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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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To find the Home Run King in the 19th year of his reign, you must journey south from Atlanta, across pine country, to a far and high wall, as if you were seeking an exiled ruler in an old and sad story. The Home Run King prefers to be alone, trusts few strangers to enter his vast, secluded estate.

You arrive at a 10-foot-high iron fence that sweeps across the horizon, bare and stark and tipped with steel points. This is the fence that Henry Aaron built after he hit 714 and 715 and tried to put them out of his mind forever.

A sensor detects your car as you drive between massive brick pillars and down the entrance road to a double gate. It is locked. To your left is a shiny steel security box. A human voice, familiar but horribly altered, inquires of your business. In the stillness you find yourself shouting an answer. There are two shrill electronic beeps, the grinding motor of gates opening....

Up a hill and around a bend, the Home Run King stands in front of his redbrick Georgian mansion holding the security remote control, his face hard and shut like a door. Henry Aaron nods, unsmiling, and as you get closer, you notice that he's looking far over your shoulder. It's an old habit he picked up 19 years ago, in the summer of "the Chase." Never waste eye contact on the fellow in front of you. That summer, he never knew for sure who was coming at him, or from where. Never knew if he could just grin and give an autograph. Never knew if his bodyguard might have to punch a menacing fan or even pull out his .38.

Quietly, Aaron leads you to his family room, sits on a sofa, offers you a drink. He is 58 now, 20 pounds over his playing weight of 185, graying. But the forearms under the silk print shirt are still wide and hard, the wrists still like the oak handles of hammers. The family room has 22 picture windows, affording distant views of sun-dappled woods, a tennis court, a five-acre pond stocked with bass. This is one of the few places on earth where the Home Run King is comfortable.

"I never finish a drink anywhere, even a glass of water," Aaron is saying, "unless I'm right here at home." In a bar or other public place, he explains, "you'll never find me going back to a drink after I've been to the men's room." He never knows, he says, when someone might try to drug him, poison him.

The Home Run King never sits with his back to the door of a restaurant. He doesn't know who might walk in and surprise him. "When I'm driving and I see someone coming up in the rearview mirror," he says, "I watch him very carefully." He never lets down his guard in a room full of strangers. Study everyone in a group without revealing yourself. What does he want? What's she going to do? So often, he says with satisfaction, he guesses right.

Just some old habits from the Chase, he repeats. Habits he acquired in the summer of '73, the summer of Nixon and Dean and Sirica, of Aaron and Ruth, the summer that changed America and Hank Aaron forever.

Above all, says the major leagues' all-time home run, RBI, extra-base hit and total-bases leader, he observes this rule: avoid ballparks. Fans pester him for autographs; dress him down in foul language if he declines; want to talk, talk, talk baseball with the King, when all he wants is to be left alone. He must be careful.

"Even now, assassination is always in the back of his mind," says Atlanta Police Major Calvin Wardlaw, his friend now and his bodyguard then, the man who carried the loaded .38 that long-ago summer when Aaron chased Babe Ruth's ghost. "There's always that possibility someone will try to make a name at this late date."

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