue, worked for the family. When he was a teenager, Bob Hope was constantly frustrated by one of his responsibilities, for it cut into his free time: When the family stayed at the vacation house, he was to keep track of the time, for Forsythe County was a sundown town: No blacks were allowed within county limits after dark, and the Hope family had to shuttle Johnnie Lue out of town or risk both violation of local ordinances and their standing in the eyes of their white neighbors. “When I was sixteen, I had to watch the sun because she had to be out of the county before the sun went down,” Hope recalled. “I knew it was a law, but it was a pain in the neck. It’s hard to fathom that there was a time when these things were considered normal.”
When he was a teenager on the football team at Northside High School in Atlanta, his coach explained to the team why Northside never played the local black high school, even though the schools were but a few miles apart.
“Clearly, growing up in the South, if you were white, you didn’t have an opportunity to be around blacks. I went to high school and graduated before they had integrated sports. We had only two blacks at our school,” he recalled.
“It wasn’t like you had anything against them, but you hadn’t affiliated with them, either. My parents and grandparents still used the N word. The white South didn’t understand the black South. The black South was still a novelty. You didn’t go to the same places. You heard about the colored water fountains. When I was a kid, I thought ‘colored water’ meant that the water was a different color, and as a kid, you wanted to drink the colored water. Then you learned the Negroes were segregated. You read the newspapers and you realized that Martin Luther King, Jr., was there. You understood what they were marching for was fair, but you didn’t understand the full magnitude of what was going on.”
When Hope attended Georgia State College, just ten years earlier, the law prohibited blacks and whites from competing together in the major college conference in the region, the Southeastern Conference, in either basketball or football, and now Henry was about to break a record considered unassailable, set during the tail end of the most aggressive period of segregation since Reconstruction. That the home-run record had been established at a time when blacks were not allowed to play in the major leagues carried its own degree of meaning. It was as if breaking the record would signify the hard-won fall of another barrier in the struggle for acceptance, proof of the illegitimacy of keeping blacks out of the game in the first place, proof of all that could have been possible years earlier. Henry identified with the words of Buck O’Neil, the Negro league player and manager who had never been granted the opportunity to test his skills against the great white players in the major leagues but would become the first black scout in the major leagues, discovering Ernie Banks and Lou Brock for the Chicago Cubs. “Just give us the chance,” O’Neil often said, “and we’ll do the rest.”
PUBLICLY, HENRY ADOPTED a typically American position. He was just another in a line of kids who in this country could grow up to be anything, do anything, if they put their mind to it, he said. It was a convenient path to follow, because it made America feel good about itself and its possibilities. Henry appeared grateful and not resentful that the opportunity for blacks had been so long in coming. On March 20, 1974, an article under Henry’s byline appeared in the Montgomery Advertiser, with Henry writing, “The Babe is a legend now. He created more excitement than any player who ever lived.
“What I find so hard to believe is that Hank Aaron, a nobody from Mobile, Alabama is the first player in 40 years to challenge that home-run record. How did it come about?”
What was clearer than the myth America liked to tell itself was how breaking the record would represent the fall of another domino in the acceptance of black athletes in professional sports, and the speed at which the old rules were being rewritten by force of time and personality. Robinson destroyed the belief that blacks weren’t talented or disciplined enough to compete alongside and against whites. Ali changed the way the black athlete could express himself to the public. By challenging the all-time home-run record, Henry represented a third front: the black athlete at the top of a team sport who would break a record held by a transcendent white athlete.
By 1974, Bill Russell had been retired five years. He had won eleven NBA championships and become the first black head coach in mainstream American professional team sports, winning two championships as a player-coach. Wilt Chamberlain had statistically dominated his sport as no athlete since Ruth. Jim Brown retired as the all-time leading rusher, but in becoming the most prolific runner in his sport, Brown accumulated only numbers. He did not surpass a player who held the public imagination in a way that rivaled Ruth. In basketball, Chamberlain was every bit as dominant as Ruth in baseball, but basketball, if not exactly a fringe sport, did not define any substantial portion of America, nor did the sport’s records. Who was the all-time leading scorer in NBA history before Chamberlain was a trivia question hardly even basketball fans knew the answer to.
Apart from Ruth, the sports icon with whom white America most closely identified may have been Jack Dempsey, the richest, most popular heavyweight champion of his day, and Dempsey would not fight black challengers. Joe Louis beat Jim Braddock, thereby winning the heavyweight title, but he and Jesse Owens made their initial mark nationalistically, as Americans, defeating Germans, not other Americans, for even though Louis beat the American Braddock to win the title, it would be his knockout of Max Schmeling that catapulted him into the American conscience, the symbol of American values at a time when the world faced its own larger questions of morality. Preparing to attend the first game of the Braves home stand against the Dodgers in hopes that Henry would break the record was the Georgia governor and future president, Jimmy Carter. Carter had already contributed to the anticipated celebration of Henry’s victory by announcing an executive order: The state’s prisoners would get right to work on a new commemorative state license plate that would read HENRY—715. Carter remembered that night in 1938 when Louis beat Schmeling and won the title, and he at once understood the deep roots of white superiority toward blacks, and by extension, this illustrated to him how Henry’s surpassing Ruth would seem even more offensive to the white sense of superiority than Schmeling’s losing to Louis.
Carter recalled how the whites along the dirt roads of Plains, Georgia, had rooted for Schmeling, and he could remember the roars of the black citizens down the street when Louis destroyed Schmeling in the first round. “For our community, this fight had heavy racial overtones, with almost unanimous support at our all-white school for the European over the American,” Carter wrote in his book An Hour Before Daylight. “A delegation of our black neighbors came to ask Daddy if they could listen to the broadcast, and we put the radio in the window so the assembled crowd in the yard could hear it. The fight ended abruptly, in the first round, with Louis almost killing Schmeling. There was no sound from outside—or inside—the house. We heard a quiet ‘Thank you, Mr. Earl,’ and then our visitors walked silently out of the yard, crossed the road and the railroad tracks, entered the tenant houses, and closed the door. Then all hell broke loose, and their celebration lasted all night long. Daddy was tight-lipped, but all the mores of our segregated society had been honored.”
Babe Ruth had held the all-time home record not for forty years, as Henry and most of America had once believed, but considerably longer. While it was true that Ruth retired in 1935 with 714 home runs, he had actually taken over the major-league lead in his eighth year in the big leagues, in 1921, when he hit his 139th homer. His record actually stood for fifty-three years. When Ruth hit his final home run in 1935, he had merely piled on his own record, as he had for fourteen years. Like Jimmy Carter, Bob Hope also felt a certain swell of civic pride that baseball history was going to be made, in Atlanta of all places, and, like Carter, he believed that even something as ephemeral as a sports team had contributed to the rehabilitation of their city. And that meant that despite the discomfort, the problems, the history, and the countless number of instances when it appeared that change was a dreamer’s word, life in the South had actually changed dramatically. A year earlier, in 1973, Maynard Jackson, a proud descendant of one of Atlanta’s most venerable black political families, the Dobbs family, was elected mayor. Carter recalled that in the years before he became president, a generation of white liberal politicians had quietly played a historic role in toppling the old order.
THE RECORD WAS going to be broken on his watch, Bob Hope thought, and on whatever night it occurred, it had to be a moment that would be remembered for all the right reasons. The first game of the home stand, Monday night, April 8, against the Los Angeles Dodgers, would be the first test of Bob Hope’s expectations and preparations. Henry’s father, Herbert, would throw out the first ball. Maynard Jackson and Jimmy Carter would be there. The team had arranged for Pearl Bailey, one of Henry’s favorite vocalists, to sing the national anthem. The actor Sammy Davis, Jr., who had been periodically involved in trying to put together a movie deal for a biopic of Henry’s life, would try to attend. Everything would be perfect. Hope believed that the night the record fell was not going to be just something that baseball fans remembered but that it would be a demarcating line in American history, another seminal moment signaling that whatever America was, it would no longer be from that day forward. That was why the naked people frightened him so much. They were the unpredictable variable. They were the one thing that could turn a seminal moment in America into a sideshow.
THE ENTIRE WINTER reminded Henry of what he wasn’t able to do in 1973. On September 1, Henry stood at 706 home runs. There was nothing else to that season for the Braves, who epitomized the word mediocre. They had reached the .500 mark just once during those 162 games, when Henry broke a 1–1 tie in the sixth on April 12 in San Diego with career home run number 675, this one off willowy lefthander Fred Norman. The Braves won the game 3–2 and their record was 3–3, after which they would lose seven straight, and by that time, the competitive portion of the season was effectively over. The rest of the year was focused more on Henry and Calvin Wardlaw and Carla Koplin and hate mail than on winning the National League West flag.
At certain points, his stoicism would lapse, and Henry would then reveal just how sick of it all he had gotten. In the great pantheon of the game, only Ruth had hit seven hundred home runs, and during the challenge march came another drumbeat: There was only one Ruth. Baseball people, the crusty old-timers like Bob Broeg in St. Louis, made a point that Henry may have produced numbers but that Ruth was bigger than the game, the universe, life itself. Henry had played more games than Ruth, had come to bat a gazillion more times, and would have had to hit 250 homers in a season to outhomer every team in the league, as Ruth had done in 1921, and therefore Henry was not the man Ruth was. The comparisons were endless, and to Henry, they were insidious in their obvious insinuations that he was not worthy of the record.
The exact date Henry’s imperturbability seemed closest to cracking was July 17, 1973. Nine days earlier, at Shea, he had single-handedly trashed the Mets—two for three, two homers—crushing the big left-hander George Stone. Stone was built like a house, six-three and 210 pounds. He and Henry had been teammates for six years in Atlanta, but now George was a Met, and Henry took him over the fence in the fourth and then again in the sixth. On the thirteenth, Bill Stoneman, the Montreal pitcher, threw Henry a mistake with two on in the fifth in Atlanta for a three-run homer and home run number 697.
On the seventeenth, against Philly, Dusty Baker, as only he and Garr could, cornered Henry in the dugout to try to pull him out of the darkness with humor. He hadn’t homered in five days and had grown weary of the constant cosmic question of when he would hit number seven hundred. He was tense, annoyed, and exasperated, but he hadn’t snapped. Baker saw that Henry walked around the clubhouse as if he were wearing a beauty mask, trying hard not to move a single muscle in his face. Baker angled up to Henry, holding the knob of the bat as a microphone, imitating Howard Cosell. “Hank, what do you have to do to hit seven hundred home runs?” he asked.
On this day, even Baker couldn’t rescue Henry. He had not come this close to cracking since he blew up at Milo Hamilton years earlier, a confrontation so involved that Bartholomay and the front office had to broker a peace treaty. But now, Henry was having a Roger Maris moment, Ralph Garr thought. Once, in 1961, when asked one time too many if he believed he could break Ruth’s single-season home-run record, Maris finally cracked, responding in a group interview session, “How the fuck should I know?”
But even on the edge, Henry did not break. He composed and steeled himself. There had been weaker, despairing moments, like the time the writers had at last left his locker after a home game and he turned to Bob Hope and pleaded softly to be left alone. “I just want to play baseball. That’s it.” Hope realized that Henry began to tear up; he was talking more to himself than to Hope.
At this moment, Henry looked at Baker, one of his protégés, gave a wan smile, and said before walking away, “How? Hit three more home runs. That’s how.”
Hours later, up 6–1 on the Mets in the sixth, Henry belted a Tug McGraw meatball into the left-center bull pen. Three days later against the Phillies, facing Wayne Lee Twitchell, another man-mountain at six-six, 220 pounds, Henry stepped in, down 5–0, with one out in the seventh, and cranked another; this one glanced off the BankAmericard sign in left-center field. The next day, the steamy Saturday afternoon of July 21, Ken Brett, with one on in the third, threw a weak fastball that Henry crunched into the seats in left, over the bull pen, and seven hundred was complete. The Braves immediately painted the seat red to commemorate the moment.
Only 16,236 fans showed up for Henry’s seven hundredth, the Atlanta fan base thereby solidifying its reputation for being ambivalent to baseball. That wasn’t even the worst of it, which happened to be the official baseball response to Henry’s achievement. Nothing. Not a phone call or telegram congratulating him from Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball.
For two years, Henry had played it cool where baseball was concerned. He said nothing bothered him, not the pressure of the chase, not the hate mail, not the death threats that arrived by the bucketful so often on stained composition paper, the suffocating press coverage, or even the unwinnable comparisons to Ruth.
Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner, however, had insulted Henry. It would never be quite clear why Henry held Kuhn in such high esteem. The two had no previous history and it wasn’t as if this commissioner was particularly fond of the players. Marvin Miller had been installed as the head of the surging Major League Baseball Players Association and he had begun to establish a new, empowering orthodoxy: The commissioner was not your friend. The commissioner was not your ally. The commissioner was not impartial. The commissioner of baseball, despite the rhetoric of using his power in the “best interests of baseball” actually used his power in the best interests of the clubs. After all, the owners hired the commissioner. If the commissioner were a nonpartisan advocate for players and owners alike, the players would have input in who actually got the job and who kept it. There was, too, the biggest of disconnects that Miller passionately imparted to the black players: No commissioner ever used his “best interest of the game” power to integrate the sport. One—Landis—actively kept blacks from playing, for it was not a coincidence that integration moved quickly after Landis’s death in 1944. Nevertheless, Henry seemed to possess respect for the office of the commissioner. He was, if nothing else, a believer in the hierarchy.
If Henry had his reasons for his drive toward beating Ruth’s record, people like Bowie Kuhn represented an important motivation. Kuhn was a member of the baseball establishment, first a longtime lawyer for the league before being elected commissioner in 1969. He was arrogant and uninterested in the larger tapestry of black achievement or in much beyond maintaining the power of the elite. Kuhn was an unimpressive thinker, unable to recognize the speed of change taking place in his sport and society in general. He was unprogressive, and his inability to acknowledge the reserve clause as untenable (and recognize Marvin Miller’s superior intellect) cost the owners billions of dollars and years of control. His comportment was one of a man who believed himself above being held accountable to players. He was condescending and seemed totally unaware that Henry saw right through him.
The commissioner would say that he did not want to set the precedent of congratulating every player for their daily milestones—hitting for the cycle, their 100th double, 135th win, and 1,000th hit—as if he or any baseball fan had been fans when both Ruth and Aaron had reached their individual milestones. He assured Henry that he hadn’t shown up for his seven hundredth because he was saving his appearance for the big one, when Henry broke Ruth’s record. As the news cycle mushroomed, Kuhn and Henry conversed days later and the commissioner made Henry a promise: “I’ll be there for seven hundred and fifteen.”
Two weeks later, before the Braves played the finale of three games the perennially lost Cubs, the Reverend Jesse Jackson invited Henry to be the breakfast speaker at a gathering sponsored by Jackson’s organization, Operation Push. During the late 1960s, as Jackson and Henry both gained national prominence, the two formed a budding friendship. At a south-side storefront, Henry was greeted by an overflow crowd of black Little League teams, black Boy Scout troops, and community organizers. Standing tall and athletically next to Henry, Jackson wore an olive T-shirt with green horizontal stripes and a dark collar, sporting a full Afro, a mustache, and muttonchop sideburns. Jackson was thirty-one at the time and had been a collegiate athlete. With his familiar oratory, Jackson introduced Henry:
He refused to defile his body and refused to have his mind defiled, and because he’s overcome staggering odds we look to him as a success model, as one who represents the very best in our people. When we look at Hank, there’s something on the outside in his presence that tells us that we can achieve, and because he’s just like us, there’s something on the inside that tells us that we deserve to achieve, and if he can any man can.
Henry stepped to the podium and addressed the crowd. A poster stood on the wall behind him, red bordered in gold, in the center a black silhouette of the African continent. Henry was dressed fastidiously but stylishly—a brown suit and eggshell shirt—a brown striped tie with a double Windsor knot:
I would like to read to you this morning a letter I received from Chicago and I consider this a real good letter, considering some of the letters I’ve gotten in the past, and it reads as follows:
Why are they making such a big fuss about you hitting 700 home runs? Please remember you have been to bat 2700 more times than Babe Ruth. If Babe Ruth came to bat 27 [sic] more times he would have hit 814 home runs. So Hank, what are you bragging about? Let’s have the truth: you mentioned if you were white, they would give you more credit. That’s ignorant. Stupid. Hank, there’re three things you can’t give a nigger: a black eye, a puffed lip, or a job.”
In delivering the punch line, Henry gave a genuine laugh, because even gallows humor could be funny in the right crowd, and here with Jackson, surrounded by black faces, he was protected, in a positive environment, by his people. He beamed the thousand-watt smile that had been suppressed by fog for the previous two years, the one that even Dusty Baker could not lift. Then he continued:
And it went on to say the Cubs stink, stink, stink, and gave me a phony name and address at the end. But these are the kind of letters I receive, and when I was talking about hate mail, this is a good one compared to some of the others. So I consider this a good one. Things like this just make me push a little harder, because just as Reverend Jesse Jackson said, first of all, growing up in Mobile, Alabama being a black person, I already realized I had two strikes against me, and I certainly wasn’t going to let them get the third strike against me. I figured that being a baseball player, there was only one way to go, and that was up.
A few hours later, Henry hit home run 702 at Wrigley, and then 703 and 704 the next two nights at Jarry Park in Montreal. The next one came at home, against the Cardinals, off of a weak slider from the Canadian right-hander Reggie Cleveland. He hit seven during the month of September, to finish with forty for the season, but, sitting on 713 on the final day of the season in Atlanta, in his final at bat, with the Aaron shift on against Houston pitcher Dave Roberts, he popped up weakly to second. It was over until 1974.
IT HAD ALWAYS been true that Henry found his solitude in the winter, when the baseball season had finally ended. The regular season provided no respite. At home, Henry was smothered under the crush of interview requests and public appearances. On the road, Henry had set up an elaborate plan to create a sliver of privacy: two hotels on the road, one that remained empty under the name Henry Aaron, the other—where Henry actually slept—listed under the alias A. Diefendorfer. When he was young, Henry would find the most secluded spot on Three Mile Creek and sit on the banks of the river in Toulminville, fishing and skipping rocks, usually with his friend Cornelius Giles, hidden from view. At thirty-nine, he took to the water anew, on the seventeen-foot speedboat he’d bought as a refuge, first going out into Polecat Bay and then north up the Spanish River toward Grand Bay. Henry also owned a twenty-seven-foot cabin cruiser, which he would use when he ventured south into larger bodies of water, taking down into the mouth of Mobile Bay and beyond. “It’s the only place,” he said of his boats in 1973, “where the phone doesn’t ring.”
That Henry escaped along the rivers toward the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico was somewhat incongruous, for his mother, Stella, had always discouraged him from going near the water. Even now, when he was almost forty, the owner of two boats, Henry could not swim well enough to save his own life. Yet, throughout his periods of turmoil, it was the inky waters of Mobile Bay to which he turned for catharsis. His routine was often the same: He would arrive in Mobile without warning, sneaking in a day or so early. Quite often, he would not even tell Herbert or Stella that he would be arriving, for with fame there was never any such thing as a secret. But the locals in Mobile, the ones who worked in the restaurants and the hotels, always knew when Henry was coming to town. The good ones, the ones who knew a day early, would understand, of course. But the ones who weren’t connected, who found out that the great Aaron had just blown through town, unseen (again), began to wonder just what Henry held against Mobile, so concretely and for so long. The locals were proud of him; that was all. They couldn’t exactly be blamed, either, for it was no secret that Henry’s relationship with Mobile was complicated. Even when he was in his mid-seventies, there would be people in Mobile who believed Henry could never quite forgive the city for its past, for what it had done to Herbert and to so many other black men. But during the fall and winter months of 1973, Henry did not advertise his visits anywhere. One day of warning could ruin the entire purpose of the trip, which was to escape, to indulge in a moment of peace.
Safely in Toulminville, Henry would contact his brother Hebert junior, who would contact Joseph Coleman, one of Henry’s old classmates, who was known as an expert with a boat, rod, and reel. Calvin Wardlaw, always armed, always watching, would be with them, as well. Sometimes, there were others, but those invitees always came at a moment’s notice. On the water, Calvin enjoyed Henry best. Henry would reminisce about Mobile, point out the physical markers of his history, drift into the years that belonged to him, long before he was Hank. And it was in these moments, too precious to last, when Henry recharged, watching Joe Coleman, soft-bellied and shirtless, his torso mimicking the winding river: vertical for a moment before curving wide and growing expansive. Herbert junior looked casual in his plaid pants, the group sauntering down the river in search of croakers and bass. Croakers were the toughest ones to catch, Henry said, because once caught, their gills popped out, felt like needles.
Henry would sit in the boat, his legs dangling over the bow, like a twelve-year-old surrounded by grown-ups, the only man of the group who always wore a life preserver. He would sit on the edge of the boat, rod in his right hand, soaking in the pieces of himself that seemed so difficult to keep, immersed less in the camaraderie than in the serenity surrounding him, the chopping waters, hunched trees, and faint lavender of the wisteria, the elements upon which he would rely for regeneration.
IN DECEMBER 1973, Henry announced he had signed a five-year, one-million-dollar personal-services contract with the television manufacturer Magnavox. Henry would do commercials, make public appearances on behalf of the company, and grace virtually every Sunday paper in the country, standing next to a shiny Magnavox color TV in a full-page ad.
To the outside world, Henry stood in an enviable position; the breaking of Ruth’s record would produce even greater financial opportunities. He was already the highest-paid star in the game. Things were moving quickly. Sammy Davis, Jr., flew Henry to Beverly Hills to discuss a movie project, tentatively titled The Hank Aaron Story.
What was not so well known at the time was that Henry was teetering on the verge of financial collapse, and he had signed the exclusivity deal with Magnavox (though he likely could have commanded more than a million) as a sure way to begin reversing his sinking finances. When he first arrived in Atlanta, he teamed with a consortium of white businessmen for a barbecue restaurant start-up in southwest Atlanta. The restaurant was called Hammerin’ Hank’s, and the initial goal of the business plan was for the first restaurant to be the centerpiece of a powerful local chain. The restaurant disappeared faster than one of Henry’s home-run balls into the night. Not long thereafter, Henry connected with another business partner, who enticed him to think big and invest in sugar futures, a risky enterprise, which sounded better than it actually was. When he looked at the balance sheet, Henry saw he had lost twenty thousand dollars.
Then, soon after Henry signed the richest contract in baseball history, came the big fall. In the spring of 1972, Henry finalized a three-year, $200,000 contract. He immediately teamed with two investment bankers (men he would refuse to name) and gave them power of attorney—which is to say, complete control over his finances. His paychecks were signed over directly to them. The firm invested his money for him, and it was so easy, he was told, he didn’t have to lift a finger. Over the ensuing months, Henry proceeded to hit home runs, make the all-star team, and lose his shirt. Finally, his secretary, Carla Koplin, suggested that he hire an auditor to check out where his money was going and investigate the firm’s legitimacy. Henry would tell the story that when the auditors arrived, they found that the firm did not exist. Their offices were vacated and the two men had blown town.
The swindle had damaging implications. Following the 1965 season, Henry had begun thinking about his future beyond baseball. He had just completed his twelfth season and started to take the long view that he naturally could not play forever. In 1966, for the first time, he began deferring portions of his salary for when he retired, so he would still receive income. That year, Henry’s salary was $70,000 and he deferred $20,000 for future payment. The following year, Henry received a raise to $92,500, with $42,500 to be deferred, disbursed in semimonthly cash payments following his retirement.
In 1973, Henry earned $165,000, with $50,000 to be disbursed over a ten-year period beginning at retirement. As he grew more involved with his real-estate and restaurant ventures, Henry needed cash flow. On June 12, 1973, he took out a bank loan of $300,000 secured by the Braves. As part of the agreement, Henry made a handshake deal, verbally agreeing to repay the loan—$10,000 per quarter, or all of the cash flow from the project, whichever was greater. When the project went bust, Henry was on the hook for the loan, $40,000 per year.
When he totaled the damage, Henry figured he’d lost his entire life savings, well in excess of one million dollars. His lawyers told him he had been taught an expensive, cautionary lesson and that perhaps he needed to file for bankruptcy. There was only one way to assess where Henry stood during 1973 and 1974.
“I was wiped out,” he said.
EVEN THE OFF-SEASON could not protect him, and during the final months of 1973, Henry’s problems at least rivaled the discomfort of his fame. On November 12, 1973, a month before the Magnavox deal was announced, on November 14, 1973, Henry married Billye Williams, a former Atlanta television host, in a private ceremony at the University of the West Indies chapel in Mona, Jamaica, after nearly three years of dating. But after hearing about the Magnavox deal and his $200,000 baseball contract, Barbara wanted more money. Not long after he became the home-run king, she took him to court to get it. He was the highest-paid player in baseball, and the two would trade accusations, his that she was obstructing him from spending more time with his children, hers that now that his income had increased, so should her alimony, from $1,600 a month to $16,000.
AARON SUED FOR TENFOLD ALIMONY
ATLANTA, JUNE 3 (AP)—Hank Aaron’s former wife filed a petition in Superior Court here today seeking an increase in the alimony and child support payments she currently receives from the Braves’ baseball star.
Barbara Aaron said the Atlanta Braves’ slugger was earning about $100,000 a year when they divorced in February 1971, but now earns “in excess” of a million dollars per year.
Years later, he would discuss these years with a fair amount of regret, saying that in some instances he had become what he had always dreaded: the rich ballplayer with no money. “I was easy, just like so many athletes today,” he recalled. “It’s not easy when you don’t know anything about nothin’ and you have all this money.” He had been careful about frivolities, enjoyed being famous without the extravagances that would define the modern-day athlete. He drove a 1973 Chevrolet instead of a Porsche, wasn’t the kind of player who wore a shirt once and threw it out, and yet in the months before he would break the record, he was broke.
Once the Magnavox deal was finalized, Henry began to prepare for spring training with an eye on the future. On February 5, 1974, he turned forty, and Henry had resolved that he would endeavor to make massive changes with regard to business matters. Taking better care of his finances was a given. He would be more involved. He would learn the businesses that carried his name. Women, cars, and clothes were easy, high-profile ways to lose it all, but so, too, were bad investments.
“I was angry, but I wasn’t helpless. I still had my name and time to recoup,” he said. “I decided to be more careful with my money.”
HE DID NOT approach the challenge of breaking Ruth’s record, at least privately, with self-deprecation, that “Aw, shucks, fellas” immodesty. Now that it was in sight, surpassing Ruth, being the best there ever was at hitting home runs, if not an obsession, something he craved, and now he had to wait for the entire offseason. One day in Mobile, he told Stella that he wanted the record. “He said, ‘I want a record of my own,’ ” she recalled. To his mind, because he was so close, it was as if the record already belonged to him, and that was where his mind played such cruel tricks on him, where life teased and taunted him with its power over him and destiny, where he knew he was at his least potent. At the tail end of the 1973 season, a piece entitled “Henry Aaron’s Golden Autumn” appeared in Time magazine. It was clear in the article that he had begun to smell the record. “I’ve always read Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Roger Maris—then Hank Aaron. I’ve worked awfully hard to get my name up front,” he told the interviewer. “I’ve waited for my time, and it’s just now coming.”
Still, the forces of life, Henry knew, were far more difficult to face than any hard thrower on the mound. The batter’s box was the easy part. That was where Henry was king, the most powerful man on earth, in control of every facet of his life—but only at that moment. Guaranteeing that he would have another opportunity to stand in the box, to dig in and take the record in his hands and claim it for his own was another story altogether.
When his mind wandered, it brought him back most vividly to the dynamic Clemente, who had reached his three thousandth hit on the final day of the 1972 season and never lived to see the new year, killed in a tragic, unnecessary plane crash over the Caribbean. He thought about Roy Campanella, the Dodgers catcher headed for the Hall of Fame when the 1957 season ended, but after a terrible car crash on January 28, 1958, would not walk or use his hands ever again. And there was always Jackie, who had seriously thought of playing for the Giants in 1957, but then he climbed out of bed one day and life made the decision for him: He crumpled to the floor, betrayed by an arthritic knee that would never again cooperate. And maybe those nut jobs out there with their pens and their pads and stamps weren’t as blustery as Bob Hope thought. Maybe he would walk down the street and one of them would see his chance, size Henry up, and take it all away with a single shot.
“I don’t want to wait,” Henry said when a reporter told him there was no need to worry, that he was so close to the record that it would be his within the first month of the 1974 season. “You can’t wait. Look at Clemente. What would have happened to Roberto Clemente if he had waited?”
THE INVENTORY LIST for the Braves home opener looked as though it belonged to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade instead of to a baseball game. Bob Hope had the final figures and details for the evening: five thousand balloons, dancing girls, and two bands. For the eight previous home openers in Atlanta, an average of seventeen policemen had been assigned to work the game. But for the ninth, the April 8, 1974, home opener, the Atlanta Braves versus the Los Angeles Dodgers, that number would increase to sixty-three. Joe Shirley, the team director of security, discussed with Bartholomay the possibility of a riot when Henry hit his 715th home-run ball, so Shirley had mapped out a strategy to combat a potential free-for-all: The left-center-field bleachers had been designated ground zero, since that happened to be Henry’s power alley. Shirley would dispatch six policemen, four security men, and eight extra ushers to the left-center bleachers, with the intention of keeping order should the record breaker land in the same spot as so many of his balls in the past. The grounds crew was working to beat the forecast of intermittent rain, but they were professionals, so there was no reason to worry. Nearly a full day before game time, they had completed painting a red-white-and-blue replica of the map of the United States across shallow center field: 140 feet by 80.
Hope’s celebrity overtures had borne fruit. Pearl Bailey was no longer just a wish. She was on board, having agreed, per Henry’s request, to sing the national anthem. Sammy Davis, Jr., had not only confirmed that he would attend but had already offered the Braves $25,000 for the home-run ball. Herbert Aaron would throw out the first pitch and both he and Stella would be part of the pregame festivities. Hope had concocted a program that would resemble the old TV show This Is Your Life. Herbert and Stella would stand in Alabama on the painted map, representing Mobile. Hope had contacted John Mullen, the old Braves executive who had signed Henry from the Clowns. Mullen would represent Indianapolis. Donald Davidson would stand on Boston, where the Braves were located when Henry signed in 1952. And Henry’s first big-league manager, Charlie Grimm, would appear, standing in for Milwaukee. Around the chain-link outfield fence would be eight-foot-high letters that read ATLANTA SALUTES HANK AARON.
There would be no fraud, Bill Acree, the Braves clubhouse man was assured. Acree had been given the responsibility of guarding the specially marked baseballs that had been used for Braves games since Henry hit number seven hundred. It was one of the details that had been a colossal pain for the pitchers, since these were the years before memorabilia would become an industry, pitchers having gotten annoyed that a perfectly good ball was being tossed aside whenever Henry stepped to the plate. In a certain way, the pitchers felt Henry was being given an advantage, because a fresh ball was just a bit slicker, harder for a pitcher to grip. Any disadvantage to a pitcher, no matter how slight, tipped the scale in favor of a hitter of Henry’s skill.
These were also the years before milestones had become marketing opportunities, moments to be captured and manipulated, and, of course, profited from. That made Bill Bartholomay the villain in the pinstriped suit, again ahead of his time for all the wrong reasons. In his first at bat in the first inning of the first game of the 1974 season in Cincinnati, April 4, Jack Billingham—who had already surrendered home runs number 528, 636, 641, and 709 to Henry—threw a sinking fastball that Henry on his first swing of the season, redirected toward the left-center gap and over the fence to tie Ruth. The businessman in Bartholomay saw potential disaster, and Bob Hope’s ulcer-riddled stomach began churning anew. With eight more innings in the opener and two full games remaining in Cincinnati before the Braves went back to Atlanta to play their first home game of the season, Henry could conceivably break the record on the road, in the antiseptic bowl that was Riverfront Stadium, and rob the Braves of at least one sellout home date and possibly more. After the game, Bartholomay would tell his manager, Eddie Mathews, to sit Henry for the remaining two games, which inflamed Kuhn, who ordered Henry to play. The players had never respected Kuhn in the first place. Before the next game, Pete Rose walked to the batting cage and yelled out to Joe Morgan, “Hey, Joe, you playing today? Did you check with the commissioner?”
Given the kind of reaction Bartholomay would receive, he would have been better off fixing the World Series. The outcry would have been less. When Kuhn stepped in and ordered Henry to play in at least one of the remaining two games, which he would do, that only made matters worse, since Henry had never quite gotten over the commissioner refusing to acknowledge his seven hundredth home run. “For that,” Bartholomay would recall thirty-four years later, “I got really pounded in the press, but I thought our fans deserved to see the record. I thought it was only fair to Hank, after all he went through to have the opportunity to break the record at home.”
Henry’s ball burned through the crisp Cincinnati air like a comet, over the heads of Billingham, Dave Concepción at short, and Pete Rose in left, before returning to earth somewhere in the seats in left center. Cornered by the press hours later, Billingham would explain his yielding a home run to Henry Aaron with a forlorn inevitability, a guy who had left his umbrella at home during a rainstorm. “I was behind three and one, so I wanted to come to him. Well, I came to him, but it didn’t come like I wanted it to. It didn’t sink. That was a mistake and a mistake to Henry Aaron is a home run.”
The game was being televised on Channel 17, and for the people of Atlanta, Milo Hamilton was on the call.
Base hit for Lum. He gets the first base hit of the ’74 season. This is the only game today. So Darrell Evans, who last year moved into superstar status—41 home runs, 104 RBIs, he led the club in spring homers with four. Jack Billingham in first inning trouble … walked Garr, Lum got a base hit through the left side with the runner going and pulled the shortstop over. Lum hit it perfectly through the vacated spot.… Darrell Evans the batter with two on as you look down the first base side and Joe Morgan is coming in to talk to Billingham … already on deck is the man of the hour, Henry Aaron. It’s the biggest sports story in a quarter century. One away from the Babe, two to set the all-time new record … two balls and no strikes … the crowd starting to buzz. Could Henry Aaron come to bat with the bases loaded? There’s nobody out, opening inning. A fly ball, left field. Pete Rose waiting … easy play. One out …
Jack Billingham was already shaken, having slept the night before on a mattress on the basement floor of his home in Delhi, Kentucky, huddled with his wife, Jolene, and his two children, John and Jennifer, as tornadoes ripped through town.
He would not fall asleep until nearly 3:00 a.m., and when he awoke, he learned that the storms that rattled his house and nerves had already killed five people.
Now the crowd warming to the introduction of Henry Aaron. Henry Aaron has three spring homers, last year hit 40.… Drove in 96 runs … had a batting average of .301. Steps in for his first at-bat of the season with two on and one down. You can actually hear a buzz in the crowd. The excitement is here, and Aaron can put on the finishing touch. Ball one … and the disappointment as a groan goes through the 50,000-plus crowd. They want him to be thrown something over the plate.… Checked his swing, missed with a curve ball. Two balls and no strikes … Dignitaries here from all over the country … some 250 writers are here from the sportswriting fraternity.… Stee-rike across the letters on the inside corner … if there’s a seat empty, I can’t find it.… Ball three! Three and one to Henry Aaron … We play three games here. Tomorrow is an open date.… We’ll be home Monday night to open a big homestand with the Dodgers on Monday the eighth. Three-one pitch … THERE’S A DRIVE INTO LEFT FIELD.… THAT BALL IS GOING … GOING … AND OUT OF HERE! HENRY AARON HAS JUST TIED BABE RUTH IN THE ALL-TIME HOME-RUN PARADE.…
Jack Billingham was now, in his words, “salty as hell” as he stood on the mound, crouched at the waist in disgust as Henry rounded the bases, around the dirt cutouts and along the hard artificial turf. Frank Hyland, the Atlanta Journal beat writer, was in the press box, brimming with errata: He noted the time it took Henry to round the bases as sixteen seconds and reported that in his twenty years in the big leagues it was the first home run Henry had hit on opening day, and that the ball was the first ball in the nearly one hundred years of National League play to be made from cowhide. Horsehide was now a relic.
The game was stopped for six minutes. Vice President Ford took the microphone, and Billingham was frothing. He had not been warned that the game would be halted in the event of a home run by Henry, and now it would take little effort to fry an egg on his head. “Sure, it was irritating. It’s bad enough to throw but then you gotta sit there and watch ’em give away all those trophies and listen to Bowie Kuhn throwing a few words around,” Billingham said. “Seems to me they could have picked a better time to do it, like maybe between innings.”
Billingham would last five shaky innings, giving up five runs, walking four, then be bounced, with Cincinnati trailing 6–2. The Reds, with their championship pedigree and hunger, plus Pete Rose (three for five, three runs scored) and Joe Morgan (two for four, and a stolen base)—would win the game in eleven innings, 7–6, but afterward Billingham was still boiling.
“I’m happy for Aaron and all that, and don’t get me wrong. I’m not badmouthing and all that, but it was embarrassing. Hell, it was frustrating enough to have to change balls every time he came up, but then to have to stand out there and go through all that. You don’t know what to do.”
Henry was removed in the seventh inning for the rookie, Rowland Office. In the eighth inning, a harbinger of Bob Hope’s nightmare was realized. Naked people! A young boy tore off his clothes and ran naked through the aisles of the left-field upper deck to an ovation. He streaked for three minutes before being apprehended by four policemen and forced to dress. He was escorted out of the stadium, but before he was taken away, he received a louder second ovation and signed several autographs.
The specter of racial tension was never far from the chase, and for the rest of Henry’s life, race would always play a determining role in his memory of that day and his inability to enjoy his accomplishments.
Before the game, Henry spoke with Jesse Jackson, who suggested that on opening day, with a chance for Henry to tie and perhaps surpass Ruth’s record, the Reds should, as a courtesy, acknowledge the day, April 4, 1974, the sixth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, with a pregame moment of silence. The Reds were angry and refused, even though the club had asked Henry before the game if there was anything the team could do for him. Cincinnati, better known for its conservatism than its progressiveness in race relations, solidified its reputation with its refusal, as did the Reds.
“It should not even have been necessary to request it,” Billye Aaron would say later about the moment of silence. She would receive ample criticism herself for her politics, and learn a bitter lesson. “After that, I figured I would just keep my mouth shut.”
ON THE AFTERNOON of April 8, 1974, Henry Aaron was resting at home in southwest Atlanta, lying on his living room sofa, watching The Edge of Night. In his two years of isolation, locked away in hotel rooms, Henry had become familiar with and addicted to soap operas. He also followed As the World Turns, and was somewhat disappointed that one of his favorite diversions, The Secret Storm, had been taken off the air. He had outlived another one. The Secret Storm debuted as a fifteen-minute soap opera on February 1, 1954, on CBS, four days before Henry’s twentieth birthday and a month before he stepped on the field for Milwaukee that first time in Bradenton, and was canceled three days after his fortieth birthday. At 1:00 p.m., Henry slept for a couple of hours, then drove alone to the ballpark, arriving at 4:00 p.m.
For perhaps the first time during the chase, Henry was calm, uninterrupted by reporters before the game. That was because the Braves (Eddie Mathews, in particular) had decided to violate the standing agreement between the league and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and close the clubhouse an hour before game time. Usually, the clubhouse was open to the press until thirty minutes before the game began, but Mathews, whose protection of Henry was both “fatherly and brotherly,” according to Bob Hope, decided the writers had asked enough questions for the last two years. Mathews had retired six years earlier but still possessed a ferocious, erratic temper, one that left younger players on edge and gave pause to anyone not seeking immediate confrontation. Earlier, he had been set off by a reporter who asked Henry which shoe, right or left, he put on first each day. “Enough of this goddamned circus,” Mathews roared. Henry thanked his old teammate and told him, “It allowed me to get some of my sanity back.”
Henry stretched and walked around the clubhouse, and his teammates gave him a wide berth, no one quite willing to initiate a conversation with him. No one knew if Henry wanted to be approached or if he should be treated with total silence, like a pitcher who was throwing a no-hitter. Henry walked over to Garr, who was dressing for the game.
“Ralph,” Henry said at his locker. “I’m gonna break it tonight. I’m tired. I’m going to break the record so we can get down to serious business.”
“I think you are, Hank,” Garr responded.
LATER IN THE afternoon, Billye arrived at the ballpark with Herbert and Stella. By the time they took the field, Henry’s parents were surrounded by writers from around the globe, as important to the story as Henry. “I just feel good and happy, just to be here and see him this close to it. I saw Babe Ruth play an exhibition game once when he came through Mobile,” Herbert said. While he spoke, the writers were looking for genetic clues in the father’s body that would unlock the gifts of the son. Henry was known for his wrists, but it was Herbert’s wide hands and long, tapered fingers that betrayed some form of athletic bloodline. With his hands, Herbert could have been a pitcher, or a pianist. Amid the crush of photographers and writers and dignitaries, it was not lost on Herbert that until his son grew into manhood, white men were an entity that required careful negotiation. Now he was shaking hands with a sitting president and future ones. Herbert was energetic that day and would spend the rest of his life in the proud position of being a celebrity dad, telling tall tales in the spirit of the moment. “I remember he hit a ball over the fence and into a boxcar. Somebody found it in New Orleans.”
Henry’s parents were feted as celebrities, pioneers of the American dream. They would sit next to Bill Bartholomay and Governor Carter, who was formulating a bid to rescue a wounded presidency, but amid the festivities, while Herbert offered levity, Stella was too focused on the miles she had traveled and their unique, bitter terrain—her own as much as Henry’s—to be folksy.
“I’m just proud of the whole black race,” she said to an interviewer. “That’s what I’m really proud of.”
• • •
WALTER ALSTON DID not say a word to his team about the record during the pregame meeting. The Dodgers were a stoic team, unwilling to play the role of stick figures in Henry’s potential night of drama. As was the baseball custom before the first game of any series, the Dodgers went over the Atlanta scouting report with the pitching staff, and Al Downing, the night’s starter, winced at what he perceived to be a whiff of the old racism that had been an insuperable ingredient of baseball soil. With regard to each of the black players in the lineup, the report echoed variations on the same theme, to pitch them in, on the hands. Invariably, someone in the meeting would say, “Garr, he doesn’t like being pitched high and tight,” or “Make sure you crowd Baker. That makes him uncomfortable.” To Downing, the words were another insinuation that black players, even twenty-seven years after Robinson’s big-league debut, were somehow less mentally and physically tough than their white counterparts, that black hitters could be intimidated in ways whites could not, that their wills, even after all this time and so much truth to the contrary, were easily broken. He asked himself, Which hitters out there do like to be pitched high and tight? And for the life of him, Downing couldn’t come up with an answer.
Like Jack Billingham and Henry, Downing and Henry had a history. Downing had surrendered home runs number 676 and 693 to Henry. The two had met eleven years earlier, in Florida during spring training, when Downing was a rookie with the Yankees. Elston Howard, the Yankee catcher, had introduced Downing to Henry, who by that time was already a big star. Henry sized up the young pitcher quietly, shook his hand, before calling out to a reporter for a spare piece of paper and a pen. Henry scribbled quickly on the paper and handed it to Downing. “If there’s anything I can ever do for you,” Henry told Downing that day, “give me a call. Good luck to you.”
Downing’s nickname was “Ace.” He had been raised in Trenton, New Jersey, by his father and two aunts after his mother was killed in a car crash when he was seven years old. From the start, he was considered a special talent: left-handed and fast. Downing’s America consisted of integrated schools in New Jersey and integrated traveling baseball teams. When he was fourteen, he played on a traveling team that fielded two other blacks. When the team arrived in Frederick, Maryland, Al and his black teammates, William Crossland and Arnold Thomas, were told there were no rooms for them at the hotel and that the three boys would have to find a rooming house for blacks in a different part of town.
“One night, someone brought up the idea that we should go to the movies, not even thinking that this policy existed socially in every aspect of the city. So we get to the movies and we pay for our tickets and the usher looked at me and the other two black players and said, ‘You three have to sit in the balcony and you guys can go downstairs,’ ” Downing recalled. “All the white guys on the team just looked at us and said, ‘They go to the balcony, we’ll go to the balcony.’ That was a moment when I knew how special those guys were, and then we all went up to the balcony and we watched the movie.”
Alston did not dwell on Henry in the pregame meeting. Steve Yeager, the brusque and unpredictable catcher, would recall years later that the scouting report on Henry contained just two words: his name. “Henry Aaron. What else did you need to say? I mean, he was Henry Aaron.” Henry and Alston went back twenty years, since they were both rookies in the same season, 1954, Henry a twenty-year-old with the Braves, Alston taking over for a pennant-winning Dodgers club as a forty-two-year-old rookie manager. They were both monuments to an ancient species: baseball men who had served just one employer. As players, Alston and Aaron were polar opposites: Henry tapped for fame before he could legally drink alcohol, while Alston with career that consisted of exactly one inning and one at bat in the big leagues. The date was September 27, at Sportsman’s Park, the last game of the 1936 season.
“Well, I came up to bat for the Cards in 1936 and Lon Warneke struck me out,” he once said. “That’s it.”
Ironically, both entered the big leagues in 1954, both would retire in 1976, and both would one day be honored in Cooperstown. These days, Walt Alston resembled Charlie Grimm in Milwaukee, for somehow the Dodgers couldn’t break free from second place. For the last four years, the Dodgers had been just good enough to go home, losing to Cincinnati in 1970, 1972 and 1973, and to the Giants in 1971. Pervading the 1974 club was a combination of frustration, desperation, and old-fashioned stubbornness. Mike Marshall was the club’s newest acquisition, picked up from Montreal. Marshall was an iconoclast by nature and a progressive thinker, a combination that could put one on the fast track to becoming a baseball outcast. He had been raised in Michigan and attended Michigan State, earning a Ph.D. in kinesiology. If Ted Williams was fascinated by the science of hitting, Mike Marshall was passionate about the science of pitching mechanics. He was seeking to create a new pitching orthodoxy, to develop a new method of throwing a baseball that would no longer result in the ruin of a thousand pitching arms. He wanted, essentially, to reinvent the pitching wheel. Downing had been teammates with Marshall for only three months, but he loved listening to him talk about the pitching, about torque created through the shoulder and elbow, and its heavy price. Almost immediately, a semicircle of Dodger pitchers—Al Downing, Andy Messersmith, and Tommy John—began discussing their aches, pains, and tweaks with Marshall, quite often before approaching the team medical staff, a group whose best interests for the history of baseball had always been heavily weighed toward the team and not the player. Marshall’s combination of advocacy and intellect not only made him controversial when it came to Dodger management; it made him dangerous. The Dodgers would go to the World Series in 1974 and Marshall would pitch 208 innings in relief, a modern-day record. He would win the Cy Young Award, but it was apparent that as quickly as he’d arrived, his days in Los Angeles were numbered. “He was too smart for them,” Downing recalled. “If you had a knot in your shoulder, you’d run it by Mike, because he knew what he was talking about and he’d give it to you straight. They didn’t like that kind of competition and immediately began to create a wedge between Mike and the rest of the ball club.”
The season was a week old and Marshall had not yet assessed his new team.
“I had no idea who they were, or how they competed. You can be highly talented and once the season gets going, when the pressure mounts, the talent can go the other way, and I think that was what was happening on the Dodgers,” Marshall recalled. “They had the best pitching, and an outstanding offense, maybe not in terms of home runs, but certainly in the number of ways they could score runs. It was a very strong team and I was hopeful.
“In Montreal, I had been with Gene Mauch, and when we had a chance to win, he’d give me the ball and say, ‘Let me know when it’s over.’ But there, I didn’t pitch an inning in the first three games and I’m thinking, Why am I here? What I loved about Montreal was that it kept battling. What I had heard about the Dodgers was that there was lot of cross-blaming going on. My attitude had been that everyone does what they can and don’t judge other people by what they can’t do. We ended up becoming a very close-knit pitching staff, all mature people, not prone to getting overexcited.”
Jimmy Wynn walked down the runway and into the visitors’ dugout. He looked around the stadium at the placards—715 and WE WANT HANK—as he stepped into the cage for batting practice. The atmosphere, he thought, was relatively quiet nevertheless. Bill Buckner, the Dodger left fielder, sprinted toward the fence and leaped once and then twice more. He was, he later admitted, practicing scaling the fence, just in case he’d need to rob Henry of his home run. The Dodger bull pen, located behind the right-field fence, was businesslike. Downing was already in the pen, warming up.
TONY KUBEK, the Milwaukee native who had played so well for the Yankees against Henry and the Braves in the 1957 World Series, was now a broadcaster for NBC. Both he and his partner, the veteran Curt Gowdy, could feel the groundswell of the moment. “Everybody expects him to do it every time now. It’s gotten that far out of proportion,” Kubek said. “People won’t take singles or even triples from Henry Aaron anymore. There’s a lot of pressure on Henry. He’s withstood it all.”
The 53,775 in attendance roared when Ron Reed, the Braves hulking six-foot-six-inch, 230-pound right-hander—who, like Gene Conley, was another Braves pitcher who had played in the NBA—erased the Dodgers in the first. And they groaned when Downing, pitching carefully, walked Henry in the bottom of the second without even inducing a swing, his last two pitches very nearly in the dirt. The legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, was on the call. Scully, Bronx-born, started his Dodgers broadcasting career in 1950, the same year that Henry was expelled from Central High and that the Phillies and Yankees competed in the last World Series to be played only by whites.
Henry begins to walk up to home plate. The crowd gives him a standing ovation and the familiar number 44 steps into the batters box. Joe Ferguson, mask on, but evidently said something, and Al Downing, who also wears 44, [who] sat on the bench when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s one-year mark with 61 home runs … Downing doesn’t want to walk Aaron. He doesn’t want anyone to point the accusing fingers. He’s just trying to pitch his game. Downing checking, Aaron waiting … and the 3–1 pitch is outside, Downing ball four, so not right now, Henry.
The night existed for one moment, its tension enveloped in only one man, who would come to bat perhaps once every thirty-five minutes, maybe get a pitch to hit or maybe not, maybe do something with that pitch or maybe not. The rest of the game—the pitches, the swings, the people—the rest was just filler: Henry raced around third and scored on a double by Dusty Baker that Buckner bobbled. When Henry crossed the plate with his 2,063rd run of his career, he broke another record, passing Mays for the all-time National League mark. But tonight, nobody cared, nor did the crowd appear particularly pained that the home team was suddenly losing as the Dodgers rallied for three runs off of Reed in the top of the third. With the possible exception of the time Maris passed Ruth back in 1961, never had the events of the baseball game seemed more secondary.
It was also clear as the night progressed that there was only one other day in the history of baseball—April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson’s debut in Brooklyn—when baseball so sharply held a mirror up to America, to its blacks and its whites and its generations and its change, reflecting what the nation was at that moment and what it was about to become. Sitting in the press box, Bob Hope could feel it, as could Jimmy Carter; Stella Aaron knew it: that the record was secondary to what it represented.
In center field, Jimmy Wynn, playing for the opposing team, had decided that he wanted Henry to hit a home run—on this night, now. Like Mike Marshall, Wynn had been focused only on assimilating with his new team and on what the Dodgers needed to do to beat Cincinnati, to finally win the division and get back to the World Series, a place Los Angeles had not been since 1966 when they were destroyed by Baltimore. At that time, Wynn was in Houston, the first star player for the old expansion Colt .45’s, which by then would be known as the Astros. He had known Henry only slightly. The two had met briefly over the years, and Wynn respected Henry immensely. Wynn would recall that he did not think of Henry breaking the record until he’d reached 714, and then he began to assess Henry not in baseball terms but in historical context. He thought of his father, Joe Wynn, when Jimmy was a boy growing up in Cincinnati. Joe Wynn was a ballplayer first, playing in the industrial leagues in Ohio and Kentucky, but his generation could not dream of playing in the major leagues. Joe Wynn was the best player Jimmy had ever seen, and he had told his father he wanted to follow in his footsteps, to which the elder Wynn replied, “No, you have your own footsteps.”
In between pitches, Jimmy Wynn thought about his own road to the major leagues, and the humiliations he’d endured because he wanted to be a baseball player. On numerous occasions, when the environment grew too rough, he would turn to Big Joe Wynn for comfort and sometimes to plead with his father to return home. Joe Wynn was always unsympathetic, telling him, “You’re in the world now.”
Jimmy Wynn would remember a game in Palatka, Florida, which probably took place in 1962 or 1963 while he was playing for the Tampa Tarpons, a farm club of the Reds. Wynn was playing third base and a pair of whites in the stands catcalled out to him, “Hey, nigger, where’s your tail?”
Wynn stared straight ahead.
“Hey, nigger, I’m talking to you.”
The Tarpons manager, a white man named Herschel Freeman, called time to talk to his young third baseman.
“He asked me, ‘Jimmy, are you all right?’ I told him I was and I told him, ‘Let’s play baseball.’ But these two just wouldn’t stop,” Wynn recalled. “They’re throwing the N word around and asking me where was my tail. They kept doing it, and finally, Herschel Freeman called time and went up into the stands and grabbed one of them and said, ‘His name is Jimmy Wynn. If you don’t want to call him that, then call him Mr. Wynn. If you don’t want to call him that, then say nothing. And if you don’t, I will visit you once again.’
“And the next words I heard from them were, ‘Come on, Jimmy.’ ” In a flash, the dense, mythic fog of the evening—of who was the greater player or who, Ruth or Aaron, had the greater impact—began to clear and there was nothing left about the night of April 8, 1974, for Jimmy Wynn, the famed “Toy Cannon,” except one crystallizing thought: “It wasn’t about numbers. It wasn’t even really about Babe Ruth. It was about him breaking a white man’s record. Everything he went through was happening because he put himself in a position to break a white man’s record. You see, that record, it belonged to them, and in a lot of ways, to them, the ones who wrote those letters and said those things, Henry Aaron was taking it from them and giving it to us. He was giving us a little something more than what we had, something that we’d never had.”
IN THE FOURTH inning, Henry received a long standing ovation for his second at bat. Darrell Evans was already on first; a throwing error by the shortstop Russell put him on. It was the top of the fourth, nobody out, and the Dodgers had already committed three errors. They would commit three more before the evening was over. Downing threw another pitch into the dirt.
Downing’s next pitch would in some ways end his career as much as Henry’s swing would end his. Neither man would ever be three-dimensional again. Technology—that is, television—would rob Henry of his speed, his arm, his youth, reducing him forever to a sagging forty-year-old worthy of only one moment, leaving it to his contemporaries and admirers to remind future generations of what a complete, dynamic ballplayer he once was. And Downing would no longer be the proud descendant of the denied Negro Leaguers in general and Bill Yancey, the first black man to ever scout for the Yankees, in particular. The twenty-game season in 1971, being the first black pitcher to start a World Series game for the Yankees—all of it would be deleted in the public mind except for one fastball that hugged too much of the plate, a bad pitch. For the next six years of his life, Al Downing would spiral, referring to this period as “bitter” and his life as “rough” because the mirror would be held up once again to America and the divide between black and white could not be assuaged. One day during the bad years, Downing would be in the bull pen, a father and son ten feet above him in the stands. The father would point at Downing and say, “There’s Al Downing. He gave up Hank Aaron’s seven hundred and fifteenth home run. He’s no good.” He would hear the father whisper to the son that two black men (“soul brothers” is the phrase Downing recalls hearing) conspired to take away a white man’s record. It would not be the first time nor the last that he would be accused of purposely throwing a home run-ball to Hank Aaron. Only after that period would Downing reclaim the full scope of his career and his equilibrium as a man. “Let me get this straight,” Downing would say years later. “I got vilified for years for giving up a home run to a man who hit more home runs than anyone who ever lived? Does that make sense to anyone?”
MILO HAMILTON (“THERE’S A NEW HOME CHAMPION OF ALL TIME, AND IT’S HENRY AARON!”) received more attention, but it was the legend, Vin Scully, who offered the more poignant, textured, and lasting call of the moment:
And swinging two bats is Henry Aaron … and once again a standing ovation for Henry Aaron. He means the tying run at the plate now, so we’ll see what Downing does. Al at the belt and he delivers and he’s low, ball one.… And that just adds to the pressure … the crowd booing.… Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game. One ball and no strikes, Aaron waiting … the outfield deep and straight away … fastball, high drive into deep left center field … Buckner goes back … to the fence … it is GONE.…
For twenty-five seconds, Vin Scully stayed quiet, allowing the fans to speak to America for him as Henry rounded the bases. And then he continued with the words that would make a career:
It is over. And for the first time in a long time that poker face of Aaron shows the tremendous relief.… What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.
The racial divide in America was apparent even during his victorious trip around the bases. Henry rounded first and passed Steve Garvey, who attempted to give Henry a congratulatory slap of hands but missed. In the Dodger dugout, Steve Yeager, the backup catcher, watched the flight of the ball and for the next three and half decades would take little more from the evening than one number surpassing another. “It was a long time ago,” he would say. “It was a historic moment, a big moment, but there are a lot of big moments in sports. But, you go on. For him to do that shows what an outstanding hitter he was, one of the best in baseball.” For the black players, the home run meant so much more. The second baseman, Davey Lopes, was the first person to shake Henry’s hand—the kind of shake third-base coaches give home-run hitters—then wound up with his glove hand and gave Henry a swipe on the rump. What Lopes was witnessing would resonate deeply. He is not African-American, but Cape Verdean. A small island off the westernmost point of Africa, near Senegal, Cape Verde had long been colonized by the Portuguese. In the early twentieth century, Cape Verdeans emigrated to the United States, settling largely in the old fishing and whaling towns of southern New England, places with historic names from another century, like Plymouth, New Bedford, Falmouth, Wareham, and Buzzards Bay. Lopes was raised by a single mother in Providence, Rhode Island, and his experience in America was one of being caught in between the black and the white culture, sometimes at the price of his own natural heritage. “If you told someone you were Cape Verdean, they wouldn’t even know where to begin to look,” he recalled. New England does not produce many baseball players, and historically the ones talented enough to compete with players from the baseball-rich regions of California and Texas are celebrated as local heroes, inspirations. But Davey Lopes did not receive such attention and knew his darker skin to be the catalyst for his relative anonymity. In a few months after Henry’s home run, Lopes and the Dodgers would play the Oakland A’s in the World Series and Lopes would tell an interviewer, “I don’t even think Providence knows I’m here.” Like Al Downing, Lopes was proud of his special heritage as a person of color, more specifically that he was a dark-skinned second baseman wearing the uniform of the Dodgers, standing in the same position as Robinson and, after him, Jim “Junior” Gilliam. “I remember when I first came up. We’d be in spring training and Junior would tell me to come with him. I’d say, ‘Where we going?’ and he would just tell me to come on. We’d be in St. Petersburg and he’d point out the majestic hotels. He’d say, ‘That’s where the Dodgers used to stay,’ and I was just in awe. Then we’d go farther into a neighborhood and he’d show me some average-looking house and say, ‘And that’s where we had to stay.’ And it blew my mind, because it wasn’t long ago. I thought about those things, about where we’d come as people of color, and that’s why I shook Henry Aaron’s hand. It felt like something I had to do.”
Henry rounded second and, seemingly out of nowhere, two fans appeared and escorted him between the bases. At third, Ron Cey saw the two kids racing toward Henry and thought for a second that this was it: They might attack him.
“Well, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do when it happened. But it became clear what I was going to do when he came around, and two kids had run onto the field—I was going to stay clear of it,” Cey recalled. “If he’d been running solo, I probably would have shaken his hand, but the other part of it was that this was really his moment, and you know, he should kind of walk alone.”
Having grown up in socially segregated Tacoma, Washington, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in a sense Cey was vindicated. He had always believed that sport, at its best, could be the great antidote for the American divide.
“I grew up playing sports, so I always had a relationship of playing with black kids throughout all the amateur sports: football, basketball, baseball. You know, it wasn’t an issue. We grew up playing each other,” Cey recalled. “I think sports, in a way, has a way of breaking down those issues. We’re all trying to do something that involves a common bond. We’re just making the best of it and trying to win. It [his neighborhood] was pretty segregated back then. There was a part of the town where black kids went to school. But it was a normal, everyday, middle-class place to be. There was a certain boys club downtown that was predominately black that I frequented because of my relationships with some of these players, and we didn’t have any issues. This was where sports would bring you together. It’s not like we all signed up on the same team to play. Somebody drafted us and we made our way to the big-league club. These were the best players. These were the players who were going to be part of our future, and when you take the field, you’re all working for the same thing. If you’re on a different page than that, you really shouldn’t be there.”
In the crowd, the two kids were racing toward Henry, and Calvin Wardlaw stood, flinching, and considered reaching for his pistol, which rested in his binocular case. A few feet away, Davey Lopes didn’t even see them. “I always wondered, Where the hell did they come from?” he recalled.
Within milliseconds, it was clear the two fans had come in peace. Henry gently nudged the two kids aside as he headed toward home plate, where the home run would be official and the chase finally over. Both Britt Gaston and Cliff Courtney were students at the University of Georgia. Both would be arrested, the charge on the report alleging the two “ran onto ballfield during ballgame and interrupted ballgame.” Henry would lend his name to the list of those who wanted the charges against the two kids dropped. Among those in Henry’s inner circle, the running gallows joke for years would be that the smartest decision of the evening was Calvin Wardlaw’s electing to leave his gun in his binocular case.
TOM HOUSE considers himself a “real low-end guy,” “happy for every day” he gets to spend in the big leagues. He watched the flight of the ball and Bill Buckner climbing the fence in an attempt to put his pregame calisthenics to use. “My God, he’s gonna catch it,” House blurted out. The ball was beyond Buckner’s reach. House threw a triumphant fist in the air. Jimmy Wynn took his glove off and began to clap.
This was the first year House had made a big-league club out of spring training without the immediate fear of being sent down. He was aware of his place in the big-league hierarchy, an environment where batting averages, strikeout totals, and earned-run averages might as well have been printed on everyone’s forehead. He had noticed that during the day-to-day activities, Henry stood at a bit of a distance. In House’s words, that was “because he’s Hank Aaron.” He said that he was “thrilled” that Henry even knew he was alive. “He was unfailingly kind. I didn’t really understand the social IQ and the things he was going through, but you would never have known,” House recalled. “He called me ‘Tommy’ and he was the same all the time—same way, same demeanor. A whole lot people were pulling for him and pulling against him, but you would never have known. I remember thinking that this guy was probably the most underrated superstar in the world. He was unbelievably civil, from the clubhouse kids to my tier of athlete all the way to the top. He was a pleasure to be around.”
House had had visions not dissimilar to those of Joe Shirley, the Braves security man. “I had visions of a little old lady getting stomped by a Georgia Tech football player.” But the most important baseball in the world was speeding toward him. His friend and bull-pen mate, Buzz Capra, was boxing him out to negotiate a better angle and wound up pushing House closer to the ball. House recalled what he realized at that moment: “If I don’t catch it, the stitches will hit me right in the forehead.”
House caught the ball and sprinted toward the infield, where Henry was being mobbed at home plate. Stella had him in a mother’s embrace, a physical expression of exhalation. “He’s hugging his mom and he’s got a crocodile tear, and I’m thinking, Holy crap. Hank Aaron has a tear in his eye and he’s hugging his mom. It’s a Life Saver moment. The fact that Hank Aaron had tears in his eyes shook me more than anything,” House recalled. “Then I find out a few days later from Dusty that she held him so tight to prevent anyone from shooting him. Here were a mom and a son sharing the ultimate moment in baseball, a Little League family moment in a way that nobody else would understand. But what sticks in my mind was that the tear was that he might have been happy that it was over, and the rest of the world would have killed to be in his shoes.”
THE MIRROR WAS held up to America and there were the white men who did not flinch at the discomforts of the divide. They were the ones whom, back in the 1920s and 1930s, Ed Scott used to call “the good ones”: whites who saw America’s racial odyssey in all of its complexities and hypocrisies, and who understood its true cost and how much all of the people who called themselves Americans, and not just the blacks, had been diminished. Mike Marshall was one of those men. “He showed that it could happen. He showed all the nonsense about black people not being smart enough to be quarterbacks or as good as Babe Ruth,” Marshall said. “Talent comes in all hues. That’s what he did.” Marshall was sitting in the dugout when Henry’s ball jetted over the infield to its final destination.
“I grew up in a small town in Michigan, a farm town. It was long before the big numbers of Latinos moved in. Our farm wasn’t big enough, so we didn’t have crops that needed to be picked. I played in Selma and Chattanooga and Montgomery. I remember the different bathrooms and drinking fountains and places where you could sit and where you couldn’t, and I remember thinking We’re all the same people. How can these people be so far behind?” When Marshall suffered through difficulties in baseball, his friendship with Ronnie Woods, an outfielder Marshall met when the two were with Detroit in the mid-1960s, sustained him. The two became teammates in the big leagues in Montreal in 1972.
“Back then, even in the early 1970s, there wasn’t a lot of interracial rooming. I think I was the first guy on the Expos with a black roommate, but I didn’t care. His friendship made playing baseball a lot easier.”
The game was stopped for eleven minutes, and Henry was too weary to be eloquent. Honesty without flourish was all he could offer. There was no joy contained in his drained face, no desire to bask in his own afterglow. His words were not reflective or introspective or prescient, nor, upon reflecting upon this evening, would they ever be. “I just thank God,” Henry said, “that it’s all over with.” For the next thirty-five years, Henry Aaron would not waver from this position. In San Diego, Cito Gaston heard Henry had broken the record and felt tears well up. “I was just proud. That was all I felt—pride. And years later, when I had read about how much the record hurt and how a lot of that hurt never went away, I just thought to myself, What would life be like without so much discrimination?”
THE GAME RESUMED, and Dusty Baker was amazed at how quickly the sellout crowd disappeared. “There were about fifty-five thousand people there for the record, and about ten thousand people left after it was over,” Baker recalled.
In center field, Jimmy Wynn had an uncontrollable urge to speak to Henry. Players on opposing teams were discouraged from fraternizing back then, but this moment was bigger than silly rules.
“My thing was, It’s over with. Now Hank can lead a comfortable life,” Wynn recalled. “I kind of paused, and then told myself, The hell with it. I’m going to shake his hand. I’m going to treat this man with respect. I shook his hand and I was glad I did. You could see what the whole thing did to him. He could have said, ‘I did it. I am the number-one home-run hitter of all time,’ and should have been happy about it and should have enjoyed it. But you know what? He never did.”
The Braves closed the clubhouse for an hour after the game and celebrated the moment as a team. There were plans for celebrations throughout the baseball world whenever Hank Aaron came to town, for the first time as the all-time leader in home runs. When the doors to the Braves clubhouse opened, Henry shook a few hands and offered a few words to the writers, the most telling to Wayne Minshew. “All he said was, ‘I’m going home now,’ ” Minshew said. “That was it. ‘I’m going home.’ ”