To find the Home Run King in the 19th year of his reign, you must journey south from Atlanta, across pine country, to a far and high wall, as if you were seeking an exiled ruler in an old and sad story. The Home Run King prefers to be alone, trusts few strangers to enter his vast, secluded estate.
You arrive at a 10-foot-high iron fence that sweeps across the horizon, bare and stark and tipped with steel points. This is the fence that Henry Aaron built after he hit 714 and 715 and tried to put them out of his mind forever.
A sensor detects your car as you drive between massive brick pillars and down the entrance road to a double gate. It is locked. To your left is a shiny steel security box. A human voice, familiar but horribly altered, inquires of your business. In the stillness you find yourself shouting an answer. There are two shrill electronic beeps, the grinding motor of gates opening....
Up a hill and around a bend, the Home Run King stands in front of his redbrick Georgian mansion holding the security remote control, his face hard and shut like a door. Henry Aaron nods, unsmiling, and as you get closer, you notice that he's looking far over your shoulder. It's an old habit he picked up 19 years ago, in the summer of "the Chase." Never waste eye contact on the fellow in front of you. That summer, he never knew for sure who was coming at him, or from where. Never knew if he could just grin and give an autograph. Never knew if his bodyguard might have to punch a menacing fan or even pull out his .38.
December 7, 1992
Quietly, Aaron leads you to his family room, sits on a sofa, offers you a drink. He is 58 now, 20 pounds over his playing weight of 185, graying. But the forearms under the silk print shirt are still wide and hard, the wrists still like the oak handles of hammers. The family room has 22 picture windows, affording distant views of sun-dappled woods, a tennis court, a five-acre pond stocked with bass. This is one of the few places on earth where the Home Run King is comfortable.
"I never finish a drink anywhere, even a glass of water," Aaron is saying, "unless I'm right here at home." In a bar or other public place, he explains, "you'll never find me going back to a drink after I've been to the men's room." He never knows, he says, when someone might try to drug him, poison him.
The Home Run King never sits with his back to the door of a restaurant. He doesn't know who might walk in and surprise him. "When I'm driving and I see someone coming up in the rearview mirror," he says, "I watch him very carefully." He never lets down his guard in a room full of strangers. Study everyone in a group without revealing yourself. What does he want? What's she going to do? So often, he says with satisfaction, he guesses right.
Just some old habits from the Chase, he repeats. Habits he acquired in the summer of '73, the summer of Nixon and Dean and Sirica, of Aaron and Ruth, the summer that changed America and Hank Aaron forever.
Above all, says the major leagues' all-time home run, RBI, extra-base hit and total-bases leader, he observes this rule: avoid ballparks. Fans pester him for autographs; dress him down in foul language if he declines; want to talk, talk, talk baseball with the King, when all he wants is to be left alone. He must be careful.
"Even now, assassination is always in the back of his mind," says Atlanta Police Major Calvin Wardlaw, his friend now and his bodyguard then, the man who carried the loaded .38 that long-ago summer when Aaron chased Babe Ruth's ghost. "There's always that possibility someone will try to make a name at this late date."
It is early October, the afternoon of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. In a few hours 51,971 people will file past the statue on the southeast side of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium: a 15-foot-high bronze Aaron in full swing, mounted on a seven-foot-high block of white marble. The bronze engravings on the base make a powerful case that here played the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Before the game begins, an 84-year-old man will stand proudly in front of that statue wearing his battered old porkpie hat, a thick blue sweater vest and a skinny black-and-white striped tie. He'll stand for picture after picture, smiling in this one, shedding tears in that one, because the statue is of his son. "You know it's a big occasion," Hank Aaron likes to say, "if Daddy wears a tie."
Hank's wife, Billye, a former Atlanta TV talk-show host, will attend the game with his sister Gloria, the two of them dressed for the social outing of the year. They'll mingle with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, Georgia governor Zell Miller and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. Hank's other sister, Alfredia, will be there too, and his daughter Gaile, son Hank Jr. and daughter Dorinda will use some of the dozen or more tickets their father has bought for friends and family.
Dorinda is 30, but her father still calls her "the baby." Earlier in the week she was chagrined by the figure she saw on a Wheaties box in the grocery store: Willie Mays again! "They never remember Daddy," she explains now. "Daddy has to be there tonight." But he will not be at the game tonight. Instead, the King will stay behind his wall, a prisoner of memory.
As Aaron sits in his living room while his family prepares to leave for the stadium without him, his habitually stoic expression softens. His large brown eyes—they are his mother's eyes, everyone says—well up the way a man's do when his will resists his deepest emotions. The tears are coming hard now, fastballs on the fists, and Hank Aaron is just getting around in time, barely getting a piece, hanging in.
"It should have been the happiest time of my life, the best year," he says of 1973. "But it was the worst year. It was hell. So many bad things happened.... Things I'm still trying to get over, and maybe never will. Things I know I'll never forget.
"I don't want to forget."
What does it say of America that a man fulfills the purest of American dreams, struggling up from Jim Crow poverty to dethrone the greatest of Yankee kings...yet feels not like a hero but like someone hunted, haunted?
What does it say of baseball that the man who hit more doubles, triples and home runs than anyone else can't sit back and enjoy it?
What does it say of the man?
"He is very wary of people because he's been burned," says Lonnie Wheeler, coauthor of I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. "You see that in all his dealings—social contacts, business contacts. He proceeds very deliberately. It's partly a personality thing. He's very inward. And I think the Ruth chase still affects him. You don't go through that without scars, and he still has them."
It has been 18 years since Hank Aaron hit Nos. 714 and 715 and kept on hammering to an epic 755; 16 years since he retired; 10 years since he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The Home Run King is a grandfather now, and by tradition he should be lionized, a legend in the autumn of his life. But Henry Aaron takes no comfort in baseball immortality, in lore and remembrance. He says, "I never think about those things."
Watching the Braves and Pirates on TV, the Gants and Bondses flickering across the screen, he never thinks, It used to be Aaron and Clemente. As the CBS cameras capture the leftfield placard that reads HANK AARON NO. 715, sentiment does not stir in Aaron. The King never discusses the home run that moved him ahead of Ruth. "It brings back too many unpleasant memories," he says. That, he tells you, was another life.
The symbols of that life, the artifacts of glory, mean little to him. You'll look in vain in Aaron's house for his 500th home run ball; for the 536th, which tied Mickey Mantle; for the 600th, the 700th, the 714th; for his 3,000th hit; for the 1957 National League MVP Award or the '56 and '59 league batting-champ trophies. Go to Cooperstown or to the house of Aaron's parents in Mobile, Ala., if you want to see all that. The 755th home run bat and ball, the crown jewels of the Home Run King? Tucked away in the vault of an Atlanta bank. All of it banished for lack of significance. "If those things had changed me," Aaron says, "I'd have kept them nearby."
In the kitchen is something he kept: a newspaper story, posted on a cabinet. The headline reads HALL OF FAME THROWS AARON A CURVE. The writer decries the terrible injustice that nine voters somehow thought Aaron wasn't worthy of Cooperstown, keeping the Home Run King from entering by unanimous vote. The story is 10 years old. This is the sort of thing Hank Aaron keeps.
His father is entering the kitchen now, a stooped old man walking slowly, picking his way through the mists of memory. Herbert Aaron raises his head to look at his son and says softly, "Who was that boy that caught that home run?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Hank says.
It's a familiar dance, the father struggling to remember, the son gently nudging him toward his goal. Of all his son's home runs, Herbert cherishes one the most. He imagines the Braves in Milwaukee again, his son 23 again, the autumn of '57 again, two outs in the 11th inning and Henry Aaron hitting the home run that beats the St. Louis Cardinals, the one that earns "Bushville's Braves" their first pennant and makes Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn and all those white Braves carry skinny, black number 44 off the field in jubilation. Henry was the league MVP that season, already a star, but that home run convinced his father of something more important, that his son had no fear.
The moment is proudly displayed in Herbert's den in Mobile, captured in a tiny framed dispatch from the Youngs-town (Ohio) Vindicator of Sept. 24, 1957, under the headline NEGRO MOBBED IN MILWAUKEE. On the same day that police tried to protect black schoolchildren from white mobs in Little Rock, Ark., the story says, white mobs chased a Negro in Beer City to "make him mayor of Milwaukee."
Now the old man says, "I mean, who's that boy who caught that home run when you won the pennant in Milwaukee?"
"That boy was named Muffett," Hank says gently. "Billy Muffett. I don't know who caught the ball, Daddy. Muffett was the one who pitched it." Herbert's face radiates pride all over again. So much sweeter was that homer, No. 109, than any that came 16 years later, in that awful summer when Herbert's wife prayed and wept over the agony of her third son.
Now Hank says, "I've got to go and get you some clothes." His father has driven up from Mobile without packing enough. So Hank climbs up to the attic and digs out some clothes and comes upon something else, a simple cardboard box. A box of letters 20 years old. This, above all things, Hank wanted to keep. "This," he says, "changed me."
He averts his eyes. This is nothing to confront now, not on a lovely fall day with his father in town. He opens this box only when something happens to stir the hurt deep in his heart. Then the only thing that seems real, the only thing that redeems him, is to sit and read his fan mail again. On such days he opens the box in his attic and looses all the evils of his world.
Dear Hank Aaron,
Retire or die!... You'll be in Shea Stadium July 6-8, and in Philly July 9th to 11th.... You will die in one of those games. I'll shoot you in one of them.
Dear Nigger Henry,
you are [not] going to break his record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it.... Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies.... My gun is watching your every black move.
Dirty old nigger man,
Had Ruth played and been at bat as many times as you, old nigger, he would have hit...1100 home runs.... I hope lightning strikes you old man four-flusher.
Dear Hank Aaron,
How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?
Dear Hank Aaron,
I hope you get it between the eyes.
Do you remember how we made epic heroes of other men? Joe DiMaggio, divine grace in human form.... Sweet-swinging Ted Williams, Poseidon to DiMaggio's Apollo.... Mickey Mantle, Achilles.... O mighty Zeus, Babe Ruth.
Hank Aaron remembers.
And what do you remember about Hank Aaron?
Awfully quiet, wasn't he? Quick wrists, otherwise deliberate, slow. A quiet man who played in quiet towns.
Do you remember the stereotypes that sportswriters applied to Aaron in the '50s, descriptions of the country Negro who didn't talk or think much, jus' swung the stick, took his time shufflin' that "Satchel posterior" around the bases?
Hank Aaron remembers.
Babe Ruth's myth is so great that he has entered the American vernacular (Ruthian: larger than life). Yet baseball's living, reigning Home Run King is uncelebrated, his story seldom told: his rise from Alabama poverty, his quiet, heroic battles against racism in baseball, his proud carrying of the torch passed down by Jackie Robinson. Where were his mythmakers?
Aaron says he would settle for being remembered as hard-working, humble, shy—and as the owner of so many of the game's significant hitting records. But those same qualities that made Joe DiMaggio a hero made Aaron an enigma.
Aaron is sitting in his office at the CNN Center, staring out at the purple hills of northern Georgia. He has shut his office door, asked his secretary to hold his calls. Earlier this year, for the first time in 39 years—23 as a player, 16 as a farm director and baseball executive—Aaron stopped making his living exclusively at the ballpark. He got a promotion, he says proudly. He is now a vice-president of Turner Broadcasting. His job is to get CNN monitors in every airport in America. With his other business interests and the work he still does for the Braves, he makes at least twice the $250,000 he made in his best earning year as a ballplayer.
The man behind the desk, the man in the expensive gray suit and gold-rimmed spectacles, is fighting back tears. "I think about things that happened," he says, and trails off.
"My brother has lots of good memories from baseball and lots of bad memories," says his sister Alfredia Aaron-Scott, "but the bad memories are more profound. If someone dumps urine on your head during a game, it can spoil everything, spoil the two home runs you hit that day. Henry was always so quiet. But now he's talking more than he ever has. I think my brother wants people to know what he suffered."
The house in Mobile where Henry Aaron grew up now has plumbing, electricity and windows. The pigs are gone and the outhouse is gone and Daddy's moonshine stash is gone and the dirt ditch out front is filled and paved. But Mama's still there, sitting on the porch in southern Alabama, catching some sun. Her husband is puttering around the house in his porkpie hat, waiting for her to fry up the trout she caught in the Mobile River.
Down the block is a neighborhood park with fallen tennis nets, ruined basketball hoops, an overgrown baseball field. "They're gonna name that park for my son," the old man says proudly. "It's where he played as a boy."
The woman, in her late 70's now, her eyes hard, says, "Henry had everything that could happen to a black boy happen to him, and it hurt him." She imagines, still, the train that took him away to the Negro leagues at 18, the two dollars and two sandwiches he carried. "You know if that's all his mama had to give him, he'd seen some hard times," she says. He was skinny as a toothpick, batted cross-handed because no one had told him not to, feared white pitchers because he'd heard they were a superior race.
Still, he dreamed of going on to the big leagues. Mama told him, "Gotta play a lot better than the white boy."
Daddy didn't tell him anything. "What was I gonna say?" Herbert asks.
What could Hank Aaron's father, the great-grandson of a slave, say that Mobile's segregated buses and drinking fountains hadn't said? According to I Had a Hammer, Herbert came home every night after holding up steel plates for the riveters at Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding. Came home once without the top of his right middle finger—left it at the shipyard between two plates. Came home after 29 years with no benefits and with an asbestos-related lawsuit against the company. "Every day it was 'Nigger this, Nigger that,' " he says bitterly. He is sitting in the gloom, surrounded by his son's trophies. "What was I gonna tell Henry? Ain't nothin' you could do about it. It's like a man in jail. Gotta serve the time. Gotta be quiet and take it."
Soon after he moved up from the Negro leagues to the farm system of the Milwaukee Braves, Henry Aaron went into Waycross, Ga., to get a haircut and missed the bus back to the Braves' minor league camp outside of town. As he walked back, it grew dark. He took a shortcut through the woods, he recalls, "and when I came out, the camp guard spotted me, and all he saw was a strange Negro, and he started shooting." Somehow Aaron crawled into the barracks alive. A few days later he and two other black players, Horace Garner and Felix Mantilla, were put onto a bus to Florida to play for Class A Jacksonville and break the color line in the Deep South.
Baseball's racial history is fixed on a single name and place and time—Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn, 1947. But Robinson didn't break baseball's color line for all of the U.S.—only for the northern states. By 1953 the major leagues reached no farther south than Cincinnati, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Aaron, Garner and Mantilla were the first blacks ever to play for Jacksonville. And so began a season of epithets ("Hey, nigger, why you runnin'? There's no watermelon out there!") and death threats from fans and of racial taunts from opposing players and coaches. "A nigger's gonna croak every time," one of his own teammates said after Aaron popped out to end a game.
Aaron took it stoically. Took Jacksonville to a pennant. Took home the MVP trophy. Now, from a distance of 40 years, Aaron says that what he heard in Jacksonville was "small-time stuff." The young man was headed for the big leagues.
The Milwaukee Braves' skipper, Charlie Grimm, called his rookie outfielder Stepin Fetchit because he "just keeps shuffling along." Warren Spahn was happy to have a player of Stepin Fetchit's skills on his side. "What's black and catches flies?" the Hall of Fame southpaw liked to joke. "The Braves' outfield."
Once, Spahn saw a cockroach fall on its back in the clubhouse and joked to the trainer, "Hey, Doc, come turn Hank over." Aaron suffered silently for days and finally rebuked the pitcher. Spahn apologized, saying he hadn't made fun of Henry for being black, just for being slow.
In the mid-'50s Aaron couldn't stay with Spahn and Eddie Mathews and the rest of the white Braves in the big, pink Manatee River Hotel in Bradenton, Fla., during spring training. The two-time batting champ stayed with the other black players at Lulu Gibson's house, in a room over a garage in the colored part of town.
In the '60s the National League All-Star team was dominated by black players. Aaron, Mays, Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Willie Stargell met nearly every year at the midsummer classic and swapped stories—the kind of stories, Aaron says, that "made it clear that we could never forget we were black ballplayers."
Williams had been so angered by being forced to eat in restaurant kitchens in San Antonio that he quit his minor league team. In Plainview, Texas, a white man had put a gun to the head of Stargell and said, "Nigger, if you play in that game tonight, I'll blow your brains out." Aaron contributed Sally League horror stories.
"But I was only 19 in the Sally League," he says now. "It was like sending a 19-year-old into war. What did I know about death? What did I know about the world? It didn't matter so much then.
"Later, it mattered."
The letters came from every state, but most were postmarked in northern cities. They came in an avalanche, 3,000 a day. They were filled with hate. More hate than Aaron had ever imagined.
He got a plaque from the U.S. Postal Service for receiving more mail than anyone else in the U.S. except politicians—930,000 pieces. Aaron's bodyguard, Wardlaw, tried to hide the most vile letters—like one with a picture of a gorilla that said, "This is your mother." Dick Cecil, then a Brave vice-president, says he too tried to shield Aaron from missives that spewed hate but contained no assassination threats. The death threats, of course, were put into plastic bags and shipped right to the FBI.
You are a very good ballplayer, but if you come close to Babe Ruth's 714 homers I have a contract out on you.... If by the all star game you have come within 20 homers of Babe you will be shot on sight by one of my assassins on July 24, 1973.
Dear Hank Aaron,
I got orders to do a bad job on you if and when you get 10 from B. Ruth record. A guy in Atlanta and a few in Miami Fla don't seem to care if they have to take care of your family too.
Hey nigger boy,
We at the KKK Staten island Division want you to know that no number of guards can keep you dirty son of a bitch nigger——alive.
Whatever other letters Aaron could lay his hands on, the milder ones, he asked his secretary to save. And all that year, in public appearances off the field, he tried to put a smile on his careworn face. Why, there was Hank Aaron on The Flip Wilson Show! Wasn't that the Hammer cooking with Dinah Shore? Did you see Hank on Hollywood Squares'?
Because of the threats, Aaron spent his free time sitting in his Atlanta apartment, watching a neon sign outside blink on and off. On the road Paul Casanova, a catcher for the Braves, brought meals to Aaron's room. Aaron didn't stay with the team, didn't cat with the team, just as in Jim Crow days. Every off day Aaron, by then divorced from his wife, Barbara, flew to Nashville to visit their daughter Gaile at Fisk University. The FBI had uncovered a plot to kidnap Gaile; she finished the term protected by federal agents disguised as maintenance men.
Billye Williams, Hank's fiancèe, had nightmares and worried herself sick anytime Hank was late and hadn't called; she worries still, she says, 19 years later. They huddled together in secret rooms, like lovers in wartime. "That was the only good thing that happened," Hank says now, "the time with Billye."
During home stands Aaron was bitter about the Braves' paltry attendance: The 1,362 fans, then a record low, who watched him hit No. 711 seemed to reflect the apathy, if not disdain, that Atlanta felt for him. The Braves' front office received threats on Aaron's life, and one time the team had to deny a rumor that he had been shot. Another time, during a game in Montreal, a firecracker exploded, and Aaron, standing in leftfield, thought it was all over. "It scared me out of my mind," he says now.
Aaron displayed "greater courage and dignity that season than any man I've ever seen," says Cecil. He also hit .301 with 40 homers and 96 RBIs in only 392 at bats, as fine a season as a 39-year-old ever had. He finished with 713 home runs, one short of Ruth.
There is 6 months until the '74 season begins. Until then, one can break a leg, his back, develop sickle cell anemia or drop dead. Babe Ruth's 714 record will never be tied or broken.
I hope lightning will strike you before next season.
In his first at bat of the '74 season, facing Jack Billingham in Cincinnati, Aaron hit No. 714, tying the Babe, and his eyes welled up as he rounded third base. That night Hank called his mother in Mobile and said, "I'm going to save the next one for you, Mom."
Estella Aaron remembers, "He told me, 'Mama, let them try to kill me. That makes me more determined than ever to set that record.' " The FBI was investigating threats that if Aaron hit No. 715, he would not cross home plate alive.
On April 8, 1974, Herbert Aaron, one of 53,775 fans in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the biggest crowd in Brave history, threw out the first ball. Next to Herb sat Alfredia and Estella. Henry's mom had put on her best diamond-print dress and had her hair coiffed for the occasion.
Al Downing was on the mound for the Dodgers. In the fourth inning, with the Braves losing 3-1 and Darrell Evans on first, Aaron swung at a Downing slider, and baseball had a new Home Run King. There was chaos on the field.
As her son rounded first base, the diminutive Estella "just flew over the railing," recalls Alfredia. "I was so scared. I said to my husband, 'Go get Mama!' "
As Aaron rounded second base, two college students appeared and ran alongside him. He pushed one of them away with his arm. In the stands Wardlaw touched his binoculars case with the gun inside and thought, Should I go out there? Should I stay? "It was the hardest decision of my life," he says now.
At the plate Mathews and Evans and all the Braves were waiting to mob the new Home Run King...but a woman in her early 60's, her cap of hair stiff in the breeze as she ran, got to him first.
"Mama just jumped into Henry's arms and squeezed him around the neck and put a hammerlock on him," Alfredia says. "They couldn't get her off him. She just wouldn't let go. Later, I said, 'Mama, what in Lord's name were you doing?' She wasn't running out there out of happiness. She was running out there because she thought her son was going to die. She told me, 'If they were going to kill my son, they were going to have to kill me, too.' "
The morning after Game 1 of the 1992 NLCS, Hank Aaron shuts his office door at the CNN Center, removes his gold-rimmed spectacles and says, "Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson—we came along and saved what would have become the dullest game in history. We brought excitement, speed. We paid our dues, man. No one knows what we had to go through—get off the bus, go get dressed somewhere else, go cat on the other side of town, get back in half an hour ready to play. What has baseball done for us? How many of those guys are around the game today? The white man allowed us a few crumbs. 'You can sit right here in the front of the bus so long as you're pulling in money. After that, it's back to the back of the bus.' "
The vice-president's smooth corporate monotone is gone; his voice is growing loud, harsh. "They say we don't have the 'mental necessities' to sit behind the desk, we just have God-given talent. But, man, I had to work hard, too. I had to think. I didn't have any more natural talent than Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. I played the game 23 years, and that tells me I had to study some pitchers pretty well. But no—I was a 'dumb s.o.b.' It's racism. These things really anger me."
The latest things to anger Aaron are racial slurs attributed to Cincinnati Red owner Marge Schott. Two weeks ago, it was reported that in a December 1991 deposition Schott gave in response to a lawsuit by a former employee, she acknowledged having used the word nigger in conversation and said it was "possible" that she had referred to the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. as "Nigger Day." She denied reports that she had referred to former Red players Eric Davis and Dave Parker as her "million-dollar niggers."
Aaron spoke out immediately, telling The Cincinnati Enquirer, "Baseball must come forward and make it known to the world: We won't stand for this. There is no place for it in the national pastime.... Baseball must investigate."
The Home Run King's comments were widely reported around the country. For the next two days reporters from all over called his office. But Aaron granted no more interviews, returned none of the calls. The Hammer had taken his cut. "And that," he told his secretary, Susan Bailey, "is all I have to say about that."
In his office now, Aaron's hands are chopping the air. "People say I'm bitter, but they haven't walked a mile in my shoes. Arthur Ashe said it was harder for him to be a black person in this country than to have AIDS, and I can understand it. You're on trial every day. I go into a department store and they wait on the white man first, even if this black man's been waiting 20 minutes longer. Happens every day. If I wasn't Hank Aaron, who hit 755 home runs, I'd be just another nigger.
"People say, 'I can't see how your cards sell for so much less than Mickey Mantle's,' like $2,000 for my top card to $25,000 for his. He had a great career; I had a great career too. It's racism.
"Funny how Babe Ruth's 714 home runs was the most impressive, unbreakable record in sports until a black man broke it. Then it shifted. Now it's DiMaggio's hitting streak."
On the walls of Aaron's office are pictures of him with Presidents Ford and Carter, with Henry Kissinger and Ted Turner. There are honorary degrees. There is little to suggest that this is the office of the greatest home run hitter who ever lived.
But this thought sustains him. A century from now someone will open The Baseball Encyclopedia and go no further than the first name: Aaron, Henry Louis, a shade behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb with 3,771 hits, and the alltime leader in home runs (755), RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856—a full 722 ahead of the next guy, Stan Musial).
By then Aaron will at last be at peace, under a simple headstone: "Just 'Here lies Hank Aaron, born 1934, died whenever,' " he says. "No use paying a long tribute. They didn't do it when I was playing, no use doing it when I'm dead."
The old woman walks slowly from the flying pan, sets down a platter of trout fillets, a bowl of corn, a hunk of bread, and says, "Sit right here. That's where he sat as a boy."
She raps a deeply lined knuckle on the table. She says, "Tell him he's got to forget, got to let go. He can't worry about things you can't control. He's got to put his faith in the Lord. God wanted him to have that record. He didn't steal it. He earned it. I tell him no one can take it away from him nohow.
"I think he's got to play some tennis, stop runnin' around on airplanes everywhere, sit back and enjoy himself now. I tell him to relax and forget, to come down here and watch the world go by. What's Hank Aaron got left to prove?"
On most days he is warmed by friends and a large and adoring family, warmed by a wife who urges him to see all the love in the world. He has opportunities to open his heart to others as few men can. Aaron spends long hours each year reaching out to the children of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, for which he has raised more than $7 million. He met a woman in the street, a mother from the projects who didn't have food for her babies, and it made him think of another mother, long ago, who often didn't have food for her babies. He sent his secretary to take the woman to the supermarket to buy her enough food to last a long time. He wants children to know that even if they're poor and black, they can still achieve a dream.
Earlier this year he spent a weekend signing autographs at a card show in Miami, for which he was paid about $25,000. He met up with Paul Casanova, the player who brought him his meals during the Chase. The old catcher had fallen on some hard times. When Aaron left Miami, he left the $25,000 with Casanova.
The letters still come in bagfuls to the CNN Center in Atlanta, to the offices of the Braves, to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. They begin, "Dear Hank Aaron" or "Dear Home Run King." The King is only human, so he reads them.
Dear Hank Aaron:
Thanks for all the great years you had with the Braves. You were my Dad's favorite player.
Dear Hank Aaron:
I play little league, and you are my most favorite baseball player.
While Aaron is cynical about autograph hounds—"Collectors just out to make money," he says—the children who write to him touch him deeply, and he signs his name for them all.
Recently the grandmother of an Alabama boy wrote asking Aaron to call the child. He was dying of leukemia. Aaron phoned him in the hospital, but the boy was in isolation for bone-marrow treatments. The boy later died, and Aaron sent a $1,500 check to his family to help cover expenses.
But Aaron still receives other kinds of letters, too:
Mr. Henry (Hank) Aaron,
You are bitter and upset because you were not the first nigger manager. All you black bastards do is complain and demand. Now I know why they lynched you people in the south.
Mr. Hank Aaron,
...I think Mr. Aaron in all fairness you should make a statement...that you had more at bats than Babe Ruth, after all Babe Ruth was a super great baseball player and is a credit to the white race.
These are the letters he remembers most, the ones he reads after he has been subjected to behavior that is rude or racist. At a ball game seven or eight years ago, Aaron says, a woman asked him for his autograph. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said. "I'm busy watching one of my pitchers. When I'm all done, I'll be happy to give you an autograph." When Aaron went over to the woman's box and offered his signature, she coldly declined it.
Later that day Aaron climbed again into his attic. Not to read the letters from fans who had named their high schools and their children after him, the folks who wrote saying that home run No. 715 was more important than the moonshot. Not to read one of the 20,000 congratulatory telegrams he received on April 9, 1974.
As he still does on such days, Aaron read other letters, letters of hatred and cruelty and ignorance that America once sent its Home Run King, missives that break his heart but somehow sustain him. When he broke Babe Ruth's record, Aaron says, "my real job was only starting." He says he saw that God must have chosen him to break the record for a reason—not just to clear fences but to hammer down walls. He promised to use the record "like a Louisville Slugger." He vowed, 18 years ago, never to forget.
In the vast stillness of his wooded estate, in the long quiet of his reign, the Home Run King keeps taking his cuts. Pain and redemption are joined now, like bat to ball. "I read the letters," he says, "because they remind me not to be surprised or hurt.
"They remind me what people are really like."