henry aaron

Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed

Or so Bob Dylan says in “Dignity,” a song he wrote in 1988 after learning of the death of basketball great Pete Maravich. Dylan has a point. Dignity isn’t an item or commodity that can be replicated and mass-produced. It’s a quality of fortitude and bearing, guiding one on how to respond whether the news is good or bad. The one possessed with dignity feels for others and thinks carefully on the consequences of his actions. Sometimes a dignified action doesn’t pay off materially. It can also be misunderstood. Sometimes it’s so discreet it isn’t even noticed. Yet the individual who’s mindful of taking the unselfish approach would do it all over again. Those with such innate qualities persevere and leave the rest of us richer for their doing so.

hank1sDignity also describes the ongoing 80-plus years of Henry Aaron’s life, which had its own red letter day a little more than 40 years ago. On April 8, 1974, Aaron, playing his 2967th game as a major league baseball player, hit an Al Downing pitch over the left field wall of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, giving baseball a new all-time home run champion. Home run number 715, one more than Babe Ruth hit in a 22-year career that ended in 1935. At the time, Ruth was a member of the Boston Braves, the team Aaron signed with in 1952, just one year before the team moved to Milwaukee, where they played through the 1965 season, and moved again — this time to Atlanta. Aaron’s triumph filled goodhearted Atlantans, no matter their race, color or creed, with joy. There in the city regarded by many as the cradle of the civil rights movement, a black man now held the game’s most celebrated record. 53,775 fans cheered Aaron as he touched home plate, making the homer official. Play was stopped and a short ceremony was held. With his parents standing on the field with him, Aaron stepped up to the microphone and said, “Thank God it’s over.” In his 1991 memoir, I Had A Hammer, Aaron wrote that a few hours later, after the festivities, alone in his room, he “felt a deep sense of gratitude and a wonderful surge of liberation at the same time. I got down on my knees and closed my eyes and thanked God for pulling me through.”

Aaron depended on God to not only give him the strength to hit number 715 but also to get him through the hoopla and turmoil of approaching the hallowed record. While there were fans nationwide pulling for him, there were also thousands who didn’t. They made their feelings known with a hatred that was pitiful and cowardly.

Along with the usual fan mail and requests for signed photos, Aaron, as he pursued Ruth’s record, received threatening and vile letters. Too often the salutation in the letters was “Dear Nigger,” such as the one excerpted below:

Dear Nigger,
In my humble way of thinking, you are doing more to hurt Baseball than any other that ever played the game. You may break the record and you may replace Babe Ruth in the hearts of the liberal sportswriters, the liberal newspapers, TV and radio, as well as in the heart of the long-haired Hippies. But you will never replace the Babe in the hearts of clear-thinking members of our Society. So, roll on in your deserved glory, Black Boy.

So did the guy make himself clear? The liberal media and the hippies are working to overthrow the republic and topple the Sultan of Swat? So pitiful. So laughable. Having bought many albums at the record stores in Atlanta’s hippie community, and while working at Atlanta’s underground newspaper, The Great Speckled Bird, I never sensed the slightest hostility toward Babe Ruth. The Bambino was alright with us, even as we who followed the sport pulled for Henry Aaron to claim the home run crown, just as Ruth, perhaps the greatest athlete baseball has ever seen, would have. Greatness understands what it’s like to triumph after the long journey uphill.

However, grand achievements had little influence with such bigots who were supposedly protective of Ruth’s legacy. They proved ignorant (of course there’s a pattern) of Ruth’s personal history. Early in his baseball career, his physical features were thought to be those of a freak, or an ape. And that led to him being called “nigger” by some in the game and many in the stands. Robert W. Creamer, in his book, Babe, The Legend Comes To Life, wrote of what Ruth began experiencing while he was still with the Boston Red Sox.

Beyond the similar insults were rougher epithets built around the word nigger. He was called nigger, nigger this, nigger that, all the vituperative changes on the theme that Jackie Robinson was to endure thirty years later. Ruth was called nigger so often that many people assumed he was indeed partly black and that at some point in time he, or at least some immediate ancestor, had managed to cross the color line. Even players in the Negro baseball leagues that flourished then believed this and generally wished the Babe, whom they considered a secret brother, well in his conquest of white baseball.

For Aaron, even when anticipating that celebratory moment, that uphill journey was tough every step of the way. Hate mail. Death threats. Worries over the safety of his children. Financial pressures brought on by unscrupulous business “partners.” Feeling unappreciated by team ownership and the town he would play in for nine seasons. Despite his success, walls seemed to be caving in on him. And all he wanted was to do his best, like always, and help his team in the game he had loved since a child.

Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade
House on fire, debts unpaid
Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid
Have you seen dignity?

A player so skilled, focused and diligent should’ve been embraced by Atlanta when the Braves moved to Georgia’s capital city in 1966. In that year, Aaron led the National League in home runs with 44 and runs batted in with 127. What a model of consistency; nine years earlier, when the Braves played in Milwaukee, Aaron was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. At an age when many superstars slow down, Aaron turned on the juices again. The “smart money” believed he was a solid bet to break Ruth’s record, though he was approaching his mid-thirties while nearly 300 home runs away from number 715.

Great hitting aside, many Braves “fans” chastised the way Aaron appeared on the field. His finesse and fluid movements made some believe Aaron didn’t give his all or have his head in the game. If he was thrown out, the misinformed complained it was because Aaron only “shuffled” to the next base. Aaron’s hustle, cheered by fans on a previous play, was forgotten. In a region obsessed with football, the studied approach and nuances applied by Aaron were too often overlooked. Still, those who saw him day-in and day-out watched in awe. Bob Wolf, a legendary sportswriter with The Milwaukee Journal, observed that as Aaron advanced in both prestige and experience, he became “more and more the perfectionist” on the field. Sadly, Atlanta blew hot and cold on Henry Aaron, too often missing the humble artistry he brought to his game.

For decades Atlanta has been among the top of the front-runner towns. A hot team, a hit recording artist or a record-setting athlete drawing national acclaim has long been a ray of sunshine to a region often embarrassed over past associations with Jim Crow. Of course, Henry Aaron, born in Alabama, knew of the trouble Jim Crow made. Well into his adult years, Aaron kept running into Crow, even as the nation sought to vanquish the Crow legacy through new laws, and at times, a change of heart.

At times the change of heart revealed itself in curious ways, as it did one afternoon in the summer of ’68. Aaron’s first memoir, “Aaron, r.f.”, had just been published and he was making the book store rounds, with hundreds of fans lined up to receive personally signed copies of his book. One such store was the Eller News Center, an oasis of culture in the mostly white and dry city of Forest Park, a suburb just south of Atlanta. There were racist hotheads in the city’s schools and churches, but there were also those who simply marveled at Aaron’s prowess and dedication between the lines. They were fans — admirers even– and they were interested in what Aaron had written about his life (all 34 years of it at the time). They’d get his book, his autograph, maybe get to shake his hand and perhaps learn if that rumor about Hank Aaron moving to Forest Park was true.

People, with no idea how the rumor started, were talking about Aaron moving to Forest Park’s most exclusive street. Which house the Braves superstar would buy had already been determined, according to townsfolk. It was a house on a hill with a rolling yard in a verdant enclave barely a long noisy out from the typical middle class subdivisions that went up in the late ’50s. Aaron would make his place among other professionals on the street: the doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, store-owners and Forest Park’s mayor. It made sense to us; near the end of the ’67 season, The Sporting News reported Aaron planned to move his family from the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon to a year-round home in the Atlanta area. And Forest Park had easy access to I-75, making for a quick trip to his work at Atlanta Stadium. This was going to be great. Maybe Henry Aaron, who lives just a half mile away, could get me on as a Braves batboy! Yeah, right.

As it was, my brother, David, and I were “working” that day at Eller News Center, getting to stand near “The Hammer” as he signed books and exchanged pleasantries with the fans. This may have been the biggest day ever in Forest Park and right there with the baseball royalty were me and my brother. But more than one hour had passed before anyone asked Aaron if he was actually moving to our little town.

A middle-aged gentleman, his freshly autographed book in hand, came on to Aaron as if he was inviting him to church. He said, “Mister Aaron, there are rumors about you and your family moving here, in fact, real close to where I live. It’s a nice house they say you’ve picked out. Is it true?” Aaron paused, and said that was the first he’d heard of it; he was happy with his home in Southwest Atlanta. The gentleman said he was sorry the rumor wasn’t true, “because we’d certainly be honored to have you as a neighbor.” Aaron smiled and thanked him, perhaps thinking Jim Crow’s grip was indeed loosening. Out of the blue, Henry Aaron found “one circumstance of dignity.”

As “Aaron, r.f.” went to press, change and turmoil were riveting America. In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., strong housing bills were passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson. So Aaron could live anywhere he wanted — after all, he drew a salary that enabled him to pick most any home in the Atlanta area. He realized society’s changes could benefit him and millions of others. It was also clear that people would look to him for thoughts and interpretations of the changes.

Many prominent black athletes realized how greatly they contributed to the nation’s entertainment and economy. With that in mind, they spoke out against the injustices endemic in the segregated world, particularly in the southern United States, where so many black athletes were born, raised, and developed their talents, often while watching their backs.

Black athletes with disparate backgrounds and unique perspectives such as Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell made their points. They advocated for equality, freedom and the desire that whites in America regard blacks as not those just making demands but also people deserving of empathy, as in how-would-I-react-if-I-was-treated-that-way?

The matter was addressed by Aaron in his 1968 memoir:

I’m no crusader, not in the way they use the word now. Never wanted to be. Let’s get that straight before we go any further.

I’m not running away from any responsibility or any fight, understand. I believe in a man being able to live like a human being and enjoying the privileges that any other man enjoys in his country. I haven’t always been able to enjoy those privileges either.

…. When I say I’m no crusader, I’m saying I’m not going out and stirring trouble or do things that aren’t within the law to draw attention to myself for any cause. I have my beliefs and I’ll stand up for them. That doesn’t mean I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with Jackie Robinson, or Cassius Clay, or Bill Russell. Their way of doing business is their own business. But this is a baseball book. I’m a baseball player. And I want to keep it that way.

Yet Aaron’s desire to focus on his career and his family’s well-being didn’t mean he wasn’t mindful of the struggles he and fellow black Americans faced. The worst — by ’68 — seemed over. Recalling when he was on the road, looking for a place he could buy meals for his family or simply use the rest room, echoing in his mind was a service station attendant’s curt reply, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have a rest room for colored people.” Thankfully, that aspect of American culture had receded. Aaron knew that but he also knew that lawmakers who allowed restrictions on how some people handled nature’s call were still in power. The brutal laws had changed, but the hearts and minds of many had not. Aaron may have known he’d eventually have to address the resistance to change. And in doing so, he’d be accused of stirring up trouble and acting as a crusader.

Bites the bullet and looks within
For dignity

Henry Aaron gave thanks for the strength he believed God gave him in his pursuit of the all-time home run record. When he awakened on the morning of April 9, 1974, Aaron was at the top of the heap with 715 home runs, 39 years after Ruth hit number 714. Aaron could feel assured that no player — without cheating — would top him as the all-time home run champion. Now it was back to the season at hand, focusing on helping the Braves win, all the while adding to his illustrious numbers. But topping the Bambino required a long and intense effort, leaving Aaron tired: physically, mentally, emotionally — you name it. And with 158 games left in the season, Aaron and his wife, Billye, couldn’t just take off for a few weeks in the Carribbean. So play ball…..

In ’74, Aaron played 112 games, hitting 20 home runs with 69 runs batted in and a .268 average. Not bad for a 40 year-old who had triumphed after the game’s greatest individual chase. And really, not bad for a player ten years younger just playing his game without the national attention. By the end of the ’74 season Aaron would log over 3,000 games in his major league career. That would be enough. From there he would take on a job in the Braves’ front office. Or if the opportunity presented itself, he might even remain in uniform as the Braves manager. He knew the game as well as anyone and if it meant that major league baseball would finally have its first black manager, then Aaron was ready to start filling out the line-up cards. He had said as much in an interview for the May ’74 Playboy.

As it turned out, the opportunity could’ve presented itself, pretty much in the middle of the ’74 season. On July 21, the Braves, hovering at .500 and falling out of contention, fired their manager, Eddie Mathews. Frank Hyland, covering the Braves for The Atlanta Journal, saw Aaron and asked if he was interested in being the Braves’ new manager. Aaron’s reply was “No, no, no. I’m not interested in running this club or any other.” Looking back, Aaron’s change of heart seems a mystery. But his competitive nature was revived when the Braves General Manager, Eddie Robinson, said that neither Henry Aaron or his brother, Tommie, then managing the Braves AA club in Savannah, were considered as candidates for the position. Then asked by Hyland and Atlanta Constitution reporter Wayne Minshew if he felt Atlanta was ready for a black manager, Robinson said, “I’m not prepared to answer that. No comment.” Less than a year before, Atlanta elected Maynard Jackson as Mayor, the first black to hold the office. Another black man, Andrew Young, was representing most of Atlanta in the United States Congress. But Atlanta wasn’t ready for the Braves to hire a black manager? Aaron could only fume over such silliness. He told Tony Kubek on a nationally televised interview on NBC that he felt the Braves “owe me the courtesy of asking me. I believe I deserved to be asked if I wanted it. And if they offered it to me, I would have taken it because there are no black managers.”

But never mind, even if the Braves’ brain trust wasn’t sure Atlanta could handle a black manager, they were confident the city could handle more mediocrity. So they hired Clyde King to be the new manager. King, best known for his odd handling of Willie Mays when he managed the San Francisco Giants in ’69, did little to distinguish himself in Atlanta, compiling a record of 96 wins and 101 losses through the rest of the rest of ’74 and late into ’75.

Aaron hardly needed the headache of managing a listless, veteran team, especially one assembled by Eddie Robinson. His insights on the game would have likely been wasted on most of that year’s team, excepting a few such as Ralph Garr, Dusty Baker and Phil Niekro, a teammate of Aaron’s since the Milwaukee days. Aaron had played a lot of baseball, he paid close attention along the way, learning something from all he observed and experienced. Beginning in the mid ’60s, Aaron’s thoughts on the game were featured in several issues of Sport magazine. One article, published in the October ’64 Sport, was penned by Aaron and entitled, “Are You Ready For A Negro Manager? I Could Do The Job.” Aaron’s story revealed him be a keen observer of baseball and human nature. In reflections both breezy and thorough, he made note of the strengths and weaknesses of the managers he had observed in his 11 years as a major leaguer. He explained what could make him a successful manager while acknowledging how things could be perceived when the guy in charge is black.

He’ll get it from the whites who can accuse him of prejudice and/or from the Negroes who will call him an Uncle Tom. Negroes aren’t perfect either. They put their interests first too.

The simple genius that would’ve guided Aaron is found in his belief that “The only thing, really, that every good manager has to do is get along with his players.” That approach is similar to the one taken by Bobby Cox, who managed the Braves for 25 seasons and now finds himself in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

But simple genius, no matter how genuine, can’t always help one escape a tight spot. That’s where Aaron found himself, first saying he didn’t want to manage the Braves, but later wanting to be considered. Given his accomplishments, age and baseball smarts, why wouldn’t he be a candidate? And he would’ve taken pride in breaking another of baseball’s color lines. However, some felt Aaron was doing the Hamlet bit. Even Frank Hyland, long an admirer of Aaron’s, wrote in The Atlanta Journal that Aaron had “double-talked.” Hyland’s story got under Aaron’s skin but not nearly as much as a column by Atlanta Constitution columnist Jesse Outlar.

It was suggested in the Outlar column that Aaron wasn’t his own man but a mouthpiece for civil rights leaders seeking to advance their causes through a baseball superstar. By the column was a photo of Billye Williams, who Aaron had married the year before. Ms. Williams was the widow of civil rights leader Samuel Williams; thus it was implied Aaron’s new wife and her longtime friends in the movement had turned Aaron into a crusader. Those caring little of what it was like to walk in Aaron’s shoes decided his head had been filled with the grievances of the nation’s black people, even though his life’s experiences had long made him aware — painfully so — of the American divide. Aaron fumed over the implication that he couldn’t discern society’s ills, and that, even more, the Atlanta sports pages had crossed the line by putting his wife in the story. As he was fuming, Frank Hyland walked into the Braves clubhouse where Aaron and his teammates were sampling strawberries left over from a Farmers Night promotion. Hyland had been warned by a couple of the Braves not to approach Aaron. That was all a hard working reporter needed to hear.

Aaron, that day mad at anyone associated with Atlanta Newspapers, called out to Hyland. Braves pitcher Ron Reed and catcher Paul Casanova, two very imposing athletes, stepped in to serve as bouncers. In I Had A Hammer, Aaron recalled a moment that was, well, beneath his dignity.

When Frank came over to my locker, I just picked up my basket of strawberries and shoved them into his face. Then Cassy and Reed stepped in, and that was the end of it…..
Hyland didn’t hold a grudge — which is to his credit, because there’s no good excuse for what I did. But we had always gotten along pretty well, and he understood that I had no quarrels with him. At one point he had written that I was the easiest superstar to cover. I don’t know if he still thought that, but after I cooled off, we patched things up. Frank knew that I was just mad at the world, and he wasn’t going to make a big deal out of the thing.

Frank Hyland laughs at the idea of anyone thinking he ever held a grudge against Aaron. Speaking with Like The Dew recently, Hyland stated there were “no hard feelings on either side,” although a basket of strawberries was “one of the most curious choices of weapons I’ve ever seen.” Despite the incident, Hyland said Aaron was a “class act” even when “the pressures were tremendous.” Hyland says that when he and Aaron see each other these days, “it’s like old home week, Hank’s a good guy.”

Hyland the journalist was a pro’s pro. “I just loved the newspaper business,” he says, recalling the big stories, the travel and the emergence of Atlanta as a major league city in the ’60s and ’70s. Hyland’s favorite assignment was the ’73 Belmont Stakes. That was quite a memory, as was seeing fellow University of Minnesota student Bob Dylan playing at the Ten O’Clock Scholar in the Dinkytown district of Minneapolis (circa 1960). Like Dylan, Hyland would do a lot of hard traveling as well as a lot of great writing.

It’s doubtful Hyland would trade his memories for anyone else’s. Not everyone got to see Dylan in those early days when he was plotting out a path that would lead to a stunning musical career of more than a half century. Nor were there any other reporters able to share a basket of strawberries with the man still regarded as Baseball’s Home Run King. That’s right, still at the top. Never mind what the all-time statistics now say. Forget the inflated numbers and recently-added names that are synonymous with hype, cheating, denials, lies and more lies. And think of how the words Dylan wrote, “Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find dignity,” could apply to the mess baseball made for itself.

Yet baseball — like the culture at large– still has Henry Aaron.

In the spring of 2005, Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts held a fundraiser in a posh Buckhead home, not far from the Governor’s Mansion. Since the Center for Puppetry Arts was an advertising account of mine at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I was invited to the soiree. Yes, it would be great sipping a beer while checking out the beautiful old home on a grand slice of Atlanta real estate, but the evening’s highlight was an appearance by Henry and Billye Aaron. The Aarons had taken a special interest in the Center for Puppetry Arts, promoting the great work of founder Vincent Anthony, who has guided the center since Kermit the Frog and his creator, Jim Henson, cut the opening day ribbon on September 23, 1978.

Appropriately enough for an event featuring Aaron, the fundraiser was low-key. A gentleman speaking on behalf of the Center for Puppetry Arts extolled the attraction’s great works and its future plans. Then the Aarons were introduced. And so was — in a casual way — the matter of Aaron’s home run record being challenged by Barry Bonds, long suspected of using steroids to enhance his physique and hitting performance. Bonds’ less than legitimate baseball accomplishments were mentioned along with the opinion that if Bonds passes Aaron’s home run total of 755, it wouldn’t matter. The real Home Run King was there in the room with us. Aaron smiled and shook his head. He didn’t want to talk about it. One of his longtime friends was Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Baseball, who for too many years turned a blind eye to major league players’ increased use of performance enhancing drugs. Bigger muscles made for more home runs which made for bigger crowds and more money for the game. With the game more financially successful than ever, the powers-that-be were hesitant to blow the whistle on cheating. Why ruin this love fest, no matter how perverse and bogus, that America was having with Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero and others? Henry Aaron could tell you why. Because it was cheating and unfair to the players who followed the rules over the previous 100-plus years. Because it diminished the legitimate feats of the game, whether achieved in 1927 or 2005. It was cheating, beneath the dignity of baseball and beneath the dignity of Henry Aaron and kindred spirits, who had long elevated the game. In many ways, the world had changed for the better for Henry Aaron, but this quiet and humble man also saw the world take some bad turns. Cheating had not only been ignored and winked at, it was, for all intents, celebrated on national television.

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

Dylan said “Dignity never been photographed.” As noted earlier, he has a point. But there are memories that lead to pictures in your mind. Mental photographs: they’re in your head, but just as real as any glossy photo held up for all to see. On that spring evening in Buckhead, I took a mental photograph of Henry Aaron, smiling but sad over the direction of the game he had enriched with dignity. Still, he must have taken a long view about any cheaters passing him on the all-time lists. They’d be found out soon enough — and they were. Those players are persona non grata in Cooperstown, New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The writers who vote on Hall of Fame membership are solidly against the cheaters who tarnished baseball and they let their righteous indignation influence their decisions on who’s kept out. If they ever need a reminder, they can look at video of last month’s induction. Next to Joe Torre, a man of great integrity finally voted in, was his old teammate and friend, Henry Aaron. On July 27, 2014, you could have been “searchin’ high, searchin’ low, searching everywhere…” but found dignity on the platform in Cooperstown.

Author’s Note Recommended reading includes all three memoirs by Henry Aaron as well as The Last Hero, A Life Of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant, The Braves First Fifteen Years In Atlanta by J. Hudson Couch and Hank Aaron And The Home Run That Changed America by Tom Stanton. And a big shout-out to my friend Will Cantrell for his encouragement with this story.

Image: Photo of the Henry Aaron statue outside Turner Field was taken by the author, Jeff Crochran.
Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.