The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART THREE. LEGEND
Chapter 15. ACKNOWLEDGMENT
AT VIRTUALLY EVERY major stage in Henry Aaron’s professional life, a familiar pattern would develop, predictable as a 3–0 fastball: He would excel on the field and somehow become wounded off of it, slowly burning at yet another personal slight. It was only after he’d walked out the door, embarking on the next chapter in his life, that he would be rediscovered, the people he’d left behind realizing, too late, that the world without him seemed just a bit emptier. The reassessment of him, in fact, would always be the same: Henry Aaron was a treasure after all. He carried himself with such dignity! And the people who wanted to celebrate him anew and be close to him and tell him how much he had touched them would always wonder why he appeared to live at a certain remove, and why he did not seem particularly overjoyed by their sudden and heartfelt acknowledgment.
The answer, repeated by his handlers and friends, who were channeling the big man himself, was also almost always the same, resulting in maddening standoff: He wasn’t the one who’d changed.… No, he’s not bitter. He is living his life. He’s moved on. It’s not his fault you did not realize what you had. It happened in Mobile, when Henry grew to be one of the most famous, most accomplished people his home city had ever produced. It happened as a player (and later in retirement, during each anniversary of the record), when baseball would realize the depths of Henry’s substance, that he was the difference between a gorgeous fireplace and a hearty woodstove: Other guys may have shone more elegantly, but it was Henry who was the reliable one, who burned longer and brighter, the one who always produced the most reliable heat.
So it only stood to reason that in the end, after the hugs and the kisses and the history making, leaving Atlanta would be no different from the other leave-takings. During the twenty-one-hour flight back from Japan, after the trade was announced and it was clear he was now a member of the Milwaukee Brewers American League Baseball Club—a team that did not exist until his seventeenth year in the big leagues—Henry had thought both about the significance of his return to Milwaukee and the details of his departure from the Braves franchise and, more pointedly, Atlanta. In a first interview, he gave the public a snippet of his conversation with Bud Selig.
“I’m going home,” he’d told Selig, completely aware of the cutting double entendre. Yes, he was returning to the origins of his major-league career, and, no, Atlanta in the nine seasons he’d spent there had never quite felt like home. Privately, he was embittered, first that the Braves had seemed so dismissive of his potential as an organizational asset apart from his batting average, and, second, that they hadn’t seemed to hesitate about siccing the newspapers on him, giving the public the impression that the club had done everything it could to keep him in Atlanta, but Henry, alas, was leaving on his own accord. In retrospect, Bill Bartholomay would view Henry’s leaving Atlanta for Milwaukee as one of his great mistakes—perhaps his greatest in running the franchise, he would later say—but only after Henry was gone. At the time, in September 1974, trading Henry Aaron may very well have been a difficult choice for him, but there was another truth that Henry knew better than anyone else, Bill Bartholomay included: At no point did the Braves ever make an offer for him to stay.
If there was an exception to the rule that Henry would only be appreciated over time, at the appropriate remove, it was Milwaukee. He told the reporters that he had never wanted to leave in the first place, and though the bitterness between the Braves and the city would never be reconciled, the players only grew in stature, and Henry was now the biggest of them all. And now he was headed back.
HE HAD REJECTED the poetic imagery, the walking away unforgettably and for good with a home run, the type of Ted Williams–style departure that would have given him a swashbuckler’s flourish. But Henry did not possess the artistic instinct to walk away, not now when he could receive something just a little more concrete, more consistent with his pragmatic nature: money. His three-year, $600,000 Braves contract completed, he signed a two-year deal with the Brewers that would pay him another $240,000 per season, and that did not include his million-dollar deal with Magnavox and other rising endorsement opportunities. His finances, once crumbling and in disrepair, were rebounding.
In addition, he had gained something equally important to the cash, something that his home franchise, the Braves, had not even considered offering: a future. The Braves told Henry a job awaited him upon retirement, but when pressed, neither Bartholomay nor Eddie Robinson could specify exactly what Henry would be doing. He had wanted an opportunity that contained substance—a front-office job where he would be involved in the evaluation of players and the running of the franchise, yet the Braves would commit only to an ambiguous promise of “something in the organization.” Henry did not want to be trotted out only at the appropriate time—probably for some event that required the support of the black community—to shake a few hands and smile.
When he arrived for his meeting with Brewers management, Bud Selig and his people cultivated Henry, telling him to take the long view, to think about the years after he’d hung up his spikes. Selig spoke to Henry as an equal, with respect, as a person who possessed value beyond the limits of wearing the jersey. The Selig sales pitch was the perfect approach for a man still quietly broiling from being treated like the hired help, by people to whom he had given the past twenty-one years. By their actions over the final year of his contract, the Braves had coldly reminded him—first by not considering him as a manager and later by allowing him to leave—that in the end he was just a ballplayer, and all ballplayers were replaceable.
But Bud Selig spoke to Henry about being connected to Milwaukee for life. Henry was part of the Milwaukee family and had been since he arrived in 1954. He told Henry that he was returning a family heirloom to Milwaukee, and, even better, that Henry was his friend. Selig treated Henry as royalty (in the coming years, he would even build Henry a full tennis court at the Atlanta house), and discussed with him future employment opportunities: a job with decision-making authority in the organization after he retired (general manager, farm director, perhaps). The Milwaukee people even talked about the possibility of setting Henry up in business, a local or even national beer distributorship as well, with far-flung territories and autonomy. After all, the Miller family was Milwaukee and could make things happen with a finger snap.
While Bartholomay would years later forge a substantial relationship with Henry, it was Selig who was the first owner in baseball to invest in Henry Aaron, the man. The two men had known each other since sitting on the benches at City Stadium in Green Bay, watching Lombardi’s Packers, but it was the reunion in Milwaukee that began to seal their friendship. Selig, in fact, was at his most canny, his most genuine for his personal investment in Henry would pay lifelong dividends. Where his contemporaries seemed destined to underestimate Aaron, Selig immediately understood Henry’s value, in the short term by providing the Brewers with the credibility the team lacked.
“He did not have as much left in the tank as I had hoped, but I always knew that bringing Henry Aaron back to this city would have an immense impact,” Selig would say thirty-five years later. “We didn’t win a lot of ball games, but in his own dignified manner, he legitimized us.”
IN THE YEARS Milwaukee went without baseball, destiny had plans other than the family car business for Bud Selig, and the arrival of Henry represented something of a personal vindication. In the mid-1960s, after the Braves had left, he formed Teams, Inc., a loose organization of area businessmen and former Braves shareholders designed to attract a new ball club to Milwaukee. As a member of the generation that, in his words, “had their hearts ripped out” by the Braves departure, Selig had long vowed that he would avenge that bitter defeat. He would return baseball to the city, and make sure it would never leave again.
He first tried to attract a struggling franchise, the Chicago White Sox, by having the team play exhibition games in Milwaukee during those cold four seasons the city lost big-league ball. The White Sox ultimately didn’t bite, but during one season, the Milwaukee exhibitions totaled nearly a third of the White Sox attendance.
Selig had proven to baseball’s curmudgeonly owners that Milwaukee still had a thirst for baseball and that Selig himself could be a persistent and capable player. It was clear another round of expansion would come soon, as cities as diverse as Montreal, San Diego, Dallas, and Seattle were all clamoring to apply for franchises. Milwaukee was an earnest but hardly exotic choice. American rust-belt cities were losing franchises, not gaining them. But Selig persisted. Before long, Bud Selig had become the face of baseball in Milwaukee and slowly began entering the cloistered world of major-league baseball.
When Selig corralled the Seattle Pilots from bankruptcy court, purchasing the club for $10.8 million in the winter of 1970, he maintained a certain historical symmetry. The Pilots had been awarded to Milwaukee at a similar point in the year—during spring training—as the Braves had been awarded to Milwaukee eighteen years earlier. In 1952, the Boston Braves had officially become the Milwaukee Braves in between innings of a spring-training game in Bradenton, and in 1970, the Seattle Pilots equipment truck had literally stopped on an Arizona highway, awaiting instructions from management on whether to drive north, back to Seattle, or northeast to Milwaukee.
Selig had done it, and in the process attempted to assuage the old hard feelings by putting the band back together. Del Crandall, the old Braves catcher, was the manager, and now Henry, forty-one years old but still Henry, would anchor the lineup. There were reunions with old friends, editorials, and luncheons, like the Play Ball Luncheon at the Marc Plaza, the one that attracted eight hundred people (the biggest turnout ever), where Henry sat sheepishly while the crowd sang “Hello, Henry” (to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!” no less). Bob Uecker, another of Henry’s old teammates, was now a Milwaukee institution, a broadcaster with the club who also did funny beer commercials and told an endless stream of self-deprecating jokes.
Henry would connect to the fans (and make a little extra money) by collaborating with Uecker on “The Locker 44 Show,” a pregame interview Uecker conducted with Henry before each game. “I know there are a lot of people picking us to finish fifth or sixth,” Henry said when he took the microphone. “But there’s not a player on this ball club who feels we’re a fifth-place club.” The Milwaukee people even took care of Billye, setting her up with a morning show on local television to make her feel right at home.
Still, everything was a just a little bit off. Henry was back in Milwaukee, but life is never so neat. The year 1954, when Henry was a young man on a team good enough to win the whole thing, was long gone. Going home seamlessly was nothing more than a cruel mirage, no more real than a father who stares in the face of his adult son yet still sees a boy. The nostalgia, in truth, had no value, no impact on the realities of 1975.
And there was nothing wistful about 1975. The Brewers, as a team, were awful, and they had been since arriving in Milwaukee from Seattle five years earlier as a no-name cast with little future. The Brewers were a ham-and-egg expansion team, had never finished higher than fourth place (and that year lost ninety-seven games), and had never even enjoyed a winning record. Henry was now an American Leaguer, a member of a foreign, shadowy place that played by different rules in different cities with different umpires. Worse, Henry had no love for the American League, the circuit whose collective, institutional racism fueled the black players of the National League to win nineteen out of twenty-three All-Star Games during Henry’s time as a Brave.
In the AL, there was no continuity with what Henry knew. The pitching patterns were different. In the AL, they threw breaking balls in fastball counts. The umpires seemed to ignore the high strike and the low strike. The uniforms were purely 1970s god-awful: powder blue double-knit pullovers with yellow trim for road jerseys, not a button in sight, elastic-band belts, no buckles. The home jerseys were slightly better: white with blue pinstripes and block letters, and when Henry dressed, the strange jersey formed convexly around his paunch, meeting his waist.
Milwaukee was aflutter for his return, but Henry was no longer the eager, hungry twenty-year-old, green as a cucumber but armed with immeasurable talent, his future one of infinite visibility. He was forty-one, coming off a season of doubt and despair, the pedestrian numbers—.268, twenty homers, sixty-nine RBI—easily the least impressive of his career. He was playing for a team that was attracted to him, easily one of the greatest right fielders who ever lived, precisely because he would agree not to play in the outfield. The designated hitter, in existence since 1973, was the acknowledged rest home for finished ballplayers, sluggers who might still have some box-office appeal and a little pop left in their bat.
Nor was the Milwaukee of 1975 the magical place of 1954, the haven of free eggs and free gas for the players and complimentary dry cleaning, hero worship and innocence. Twain had it right: Youth is wasted on the young. Like the rest of the country, Milwaukee had grown up and gotten a little older, a little more scarred, a little more jaded, having lived through an unpopular war, political assassinations, civil rights, and the hard, icy blade of business cutting through the supposedly happy diversion of sports. The city now was mired in the sticky, modern big-city gumbo: integration, inflation, and unemployment. Baseball did not provide much relief. Wisconsin was particularly volatile, having weathered spirited student antiwar protests. Vietnam and school desegregation were issues that dominated all others, and Henry returned to a Milwaukee in a deep confrontation with itself. The questions of the 1960s demanded answers in the 1970s, and the time had come to vocalize what everybody knew, that racial integration was impossible while social and geographical segregation still existed.
And so much of those good old days had been nothing but a mirage anyway. Henry knew it, knew that he’d been insulated from the rough edges by his talent for hitting pennant winners for the home team. The mirage—or, more accurately, the belief in it—was a reason the current realities now seemed so harsh. Father Groppi, the activist conscience of the city, knew this better than anyone. Groppi, the heroic South Side priest who had assaulted the city’s housing inequities with embarrassing protests of the city leadership—including members of his own archdiocese who preached tolerance and conciliation by day yet were members of segregated social clubs by night—found himself isolated by the 1970s, in his words, “stripped” of his parish and disillusioned by the nobility of the priesthood.
By the time Henry returned, Groppi had gone back to his old job, driving a public bus for the city for the final decade of his life. The fire for justice burned less bright. He was a weary and beaten underdog, his belief that change was possible less fervent. Nevertheless, Groppi had been more than a symbolic figure. The public protests, like the 1967 march on Kosciuszko Park, contributed to the city’s first fair-housing ordinance the following year. He had joined the legendary generation of white Catholic priests who were as much a part of the civil rights movement as the better-known, historic figures they marched beside.
When Henry arrived, the nation’s eyes rested upon the racial cauldron in Boston, which for years had first resisted the charge that the city’s schools had been purposely segregated or denied that segregation produced an inferior education for black children—old arguments both, dating back before Brown v. Board of Education, yet the cornerstones of Northeast resistance. Boston had begun court-ordered busing (forced busing, the whites called it, lest anyone be unsure of where they stood on the issue of school integration), and in the school years of 1974 and 1975, the city erupted so violently and so completely that it would never lose its reputation as the symbol of American urban racial hostility.
Boston received the attention, and the infamy, but it was in Milwaukee where the nation’s first lawsuit was filed, in 1965, challenging de facto segregation—public schools were segregated because city neighborhoods were segregated and, as such, could not be remedied without busing. It was quiet, innocuous Milwaukee that the frustrated locals, white and black, would call “the most segregated city in America.” Since Milwaukee’s neighborhoods were so clannish, the question of whether to bus the city’s students to achieve integration was inevitable. As in Boston, Milwaukee school board officials tried every stalling tactic short of the four corners defense. When Henry and Billye moved into a condominium downtown, school desegregation was the central, roiling issue in the city, on the front page of both newspapers.
BUSING TO INTEGRATE? NOPE!
By Joel McNally of the Journal Staff
The popular expression is, “I am not against integration. I just don’t like busing.”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund analyzed white opposition to busing differently in a study called, “It’s not the distance. It’s the niggers.”
… A majority said they favored racial integration of schools, but by an even wider margin they disapproved of busing to achieve it.
… a closer look shows … busing … is opposed only when it would lead to racial integration.
For years, Henry had sought respect. Like Jackie Robinson, he wanted to be an important voice on significant issues. But in 1975, Bud Selig noticed a different Henry, less public, more distant, and certainly less willing to engage. Selig believed the difference, naturally, was the hangover effect of chasing Ruth. Henry veered away from the desegregation issue in Milwaukee, much to the disappointment of the local NAACP chapter, which felt Henry’s voice might have made a difference. He was not hostile to the causes of integration in Milwaukee, but his kids were no longer in the public school system. The issue was not as much of a personal one. He was reticent to lend his name to the civil rights battles that had predated him. Not only did this fight seem not to be his but he did not appear to have much fight left in him at all.
ON THE FIELD, Henry had no illusions. For two seasons, sustained by nostalgia and professionalism—not to mention a healthy dose of the athlete’s refusal to face his own mortality—Henry flailed at the plate. He was a tired baseball player mentally, and an increasingly limited one physically. Nevertheless, the nostalgia maintained the fantasy, and Henry played along. At each of the seemingly endless civic luncheons before spring training, Henry set his usual goals—thirty to thirty-five home runs, a .300 average—even though he’d finished 1974 with the fewest number of home runs since Eisenhower desegregated the public schools, and he hadn’t sniffed .300 all season. What he didn’t tell the fans was that a hitter’s greatest weapon—something even more valuable than his wrists—were his eyes, and Henry could no longer see as well as he once had.
He had taken to wearing glasses, first for reading and then to drive. That meant he could not see items that were close to him nor could he see things from a distance particularly well. Most importantly, he couldn’t see the ball well in batting practice. If he couldn’t see a batting-practice fastball, it was only a matter of time until he would be exposed.
THE BREWERS TRAINED in Sun City, Arizona, a holdover from the days of the Seattle franchise. On the team, Henry would be surrounded mostly by kids, though they would be talented ones. The advantage in being awful all those years was drafting high. Slowly, sunshine began to peek out from behind the clouds. The second baseman, Jim Gantner, was a comer, they said. Gantner wasn’t spectacular and probably wouldn’t make the club in 1975, but he knew his way around the bag. And he was local, from Fond du Lac. The outfielder they drafted in the first round, back when the franchise was in Seattle, was an enigma named Gorman Thomas. Thomas looked like he should be playing third base with a can of beer by his side in the Milwaukee recreational softball leagues, but Thomas, despite his portly brawn, was oddly athletic. Even more oddly, the coaches were looking at him in center field. There was one thing in particular Thomas could do, and that was knock the hell out of the ball. The problem was, he made contact with the ball only about once a week. The catcher was the hotshot Darrell Porter, the fourth pick in the draft, who made the all-star team in his second year in the league. They were already talking about him playing for a long time.
And lastly, there was a nineteen-year-old kid shortstop from Illinois. Robin Yount was his name, and they said he had all the tools. He was a shortstop who could play anywhere and hit anything. He could even hit the ball out of the park if you weren’t careful. He was another one, a top-five pick (third overall in the 1973 draft), a can’t-miss. Yount was the kid whom, when he walked into the batting cage, everybody was taking notes about to see if the reports and the hype and the fanfare were true. Henry understood that.
Yount recalled being too nervous to approach Henry, calling him “Mr. Aaron,” even when Henry told him to cut it out. Yount immediately realized there was no pretentiousness with Henry. In the clubhouses, the phrase for acting better than the rest was to “big-league it”—with teammates, fans, friends, everybody. But that wasn’t Henry.
“He was significant. Even though I was just nineteen, I could see how important he was, and not just in baseball, either,” Yount recalled. “He had already broken the record. I knew how big he was, but he didn’t come off that way in person. I mean, he didn’t let it get to him. We knew all he had accomplished in this game, but he acted just like anyone else.”
They were just kids, but they all loved Henry. He was spent as a player, but Crandall knew the master had a way and a warmth with people. He had also accomplished more in a season than most of them had in their whole careers. So, periodically during the spring, Crandall would gather his young team in the outfield and have Henry—the man who did not enjoy public speaking—give a talk. Sometimes the conversations would be about the game—the situations, the different pitchers, what made them big leaguers different from the cats who drifted around the minor leagues. Other times, Henry would talk to them about professionalism, what it took to stay in the big leagues once they’d finally arrived. These were the moments that deepened his conviction that he had made the right choice in leaving Atlanta. No one in the Braves front office, by his recollection, had ever sought his counsel, despite the fact that he had hit 733 home runs and collected three thousand hits.
NOW, UNLIKE 1974, Henry could take solace in breaking the record. He could be comforted by the couple of streaks that reminded pitchers to fear him. But in Milwaukee, time also kept sending him the same overdue bill.
The first notice came in Boston, on opening day, when Henry was collared, first by the remarkable Luis Tiant (a complete-game eight-hitter) and that erratic slop-thrower, Bill Lee. Then in the home opener, against Cleveland, 48,160 saw Henry knock in his first hit and RBI as an American Leaguer, only to see his old enemy, Gaylord Perry, strike him out three times two nights later. He would avenge the insult days later in Cleveland by hitting his first home run of the season off Perry, but when the Brewers landed in Baltimore for a series with the powerhouse Orioles, Henry was hitting .095.
The second notice came April 23, after the Brewers left Baltimore and headed to New York for the first trip of the season. Henry had expected to play in Yankee Stadium, which he hadn’t visited since game five of the 1958 Series, but Yankee Stadium was under renovation and the Yankees played at Shea Stadium that year. It was there, in Queens, that Henry took Crandall aside and asked his old teammate to drop him in the order. Henry Aaron could no longer bat third. He was hitting .114 at the time. In the first game against the Yankees, Henry rapped two hits, including his second homer, a floater off Pat Dobson, the Brewers only run in a 10–1 Bronx mugging.
The final notice? That came a couple of months later, when Henry Aaron, hitting all of .226, with seven home runs, was selected to play in the All-Star Game for the twenty-fourth and final time. It was all charity, and that was flattering, but charity made everything feel even worse. Henry Aaron, the charity case? He’d said he would never let that happen to him, sagging to the finish, pitied by the same eyes and ears that used to look to him for the thunder. The game was played at County Stadium, and though he received the biggest ovation, even that didn’t feel as good as it should have, because Henry was voted to the team ahead of Yount, who was left off the team even though it was obvious in that half season that the teenager was the best player in uniform.
The next year, 1976, was no different, and in some ways, it was even worse. Crandall was gone, fired the season before after losing ninety-four games. Henry considered quitting, the evidence long irrefutable, but he couldn’t let go.
“I knew I was better than a .234 hitter,” he said. “My contract called for $240,000 and I thought I could earn it.” Unlike Crandall, the new skipper, Alex Grammas, had little connection or sympathy for his forty-two-year-old designated hitter, and the season was a slog. Collectively, the Brewers finished thirty-two games out of first, having lost ninety-five games. Henry played eighty-five games, hit .229. He hit ten home runs, five of which came during a ten-day period in July.
Still, the kids sustained him, made him feel wanted, as did one veteran in particular, George Scott. Scott, the world-famous “Boomer,” had been in the league for a decade, since debuting with the Red Sox in 1966. Scott was immediately popular. Scott was colorful. He often spoke in the third person and referred to home runs as “taters.” He received his nickname from the majesty of his monstrous home runs and told anyone who would listen that his jewelry, particularly his necklaces, was made from the teeth of the dozens of second basemen he’d ruined.
Scott was from Greenville, Mississippi, in the deepest part of the Delta, a place of intense poverty and debilitating racial codes. At Coleman High, Scott was an accomplished basketball player, averaging more than thirty-five points per game (“Without the three-point shot,” he would say a half century later. “With it, I could have averaged sixty points a game.”)
The segregation was grinding. Its very existence often undermined Scott’s sense of self-worth, and during his worst moments as a high school athlete, he always wondered if his best was still inferior to that of whites, simply because the two powerhouse schools were not allowed by custom and law to compete. “I always wanted to play in integrated competition. There was a good white school, Greenville High, and every year, one of us would bring home a championship. One year it would be us; the next year it would be them. But I always wanted to play them, just once, just to see who was the best.”
The Red Sox had signed him as an amateur free agent in 1962, one of just a handful of black players the club had signed in its history. The Red Sox integration began in earnest with the signing of George Scott, who was signed by none other than Ed Scott, who had discovered Henry Aaron eleven years earlier. Ed Scott’s firm belief in “the good ones”—the whites who treated blacks fairly—was rewarded when Milt Bolling, another Mobile native, suggested to Red Sox management that Scott would be an asset in recruiting the black players who were changing the game. The Red Sox hired Scott, who would begin a three-decade career with Boston by signing George Scott. “Had we signed him earlier,” Bolling said of Ed Scott, “we might have had Hank Aaron and Ted Williams in the same outfield.” Scott, like most black players, was well aware of the team’s notorious reputation when it came to dealing with blacks, and his early years in the minor leagues were characterized both by his heightened sensitivity to slight and the surprising relationship he forged in Winston-Salem with Eddie Popowski, the longtime Red Sox minor-league manager. Scott did not believe he was a popular player, owing to his quick temper.
“They used to call blacks lazy all the time, and I never understood that,” Scott recalled. “How can any black player be called lazy when it was so hard for us to even get to the big leagues? You couldn’t be lazy if you wanted to make it. I was waiting for someone to use that word on me, but they never did. If anyone ever called me lazy, I’d be right there to pop him in the mouth.”
Scott recalled the resistance he encountered as he moved through the Red Sox system. He was chided about his weight and his swing and his attitude, for he was part of the new breed of black player—more independent, less deferential. And each time he despaired, it was Popowski, all five feet, four inches of him, who reminded Scott of his talent and defended him to the front office, often at his own peril.
“Eddie Popowski was always there for me, and I felt the same way about him. Back in the day, when I was in the minor leagues, he told the Red Sox they’d be making a mistake by not bringing me into the organization,” Scott recalled. “The Red Sox told him not to mention it again or he’d be fired. Eddie stood up for George Scott. I’ll always be one of Eddie’s guys.”
Scott was a big player in the Red Sox magical year of 1967, hitting .303, but then struggled the next year, hitting .171 in 350 at bats. He chafed under the unsparing manager Dick Williams, who constantly attacked Scott for his weight, yet Scott believed Williams was the best manager he’d ever played for.
He had a jocular relationship with the press. He was loud and boisterous and funny. He made them laugh, and he certainly was a character, a showman by nature. But Scott also later believed his personality and physical charisma undermined him as a serious ballplayer, and in retrospect he would be wounded that his colorfulness fed into the stereotypes of the uneducated black athlete. Some of the stories of Scott’s glibness bordered on the apocryphal, the by-product, he often felt, of cruel baiting by the white press to make him appear ignorant. Once, during the bloody Nigerian-Biafran war, a reporter asked Scott what he thought of Biafra, the portion of Nigeria that seceded from the country. “I don’t know him,” Peter Gammons once quoted Scott as saying. “But if I ever face him, I’ll hit a tater off him.”
He swung hard enough to generate Santa Ana winds, and during the years when it was still an embarrassment, the mark of a less accomplished hitter, Scott struck out at least one hundred times in a fourteen-year career. But he was also a perennial Gold Glove fielder as well as a devastating power hitter.
When Henry arrived, Scott was already legendary. Henry was ten years older than Scott, so the two did not travel in the same circles, but Scott and Tommie Aaron knew each other from the off-seasons Scott would spend in Mobile.
Immediately, Scott gravitated toward Henry, watching how the big man conducted his affairs. George Scott noticed how much time Henry took preparing himself to play, both offensively and defensively. Henry’s work in the outfield especially impressed Scott because Henry was the designated hitter; he didn’t have to work on his defense because he would not be playing the field. And yet it was Henry who set the example.
“You didn’t see him dive for a lot of balls, because he didn’t have to. He played the outfield the way I played first base. Watch where the hitters put the ball ninety-nine percent of the time and be at that spot,” Scott said. “He knew that you weren’t supposed to run after the ball; you were supposed to be where the ball was going to land. My first year with him, I had the best year of my career. Too bad I didn’t play five or six more years with him, because I did everything I could to learn from his example.”
SUNDAY, JULY 11, second game of a doubleheader against Texas, one of those hellish games in a baseball season: Henry twice flied out weakly to left and grounded out twice. Nobody wanted to be there, slogging through the muggy Milwaukee air, neither team going anywhere, but the Brewers had won the first four games of the five-game series and the Rangers, already salty, didn’t want to get sent home like chumps, either, wearing the collar.
Texas held a 2–0 lead in the seventh before both teams decided to alternate two-spot positions: The Brewers tied it 2–2 in the bottom of the seventh; Texas went up 4–2 in the ninth, only to give up two more in the bottom of the inning. Scott fouled out to first in the bottom of the tenth. Henry, zero for four, took one pitch from Steve Foucault before belting the next one into the left-field seats for a 5–4 win. The home run was number 754, and in the clubhouse afterward, Henry took another glimpse into the way-back machine. “Only the home run I hit to win the 1957 pennant felt better than this one,” he said. Only later did he admit why, because hitting home runs had become so hard that each day the great man went to the ballpark in 1976, he was never quite sure if he would ever hit another one.
Nine days later, on July 20, against Dick Drago of the Angels, Henry wafted a home run into the seats, but for the next two and a half months he would not hit another. That was it. By that time, Henry had begun collecting souvenirs. But this home run, number 755, snared by Dick Arndt, a member of the Brewers grounds crew, would never find its way to Henry. Selig would threaten his job (and later fire the kid) for not giving up the ball. Henry would plead, appealing to Arndt’s sense of goodwill (then offer ten thousand dollars), but Arndt wasn’t selling. Henry would never hold his final home-run ball.
FOR THE NEXT two and a half months, Henry played and sat as the drudgery and losses piled up. It all ended on a Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee, October 3, against the Tigers. Virtually nobody was there. Two years earlier, in the final game of the season, he had called his own shot. Now, in the sixth inning, down 5–1, with two out, Henry bounced a single up the middle that the Detroit shortstop, Jerry Manuel, grazed with his glove. Henry chugged to first for a run-scoring single, hit no. 3,771. Grammas sent out Gantner to replace him. Charlie Moore clapped and shook Henry’s hand as he continued to the dugout.
A SINGULAR EXIT FOR KING HENRY I
By Mike Gonring of the Journal Staff
… kings deserve better.… Hank Aaron, the king of home runs, ended his sparkling career … with a .229 batting average, .232 for the two seasons.… Kings are supposed to go out on top.…
… After he had dressed, he smoked a cigarette and chatted with friends.… And then Aaron was gone, out the same door he had entered 23 seasons before. The king has ended it.
“There’s something magical about going back to the place where it all began, as if it will make things begin all over again. I think the fans feel it, too. Everybody wants to turn back the clock,” Henry wrote in I Had a Hammer. “But I discovered the same thing that Ruth, Hornsby and Mays did: you can’t do it.”
When he retired, nearly a century of organized baseball had been played. Only Cobb had recorded more hits. Only Cobb had scored more runs. Nobody had come to the plate more, driven in more runs, amassed more total bases, produced more extra base hits, or hit more home runs than Henry.
When the inning ended, Scott grabbed his first baseman’s mitt, gave Henry a soft rap on the hip, and then jogged out to first base. It was over.
“I didn’t think it bothered Hank that much and I don’t think it bothered the fans that much, because everyone was so happy to have him around. I didn’t see anything in his personality that said outwardly how hard it was to play when he couldn’t do all the things that made him Hank Aaron,” Scott recalled. “He wasn’t pouting or anything, because he helped me. I knew I was playing with one of baseball’s all-time greats. The way he carried himself made me a better individual, a better player. He carried himself so professionally that I never thought about him being diminished as a player. Not once. He wasn’t sad. I was sad for myself that I wasn’t going to get to play with this man anymore.”