Georgia Today: The Struggle And Triumph Of Henry 'Hank' Aaron
Henry "Hank" Aaron, a longtime Atlanta Braves player and Hall of Famer, was laid to rest this week. He died at the age of 86. On Georgia Today, ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant discusses the complicated life of a baseball legend and American icon.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Jan. 29th, 2021. Last week, the nation lost not just a titan of Major League Baseball, but an American icon.
Henry Aaron: I had a great career. I played for 23 years. And that's the end of it. You know, I hope that the home run is not the only thing that people or anybody, for that matter, Black or white, look at me and say, that's the only thing that he could do.
Steve Fennessy: That's former Atlanta Brave Hank Aaron in a 2018 interview with 11 Alive News. Aaron died Jan. 22nd. He was 86. It would be difficult to overstate Henry Aaron's impact on not just baseball, but the nation. Yes, he broke Babe Ruth's home run record in 1974, but Aaron's journey from Mobile, Alabama, to baseball's Hall of Fame was a fraught and complicated one. Here to discuss Henry Aaron is ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant, who's also a contributor on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. In 2010, Bryant wrote the biography The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. It was a book that Bryant's subject did not necessarily think anyone would be interested in.
Howard Bryant: Henry and his whole team felt that nobody cared about him.
They felt that time had passed him by, they felt that — that he was never going to get his due and that people only wanted to talk to him as a setup. So he would be some sort of proxy to criticize Barry Bonds and by extension, criticize Bud Selig and criticize the lack of handling of the steroid era. And I remember talking with him and I was thinking — and talking to his team — and I was stunned by how much they were convinced that people were not going to give this man his respect. And as an African-American reporter as well, I saw in talking to these guys and talking to Dusty and Willie Mays and all the rest, you know, you talk to that generation of Black players and they never felt like they were portrayed properly, that they never — that they were always writing into the white lens. That at some point, do African-Americans have the right to tell their own story? And so what I tried to appeal to Henry was to say, “It is my duty to get this right.”
Newscast: The country is mourning the loss of baseball's most dominant slugger, Henry Aaron. Hammerin’ Hank…
Newscast: Across this country, the nation celebrating the life of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, a rare legend among legends.
Steve Fennessy: One of the things that struck me right away about your book, you don't refer to him, you know, in second reference by his last name, by Aaron, but you call him Henry. Why is that distinction between Henry and Hank so important?
Howard Bryant: Well, because that's his name. And that is the — this goes back, when you think about the totality of the word “respect” and do you feel respected or do you not feel respected? The very first thing about respect is being called properly by your name. What is my name? And this is actually, in sort of an interesting way, one of the clashes that I had with the publisher because the publisher wanted to call — call him Hank, because that is how the public knew him. And I said, if my goal is to get this right, we're getting it wrong right off the bat by calling him Hank Aaron. It was a way for me to, one, make the distinction between the public famous baseball player and the man. People would yell his name, “Hank, Hank, Hank, sign this, Hank. Sign this,” as fans do. And then whenever he heard the word “Henry,” he would turn around because that told him that somebody knew him personally.
Henry Aaron: When I start talking about dreaming, as a little boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama, I dreamed of playing baseball.
Steve Fennessy: Here's Henry Aaron in an interview with the American Academy of Achievement.
Henry Aaron: My parents couldn't afford to buy a bat. They couldn't afford to buy a ball. And so actually, we did everything we could in order to pretend like we were playing baseball. You know, we would take rags and wrap them up tight and throw to each other. You know, we would take pop tops like soda tops and throw and try to hit balls with a broomstick. We did anything that we could in order to pretend like we were playing baseball and like we were playing baseball in a big league camp.
Steve Fennessy: I want to step back and talk a little bit about Henry Aaron's experience growing up in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1930s and ’40s. What was that like for him?
Howard Bryant: I remember one day Henry and I were in Cooperstown and he had told me, “I don't think I spoke to a white person until I was 18 years old.” I was like, "What?" And he really said, I don't believe. Obviously there might have been a “yes,” “hello,” “maybe,” “no,” something like that. One-word responses. But he said, “I don't think I actually had a full person-to-person conversation with a white person" until he was playing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. And that gives you that gives you an idea of what life in Mobile was like. We've heard these stories so many times about the colored water fountains and the white water fountains in the colored restrooms and all the segregation. Do they still have impact? Do they still mean something? Because we've heard about them so many times and time has removed us from it.
Can we try to understand what life in Mobile was like in terms of the hope in somebody who is — is as ambitious as he was and somebody who had an idea that he was actually really good at something, in fact, at genius level?
I remember talking to Ed Scott, the old scout who signed Henry and Ed — Henry's mother, Stella used to get mad at Ed Scott because he kept coming around the house and she said, “Get away from my son. Why do you keep coming around here?” And Ed walked up to her and said, “Mrs. Aaron, I don't think you know what you have over there.” And he's trying to say, you've got a child who is a genius at this. He's world class.
Henry, in those years, in the late ’30s, early ’40s, when he would talk about wanting to — to — to use that talent, his father and his brother would tell him, "You're colored.”
Henry Aaron: I never — I never played with — with a white player until I got to Eau Claire. And Eau Claire was a farm club of the Milwaukee — was the farm club of the Braves as a Class-C ball club. That was the very first time I ever, ever played with white players. Before then I played in the Negro League and then before that I played in Carver Park, which was all Black, you know. So I — I never had the experience of playing with white players until I got into professional baseball.
Steve Fennessy: What was it about baseball to him? What — what was the appeal?
Howard Bryant: Baseball is — it is the most individual of team sports. If you're self-sufficient, which Henry was — if you're independent, which Henry was — if you're a self-starter, which Henry was. I can't help you in baseball when it's, when — when it's Sandy Koufax on the mound and you're in the in the batter's box, nobody can help you. It's you versus the pitcher. This is on me. I'm either going to make it or I'm not going to make it. And combined with his ability, with that hand-eye coordination, baseball was a perfect sport for him.
Newscast: On April 15th, 1947, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson makes his first appearance as a Major League Baseball player and shatters a half century of tradition.
Steve Fennessy: Jackie Robinson, of course, integrated Major League Baseball. But as I learned from your book, Henry Aaron integrated the minor league Sally League. What was the Sally League and what was his experience there?
Howard Bryant: You know, the Sally League is the South Atlantic League. S-A-L, and so they called it the Sally League. And it was the minor leagues. It was that — the Southern minor league affiliates that, you know, the Braves’ minor league affiliate was in Jacksonville and there were all the other towns and cities down in that — in the league. And clearly you're dealing with severe segregation socially and this new experiment of integration, you had these Black players going into these into these cities and in these — these incredibly hostile places.
Henry Aaron: We were seeing little progress in baseball. I know I, in Jacksonville, when I first started in Jacksonville, you know, Blacks and white could not mingle together. And then at the end of the season, they were starting to go together and shake hands and be amiable because it was for one thing, and that’s to try to win a championship.
Howard Bryant: One of the famous moments was when Henry was playing with there's another Black player, a Puerto Rican player, Felix Mantilla. They were there sitting on the bench one day in one of the games and the, the, y’know, the all-white crowd, there's a section of the crowd that is chanting “alligator bait.” And at one point, Mantilla looks and says, “What's 'alligator bait'?” And one of the white players looks at him and says, “You.”
And that gives you the idea of the hostility that these players were facing with no protection and certainly no sympathy.
Steve Fennessy: We talk about Henry Aaron being a young phenomenon. He played in the Negro Leagues and then the Milwaukee Braves bought out his contract for, what? $10,000 dollars, which must have been the bargain of the century.
Newscast: …and went into extra innings the night the Braves won the pennant. Two out in the 11th. Logan on base. Hank Aaron steps in against the third Cardinal pitcher of the game, Billy Moffitt. Here it comes.
And there it goes: Hammerin’ Hank hits a home run and this one is special. The Braves …
Steve Fennessy: 1956, in just his second or third year with the Milwaukee Braves, one of the biggest magazines in the whole country at the time, The Saturday Evening Post, sends out this young writer to profile Henry Aaron. And the writer's name is Furman Bisher, who Atlanta residents will remember him as a sportswriter and columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for decades. And in your book, you called the story that Furman Bisher wrote for The Saturday Evening Post a devastating piece of journalism. So what — what made it devastating?
Howard Bryant: Well, what made it devastating was the common and casual racism that was in it. What really made it devastating wasn't just that it was so horribly racist. It was that that piece became the standard for how people viewed Henry.
Steve Fennessy: And what were the characteristics that — that Furman Bisher portrayed?
Howard Bryant: Well, the characteristics were, obviously, very — the sort of minstrel character as, you know, he shuffled when he walked, and he, you know, he wasn't very bright, but he was sort of this baseball savant who couldn't necessarily spell his name, but, boy, could he hit — and all of those different types of stereotypes and prejudices that were — that were common. And these are the things that Henry, especially once you get to know him or once he became prominent and as his career would continue, you would see the impact of what that — how that would affect someone like Henry who was so proud. And so — he was quiet. Absolutely. But he — he had an unbelievable sense of himself. And to be so caricatured like that, at that time — and not only that, but let's not forget what America was in 1956. You're in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycott.
You're in the civil rights movement, it’s on its way, it's coming. Everything is happening right then and there. To be written about in that way was humiliating and it was also normal. That was the other thing. There was no criticism of that piece. There was no there was no condemnation of Furman Bisher. Furman Bisher was not the anomaly. He was the — he was not the exception, he was the rule.
Newscast: Atlanta, very impressive skyline, supplemented by this magnificent circular stadium, is in a delirium of enthusiasm today to celebrate her attainment to big league city status. The Braves are here and it's Opening Day.
Steve Fennessy: When the Braves franchise moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, Henry Aaron did not want to go. He did not want to return and live in the South.
Howard Bryant: No, well, he knew what was down there. He knew what it was. And he — and he did not feel, also, that Major League — that baseball back then, organized baseball, was going to protect him and didn't — he didn't want to go back into segregation. He didn't want to go play in a segregated stadium. And so, the negotiations that were taking place were incredible and incredible, incredibly high level.
I remember sitting there with — with Ambassador Andy Young. And — and Ambassador Young was saying how so many civil rights leaders met with — with Henry and he would tell them how he didn't feel like he was holding up his end and telling him how to keep telling them how he didn't want to go back to Atlanta. And they were assuring him that all of these safeguards are going to be put in place and that something remarkable was happening and that he was going to be in the center of the civil rights movement. And it really is sort of fascinating what happens to the Henry Aaron story if he's not in the middle of the civil rights movement. This being in Atlanta in 1965, ’66 really turned Henry Aaron into the social figure, the bigger-than-baseball figure that he ended up becoming.
Steve Fennessy: You speak in your book, too, about at least before moving to Atlanta, that he did not want to be considered, quote unquote, “an agitator.” And then you also talk about how he was flipping through the television one night and came upon James Baldwin as a guest on a talk show. There was something about James Baldwin that — that resonated with him, that — that spoke to him. What was that?
Howard Bryant: It was the everything that Henry had been thinking and feeling. Here's James Baldwin on television. I believe it was 1962 or ’63. Civil rights movement is right in the middle of it. You're sitting there and you're saying — and this is the thing, this is the gift of Baldwin. How many of us have read James Baldwin and felt like he was talking to us directly?
James Baldwin: The truth is, Negroes have been fighting for — for these hundred years, to obtain their rights, but in — and the country has ignored it. And the technique of the country has mainly been to accommodate it or to contain it, but never really to change the situation. And what has happened in our time and these last few years is — it is no longer possible to contain it. And the technique of accommodation has broken down. For the first time, really, the situation is out in the open and no American can ignore it.
Howard Bryant: I think Henry had that feeling as well, that here is your situation. Here is the basic questions of fairness. Here are the basic questions of being an American. Here are the things we don't —we're not afforded. And the way that Baldwin could articulate them so clearly and so passionately, that was a crystallizing moment, because these questions are now front and center in the culture. And — and I'm not going to be shy about saying my piece. And you can see that as validation from Henry 1957 to Henry 1967. Very, very different guy.
Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, what breaking Babe Ruth's record cost Henry Aaron. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: It's Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. We're talking about the remarkable life of baseball legend Henry Aaron, who died last week at the age of 86. On a spring evening in 1974 at the old Fulton County Stadium, Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record for career home runs.
Sportscaster: Oh, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment …
Steve Fennessy: We've seen that video a lot in recent days. And one of the things that strikes me is to hear Aaron address the crowd.
Sportscaster: Henry Aaron is now at the microphone.
Steve Fennessy: What did he say?
Henry Aaron: I just thank God that it's all over with.
Steve Fennessy: “I just thank God that it's all over with.”
Sportscaster: “I just thank God that it's all over with.”
Steve Fennessy: I'm talking with ESPN senior writer and author Howard Bryant, who wrote The Last Hero A Life of Henry Aaron. Howard, what did breaking that record ultimately cost Henry Aaron?
Howard Bryant: Well, it came at a severe cost. And I think that the the the part about the Henry Aaron story that is so important is that it came at an unnecessary cost.
Here was a man who was simply doing what America asked him to do. You listen to our political discourse, you listen to what people say, and we all talk about being self-made and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and doing all of the things that this country promises. If you do those things and Henry did those things. He did all of them. And in return, what he got was really three years of hell, three years of death threats, three years of threats against his family, three years of discomfort, three years of the most wonderful moments of his life becoming the worst moment of his life. And that is, in so many ways, unforgivable.
Steve Fennessy: Here's Henry Aaron in a 2002 interview on NPR's The Tavis Smiley Show.
Henry Aaron: Well, the year that I was chasing Babe Ruth's record, of course, I received more letters than, say, the president did one single year, and most of them was hate mail. I had a daughter at Fisk University and she was forbidden from going out of a classroom. Y’know she on campus for a year and a half. I had to have Secret Service people traveling with me all year. I used to slip out of the back of baseball parks. I stayed aside from my teammates. My teammates would stay in one hotel; I had to stay in another one. So it was really a year and a half — I would say it was probably one of the toughest things I had to try to break a record. And most of it, most letters that I received was from — from people that was very hateful. It was very vicious.
Steve Fennessy: How much did he receive and where did where did those letters go?
Howard Bryant: Yeah, well, there were plenty of them. And if you believe the estimates, it was 3,000 letters a day he would receive it wasn't 3,000 letters of hate mail a day, but 3,000 letters a day. And a pretty good portion of them were were vitriolic. I remember asking him because he still kept them. There was a bunch of letters he has in his house that were in a shoebox. I think he said they were under his bed. I had asked him, “Why? Why do you keep these? Why not throw them away?” He says it’s because you can't throw them away. They're history. The Hall of Fame has some of them. And I think that he kept them close as a reminder as well. His entertaining us was not always enjoyable for him. And I think he kept those letters close to him as a reminder of that.
And some people might consider that to be somewhat self-destructive behavior and some people might consider it to be instructive and humble behavior. But that time period has to be taken in its totality. It's not simply the fact that when he broke that record, he made so many people happy. It was also that that record broke and took away a lot from him as well.
Henry Aaron: When I start talking about dreaming as a little boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama, I dreamed of playing baseball and I wanted to play baseball so bad and had nobody to help me. So I just thought that if I ever get in a position to help other children, regardless of whether they’re — whatever color they may be — and chase their dream, I was going to try to do everything that I possibly could.
We call it Chasing the Dream Foundation.
Steve Fennessy: How important was his philanthropy to him? Because he was very much a prominent figure in philanthropic circles here in Atlanta.
Howard Bryant: Huge. He and I were talking one day about breaking the record and he said one of the things one of the most important things about breaking that record was that now people are going to listen to you. And if they were going to listen to you, then you could use that voice to do things for other people, especially young Black kids that just didn't have that voice. And that was extremely important to him. And I love the fact that it was imperative that whenever you dealt with him, you had to recognize the role of the foundation.
He was so pleased with the life he had lived. It's hard to articulate, but when you read how bitter people said he was and then what I remember about Henry was the fact that he was always smiling and always laughing and always giving and always conciliatory and always listening. There was no longer a question about where he stood.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to ESPN senior writer and NPR contributor Howard Bryant. He's the author of the book The Last Hero A Life of Henry Aaron. Aaron was laid to rest this week.
Bill Clinton: We never talked very much about baseball or very much about politics when we were together. We'd always be talking about your foundation or mine and the people we were trying to help.
Steve Fennessy: Former President Bill Clinton spoke at his funeral on Wednesday.
Bill Clinton: He aspired to help young people overcome the barriers that he'd had to overcome by himself. Through the Chasing the Dream Foundation, he did. He aspired to close the racial divide not by tearing anybody down, but by lifting people up; not by demeaning people, but by opening their minds and opening their eyes and opening their hearts.
Steve Fennessy: I’m Steve Fennessy, this is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Our producer is Sean Powers, thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.