"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?"