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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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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.

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