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The People's King

July 23, 2007
July 23, 2007

Table of Contents
July 23, 2007

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
Baseball
  • Henry Aaron is about to be displaced from his spot atop the alltime home run list, but 755 will endure as one of baseball's magical numbers, a lasting monument to an underappreciated star and to the courage and integrity with which the Hammer attained his crown

  • It's after midnight on the East Coast: Do you know where baseball's best closer is? J.J. Putz is in Seattle, saving games with near-historic efficiency

Pro Football

The People's King

Henry Aaron is about to be displaced from his spot atop the alltime home run list, but 755 will endure as one of baseball's magical numbers, a lasting monument to an underappreciated star and to the courage and integrity with which the Hammer attained his crown

In a black sea ofhot asphalt, hard by Area 10 of the Turner Field parking lot, a fittinglymodest monument to a people's king rises from rivulets of Georgia heat. On thisspot, in what was the Braves' bullpen at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium,landed the 715th home run in the career of Henry Louis Aaron. Here too standfacsimiles of the outfield fence and the bullpen wall, on which there is a signthat makes no mention of the major league home run record or Babe Ruth, whose53-year claim as the alltime home run king passed that night to a poor dry-docklaborer's son. Or as Vin Scully so eloquently told his radio listeners, "Ablack man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking therecord of an alltime baseball idol."

This is an article from the July 23, 2007 issue

HANK AARON

HOME RUN

715

APRIL 8, 1974

The inscription isenough. The significance of the home run will be understood, even--no, wait,especially--in the coming days and beyond when Aaron, who retired two yearslater with 755 home runs, no longer owns the record. In simple mathematicalterms Barry Bonds will have outhomered Aaron and every other player who hasswung a bat in the majors. Everything else about the new record, however,dissolves into the murkiness of interpretation. Bonds's ties to BALCO, thesteroid factory busted by the feds, and Greg Anderson, his convicted,incarcerated friend and onetime personal trainer, have created the uglyimpression of a bastard prince without true claim to the throne.

Bonds's ascent to756 has been (outside of his safe house in San Francisco) not only a joylessaffair but, far worse for baseball, a public exercise in mockery and ridicule,with CHEATER banners, oversized syringes and "ster-roids" chants the derigueur accoutrements of a traveling freak show. The commissioner of baseballdoesn't want to personally witness the record-breaking home run (Bud Seligstill hasn't said whether he'll be in attendance), and Aaron has been adamantin his refusal to be there. Corporate America too wants nothing to do with it,and a majority of fans (52%, according to a May poll by ABC News and ESPN) arerooting against Bonds.

Against thatbackdrop, Aaron and 755 have acquired the immutability of granite. It may havetaken setting the record for Aaron, who was a consummate ballplayer and remainsa quiet gentleman with a fierce social conscience, to be properly noticed. Ashe wrote in his 1991 autobiography, I Had a Hammer, with Lonnie Wheeler,"The most basic motivation was the pure ambition to break such an importantand long-standing barrier. Along with that would come the recognition that Ithought was long overdue me: I would be out of the shadows."

Thirty-three yearslater it may take losing the record for Aaron to be sufficiently appreciated.Like Roger Bannister and the sub-four-minute mile, Bob Beamon and 29.2 feet,and Roger Maris and 61, Aaron and 755 are partners in posterity, not by defyingbelief, as Bonds has done, but by encouraging it. Aaron's record may be brokenby Bonds, but it won't be eclipsed.

"I guess,"says Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson, "you can call him the people'shome run king."

The home run kingnever did majesty well. His home runs left the park in a hurry and with aneconomy of scale, rarely bothering to travel much farther or higher thanneeded. Aaron could do everything on a baseball field with ease, but becausehis game and his words lacked unnecessary ornamentation, he never invitedattention to himself.

They called himHammerin' Hank, an encomium to his bluntly effective hitting but one that worksjust as well as a tribute to his overall ethos. Hammering is the life's work ofcommoners, not kings. It is generally not a pursuit to which heroic movies,elegiac poems or, apparently, magazine covers are dedicated. (Aaron appeared onthree Sports Illustrated covers in his 23-year career.) In hammering as inAaron, however, there is an understated nobility that only the passage of timeadequately reveals.

For instance, notone of Aaron's single-season home run totals is among the 68 highest of alltime, yet he pounded more in his career than any other player in history--andwithout suspicion of chemical enhancement. None of his single-season RBI totalsrank among the top 100 of all time, but he's the career leader in that categoryas well. His best season for extra-base hits cannot be found in the top 40alltime, but he leads that career list too. What he did was build the Egyptianpyramids of a baseball career, the finished product a monument as much to man'spersistence as to his reach.

Aaron was such amasterly hitter that he would have passed 3,000 hits even if he had never hit ahome run. Pick any star who ever played the game and give him 180 additionalhomers, and Aaron still would have more total bases. He won three Gold Gloves,received MVP votes for 19 straight years and stole bases at a 76% success rate.He did as much for the racial integration of the sport as any man who followedJackie Robinson. Yet Aaron, in the pantheon of baseball gods and in the fabricof American culture, is an underrated and underappreciated presence. It musthave been the monotony of all that hammering.

"As a [teen] Iwas watching a game in Milwaukee from the seats behind the third basedugout," says Yankees manager Joe Torre, who would become Aaron's teammatewith the Braves from 1960 through '68. "Henry was batting, and I distinctlyremember watching the pitch pass behind him and he still hit it out of thepark. He hit it that late and still hit a home run. He was the most amazingwrist hitter I ever saw."

Brewers broadcasterBob Uecker, who also played with Aaron, recently began a conversation about thehome run record with a disclaimer, apropos of the times: "I don't reallywant to talk about Bonds at all." But Uecker said it was important torecognize that Aaron's generation of hitters faced more duress than the currentone.

"I think you'retalking about a whole different scenario with players back then knowingknockdown pitches were as common as guys taking batting practice," heexplained. "Throwing at people's heads was part of the game. Somebody hit ahome run? The next guy coming up was going down. Hitters today don't have toworry about guys throwing at them all the time. And they still wear armor likepolicemen wear."

But 755 is, even byAaron's estimation, an incomplete measure of the ballplayer and the man. Aaronsaid in his autobiography that he regarded the total bases record as morerepresentative of "what I was all about as a hitter. . . . It also tells mesomething that the record had been [Stan] Musial's, because I consider myselfto be much more like Musial than Ruth, both as a hitter and as aperson."

Even moremonumental than what Aaron accomplished is what he endured. In 1953, at age 19,only one year removed from hitting cross-handed for the Indianapolis Clowns ofthe Negro leagues, he was one of five players thrust into the integration ofthe Class A South Atlantic League, in the heart of Dixie. (The major leagues,which Robinson had integrated six years earlier, still played no farther souththan St. Louis and Cincinnati.) Aaron could not eat in the samerestaurants, sleep in the same hotels or drink from the same fountains as hiswhite teammates. Fans heaped racially charged insults at the teenager. A whiteteammate, Joe Andrews, bat in hand, would escort him out of the ballpark aftergames. And lo, Aaron hit .362 and was named the league's MVP.

Two decades later,as he chased and ultimately passed Ruth, Aaron received thousands of raciallycharged hate letters. There were threats on his life, and an Atlanta policeman,Calvin Wardlaw, was assigned to provide him with round-the-clock protection,keeping a snub-nosed .45 handgun in a binocular case. Aaron refused to ride inconvertibles for fear of his own safety, a precautionary habit he has kept tothis day. Though Aaron drew large, supportive crowds on the road, he often wasignored at home. When he hit home run number 711, for instance, there wereonly 1,362 people at Fulton County Stadium, a record low for the franchise.Many who did come to the ballpark in those years heckled him. There was realfear that it might have been much worse.

In September 1998,Aaron watched wistfully as Mark McGwire crossed home plate following hisrecord-breaking 62nd home run and hugged his son, Matthew, dressed in aCardinals uniform as a team batboy. When Aaron hit 715, his daughter, Gaile, astudent at Fisk University in Tennessee, had to watch on television while underthe protection of FBI agents because of a kidnapping plot against her. Hismother, Estella, was at the game and threw a hug around her son after hecrossed home plate. It seemed a touching scene, though the truth, she laterexplained, was that she had done so out of fear that Hank might be assassinatedby someone in the crowd. The first words spoken into the stadium microphone bythe new home run king were these: "Thank God it's over."

"Hank isgenuinely a soft-spoken, private guy, and he truly doesn't want to relive 1972,'73, '74," says Terence Moore, a columnist for the AtlantaJournal-Constitution and an Aaron confidant. (Aaron has declined all interviewrequests, including several from SI, on the subject of the home run chase.)"Those are bad memories for him. With Barry Bonds going through the chase,it's like it's putting him back in that era. And he doesn't want to go backthere."

Despite the hatredfor him, Aaron played with a cool dignity. "Grace in a gray flannelsuit," as the great sportswriter Jim Murray observed. But Aaron also spokeout against injustice when he saw it, whether as a player, baseball executiveor businessman. Indeed, he considered it his duty after Robinson died in 1972to carry on Jackie's cause.

In this world,Longfellow wrote, a man must be either anvil or hammer. Hank Aaron left nodoubt about which he was.

In an editorial theday after he hit 715, The Washington Post said of Aaron, "Here is a personwho is authentic, whose acclaim is based on the results of his self-confidenceand not self-promotion, who has been faithful to his vocation whether noticedor not." Authenticity. It is what elevates Aaron and 755 even more now thanin 1974.

"HankAaron," says Selig, his friend for more than 40 years, "is one of themost principled persons you will ever know."

Aaron wants nothingto do with Bonds, not because Bonds is breaking his record, but because hedoesn't want to get dragged into the conversation about Bonds and steroids and,as several friends have said, he does not find Bonds to be a likable person.One friend, for instance, says that Aaron was crestfallen to hear Bondsquestion whether the Hall of Fame is entitled to any memorabilia from hisrecord chase. (Bonds has since relented slightly, saying he might share anartifact.) Said Bonds, in a self-styled epitaph worthy of his tombstone, "Itake care of me."

At a June 7ceremony in Milwaukee, where he dedicated a plaque to commemorate home runnumber 755, Aaron told reporters that virtually all of his memorabilia are inthe Hall of Fame, explaining, "I think what I did belongs to thepublic." When asked about Bonds, Aaron replied, "I don't even know howto spell his name." He laughed after he said it, more dismissive of thequestion than of the Giants leftfielder, but news outlets portrayed an edge toAaron's comments that he had not intended. According to friends, Aaron waschagrined at such a portrayal, the episode confirming his belief that he'sbetter off having nothing to do with what has become a no-win drag on thegame.

A window intoAaron's position on steroids can be found in his autobiography, in which hesaid of 300-game winner Gaylord Perry, "I regarded a spitball as cheating,and because of it I have serious doubts as to whether Perry belongs in the Hallof Fame. . . . I had always taken a strong stand against anything that wasn'twithin the spirit and rules of the game--like spitballs. I believed in theintegrity of the game as strongly as anybody."

At 73, Aaron hassaid that he is at a stage in his life where he need not jet around the countryin anticipation of Bonds breaking his record. Aaron did travel to Los Angelesfor a mid-April celebration of Robinson, and he made the trip to Milwaukee forthe unveiling of the 755 plaque. He lives in the Atlanta area, where he owns acar dealership and recently, upon the ownership transfer of the Braves fromTime Warner to Liberty Media, agreed to resume an active role as a team vicepresident after several years of having little involvement in the baseballoperations of the club.

"Hank prettymuch keeps to himself," Braves manager Bobby Cox says. "In the winterI'll see him [at Turner Field] if I come in early. Hank will come in to workout at five-thirty, six in the morning and leave."

Bonds, by contrast,is desperate for the blessing from Aaron that will not come. He wanted Aaronsitting next to Willie Mays, Bonds's godfather and Aaron's charismaticcontemporary, on the night he hit 756. Bonds so covets Aaron's acceptance thaton several occasions he has reached out to Selig, far from a Bonds allyhimself, for help in obtaining Aaron's support, if only to get Aaron to callhim. Aaron, however, has no plans to talk to Bonds. "No matter what BarryBonds does, Hank Aaron will be looked at as the home run king," says Moore,who then cited a quote from a conversation he had on that subject with HarryEdwards, the noted sports psychologist and sociologist. "You'll have thestandard and the standard bearer. Then you'll have the record and the recordholder. For the first time ever, they broadly will be acknowledged to betotally different people."

In the sameconversation, Moore said, Edwards compared Bonds to O.J. Simpson: a free man,but a prisoner of the widely accepted circumstantial evidence against him. Thehome run record is whatever you wish to make of it.

Andrew Papanicolauis standing in the same location that Aaron stood in when he hit 715. Well,those are brick pavers, not dirt, beneath the 10-year-old Andrew's feet. WhenFulton County Stadium was turned into a parking lot, the Braves placed paverswhere once there was dirt, forming the entire infield, pitching mound, foullines and warning track. You can stand in this reconstructed batter's box, gazeupon the commemorative sign in left center and imagine the flight of 715 asAaron saw it. This spot is the Kitty Hawk of home run records.

"Hank Aaronshould still be considered the home run king," says Andrew, who is fromQueens, white and here with his father, Michael, and friends as part of theirquest to visit all the major league ballparks. "My friends and I starttalking about baseball, and the conversation gets around to Barry Bonds. Wedon't think he should have the record. I think they should take away his homeruns because he got so big using steroids. It's cheating."

Walking across thepaved infield is Ervin Ross, who is 18, black and not on any sort ofpilgrimage. He is a concessions employee at Turner Field. He knows about Aaronfrom history books, video of home run 715 and a story from his supervisor atwork, a white man who told him Aaron once refused to give him an autograph."But that's when [Aaron] was going through those tough times," saysErvin, in Aaron's defense. "It was understandable."

Ervin says hebelieves it is true that Bonds used steroids, but the teenager does not seemtroubled by that. "He's a professional athlete," Ervin says by way ofexplanation. "I would have to consider him the home run king, just becausehe did it. It's good for black people. They can't take his home runs away, sohe's got the record."

How can two peoplelook at the same number and assign it a different value? Math isn't supposed tobe this ambiguous. The home run record isn't supposed to be this complicated.Even when Barry Bonds holds the record, Hank Aaron can still be the people'shome run king--and 755 can still be the number in which we believe.

EXTRA

Going Deep

Get the latest on Barry Bonds's pursuit of the alltimehome run record.

ONLY AT SI.COM

THE HAMMER

An anthology of Henry Aaron stories from the pages ofSI is on sale exclusively at Borders.

In hammering as in Aaron, there is an understatedNOBILITY that only the passage of time adequately reveals.
"Hank is genuinely a soft-spoken, private guy,"says Moore, an Aaron confidant, "and he truly doesn't want to RELIVE 1972,'73, '74."
PHOTOPhotograph by Herb Scharfman IT ALLADDS UP
Aaron (here in 1970) considered his career record for total bases, and not thehome run mark, the best measure of him as a ballplayer.
PHOTOJOHN ZIMMERMAN THENATURAL
A 19-year-old farmhand in 1953, Aaron hit .362 as one of five black players tointegrate a Class A league in the Deep South. Four years later (opposite), hehit 44 home runs and had a career-high 132 RBIs.
PHOTOMARK RUCKER/TRANSCENDENTAL GRAPHIC/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSRICK WILKING/REUTERS (2) BUDIN
Selig (left) has been asked by Bonds (far right, with Aaron as a 2004 All-Star)to reach out to Hank on his behalf.
PHOTOBOB ROSATO (WALL)SIGN OF CHANGE The spot where Aaron's historic homer landed--the blast that surpassed the Babe's standard--was preserved after the stadium was torn down.PHOTO