Henry Aaron felt disrespected by reporters and baseball executives until mid-life, his new biography says. He’s now a respected, beloved, heroic figure.
The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant (Pantheon Books, 2010, 525 pp.) explores how Aaron overcame shyness, resentments, and racism to become comfortable in his own skin,
He embodied patience and peace at the center when I got to interview him in 1980. By then, he was farm director for the Atlanta Braves, a job he really worked at, not a sinecure. That minor league system developed the core of the most successful franchise of the ‘90’s.
My Close Encounter
I had a great one-on-one celebrity interview with him. When the biography came out, I learned what I had done right: I asked him about what he was doing now, not home runs or heroic things he did long ago, and I called him Mr. Aaron, not “Hank.”
People who know him call him “Henry.” When people call him Hank, it means they are interested in home runs, not him. He’s polite, but he pays them no mind. He was delighted to talk to me about being the Braves’ farm director.
He said the satisfaction of his new job was seeing boys, who had been pampered all their lives because they could play a sport well with little effort, turn into men who worked hard every day to make themselves better players.
As farm director, he said he was more interested in them as people than players because “the person makes the player.”
His satisfaction as a player, he said, was leaving his personal problems outside – a divorce, a child with polio, a child who died – and “do my job because I’m a disciplined person.”
The thing that impressed me most was his patience. Durham, NC, and our little ballpark, were in an uproar because he was there, but it was just another working Tuesday for him. Wherever he went, he was surrounded by a knot of people four or five deep thrusting things at him to sign. He moved at the center of the crowd, never stopping, never hurrying, signing all the way. He had to face that every day wherever he went.
As Bryant’s book title says, Aaron might be “the last hero.” If a hero is someone you want your children to be like when they grow up, how many athletes, celebrities, politicians, or any heroes can you name from any field who are under 60?
Aaron and Jackie Robinson
Aaron’ wanted his life to mean something beyond baseball, like Jackie Robinson’s. Jackie was a warrior, with a college degree, a former officer in World War II, a civil rights activist even before baseball made him famous, and a brilliant, articulate public speaker.
Aaron could never be like Robinson. He grew up in repressive Alabama in the 1930′s, where acting “uppity” could send a black person to an early grave. He did not finish high school, and had a thick Southern accent. Public speaking scared him. He thought people would laugh at him.
He always contributed to the NAACP, and started a foundation when he became wealthy that identifies promising minority teens and pays the full cost of their higher education.
Young Aaron and the White Media
Reporters often treated Aaron like a baseball “savant,” a born baseball genius, who needed no training or practice, but naive and stupid about everything else. His first national publicity, a profile in the Saturday Evening Post, quoted him in dialect, and made him sound ignorant. Local reporters did the same.
He soon gave up hope that any white reporter would understand him, or even want to. So he shut down and got a reputation as aloof, distant,, even brusque. He was self-conscious about his lack of education, and thick Southern accent
The media never gave Aaron proper credit for his fielding because he made the hard catches look easy. He was waiting for the ball when it got there. Writers even called him lazy.” It took years for the media and fans to realize what a great fielder he was.
Aaron also stayed distant from his teammates. He did not go out drinking, and he steered clear of racist teammates, including Warren Spahn, the undisputed team leader.
Aaron and Willie Mays
Willie Mays would go tearing after fly balls, with his hat flying off, to make spectacular catches in the cavernous outfield of the Polo Grounds. His amazing plays were trumpeted nationwide by the New York media.
Aaron and Mays have always said there was never a rivalry between them, but Bryant devotes a whole chapter to it. It’s the only chapter where Aaron is not quoted directly or indirectly. Instead, Bryant lists all the reasons why Aaron should have resented Mays, who was better paid and more celebrated.
He quotes other players who said the only difference between the two was flashiness and charisma, which Aaron lacked, and Mays had in abundance.
Between his first and second seasons, Aaron set a personal goal of 3,000 hits, like his favorite player, Stan Musial. He did not start thinking about Babe Ruth’s home run record until the Braves moved to Atlanta, in his 12th season.
Until then, Aaron’s statistics were more like Musial than Ruth. He hit 30-47 home runs a year, and hovered around 200 hits, He retired with over 3,771 hits, 110 more than Musial, second only to Ty Cobb
Aaron retired as all-time leader in doubles (624), runs batted in (2,297), runs scored (2,174), slugging percentage and extra base hits (722), total bases (6,858), slugging percentage (.555).as well as 755 home runs.
Chasing Babe Ruth
Before 1968, fans and sportswriters assumed Mays had the best chance to reach Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. Then they realized Mays (38) was in steep decline. Aaron, 34, would catch Ruth if he hit his average number of home runs for five more years.
The Atlanta ballpark was better for home run hitters than Milwaukee’s. Aaron adjusted his swing to hit more homers. His highest season total was 47, but he hit 38 or more 10 times in 23 seasons.
Aaron still says that 1972-’74, when his home run chase became a national and personal obsession, were the worst years of his life. “It took took something away from me that I never got back,” Aaron told Bryant. To this day, Aaron believes all the hatred was because he was a black man “stealing” baseball’s most precious record from a white hero.
He finished the 1973 season with season with 713 home runs, and had to think all winter about the two he needed to tie and break the record 714, During that winter, he learned he was broke, and his first wife was suing to double her alimony and child support.
But he left those problems outside the ballpark, hit 714 on opening day of the season, and 715 at his home opener a few days later. “I’m glad it’s finally over,” he told the national TV audience.
He learned from his money troubles, and decided he had time to recover. His second fortune started with fast food franchises. He learned the businesses he lent his name to, and watched them closely.
Aaron and Barry Bonds
When Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s home run record in the steroid era, people desperately wanted to know their hero’s feelings. Aaron ducked all the questions and said nothing. After complaining all his life that no one took him seriously, he dodged when they finally did, Bryant says.
After I interviewed him, Aaron named the first player on that year’s Class A Bulls to be promoted to a higher league, Jeff Matthews, the slowest, smallest, weakest man on a remarkable team of players with far more talent, five of whom spent time in the Major Leagues.
The Braves wanted to cut him at the end of spring training, but someone in the organization went to bat for him as a team’s assistant manager. So the Bulls went north with an extra infielder. In the first two months of the season, they ran away from the rest of the league.
Matthews played three infield positions, turned the pivot on a triple play, hit behind the runner, took the extra base, pitched batting practice, led pre-game stretching, warmed up pitchers in the bullpen, hit fungoes, and managed the team when his manager was ejected. After a month, the team cut the other infielder.
Aaron didn’t say it, but he was proving his point: The person makes the player.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.