The apparently joyless career of Henry Aaron puts an athletic spin on the Shakespearean saw about being "star-crossed." One star or another was always getting in Hank's way. First, it was Willie Mays outshining him, at least in the public eye, during Aaron's best seasons, seasons as fine as anyone has ever had. Then, as he stood on the very brink of baseball immortality, here came the Babe himself, or at least his ghost, to steal his thunder. The only place Aaron could finish first, it seemed, was in the alphabetical listings of The Baseball Encyclopedia. If anyone has a right to sing the blues, it's the man they called the Hammer, and sing them he does, with a vengeance, in I Had a Hammer (HarperCollins, $21.95), an autobiography written with Cincinnati journalist Lonnie Wheeler. It is an unsettling read.
Aaron was a cross-handed-hitting teenage infielder from Mobile, Ala., when the Braves signed him out of the old Negro leagues in 1952. He was one of the last big leaguers to emerge from that suddenly disintegrating talent pool. After a season in the lower minors at Eau Claire, Wis., he was dispatched with a few other young blacks to integrate the South Atlantic "Sally" League in the Deep South. His reception from fans there ranged from merely insulting catcalls—"Hey nigger, why you runnin'? There's no watermelon out there"—to crudely written death threats. Still, Aaron, as focused and coolly methodical a player as ever swung a bat, tore the league apart. The next year, 1954, at age 20, he was in the big time. Being with the Milwaukee Braves in the 1950s was as near to nirvana as he would ever be. The team was on its way to winning two National League pennants and a World Series, the fans were ecstatic and plentiful, and most of his teammates were great guys, particularly his slugging mate, Eddie Mathews. Aaron responded to all this salubrity by leading the league in batting twice and in home runs and RBIs four times.
But those good times were too good to last. The Braves slipped badly, both on the field and at the box office, and in 1966 they moved to—where else?—the Deep South. Atlanta considered itself to be a progressive city, far too busy expanding its horizons to be racially prejudiced, but Aaron found it otherwise. By this time, he, unlike Mays, had become outspoken on the subject of race, and he rubbed the tender sensibilities of this allegedly reformed community the wrong way.
Unheralded elsewhere and disliked at home, Aaron nevertheless kept hammering away, and when he finally passed Mays in the career home run derby-leaving only Babe Ruth ahead of him—he took the baseball world by surprise. What was this stoic man doing in such charismatic company? It was bad enough that he had passed the popular Willie; now he was nearing the sacred Babe's unapproachable lifetime record of 714 home runs. In 1973, as the Hammer bore down on the Babe, the "Dear Nigger" letters, as he calls them, began pouring in—"Dirty old nigger man.... Had Babe Ruth played and been at bat as many times as you, old nigger, he would have hit just short of 1,100 home runs...." Aaron collected the most scurrilous of these disgusting missives to remind him in years ahead of his tremendous ordeal. Altogether, according to the U.S. Postal Service, he received 930,000 letters in '73, by far the most sent to a nonpolitician. Dinah Shore finished second, with 60,000. "It should have been the most enjoyable time in my life," he writes, "and instead it was hell."
Aaron missed tying the Babe that year by one homer. He could conceivably have gotten the record within the first three games of '74, all of which were to be played in Cincinnati. The Braves wanted to hold him out of those three games so he could pass Ruth at home, but commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered Atlanta to play him at least twice to protect the game's integrity. What was to have been his crowning achievement was already sullied by controversy. And when killer tornadoes struck the countryside around Cincinnati on Opening Day, he was further upstaged by tragedy. He went ahead and hit number 714 anyway. And in the home opener, off the Dodgers' Al Downing, he hit the record breaker. "I felt a deep sense of gratitude," he writes, "and a wonderful surge of liberation all at the same time. I also felt a stream of tears running down my face." When President Nixon, awash in Watergate, tried to telephone his congratulations, he was accidentally disconnected. Commissioner Kuhn wasn't even in the ballpark.
At 57, Aaron tells us, he's still fighting for respect, both for himself and for all African-Americans. And yet it's significant, perhaps, that the most famous Hammer in America today is a rap singer.