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A Prisoner of Memory
Mike Capuzzo
December 07, 1992
Eighteen years after he broke Babe Ruth's home run record, Henry Aaron can't forget the racist threats that haunted his quest
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December 07, 1992

A Prisoner Of Memory

Eighteen years after he broke Babe Ruth's home run record, Henry Aaron can't forget the racist threats that haunted his quest

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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?

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