Book Excerpt: The Real Hank Aaron: An Intimate Look at the Life and Legacy of the Home Run King
First Inning: The Nursing Home
With this, our ninth in a series of book excerpts, it is my great pleasure to introduce this volume to you. It is “The Real Hank Aaron: An Intimate Look at the Life and Legacy of the Home Run King,” by Terence Moore (Triumph Books, May 17, 2022, Kindle $11.99, Hardcover $24.07).
The chapter, or in this case, the “inning,” is the first, titled '“The Nursing Home,” which begins below.
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Excerpt: First Inning: The Nursing Home:
Suddenly, there I was, standing before Henry Louis Aaron as he sat on the edge of his bed inside the hospital-like room of a bright, yet depressing building dominated by the weak, the old, and the dying. At best, this was a nursing home disguised as a rehabilitation center, and Hank was among the patients.
I wanted to cry.
Only a few of us knew during the late winter of 2014 that Major League Baseball’s legitimate home run king had become the tired and aching man. On this gloomy afternoon in March, he prepared for one of his few trips in weeks away from the friendly confines of his pillow. He had lived in southwest Atlanta since 1966, when his playing days of nine years with the Atlanta Braves began after the franchise relocated from Milwaukee, where he spent his first dozen years in the major leagues. He was in his 38th year as a Braves executive and he ranked among the sports icons for the ages.
As I studied the tired and aching man, I envisioned Hank Aaron moving gracefully toward flyballs in outfields around the major leagues but only when he wasn’t ripping pitches through gaps between defenders or over the farthest of barriers with his 35-inch bat of 33 ounces. I envisioned Hank Aaron gliding around bases faster than your eyes realized—until he was safe again. I envisioned Hank Aaron showcasing those and other parts of his Baseball Hall of Fame arsenal with the greatest of ease during his 25 trips to All-Star Games.
What I envisioned seemed fantasy against this reality. Here I was helping the tired and aching man into his pullover shirt that barely cooperated despite a bunch of my tugs. When a nurse dropped by to help me finish making the tired and aching man look casually sharp in several of the clothes I brought in a bag (“I have nothing to wear,” he told me that morning over the phone before I headed his way in a driving rainstorm), the nurse grabbed the tired and aching man by one arm, and I latched onto the other as he settled into a wheelchair.
I was preparing the tired and aching man for a 10-minute trip across this facility, and we were slated to climb into a waiting car provided by CNN as the rain still raged. Good luck with that, I thought, after the first of my many interactions on this day. After we reached our CNN ride, the plan was to make a brief trip to a golf club, where we would record an interview I was scheduled to conduct with Henry Louis Aaron (as opposed to the tired and aching man) on national television for the cable network. The producers. The camera crew. The makeup folks. They would be in place, ready to roll upon our arrival at the makeshift studio in a ballroom of the golf club.
Every so often, I heard a ring or a beep from my cell phone, which was working harder than it ever had before. It was them again: “So, what’s your ETA?”
Sometimes, the CNN callers were more direct by uttering (no, pleading) with the likes of: “We’re hoping to get started within the next 30 minutes or whenever we can, just waiting for you and Mr. Aaron.”
What they were saying was: GET HERE NOW!
I understood the reason for their urgency, but given the state of the tired and aching man, I kept recalling the words of famed college basketball coach John Wooden, who once told me during an interview that he used to tell his UCLA players when they needed to rally down the stretch: “Be quick but don’t hurry.”
For those CNN producers, “hurry” was the operative word for this situation followed closely by “panic.” They knew I was dealing with the tired and aching man in a complicated situation, but they also knew the same members of the camera crew scheduled to shoot my Hank interview were fretting over the next thing on their schedule. After they finished at the golf club, they needed to hop in a vehicle, rush to the Atlanta airport through the storm that wouldn’t quit, and fly to Afghanistan for another assignment.
There was that ringing again, or was it buzzing? Maybe it was thunder.
As I studied the tired and aching man, sitting in the wheelchair, I kept saying to myself, This won’t happen.
Nevertheless, we headed for the door with me maneuvering the tired and aching man into the hallway. The nurse wished us well, but she failed to hide the fear bursting through the smile on her face. Then it struck me. I’m getting ready to push the greatest baseball player of all time down the hallway of a nursing home in a wheelchair!
Several weeks earlier, the final blast of winter pounded Hank’s neighborhood during a February day in 2014. Those living nearby included civil rights heroes John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, and Joseph Lowery—all fellow marchers with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an Atlanta native. Others among the city’s Black rich and famous also resided in that southwest area of town, but neither they nor anybody else could help Henry Louis Aaron on this day.
Despite Hank’s always careful steps during his senior years, he couldn’t survive an ice patch, which was nastier than anything hurled his way by Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson. This frozen version of a knockdown pitch sent Hank crashing to the ground of his driveway, and he lacked a batting helmet to cover his head or a bunch of ballpark dirt to replace his concrete landing spot. While he laid there waiting for help, he forgot about the haircut he was off to receive. He cared more about everything aching throughout his body that had turned 80 years old the previous week on February 5.
What a contrast.
During the days before Hank’s fall, he was the vibrant birthday boy, whose gifts were as splendid as his life. He grew up with a struggling yet supportive family in the Jim Crow South of Mobile, Alabama. He eventually became a dominating baseball player and a businessman, philanthropist, and civil rights advocate. Through it all, he functioned as a quiet man who hadn’t a problem sharing his principles with boldness.
So, Henry Louis Aaron was toasted for functioning as Henry Louis Aaron at a banquet during his 80th birthday week in Washington, D.C., by fellow Hall of Famers such as Ozzie Smith, Rickey Henderson, and Jim Rice. Later, with Hank still around the nation’s capital, he received what he told me was one of his all-time greatest thrills. Famed artist Ross Rossin did a portrait of Hank so lifelike it made you think the image on the canvas would ease into one of Hank’s laughs that always made you do the same. Rossin’s work went that week to the National Portrait Gallery during an event featuring the man himself, his family, and a slew of guests for the unveiling at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. With face beaming, Hank spoke to the crowd.
Days later, courtesy of Hank’s slip in a flash on that ice patch along his driveway in southwest Atlanta, there was no crowd. There was nobody. There was only Henry Louis Aaron, and he was hurting just about more physically than he had at any point of his life.
The majority of the pain visited Hank’s left hip, and that was the one he used to lead his swing of beauty as a right-handed hitter through 23 major league seasons of accomplishments beyond 755— among the magic numbers in sports history. He also was the guy with four home run championships and four RBI titles in the National League. He complemented those honors with three Gold Gloves, two NL batting titles, an NL Most Valuable Player Award, a World Series ring, and his record 25 trips to the All-Star Game for first-ballot entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I didn’t see Hank’s fall, but my broken heart was there in spirit, especially after I heard the news lead on a local television report that evening. Before long I centered on one word: hip.
Just like that, I was a nine-year-old boy again in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana, where Sarah Wilkerson, my great-grandmother, went from fairly vibrant to a nicely lined coffin. She became the first of several elderly people I would know through the years to break their hip and die. She was just three years older than Hank.
The difference: while Great-Grandma Sarah wasn’t beyond guzzling shots of whiskey, Hank spent his baseball career—along with his nearly 40 years (at the time of his accident) of post-playing retirement as an Atlanta Braves senior vice president, king of business, charity worker, and spokesperson on social issues—turning exercising into one of his best friends.
That ice patch couldn’t care less.
After Hank’s family members rushed him to the emergency room, doctors performed a procedure that led to a partial left hip replacement before he departed the hospital. (I kept thinking, Wow. Great-Grandma Sarah never made it that far.) This was huge news involving one of the most famous living persons on the planet. Somebody needed to update the public on Hank’s condition whenever it was deemed necessary, and the Braves assumed that role since he remained active with the team as a front-office executive. Prior to that, he spent all but the final two of his major league seasons playing for the Milwaukee-turned-Atlanta franchise.
The reports from the Braves on Hank’s condition were few and brief. To paraphrase the only one of note, which the team released soon after his accident in February of 2014: Dr. Scott Gillogly expects Hank “to have a full recovery and return to his routine activities within six to eight weeks.” The Braves also suggested Hank would become whole enough to join the franchise and Major League Baseball at the team’s home ballpark of Turner Field to celebrate the 40th anniversary of April 8, 1974.
That date was the night Hank became baseball’s all-time home run champion against Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He ended two-plus seasons of chasing Babe Ruth’s ghost, but from the start of that pursuit to the end of his life, Hank suffered more mental turmoil involving those days than he ever told most folks in public or private.
Hank told me. I was The Hank Aaron Whisperer.
Bit by bit over years, Hank shared his Sultan of Swat demons during our conversations, and those demons were considerable. They remained with Hank even after he spent that rainy night in Georgia ripping a Downing pitch over the left-center-field fence. Just like that, Henry Louis Aaron, the Black slugger who jumped from the shadows for the first time in his career, was better than George Herman Ruth, the flashy Great White Hope of those racists hurling death threats, hate mail, and vicious phone messages Hank’s way during his years, weeks, and then seconds moving toward his destiny.
Well, the Ruth chase was part of his destiny. Hank was so much more than 715, his final home run total of 755, or anything else involving what he liked to call “the game of baseball.” Even so, his grace under pressure while catching and passing The Great Bambino showed the essence of Henry Louis Aaron to everybody as much as anything else. But consider this: except for a select group of people that included his Whisperer, he spent the bulk of his lifetime holding back much of The Real Hank, especially when it came to April 8, 1974.
No matter how much Hank tried to place the glory of becoming baseball’s home run king above that other stuff, that other stuff always won. The bad stuff. Those Sultan of Swat demons.
“I know I’ve said this many times before, Hank,” I told him during a phone interview in 2013, “but I can’t even possibly begin to imagine how bad it was for you dealing with all of those rednecks and other hateful folks while you were chasing the record. That had to be beyond stressful.”
“Oh, it was,” he said. “Whew. Terence, I don’t try to pretend to be different than any other ballplayer. I guess you have to speak to them. But after all of that, I was ready to retire. That’s No. 1.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I know you asked the Braves to let you spend your last two seasons back in Milwaukee [with the Brewers, the American League team that replaced the Braves in 1970, five years after the Braves left town]. What was going through your mind in 1976 during your last season in the major leagues?”
“The year I said I wanted to retire, everything was drained out of me at that time. Everything. I mean, I had been through literally hell during the last two years, actually the last two-and-a-half years of my career. The newspaper articles, everybody saying this and saying that, and other people doing this and doing that—Terence, I was just absolutely worn out. The greatest thing that ever happened to me, the greatest thing—and I’ve never mentioned this before to anybody—when I was traded to the Brewers, I was able to go to Sun City, Arizona, for spring training. Sun City, Arizona, is a retirement area for people 75 and older, where the Brewers train. I got me an apartment there and I swear I didn’t come out. The only thing I did was train and come back to the apartment. That was the greatest sense of just doing nothing that I ever had, and it was exactly what I needed. I didn’t even want to deal with the thought of [the Ruth chase] anymore.”
That’s why, when officials of the Braves and Major League Baseball began discussing their plans in early 2014 for the 40th celebration of No. 715, Hank didn’t mind the idea, but he didn’t embrace it.
Hank eventually had bigger concerns in February. He just wanted to walk again.
During those updates by the Braves on Hank’s condition after his accident and his surgery leading to a hip replacement, this wasn’t mentioned: the franchise’s invincible right fielder of yore—who once told me he never even missed exhibition games during his career— was headed to a rehabilitation center that resembled more of a facility for Uncle Frank and Aunt Lillie before they headed to hospice or worse.
Hardly anybody knew. I knew. Of course, I knew. I was The Hank Aaron Whisperer.
“How many U.S. presidents have you met?” I asked him during a chat at Turner Field during the summer of 2011.
“I’ve met, ohhhhhhhhh, let’s see. I’ve met a whole bunch of them through the years. I’ve met Kennedy. I’ve met Johnson, Carter, Clinton, both of the Bushes…Ronald Reagan…Barack Obama.”
“What about Richard Nixon?”
“Sure have. I’ve met Richard Nixon. Yep, I’ve met quite a few of them and I’ve been able to talk to quite a few of them. I’ve also been honored by a lot of them.”
“What about Eisenhower? I know he was the president when you were starting in 1954 with the Milwaukee Braves.”
“Nah, I didn’t meet him, but let me tell you this,” he said, laughing. “Did I ever tell you my George [W.] Bush story back when I got my Presidential Medal of Honor from him?”
“I don’t think you ever told me that one.”
“Who was the guy? The comedian was up there with me. Oh, Bill Cosby, and he was nearby because after you got your Medal of Honor, you stood in this receiving line to shake hands with guests. So. President Bush is standing between me and Bill, and President Bush leans over and whispers in my ear, ‘Hank. How’s your brother Tommie?’
“I said, ‘Mr. President, he’s been dead for 18 years.’” Hank and I laughed.
“He said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ And I told him, ‘Yeah, he’s been gone awhile,’ but I just said to myself, ‘Uh, uh, uh, oh, my goodness.’”
About the author:
Terence Moore is a sports journalist who spent 25 years with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In addition to his appearances on national and local television, he has written for outlets including Forbes, the San Francisco Examiner, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and MLB.com. Moore teaches journalism at Miami University, his alma mater.
Read OBHC online here.