“All the sportswriters were mad at me that night because they wanted to get to Hank after the game and I closed the clubhouse to everyone but the team and families . . . I stood on a table and said what I thought about Hank, which was that he was the best ballplayer I ever saw in my life.” – [manager] Eddie Mathews
“THE UNDERGROUND IS EVERYWHERE” was a slogan of our 1960s hippies, who were but a mirror image of Russia’s 1860s Nihilists (whose males wore their hair long and the females had short hair (and they had alternative life-styles that shocked the traditionalists). I was at the University of Wisconsin during the days of the “revolution” and posted my own slogans in the Badger Herald – such as “The Underwood is everywhere.” On a manual Underwood I had been attempting to write a futuristic novel about a Red Sox-Atlanta World Series – plus the return of our braves from “foreign entanglements” and “police actions.” It didn’t get finished yet, but who knew that we would be able to post our stuff on the World Wide Web with computers for free (ain’t free enterprise amazing?). In the meantime, I’ve used up about eight of my nine lives, through a series of miracles that I should detail sometime, and I’ve lived to write another day, adding to my 800-some columns.
America’s young nihilists had been hoping that by 2017 they could celebrate the centennial of the Communist Revolution, but so far we’ve been holding them at bay. But enough about me. This is part 2 of the story of Henry Aaron, the quietest “activist.”
I FINISHED “I HAD A HAMMER” THE OTHER DAY. The book goes into the hate mail and threats he got on his way to breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, but you know about that. There’s so much more to the story, so a couple of happier excerpts:
“I was on deck before him when he tied the record in Cincinnati, and when he came out of the dugout he said to me, “I’m gonna do it right now.” I was on deck when he came out before he broke the record in Atlanta, and he said the same thing that time . . . He didn’t say it the first time he batted that night, when he walked. But he said it before he went up there and hit number 715.” – Darrell Evans [Ruth called a homer once, people believe, but ol’ Hank did it twice.]
“We had a little party at the house that night, [but before it] I went downstairs to be by myself for a few minutes. When I was alone and the door was shut, I got down on my knees and closed my eyes and thanked God for pulling me through. At that moment, I knew what the past 25 years of my life had been all about. I had done something that nobody else in the world had ever done, and with it came a feeling that nobody else has ever had – not exactly anyway. I didn’t feel a sense of joy. I didn’t feel like celebrating.
“But I probably felt closer to God at that moment than at any other time in my life. I felt a deep sense of gratitude and a wonderful surge of liberation all at the same time. I also felt a stream of tears running down my face.” – Henry Aaron
Hank’s public perception had always been “one of the most humble men who ever played major league baseball.” Some of us fans felt like shedding tears when he and the Braves went south. I saw the Braves’ last game in Milwaukee and the Brewers first game. Had seen Hank play on average a couple of times a year since 1954 to 1965. Hank tells about an exhibition game that the Braves played in Milwaukee in 1972 (21,000 attended on a cold night):
“I hit a home run that night, and I was told that people had tears in their eyes as I ran the bases. It was a different circumstance of course – at the time, I hadn’t played in Milwaukee in almost ten years – but the bottom line was that I was a favorite in Milwaukee and something very different in Atlanta. The whole thing seemed peculiar and backwards to me . . “
Aaron played his last two years for the Brewers of course, and I got to see him play at least once. One time for sure I was in the bathroom and heard a humongous roar go up from the crowd. Sure enough I had missed my chance to see him hit another Hammer homer one more time. Never mind #714; he hit 755.
P.S. You can still buy “I Had a Hammer” from used book sites for $3.77 (worth it at twice the price).
PPS: I may still write “The Year the Braves Went Back to Boston” if the world doesn’t blow up before I get around to it.
© Curtis Dahlgren