As a man who made history, breaking Babe Ruth's home run record in 1974 and one of the last remaining Hall of Famers to have played in the so-called Negro Leagues of the South, Henry "Hank" Aaron remained remarkably reluctant to discus his own history. ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant tackles the project of nailing down the details of Aaron's humble upbringing and captures the story behind the sports career that followed.
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Henry Aaron set out to be a professional baseball player, having hardly been an amateur one. At Central High, he had dabbled in football, and once, either in 1947 or 1948, he played a regular-season game against West?eld High and its sensational running back, Willie Mays. Central, however, had no baseball team, and Henry would not play football with great enthusiasm, for fear an injury would ruin his baseball prospects. He was expelled from Central, and was uninter-ested in anything but baseball while at Josephine Allen, which only ?elded a softball team anyway. Henry's résumé consisted of hitting bottle caps with a broom handle.
As he grew older and more prominent, journalists would seek to know more about his early years, about his upbringing and his family, about how he could have been so sure he possessed the special ability it took to play baseball at the highest level. A lot of kids were the best in their neighborhoods, but it wasn't exactly a given that Henry was even that. Henry would depend on a few of the old chestnuts that would be repeated for the next half century. The stories were odd and colorful, but none was particularly true or carried the kind of insight that would ?ll in the important pieces of his personal puzzle. At dif¬fering times, he told various tales about the origin of his legendary wrists. He told one writer that despite his wiry frame, his bulging forearms came from a job hauling ice in Mobile; he told another he bene?ted from mowing lawns; and he told people that for all of his right -handed greatness, he would have been an even better switch-hitter. That was because he batted cross-handed, which for a right-handed hitter was to say with his left hand on top, as a left-handed hitter would.
In 1959, the writer Roger Kahn would attempt to pro?le Henry for Sport magazine. He encountered the same frustration that sports editors of the Mobile newspapers had: Depending on the day, Henry would tell a different story about his origins, and, when placed side by side, no two stories ever exactly meshed.
Kahn was never quite sure if he found himself more frustrated by Henry's early story or by Henry's unwillingness to tell it. "I did not ?nd him to be forthcoming," Kahn recalled. "He wasn't polished and really did not have the educational background at that time to deal with all of the things he was encountering in so short a time. If there was a word I would use to describe him then, it would be unsophisticated."