The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
ON OCTOBER 30, 2008, roughly thirty schoolchildren gathered at a chain-link fence in front of the Toulminville Grammar School as a rugged eighty-foot-long flatbed truck negotiated the tight, narrow maze of streets in their neighborhood of Toulminville, Alabama. The buzzing among the kids was rooted in the sheer technological undertaking of the procession, for the children did not believe what they were about to see: an entire house, sixty feet in length, twenty feet high, would be lifted off of the ground, taken in its entirety from the small tract of land where it had sat, undisturbed, for sixty-seven years, laid on the bed of the truck, and driven away. Trucks carry dirt; trucks carry cars, they confirmed to one another. But a whole house?
The moving team worked methodically, thwarted momentarily by annoying obstacles: The height of the house made it difficult for the flatbed to pass under dangerous high-tension wires. Overgrown trees hampered the crew’s exit route, and no chain saw could slice through the bureaucracy: City ordinances prevented the removal of even a single tree branch without government authorization.
Police escorts awaited the convoy. An elderly woman, Mrs. Ruth, had lived next door to the house since FDR was in his third term, since the Great Depression began to slowly loosen its grip on America. Her hand covering her mouth, cheeks dampening, she stood at a slight distance from the commotion, steps removed from the construction crew and the police, from the officials from the city of Mobile and a few from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown, New York.
This was Henry Aaron’s childhood house, 2010 Edwards Street, Mobile, the house where he had come to live when he was eight years old. That was why everyone was making such a big fuss. It was the house Herbert had built with his bare hands and lived in for the next fifty-six years, never falling to the temptation of trading up to something bigger and better, to somewhere more luxurious and exclusive, as his famous son had suggested. It was the house where Henry’s mother, Estella, had lived for ten more years after her husband’s death, the place where Estella Aaron and Mrs. Ruth shared a friendship that lasted a lifetime. And now they were taking the house away to the city’s baseball park in central Mobile, where it would become a museum.
How the deal got done was quintessentially Henry, not the Henry Aaron who sought respect and found disappointment, but the polished and regal seventy-four-year-old who could now call presidents and CEOs directly for social visits. Bill Shanahan, the president of the Mobile BayBears, the Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks that played its home games at the stadium named after Hank Aaron, had an idea of how to celebrate the seventy-fifth year of Henry’s life: a museum would be named after Aaron, serving as a veritable time line for the American twentieth century. Hank Aaron’s childhood home more than deserved to become a civic landmark in Mobile, Shanahan reasoned. Toulminville might be a challenging locale to draw tourist traffic, so what better place for the Hank Aaron Museum than the actual house he grew up in, located at the ballpark that bore his name? The house had been boarded up for a couple of years. Its contents—photographs, furniture, clothing, and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom Henry had received from President Clinton—remained inside.
Shanahan called the Baseball Hall of Fame for help, and Cooperstown officials, finally enjoying an overdue thaw with Henry, agreed.
The consortium of builders were all southern white men, some old enough to remember the old Mobile, when people like Henry were forced by custom to defer to people like them, when Herbert Aaron was forced to give up his place in line to them. And now, in another century, a different time, these same men jumped at the chance to be close to Henry Aaron, and to honor his father’s house. The bill to relocate and renovate the house would hit fifty thousand dollars. Much of the house still contained the original wood from 1942, when Herbert Aaron completed its construction. The moving expenses would be considerable, and would Henry be amenable to moving the family house in the first place? Many an honorable project wilted in the boardroom over lack of funds, but here a creative enthusiasm built up. Local architect Larry Hinkle said he’d do the entire job for free. The Hall of Fame would use its muscle. The BayBears said they would maintain the museum. All Henry Aaron had to do was agree.
No one was sure how to approach Henry. The word had been out about Henry for years: He was bitter. He was angry. He was unapproachable, the guy the real fans feared most: that legend you always wanted to meet, only to have the little boy in you leveled by the jerk in him.
Mike Callahan, the general manager of the BayBears, made the call. He pitched Henry the idea. The silence was awkward.
“I really thought I’d pissed him off,” Callahan recalled. “There was so much silence on the other end, I’m thinking to myself that I had this one opportunity and I blew it.”
Mike Callahan realized only later that the silence on the other end was Henry holding back to keep from crying on the telephone.
THE TRUCK LURCHED before ambling slowly forward. The movers saw heaven in the form of I-65, a freeway wide enough to accommodate the flatbed. The house would travel eight miles in nine hours. The convoy passed Hank Aaron Park in Toulminville and curved around the Hank Aaron Business Loop in Mobile to reach its final destination, Hank Aaron Stadium.
Even when Henry was a boy, the house talked to him, told him in some strange way that he and his family were something special. Now the house was talking to Henry again. It had transformed honor, pride, ownership, and responsibility from airy concepts into something real, something he could hold in his hands. Henry Aaron would always be called a mama’s boy, but the house was a piece of his father, an example of the unpretentious hard work he had exemplified during his adult life.
Henry was the patriarch now. Ninety-six years old, Stella Aaron died in April 2008, ten years after Herbert. She remained in Mobile until diabetes made it too difficult to keep up her house, then moved to Atlanta to live with Henry. When she was home, in Mobile, her routines were none too dissimilar from Henry’s escapist tendencies when he was a boy. Henry would disappear to hook catfish on the banks of Three Mile Creek. Stella found her own spot along Mobile Bay, off of Halls Mills Road, digging up bait with a friend, trolling for redfish and white trout.
“People say over time it gets easier,” Henry said one day in New York, months after Stella’s death. “But it doesn’t. When you lose your mother, it is always going to be hard.”
Of Herbert and Stella’s eight children, only three remained: Alfredia, James, and Henry. The rest were all gone, but the house still stood. In a sense, the house now mirrored what Henry had become—once intensely private, now a public institution.
THE NEXT GENERATION of Aarons remains, conflicted. The children dealt with their father’s fame and its effects on them in their own ways, with varying degrees of success. Gaile Aaron speaks of her father with an intense pride, saying that he “was always a better father than a baseball player,” and yet navigating her own life under his immense shadow could be complicated.
“Being introduced to someone, I was always ‘Gaile, Hank Aaron’s daughter,’ ” she said. “It was like it wasn’t good enough to be just Gaile.”
Lary Aaron played football in high school and then at Florida A&M. He never played big-league baseball, but he became a minor-league scout for the Milwaukee Brewers.
“There are advantages and disadvantages. When we grew up, my father told us he was really no different than anyone else,” Lary Aaron said. “He just had a job that was in the limelight and people liked to see. We never thought we were better than anyone else, and he always said that he’s no better than the guy who’s digging a ditch.”
Dorinda Aaron, Henry’s youngest child from his marriage to Barbara, works for her father at the 755 Restaurant Corporation, the parent company for Henry’s fast-food restaurants.
The 755 Restaurant Corporation is a reflection of Henry’s closest circle. His son-in-law, Victor Haydel, oversees the operation—Popeye’s, Church’s Chicken, and Krispy Kreme—while Louis Tanenbaum, son of Henry’s attorney Allan Tanenbaum, is also part of the management team.
Tommie Aaron, Jr., Henry Aaron’s nephew, would drive to Toulminville one afternoon to visit his grandfather’s house, only to see what neighbors saw in 1941: an empty square, bordered by wilted tufts of grass. Tommie junior did not know the movers had taken the house. “That,” his mother Carolyn Aaron says, “was my fault. I forgot to tell him the movers had taken his grandfather’s house.”
The decision to dedicate the house—indeed, to give it to the world—was not a democratic one, nor was it universally popular. It was largely Henry who had maintained it, Henry who feared it being neglected and falling into disrepair if left alone in Toulminville, Henry who paid the taxes, and Henry who made the executive call to turn it over to the city of Mobile.
Herbert Aaron’s granddaughter, Veleeta Aaron, passes Hank Aaron Stadium each time she drives along Interstate 65 and is vexed when she sees the house Herbert Aaron built now sitting on the grounds of a baseball stadium.
“It’s sad. When you think about that house, through all the years, it was ours. It’s sad just because I grew up in that house,” she says. “It was something that we had to ourselves, something that was ours for our family. It was our safety place.
“I guess now, when you think about all kinds of people walking through the living room, it belongs to everybody. And that is kind of sad and kind of good. It’s a part of history now.”
FEBRUARY 19, 2008: Henry was in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the spring-training home of the Braves. A group of reporters asked him about Roger Clemens, Clemens’s recent testimony to the House Government Reform Committee, and the growing likelihood that Congress would seek an indictment for perjury against him. Henry responded in the same opaque manner in which he’d discussed Barry Bonds a year earlier. It was the typical, evasive boilerplate. He knew nothing about it, he said. Baseball was heading in the right direction. He didn’t care about whether Clemens was inducted into the Hall of Fame. That was a decision for the baseball writers, and, he added, “I don’t have a vote.”
FOR THE PAST two years, when it became clear that his record would fall, a nation of baseball fans would call on him and he would confuse them. Perhaps his voice would provide cover for them, the ones who watched the bodies expand and the offensive numbers rise and yet would not make the only kind of stand—refusing to spend their disposable income on baseball—that the game’s leadership would respect. Certainly, a decline in profits would have attracted the attention of Bud Selig and the baseball owners. But the fans did not do this. They spent and watched and cheered and waited for Henry to tell them that something had gone horribly wrong with the sport.
Their respect, in a sense, was the part of the hero game that Henry had long craved. For the majority of his baseball life, he had been judged based on what he wasn’t. He wasn’t flashy enough. He wasn’t talkative enough or sufficiently articulate. He did not go on the offensive for these injustices and that made him dignified. Perhaps it was a matter of finally having what he’d always wanted and not knowing what to do with it. Or perhaps Henry’s reticence was prompted by this particular issue, the drugs tied up in the runaway, unattractive commodities he did not respect, that kept him away from the calls of the nation. But that was just the problem: The leader doesn’t get to choose which issue will send him into action. His only choice is whether to accept the mission.
In 2009, in Cooperstown, the day before Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice were to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Henry Aaron erased the ambiguity. In little ways, if you paid close enough attention, he had let his feeling be known not by what he said about Barry Bonds, but by the enthusiasm he exhibited a year after Bonds broke his record, when he congratulated Ken Griffey, Jr., who in June 2008 hit his six hundredth home run. Griffey had always been considered something of a tragic figure, robbed by injuries—as well as by the widespread steroid culture around him and the prevailing belief in the baseball world that he had never used performance-enhancing drugs—of the opportunity to continue to be what he had once been: the most exciting player in the game since Mays.
If Henry was tepid in his response to Bonds when he broke the record, his message to Griffey contained no ambiguities.
“Ken Griffey Jr., congratulations on hitting your 600th home run. I got a chance to see you at the Boys and Girls Club function just recently, you and your lovely wife, and you know you’ve always been a favorite of mine.
“I played with your dad, I know him very well, but you know I’ve always said that if anybody was going to reach 700, with no pun intended to anybody, I thought you had an excellent chance. Of course we can’t, we don’t know how injuries played a very big part, but congratulations to reaching 600. Only a few, and you are the sixth person to do that.
“Congratulations Ken Griffey Jr., and many, many more. I’m just hoping that you’ll have the greatest year you’ve ever had in your life. Thank you.”
Now, in Cooperstown, Henry was as direct as he once had been evasive. He told a small group from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the body that votes for Hall of Fame enshrinement, that the Steroid Era must be acknowledged in perpetuity with a scarlet letter. “If a player is elected who’s known to have used steroids, then I think there ought to be an asterisk or something mentioned on the plaque that he used steroids.
“To be safe, that’s the only way I see you can do it. I played the game long enough to know it is impossible for players, I don’t care who it is, to hit 70-plus home runs. It just does not happen.”
And with that statement, the people loved him even more. The record did not belong to him, and he did not need it. He had become the people’s champion.
A MONTH AFTER Henry congratulated Ken Griffey, Jr., on his historic home run, the 2008 All-Star Game was played at Yankee Stadium. The night following the game, the television network HBO broadcast a special episode of the program Costas Now, hosted by veteran broadcaster Bob Costas.
“I had a good relationship with Henry going back many years and that gave me the ability to at least ask,” Costas recalled. “I had been asking for a couple of years for him to appear, not with Willie, just to talk about his career. However, in such an environment in my position I would still have to be inclined to ask him about Barry Bonds. Henry was warm and respectful, but always declined. He declined everything because he saw no upside.
“First, I got Willie to agree. I told Henry, ‘You’ll be with Willie. The show is not about Barry Bonds, but about your respective careers, your generations.’ I told him, ‘You know that if that’s what it’s going to be about, you know I won’t sabotage you.’ ”
Henry wore a charcoal blazer, Mays a gray suit and red paisley tie and a San Francisco Giants cap. When the two men appeared, the auditorium at the Skirball Center at New York University erupted in an extended standing ovation. Bob Gibson was the exception. Seventy-two years old and still unyielding, Gibson held out, the only person in the audience not to stand.
The evening was magical in its reverence for a battered game. Henry and Willie, keepers of the standard, were reinforced by the considerable supporting cast of Hall of Fame pitchers Jim Palmer and Gibson. Two kids who now borrowed the stage, Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria, appeared genuinely moved.
The program began with the usual tall tales of the old romantic days—of Gibson nailing hitters and Henry and Willie nailing fastballs in return. As the evening progressed, the two men became themselves: Willie the raconteur was gregariously absorbing large chunks of space, and the night turned into yesterday afternoon, August at the Polo Grounds, the audience breathing in Willie’s air, taken once more by his gifts.
And Henry sat there smiling, looking at Willie as one looks at a charmingly obnoxious cousin—equal parts humor and patience.
“Whatever tension or rivalry others have speculated, time and mutual appreciation took that away,” Costas said. “Henry is a figure of tremendous dignity, Willie far more outwardly excitable and high spirited. In a way, Hank enjoyed looking at Willie. It was almost as though he was between first and second, and then we went into overtime and his hat flew off and he went into another gear.”
When Henry spoke, the room went quiet and the energy changed. He was, as much as Mays, in his own element—serious and hurt, sometimes humorous and sometimes grave—and the room belonged to him. Henry spoke of serious matters, of how a piece of his life had been taken from him and how it had never come back and that no matter how many years might pass, he wouldn’t speak in depth of the years from 1972 to 1974.
The show was supposed to run fifteen minutes. It lasted nearly an hour. At Willie’s suggestion, the two men stood together for a final standing ovation.
“I think the difference is this,” Costas said. “Henry engenders great respect, but people view Willie by excitement and fondness. They associate him with fun. With Henry Aaron, it is all about respect.”
ON FEBRUARY 5, 2009, Henry Aaron turned seventy-five. The birthday party was supposed to be modest, a family-only affair, but Billye couldn’t help herself and sold out the ballroom at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. Bill Clinton was in attendance, dining at Henry’s table.
“You’ve given us,” Clinton told Henry, “far more than we’ll ever give you.”
Henry lived for the family; what started in Camden, under the thumb of the Tait cotton and slavery dynasty, ended with the election of Barack Obama as president, a milestone neither King nor Robinson, neither Herbert nor Stella lived to see. Henry supported Hillary Clinton in the primary. Even a month before the election, Billye Aaron was unconvinced that Obama could win, that America would do something neither she nor many Americans could envision. The country was still too racist, she said, to elect a black president.
Henry said he was “thrilled” by the Obama victory. Clinton, standing next to Henry, said the part of what Henry felt was taken from him during the Ruth chase might have been restored with the election of a black president.
“I am extremely happy with what happened in the country with having a black president,” he said. “I don’t think about 15, 20 years ago. I don’t have time to. I think about the good time I’m having now. I’ve got the respect of people. That’s the most important thing, trying to do everything I can and do it right.”
And then Henry reverted to his usual mode of behavior, withdrawing from the fray, seeking peace while others elevated him. Ted Turner said Barry Bonds hit the most home runs in major-league history but that Henry Aaron was the home-run king. When it was his turn to speak, Tom Johnson, former chairman of CNN, took the microphone and Harry Edwards’s prophecy played out in real time.
“You will always rank number one in my record book, without an asterisk,” Johnson said. “Henry, you never disappointed us. Not once. Long after all of us are gone, your name, the name of Henry Aaron, will symbolize what I believe it really means to be a genuine American hero.”
HENRY’S AMERICA WAS fading. In 2007, he traveled to Milwaukee to attend a dinner celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Milwaukee Braves only championship. Only thirteen Braves remained. Bill Bruton had died in a car crash in 1995, the accident caused by a heart attack while he was driving near his home in Delaware. Joe Adcock died in 1999. Eddie Mathews had died of a heart attack in 2001, Warren Spahn died in 2003, Lew Burdette in 2007, Billy Muffett in 2008, and the man who signed him, Ed Scott, in 2010 at age 92.
In the most complete sense, Henry Aaron had won. Winding through the city of Milwaukee is the Hank Aaron State Trail, nearly ten miles of sanctuary for bikers, runners, and skateboarders. In 2004, the city of Eau Claire erected a statue commemorating the sixty days Henry spent there. In Mobile and Atlanta, the Aaron name adorns streets and parks.
At a safe remove, when there were no more points to prove, no more misunderstandings to correct, no more slights to salve, the competitions ended and the deeds could finally speak for themselves. Henry Aaron lowered his guard and allowed the warmth of the sun of his life to bathe his face.
“Not too long ago, we went away for fifteen days on a cruise to the Panama Canal,” he said. “I had been on cruises before, but never on the water for that long a time. I remember when the boat was in the Canal, in that narrow space. I looked out at the blue ocean and saw the birds swoop down into the water and then settle on the land. And then I understood how much I wanted to be like them, free. I leaned over to my wife and I told her that it was at that very moment that I finally felt like them. No one was asking me about baseball. The people that were around us weren’t interested in me because I played baseball. I was free as a bird. And I told my wife. I said, ‘I’ve never felt this free in my life.’ ”
Over the four years it has taken to complete this project, I have accumulated serious debts to many people. Allan Tanenbaum, Henry’s attorney and friend for thirty-five years, paved the way for my subsequent interviews with Henry. I am grateful for his trust, recollections, efforts, and frankness. Without him, Henry Aaron would likely not have spoken to me, and the result would have been a very different, lesser book.
Henry Aaron was never overly enthusiastic about this book, preferring to let his prodigious accomplishments speak for themselves. Nevertheless, he offered his voice on important areas that he had never before discussed publicly. Equally important, he did not impede his friends, family, and associates from speaking with me. Billye Aaron, Henry’s wife, was particularly gracious. Her perspective on their remarkable journey of nearly four decades together was an invaluable one. Henry’s sister-in-law, Carolyn Aaron; his niece, Veleeta Aaron; and nephew, Tommie Aaron Jr., were all generous with their time and memories.
An important figure in Henry’s life, Frank Belatti, was very helpful with his recollections of meeting a Henry Aaron who in the mid-1980s was at a professional and personal crossroads and of helping him achieve a successful business career, one he is as proud of as his accomplishments on the baseball diamond. As a person who worked directly both with Henry and with Barry Bonds on television projects, Mike Tollin holds a wonderful perspective on the two men. His insights during Bonds’s pursuit of Henry’s record in 2007 were of unique value.
Bud Selig and I have had a contentious relationship over the past decade, but he has never wavered in his admiration of Henry Aaron. Accordingly, he was gracious with his time and remembrances of Milwaukee in the 1950s and of Henry during their fifty-plus years of friendship. I am grateful also to Jimmie Lee Solomon, Richard Levin, Patrick Courtney, Earnell Lucas, and Mike Port of the commissioner’s office for their time and insights.
Research is often thankless work, but several people across various institutions were instrumental in helping with the excavation of records, court documents, census data, and other archival information vital to understanding Henry’s early years. Collette King at the Mobile County Probate Court was an invaluable resource in untangling the complex web of city records during the early part of the twentieth century in segregated Mobile as well as providing me with a daily history lesson about the city. The first friendly face I encountered in Mobile, Janie Daugherty at the Mobile Public Library was kind enough to help sift through and make available the voluminous Henry Aaron file of newspaper clippings and introduce me to numerous people in Mobile who familiarized me with the city and a fair number who knew the Aaron family.
I am particularly grateful to Paulette Davis-Horton, who is a walking encyclopedia of the history of black Mobile, providing the institutional memory regarding the African-American experience in that city where little to no documentation existed.
Scotty Kirkland at the University of South Alabama’s photo archives was the second friendly face I met in Mobile.
The staff at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division was diligent in helping me wade through two important collections—Branch Rickey’s and Jackie Robinson’s—that helped me understand Robinson’s complicated relationship with organized baseball and why Henry came to admire him. The Library of Congress Periodicals Division is an invaluable source.
Constance Potter at the National Archives was helpful in providing a history of the census and in tracking down the roots of the Aaron family. The library staffs at the Atlanta History Center, the Atlanta Public Library, the Widener Library at Harvard University, the Boston Public Library, and the New York Public Library were all professional and helpful to completing this project.
My debts are endless at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, starting with Bill Francis, who did the initial heavy lifting of tracking down all things Henry Aaron and fielding my never-ending calls and e-mails. Like Bill Francis, Pat Kelly graciously accepted my frantic phone calls for photographs and was unfailingly polite and professional.
Jeff Idelson has been a great friend for many years and in addition to paving the way for me to utilize the museum’s vast resources, provided me with tremendous insight into Henry’s ongoing relationship with the Hall of Fame. Many thanks also go out to Tim Wiles and Claudette Burke.
There are too many people to list, but special thanks go out Dusty Baker, who has known Henry Aaron for forty years and has always been an incomparable resource about the game of baseball and the place of African-Americans. He has along the way become a great friend.
Ralph Garr and I spoke on at least a half dozen occasions and each time I learned something new about Henry and the life of that second generation of black ballplayer (the first to reach the majors without needing to play in the Negro Leagues). Of all the people interviewed for this book, Ralph understood the heart of Henry Aaron in the most unique way.
Speaking with Ed Scott, the man who discovered Henry Aaron, was one of the great pleasures of working on this book. The institutional memory of the prewar years in America fades with each passing day, and I am thankful for the opportunity to have spoken with and learned from him.
Al Downing was gracious with memories of his life in baseball and talking about a moment—the night he gave up Henry’s 715th home run—about which he is beyond fatigued. I am grateful to him for being so willing to discuss his life with me.
There is no greater gentleman than Gene Conley, Henry’s old teammate with the Milwaukee Braves. Gene was unfailingly polite in taking my calls to jog his memory about a young Henry Aaron, his days growing up in Oklahoma, and the early days of the Milwaukee Braves. Conversely, I realized I had worn out my welcome with the old Braves shortstop Johnny Logan, who finally fielded my calls by saying, “You again?” But I am grateful that it took a half dozen calls before he finally got fed up.
Ever since I met him in 2001, Joe Torre has been a wonderful sounding board for all topics, from race to the formation of the players’ association to simply learning the game. My thanks go out to him again for his assistance and connecting me with his brother Frank, who played with Henry and was one of his closer friends on the team.
Writers in general (sports writers in particular) are very good at complaining, but I cannot thank enough two institutions for providing me with the time and resources to complete this project, especially John Skipper, John Walsh, and Rob King at ESPN. For anyone committed to journalism, there is nothing better than sitting down with John Walsh. His door was always open and I have never had a conversation with him that did not inspire me to be a better journalist, a better writer, and a better thinker while simultaneously feeling humbled by the intense sense of pride that comes with being around such a talented group as there is at ESPN.
ESPN.com executive editor Rob King was patient and supportive over the many months of 2008 and 2009 while I completed the manuscript, and like John Walsh has always been a terrific resource. Patrick Stiegman was a tremendous help both with reading sections of the manuscript and lending me a tremendous book on the Milwaukee Braves, The Milwaukee Braves: A Baseball Eulogy, by Bob Buege.
I am grateful for the support of my direct editors, Michael Knisley, David Kull, and especially Jena Janovy, who read portions of the manuscript’s early drafts and provided helpful inspiration and suggestions.
This project originally began in May 2006 when I was a staff writer at The Washington Post. My former editor, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, has always been generous with me and supported the project from the beginning.
I am thankful for the generosity of a phenomenal group of journalists at the Post: David Maraniss, Wil Haygood, Dave Sheinin, Mike Wise, Cindy Boren, Ed Holzinger, Meg Smith, Jonathan Krim, Jason La Canfora, and Michael Wilbon. As they say in the dugout, it was nice to hit in that lineup.
In addition, a great field of professional journalists offered insight and suggestions that were helpful to the manuscript. My thanks go to Jack O’Connell, George Vecsey, Wayne Minshew, Monte Poole, Gene Wojciechowski, Nick Cafardo, Adrian Wojnarowski, John Helyar, and the incomparable Roger Kahn.
Special thanks go out to Dan Frank at Pantheon Books, who provided the greatest gift an editor could ever offer to an author: his confidence in the project. Even at times when I wavered, he did not. His editing, guidance, and suggestions throughout the process were first-rate. Many thanks go out to his assistant, Jillian Verrillo, and her predecessors Hannah Oberman-Breindel and Fran Bigman.
My agent, Deirdre Mullane of Mullane Literary Associates, has always been the first line of defense, the staunchest advocate for any project, and still the reigning champion at putting together a saleable proposal. Many thanks also go out to Janet Pawson of Headline Media Management for her guidance and support.
For too much work and too little pay, David Kutzmann edited the manuscript from its first incarnations and, more importantly, provided an invaluable sounding board at all hours of the night, making the process a little less isolated. This is our third collaboration and, as always, it is his friendship that grows stronger with the completion of each project.
In the same vein, Washington Post staff writer Steve Yanda conducted several interviews and contributed research. Steve was instrumental in easing the burden of the mountains of information, and this project could not have been completed without his tremendous assistance.
There is a special group of friends upon whom I rely to such a degree that my indebtedness to them is eternal. Daily conversations with Glenn Stout rival any writing workshop in the country. Too many ideas to count have been transformed into themes and concepts that appear throughout this book. Our friendship now enters its second decade.
Often at the expense of her own writing, Lisa Davis eased the solitary exercise of writing by being a friend and confidant of the highest order. For fear of being greedy, I can only hope that the inspiration of our talks has been reciprocal.
Christopher Sauceda read the entire manuscript at each stage and as always has been a great friend during the writing process and beyond.
A special measure of thanks goes to Patricia Donohue, who also read portions of the manuscript and during the most difficult times provided the reinforcement and support that words alone can never accurately measure.
A handful of people read certain sections of the manuscript and offered valuable feedback. To Jeff Pearlman, Rachel Bachman, Geoffrey Precourt, and Buz Eisenberg, I thank you for your support.
I would also like to raise a somber glass to the late David Halberstam, who counseled me during the proposal stage of this project and offered tremendous advice and support during the early reportage of this book. My last conversation with him took place during the fall of 2006, when he urged me to “bring those tremendous Henry Aaron wrists to life.” Thanks also to the late Bob Nylen, a man I knew far too little; I am lucky to have called him my friend.
Finally, there is the family who endured living with a person who for the last four years lived primarily in his head. To Veronique and Ilan Bryant, thank you. I know this is never easy.