When I approached Henry Aaron to let him know I wanted to write a book about his life, he wouldn’t talk to me. He was convinced that the public was only interested in him to have him as a confidant to criticize Barry Bonds as he approached his home run record. Henry’s titanic statistical achievements were spreading; he was tired of the constant misinterpretation of his worldview. The journalistic reaction to his criticism of race relations turned him in on himself. The press portrayed him as bitter, always bitter, when in reality he was simply telling his life story – and answering the questions he was asked. When we first spoke, he had gotten used to the idea that people didn’t really want to know him. Instead, they wanted him to reflect their own qualities. His opinion of the greatest moment – beating Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record – was slightly less important than theirs, and his view that the greatest moment of his career had finally put an end to the worst period of his athletic life amplified their joy at what the night of April 8, 1974 had brought them. The public diminished the impact of his own journey on him by simply being bitter for no reason.
I asked him if he wanted to be famous. “I do,” he said. “But every time I say something, the writers get it wrong. Then they try to correct it, and then I have to make the correction, and in the end I just decide it’s not worth it.” Don’t say anything. Keep it to yourself. If you don’t say anything, they can’t be wrong”.
As Howard Bryant wrote in his book about Henry Aaron, no one who really knew Henry Aaron called him Hank. Photo courtesy of Pantheon Books.
Henry’s criticism was at the center of his life, both mild and fiercely accusatory. For 86 years, America asked him to do the right thing. It asked him to pull himself up by his feet: Henry’s father built the family home with the money he saved and the scraps of boards and nails he rescued from the vacant lots in Mobile’s Tulminville neighborhood while learning to play baseball. America demands that he work hard and not complain. Henry played 23 seasons and never made it to the disabled list after his first season ended three weeks earlier due to a broken ankle. No special favors. No handouts. America asked him to believe in a meritocracy, a meritocracy of record books and scoreboards.
America demanded everything from him, and when he did, he found himself at the top of his country’s biggest sports job, thanks to the benefits of statistics. The FBI then informed him that his daughter was the target of a kidnapping plot. For nearly three years he needed a police and FBI escort for himself and his family. He finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs – a hair away from breaking Ruth’s record – and thought he would die in the offseason. He received enough letters to convince him of that. From 1972 to 1974, he received death threats – all because of what America demanded of him.
Mistake. Not specified.outfielder Hank Aaron, but the Milwaukee Braves before the game in the 1960s. Focus on sports/image beauty
He wasn’t sure the writer would take him seriously, as few did in his lifetime. Since he seemed warm to the idea – or at least didn’t view it with hostility – he asked me a question I’ll never forget: “How many pages will it be? It seemed so strange, but the question was clear, and my answer let him know how seriously I was taking the project. The biographies of the imposing figures of the grandiose classical tradition are plentiful. They are door locks. They are large paperbacks sitting on shelves whose outlines scream for importance-even though 95% of the population never finish them, even though I thought, “Mr. Aaron, the only thing worse than writing a bad book is writing a very long, bad book.” To him, good people have good books, and since he didn’t have one yet, he didn’t think people cared. Henry wanted to make sure I was ready to do the work necessary to understand life.
He possessed extraordinary decency, a trait that is lacking today. His decency convinced him that no one cared about him, not because he thought his life was unimportant, but because he was not an anti-hero whose deep flaws, scandals, and transgressions made him more marketable. He was just a solid man. No jail time. No arrests. No drug addiction, no humiliation, and no lover.
Henry immediately understood his place in the world and how his talent opened a different path. The people who had once rejected him, and his people, made exceptions for him because he was Hank Aaron. He was right not to trust them. He saw the changes in the way Americans viewed him as their talent and proved that his cultural racism was wrong. And instead of continually exceeding his assumptions, the culture didn’t change, but in his eyes it did. Henry had become worthy.
In African-American history, dignity is such an awkward and misleading word, both flattering and condescending, and dignity has been bestowed on Henry as a family name. Her affection for her certainly said more about her world than she ever did for him. For what was called dignity was simply an acceptable response to hostility, and writers and broadcasters, fans and executives found it easier to focus on her response to hostility than on the hostility itself. African-Americans generally expect to be accommodating rather than vindictive, invested rather than apathetic, always courageous and ambitious, and in hostile territory of hurt dignity. When hostile, he smiles gracefully. When he did not, he was bitter. Dignity has always been experienced as a code for treating white courage as inevitable behavior, never as a jab.
His life seemed to imitate his career, a long triumphant marathon in which, ultimately, his values proved stronger than the fleeting thrills of the moment. And all those years – some twenty home runs in a row – he was always there.
There was an underlying fear that I felt for my family as well: the fear that black people in their 80s and 90s would die before the 2020 election, and that they would witness both the inauguration of an African-American president and the backlash in their later years that was so strong it was reminiscent of the earlier backlash of black success. I was with Henry at his home in Atlanta on October 1, 2008. After we finished our conversation, he and his wife Billie went to the polls earlier to vote for Barack Obama, making their own statement. Her first husband was the late Samuel Woodrow Williams, a civil rights activist and professor at Morehouse College. Until his death in 1970, Billy was a longtime member of the civil rights movement in Atlanta. The Braves move to Atlanta after the 1965 season. Henry met with Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. and told them he was not involved enough in the movement. King and Young assured him that he played an important role as a black professional athlete in the South. Voting for a black man 42 years later was an important emotional event for them.
The last time Henry and I saw each other in Atlanta in early 2018, we talked about that, as well as tennis (“Do you think Serena will get another one?” he asked) and the NFL playoffs. And he reminded me of his father, who worked in the mobile shipyard during World War II, when white workers revolted because they hired African-Americans and took away what they thought was theirs and theirs alone. Henry was a decent man, but he never forgot what had been done to his people and by whom.
He never mentioned that he had not survived the last four years of the vice presidency, but I was concerned for him, as I was for all the blacks of his generation for whom voting was something for which some literally died – a voice now strategically suppressed and delegitimized. When I wished him a Happy New Year a few weeks ago, he was grateful to be alive and looked forward to Georgia. What he saw in the country reminded him of where he was, how much the past had hurt him, and he was afraid to see the past in the future. We talked about the loss of Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Al Kalin in mourning, without ever suggesting that we would speak to him that day.
Before he hung up, he said what he always said, “Call me anytime. I like it when we talk,” I said, but I also knew the truth: I didn’t call him enough, because he was a great man, Henry Aaron, and no one respects an invitation by abusing his hospitality. Now that time cannot be restored.
When he was behind Ruth, he was in front of America. When he passed Ruth, America still hadn’t caught up with him – and now, respected as a king, I asked him if there was ever a quiet moment when he could sit with an umbrella in his glass and savor the triumph he had truly achieved. So often he said yes, rejoiced in the happiness he didn’t feel in 1974, and turned bitterness into the irrelevant adjective it always was. He challenged baseball and made peace with it. He was undeniably immortal, no longer neglected. Jeff Idelson, former president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, made sure of that, as did his friend and former baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who made it clear to all MLB officials that Henry was a man beyond reproach. President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 2009, Henry, his wife Billie and I sat in a meeting room at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I was trying to understand Henry Aaron’s historical arc and told him that he represented much of the ambitious journey of black Americans. I said to him, “You went from your mother hiding under the bed as a child when the Klan walked down your street to the White House where you sleep as a guest of the President.
“No, no, no, Mr. Bryant,” Billy Aaron interrupted me with a proud smile. “We didn’t sleep in the White House. We slept in the White House twice.”