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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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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.

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