The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
A NOTE ON SOURCES
From the beginnings of this book, in 2006, an important question had lingered among the baseball people enthusiastic but nervous that I had undertaken the daunting task of attempting to place Henry Aaron in historical perspective. Their concern simultaneously happened to be mine as well: would Henry talk?
Numerous books have been written about Henry over the years and, except for his 1991 autobiography, all lacked a common, vital component: the true voice of Henry Aaron. He had spoken piecemeal to a handful of authors but always at a distance; the anecdotes were largely colorless or shopworn, the warmth and depth that those closest to him said were his trademark failed to permeate the page. For the first eighteen months of this project, my book would be no different.
A Murderer’s Row of Henry’s confidants told me they would advocate on my behalf: Dusty Baker, Joe Torre, Joe Morgan, and Bud Selig, but Henry did not respond positively to overtures, if at all.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving 2007, through two exhaustive conversations with Allan Tanenbaum, Henry’s friend and attorney of nearly forty years, I found out why: the problem was Barry Bonds.
Henry had already refused to conduct any interviews largely because Bonds stood inches from his home-run record and he felt discussing Bonds created for him a no-win situation, but it was more than that. Henry had also concluded that, outside of his thoughts on Bonds, the public had no use for him. The shadow of Bonds had come to define the conflicted state of baseball, and Henry believed that Bonds defined his place in the public sphere as well, he felt. Two weeks after my last conversation with Allan Tanenbaum, I received word on December 1, 2007, that Henry would be willing to cooperate with the project, with the stipulation I would not ask him about Barry Bonds until after the record was broken. Above all, Allan Tanenbaum was the person most responsible for paving the way for interviews with Henry’s closest friends and associates. Over the course of the writing of this book, he and I met in person in Atlanta and New York and spoke on dozens of occasions by telephone. More than any other person, he was the reason this book had the opportunity to probe deeper into Henry Aaron the man.
Henry and I first talked on January 31, 2008, which, ironically, happened to be Jackie Robinson’s birth date. We had met at length on a few other occasions—once at his home in Atlanta, once in Cooperstown, New York, at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, once at a signing event at Last Licks, the ice-cream parlor in Manhattan, and briefly during each of the 2007, 2008, and 2009 World Series—and it was clear that while Henry was cordial and unfailingly polite, he never seemed particularly enthusiastic about the existence of this project.
However, he was extremely generous. He did not ask to be paid for his involvement. No interviews in this book were made with any financial arrangement. Nor did he prohibit me from speaking to anyone close in his life. Billye Aaron, his wife, sat down with me both in person and by telephone. Henry is a regal figure to his intimates, and each member of his circle—Ted Turner, Bill Bartholomay, Frank Bellati—asked Henry to vouch for this project before speaking with me. I am eternally grateful to Henry that he did.
Thus, Henry, family members, and his closest friends comprise the primary sources for this book.
• Ed Scott, the man who discovered Henry Aaron on the Mobile sandlots, is an American treasure and one of the few remaining voices of an important, bygone time. We spoke at least a dozen times between 2006 and 2009 and his insight into life as a black man in the prewar South was an invaluable one for the early chapters of the book.
• Billy Williams, who grew up in Whistler, just outside of Mobile, was another important voice in the early chapters. There are few remaining survivors who can say they played pickup baseball at Carver Park with a young Henry Aaron, and Billy Williams’s recollections of those days were important to re-creating the environment of baseball in Mobile during the war and early postwar years.
• Chuck Tanner, Johnny Logan, and Gene Conley provided great insight into Henry’s first spring camp with the Braves and later his first season with the club in 1954. Baseball people have a saying that no one understands superstars on a ballclub like the nonsuperstars. All three men through their re-collections were instrumental in re-creating the early years of the Milwaukee Braves.
• Dusty Baker and Henry Aaron have known each other for more than forty years, and Dusty’s graciousness with his time and recollections informed the mentoring side of Henry that he often kept well hidden from the press and the public. Dusty Baker was also instrumental in his recollections of dates and locations of various events that proved to be essential.
• Ralph Garr was an interesting character to interview. Though he and Dusty Baker comprised Henry’s inner circle during Henry’s years with the Atlanta Braves, Garr was not one to remember names, dates, or places. However, few people were better in gauging the heart of Henry, of what spurred the emotions of a man who for a quarter century often hid what he was feeling. For that, I am grateful.
• Frank Bellati and Bill Henneberry were excellent resources on Henry’s postcareer years. Bellati and Henry became lifelong friends and business partners and his recollections of how Henry began his years as a fast-food franchisee were invaluable. As Henry began to be rediscovered by baseball in the late 1990s, it was Bill Henneberry who was responsible for many of the initiatives that brought Henry back into the public eye. His recollections were important to the narrative.
The following people were also interviewed: Carolyn Aaron, Tommie Aaron, Jr., Veleeta Aaron, David Alsobrook, Larry Baer, Bill Bartholomay, Furman Bisher, Corey Bowdre, Della Britton-Baeza, Mike Callahan, President Jimmy Carter, Ron Cey, President Bill Clinton, Leonard Coleman, Patrick Courtney, Wes Covington, Janie Daugherty, Odie Davis, Al Downing, Stewart ‘Buz’ Eisenberg, Vivian Davis Figures, Terry Francona, Tito Francona, Jim Frey, Ron Gant, Cito Gaston, David Halberstam, John Helyar, Roy Hoffmann, Bob Hope, Paulette Horton, Tom House, Jeff Idelson, Reggie Jackson, Ferguson Jenkins, Derek Jeter, David Justice, Stan Kasten, Collette King, Joe Klein, Lee Lacy, Bud Lea, Ron LeFlore, Richard Levin, Eric Levy, Davey Lopes, Earnell Lucas, Felix Mantilla, David Maraniss, Mike Marshall, Tim McCarver, Fred McGriff, Wayne Minshew, George Moore, Terence Moore, Joe Morgan, Don Newcombe, David Ortiz, Julia Payne, Jamila Phillips, Lou Piniella, Jerry Poling, Reese Schonfeld, George Scott, Lila Sebrecht, Bud Selig, Bill Slack, Stan Slack, Jimmie Lee Solomon, Greg Spahn, Roxanne Spillett, Paul Snyder, Brandon Steiner, Don Sutton, Allan Tanenbaum, Mike Tollin, Frank Torre, Joe Torre, Ted Turner, John Walsh, Tim Wiles, Ted Williams, Joy Windham, Bill White, Kearny Windham, Jimmy Wynn, Steve Yeager, Andrew Young, and Robin Yount.
For some of the more sensitive areas of the book where legal action was threatened against potential interviewees, anonymous sources were used, and I thank them for their candor. Barry Bonds, in particular, told some intimates close to the creation of Bonds on Bonds, his reality television show that appeared on ESPN, that he would sue anyone who discussed elements of the process he deemed confidential. Through his spokespeople, Barry Bonds declined to be interviewed for this book.
BOOKS AND ARTICLES
Henry Aaron’s I Had a Hammer (1991) is the only book in which Henry speaks in the first person about his life. Written with Lonnie Wheeler, the book is a natural first place to begin in that it laid a foundation to begin tracing Henry’s life.
Clinton McCarty’s memoir, The Reins of Power: Racial Change and Challenge in a Southern City (1999), provides an unflinching, disturbing portrait of a period in Wilcox County, Alabama, the childhood home of Henry Aaron’s parents, Herbert and Estella. McCarty told me that when his book was published its candor cost him more than one African-American friend, who thought the book racist. His book offered an uncomfortable, valuable glimpse into the attitude of whites toward blacks in a place that was originally one of the strongholds of American slavery.
Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998) was an indispensable resource for understanding the depth of Jim Crow laws—not only the effects on African-Americans but its lasting effect on southern culture and, by extension, on families like the Aarons.
Pauline Davis-Horton’s The Avenue: The Place, the People, the Memories (1991) is an essential starting point for understanding black Mobile in the twentieth century, painting a portrait of the various places on Davis Avenue a young Henry Aaron frequented as well as providing an invaluable resource for the African-American experience in Mobile.
Jerry Poling’s A Summer Up North: Henry Aaron and the Legend of Eau Claire Baseball (2002) fills in the important period Henry spent with the Eau Claire Bears, his first step in the game of white organized baseball.
Frank Aukofer’s City with a Chance: A Case History of Civil Rights Revolution (2007) provided color on an important period of racial change and upheaval in the city of Milwaukee and highlighted the role of Father James Groppi in the civil rights movement of the city.
Gary Pomerantz’s Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Autumn: A Saga of Race and Family (1996) provided a thorough account of the socioeconomic and political climate of Atlanta just as the Milwaukee Braves planned to relocate to the Deep South. Pomerantz’s book helped illuminate more clearly life in Atlanta and placed into greater context Henry Aaron’s initial hesitancy in moving back to the South.
Eddie Mathews’s memoir, Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime (1994), offered Mathews’s unique voice in lieu of Mathews himself, who died in 2001. He was particularly close to Henry. The book, written with Bob Buege, captures the Mathews personality that spawned all three franchise locations, from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta.
Bob Buege’s The Milwaukee Braves: A Baseball Eulogy (1988) filled in important gaps regarding the day-to-day triumphs and defeats of the Milwaukee Braves. Only so much color can be gleaned from poring over box scores, and Bob Buege’s book helped re-create Henry’s time in Milwaukee.
Bad Henry (1974), Henry Aaron’s authorized collaboration with Stan Baldwin and Jerry Jenkins, was the only book that recognized Henry’s relationship with the late Father Michael Sablica, an important moment in Henry’s life both in reaffirming his religious beliefs as well as giving Henry’s time in Milwaukee a greater dimension.
David Alsobrook’s unpublished dissertation, Alabama’s Port City: Mobile During the Progressive Era, 1896–1917 (1983), is a magnificent resource for understanding the dramatic and debilitating shift from the Reconstruction Era to Jim Crow in Mobile.
Christopher Andrew Nordmann’s Free Negroes in Mobile County, Alabama (1990) provided important context to daily life in Mobile for blacks.