“The Real Hank Aaron: An Intimate Look at the Life
and Legacy of the Home Run King”
The publishing info:
272 pages, $28
Released May 17, 2022
The publishers website
The review in 90 feet or less
This was the poster of Hank Aaron that hung on my bedroom wall almost 50 years ago — and considering how there wasn’t a lot of wall space to divvy up with two younger brothers sharing this less-than 200-square foot area, that’s a monument commitment we all agreed upon was worth allocating. (But since I was oldest, I think I had any tie-breaking vote).
I saw this every morning before riding my bike off to middle school. I saw it again every night after baseball practice and my paper route, then huddling with the transistor radio to listen to Vin Scully calling another Dodgers game.
Dodgers team historian Mark Langill confirms this was given away to fans at the May 17, 1974 “Hank Aaron Poster Day” at Dodger Stadium — a Friday night, the first trip the Atlanta Braves came to L.A. that season, about a month after Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time career home run mark against the Dodgers’ Al Downing in Atlanta. Downing actually started this game and went the first eight innings in a 5-4 loss to the Braves in 11 innings (where Aaron went 0-for-3 against Downing). A scan of the poster is on display in the pavilion area along with the left field pavilion plaque from his last homer and a photo of Vin Scully interviewing Aaron in the dugout.
The beauty of this poster is that it was a chart so kids could document Aaron’s home runs in 1974 — and we dutifully logged in the information. We participated. We were invested in recording history.
When Terence Moore was 12, he says he also kept a treasured poster of Aaron. It was one Aaron would autograph years later: “Best wishes to Terry.” Simple and sweet.
Moore, who spent nearly 25 years as a sports writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from late 1984 through the spring 2009, is also now in his 60s, a 1978 graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he continues to teach as well as contribute to Forbes, CNN and MSNBC.
He was, as he says, “The Hank Aaron Whisperer.”
When Aaron died in January of 2021, Terence Moore became an honorary pall bearer at the funeral. He also helped Aaron’s wife, Billye, write the obituary for the program.
They were that close, because through Moore’s journey as a sportswriter in the deep South, he experienced first hand some of the same racism and ignorance Aaron had gone though. Aaron admired what Moore endured, and vice versa.
Tribute publications that popped up for Aaron in the months after his death, as the 2021 pandemic-cloaked season was ramping up, included a special one from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, pulling together stories, columns and photos from its rich archive, a 128-page publication through Triumph Books. In stories spanned from 1974 to 2021, highlighting the works of writers such as Furman Bisher, Steve Hummer, Dave Kindred, Thomas Stinson, Jeff Nesmith, Wayne Mishew, Tim Tucker, Mark Bradley and sports editor Jesse Outlar.
But nothing from Moore.
If that was an oversight, Moore has more to offer with his own tribute, more than double the size, but also enlisting Triumph to house his collections of interviews, insights and interactions.
As Moore explains in the introduction, he had proposed a book idea with Aaron in late 2020, but Aaron’s lawyer had promised someone else exclusive conversations with Aaron that would lead to a publication in 2024, the 50th anniversary of his home-run record. Moore understood, but it also sparked him to take a new approach, starting his own excavation of their conversations about their mutual admiration for Jackie Robinson and the lessons they took with them over the years, about their mixed emotions watching another scorned Black man in his home-run record-breaking journey in 2006.
“I had enough material to make the real Hank Aaron shine more than whatever came before or whatever would come in the future,” Moore writes, noting their last on-the-record interview was in October, 2020 for a Baseball Hall of Fame publication story. “I had four decades of those Hank conversations — many of them recorded — and all of my other exclusive dealings with Henry Louis Aaron.”
Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle wrote in 2021 in a piece headlined “Henry Aaron did as much as anyone to redeem the South” that “I’m going to call him Henry in this column because that was the name he preferred, as opposed to ‘Hank,’ a nickname attached to him by a PR man who thought White fans might find it friendlier.”
Moore hammers home that distinction as well, separating the public Hank from the private Henry. Because of Moore’s access, he has examples of Aaron’s humor, wisdom and foreshadowing expertise on history. He can be miffed, angry, numb and reflective. He saved hate mail not so much as a motivational mechanism, but as something historians could use to judge just how much present day isn’t that much different from the past when it comes to how some choose to display personal fear and insecurities.
Moore can also speak more about how in 2014, Aaron’s slip-and-fall on an icy patch of driveway led to a hip replacement and a life-threatening moment many weren’t fully aware about — as the two were doing a CNN special on the 40th anniversary of the 715th homer, which Moore uses as a thread to tie together his 10 chapters, seeing him in a wheelchair, ailing, and wondering if this might be it.
“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’,” Moore writes. “Even so, his grade under pressure while catching and passing The Great Bambino showed the essence of Henry Louis Aaron to everyone as much as anything else.”
There is deep, rooted context especially in the eighth chapter titled “The Haters,” pointing out how while Moore and Aaron could bond over their feelings about Bonds’ home-run pursuit in 2007, that was also the same time Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was immersed in the story of his dog-fighting ring.
“They both were stories featuring African Americans as central figures. They both were stories with much of Black America supporting those African Americans in the middle of those controversies, which meant they were stories that caused some Black America to look at Hank and me as traitors. Maybe worse. Fantasy trumped reality for our African American haters, and here was reality regarding Hank and Barry: Throughout Barry’s pursuit of surpassing Hank with a record-breaking 756th homer for his career — marred by allegations that he continued as a steroid user after he reportedly began juicing slightly less than a decade before — Henry Louis Aaron never said anything negative about Barry Lamar Bonds in public. I know. ..
“Hank said nothing on purpose … Mostly, Henry Louis Aaron was permanently scarred by the racist messages and death threats he experienced during the two years of his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record record. He finally surpassed The Designated White Saint of Baseball on April 8, 1974, and in Hank’s mind, that meant he was forever finished talking about chasing milestones of magnitude … At that point, Henry Louis Aaron was 73, more interested in fulfilling his role on a limited basis as a Braves executive than finding ways to make Barry Bonds feel good about himself.”
Moore recently did a piece in Forbes.com: “Here’s What Hank Aaron Really Thought About Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds And Black Players In Baseball“
Read between any of all those lines as you choose. But now they’re on the record. As is an exquisite forward by Dusty Baker on his relationship with Aaron, taking him under his wing in the late 1960s, making a promise to Baker’s mom that he would keep him safe.
How it goes in the scorebook
God bless Henry Louis Aaron, and the lessons in humility and race relations he taught us. The words Scully used, whether rehearsed or not, framed it so well for a national TV audience when Aaron passed Ruth in April, 1974:
A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. And it is a great moment for all of us, particularly Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate by not only every member of the Braves but by his father and mother.”
Aaron was now first alphabetically, first athletically, and first all-time on the HR list. First in admiration as well.
In the years prior to Moore’s book, we embraced a collection of Aaron-related journeys.
In the 2004 “Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America,” Tom Stanton did an exquisite job bringing context some 30 years later to what happened as Aaron was on this chase. As a kid, it was easy to forget this all happened amidst Watergate, the mixed messages we heard (we’re supposed to laugh at this?) from TV’s “All in the Family” and weird reasons for gasoline rationing. The back book cover reminds us that Aaron’s record-breaking homer “provoked bigotry and shattered prejudice, inspired a generation, emboldened a flagging civil rights movement, and called forth the demons that haunted Aaron’s every step and turned what should have been a joyous pursuit into a hellish nightmare … this is the compelling story behind the most consequential athletic achievement of the past 50 years.”
Not the stuff they were saying about Bonds, circa 2007.
Before that, Aaron worked with the late Lonnie Wheeler on “I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story,” in 1991 for HarperCollins (and its Harper Perennial paperback reissue of the New York Times best seller in 2007). There was also “Home Run: My Life in Pictures” that Aaron with Dick Schaap and included a Ted Williams forward and special essay by Jerome Holtzman in March, 1999. One that also gets overlooked somehow is a 1969 autobiography called “Aaron, r.f.” with Furman Bisher for Cleveland Books that we remember checking out from the school library. It was revised and re-released in April 1974 as just “Aaron” for Ty Crowell Co.
In 2010, “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron,” was a 640-page, very thorough (perhaps to a fault) and editor-lacking work by Howard Bryant for Pantheon, called “beautifully written and culturally important” in The Washington Post. There is a lot covered here about Aaron, Jackie Robinson, baseball in the South …
Moore also writes in his intro: “No sports journalist understood the essence of Hank Aaron better than I, and as our years of conversations turned into one, two and before long, four decades of riveting dialogue for the ages, we grew close enough as friends … Hank contacted me (over the years) to deliver his inner thoughts regarding just about everything, especially when he wished to communicate to the rest of the world … Despite a slew of Hank Aaron books written in history and documentaries produced, none had what I had. None had anything close.”
It’s also interesting to note: Of all the book we’ve come across, Bryant’s appears to be the only one where Aaron is called “Henry” instead of “Hank.” For what it’s worth: Scully’s call of Aaron’s historic home run also refers to him as “Henry,” which actually sounds more lyrical coming from his microphone. On his official BaseballReference.com page, he is “Henry,” with a notation.
Still, it’s tough to see he officially died, at age 86.
It doesn’t feel as if he’s gone.
Aaron’s passing during the pandemic sadness already gripping the nation came at a time when 10 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame died in a 10-month period – Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, Tommy Lasorda, Don Sutton, Al Kaline, Phil Niekro, Whitey Ford. We were calmed by a piece Tyler Kepner wrote for the New York Times titled “There Are Hall of Famers, and Then There’s Hank Aaron.”
In a lineup of books already done by and about Aaron, documenting all that happened from various angles and perspectives, we embrace as well Moore’s Hall of Fame-worthy contribution adding another layer of introspection. It’s a personal touchstone we’re grateful he decided to share and it brings a warm smile and a bit of tears all this time later, thinking about that poster, and all that happened behind it.
You can look it up: More (and Moore) to ponder
== Another new YA book that spotlights Aaron’s off-the-field work, “Athlete Activists: Sports Stars Who Changed the Game,” by Stephanie Ready and Morris Katz, comes out this November from Downtown Bookworks. It includes Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente.
== In a conversation with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s JR Radcliffe, Moore talks about how when Jackie Robinson died, Aaron felt a responsibility to carry on his legacy of advocacy for Black ballplayers, a conviction that wasn’t shared by many other Black Hall of Famers who preferred a less confrontational attitude at the time. Aaron fumed when anyone insinuated that he was speaking out only because local civil-rights leaders put him up to it.
“Particularly whites would say, ‘I don’t see any fire hoses and attack dogs; you’re not getting lynched,’ ” Moore said of perceptions that racism has abated over time. “That’s not the way it’s done anymore. Little mind games are being played constantly, even when you’re Hank Aaron. That’s what I wanted to make clear in the book.”
== In Joe Posnanski’s book, “The Baseball 100,” Aaron isn’t No. 1 (that’s saved Willie Mays). Nor is he Nos. 2 or 3 (that would be Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds).
In what now feels something as a slight down at No. 4, Aaron’s status on the list is something to debate. Posnanski admits in his introduction that at one point, former commissioner Bud Selig called him because “he had a bone to pick with the rankings.” Our guess: Selig, a close friend of Aaron, thought at the very least Aaron should be ahead of Bonds. As much as Aaron had what The Ringer’s Zach Kramm story referred to as “staggering greatness” in the record book and “broke the sport’s most celebrated record amid staggering racism,” it isn’t just about the 755 home runs, which led the sport for 33 years before Bonds’ tainted performance moved ahead of that category. Aaron’s MLB-best 2,297 RBIs and 6,856 total bases may never be passed. His 3,771 hits are third all-time — take away the home runs, he’s still in the top 30 and above that 3,000 milestone. Yet in the Baseball Reference WAR category, Aaron’s 143.0 is only seventh all time trailing No. 1 Ruth (183.1), Bonds (162.8), Mays (156.1) and Ty Cobb (151.5) among non-pitchers. (Note: We won’t see Aaron’s Negro League stats from the 1952 season added to his career totals because the new MLB ruling to add Negro League stats only covers 1920 to 1948. Thus, Aaron’s five documented home runs for the all-Black Indianapolis Clowns came too late to make it a clean 760).
It’s worth reviewing the 12 pages Posnanski devotes to his Aaron entry. He of course knows all the Aaron numbers. He won three Gold Gloves as an outfielder — mostly compared to right fielder Roberto Clemente — and “might have deserved more.” Posnanski also acknowledges that Aaron played in “a pitcher’s time,” playing his prime in “a pitcher’s ballpark,” and if you “neutralize Aaron’s numbers — which is to say you try to put Aaron in what Baseball-Reference calls a ‘neutral setting’ — Aaron’s numbers jump from mind-boggling to impossible.” As in 824 homers.
“Henry Aaron was a ballplayer,” Posnanski writes. “He hit for average, hit for power, ran the bases, played good defense, and threw with authority. He did everything well for longer than anyone who ever played the game.” He won two batting titles, four home run titles and four RBI titles, but never won the Triple Crown. In ’63, he was tied for first with Willie McCovey with 44 homers, first in RBIs with 130, but he hit just .263 the last two weeks of the season and finished at .319, tied for third behind batting title winner Tommy Davis of the Dodgers (at .326). That season Aaron also led the league in runs, slugging percentage, total bases, OPS, extra base hits, and (for what it’s worth) offensive WAR at 9.6. The Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax (25-5, 1.88, 306 Ks) was both the Cy Young and NL MVP winner that year.
As Aaron once told Moore, and as included in his book on page 39, Aaron also once admitted to Posnanski that not winning a Triple Crown may have been his only regret as a player — he didn’t focus enough at the end to pursue the personal stats.
“This is at the heart of human nature, I guess,” Posnanski writes. “I don’t believe anyone has had a more perfect career than Aaron — perfect in that he never had a down season and he has several of the most important records. But even Hank Aaron wishes he could have accomplished just one more extraordinary thing.”
As to who Moore thinks is the best ever? That’s on page 41, part of chapter two titled “Greatest Ever”:
“With apologies to Willie (Hank had better numbers for homers, hits, RBIs, batting average, runs scored, total bases, strikeouts, etc.) and to Babe Ruth (Hank had 41 more homers and faced stiffer competition since baseball was segregated back then) and to Barry Bonds (performing-enhancing drugs) and to the figment of Joe DiMaggio’s imagination (he insisted on that introduction as the greatest living baseball player), Henry Louis Aaron was the best ever, dead or alive, and there were so many reasons that happened.”
== Note the magazine cover: “H. Aaron.” It is because his younger brother, Tommie, was his teammate for various seasons from 1962-to-’71 with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, leading team to have uniforms that included their first initial with their names on the back. Tommie, who died at age 45 from leukemia, remains something of a baseball trivia question: Which brothers have combined the most career homers. Add Tommie’s 12 (including eight in his rookie year), and you’ve got 767.
Tommie’s claim to some notable baseball history also came right as the spotlight was again on is brother: When he was named manager of the Braves’ Savannah minor-league team in June, ’73, that made him the first Black skipper of a team located in the deep South and in Double-A team history. The short New York Times obituary on Tommie Aaron from 1984 doesn’t mention that significance of the Savannah managerial hiring. Fact is, there isn’t a lot of history documented on T. Aaron. The Society of American Baseball Research is asking if anyone would like to write his bio for their organization. Adding this quote from Hank (from The Sporting News in 1999) would be fitting: “He meant a lot to me. I think if he played with another ballclub, I think he probably would have had a better major league career. The media was always comparing us. I’m sure, by me being successful, it put a lot of pressure on him. He couldn’t play up to his potential.”
Moore also includes a story in his book about when Henry Aaron was at the White House in 2002 receiving the Presidential Medal of Honor from George W. Bush.
“(He) is standing between me and Bill (Cosby, other meal recipient), 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.’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ … and I just said to myself, ‘Uh, uh, uh, oh, my goodness.'”