"After Jackie": Henry Aaron

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "After Jackie: Pride, Prejudice and Baseball's Forgotten Heroes" by Cal Fussman. Copyright (c) 2007 by Cal Fussman. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books. Click here for information on how to purchase the book.

CUT THE HEAD off the snake. That's how they look at it: Cut the head off the snake. Kill the spirit of the black man, and it'll kill the whole family.

Many years ago, I was honored in Mobile by an organization of white men. My daddy came. But they didn't want to let him in. See, I could go in and be honored, but they wouldn't accept him. This is what I'm talking about. Cut the head off the black man. Demoralize him. Tell him, "Even though the home run hitter's your son, we don't want you." That kills the family.

My oldest grandson -- I remember once going to his school to speak to his teacher. My daughter was very young when she had him, so I kind of watched out for him. It was right around the time of integration, when they were taking the best black teachers and putting them into the white schools and taking the worst white teachers and putting them into the black schools. And now this white teacher was there in this black school.

This woman, she was already angry that she'd been sent there. She was like, "Hey, don't tell me I gotta go in and teach these kids." Anyway, my grandson was 8 years old and one day he came home crying. This teacher had told him that he would never be no good, never do this, never do that, never do nothing in life.

I went down to the school to find out about it, and she said she didn't say it exactly like that, but he needed to bring his pencil to class.

"Wait a minute," I said. "He comes home crying, and the only reason that you were talking to him like that is because he didn't have a pencil?"

Now see, the difference is that if it had been a little black girl, the teacher wouldn't have said that. But a little black boy? Somebody who would grow up to be a black man? Oh yeah, cut the head off the snake. Demoralize him. Tear him up. Tell him you can't do this, you can't do that. Tell him what he can't be.

And you'd be surprised how successful that has been. That's why you have to keep looking back on the things that Jackie Robinson went through, because it all comes back to the same thing.

They just kept beating on him, beating on him, beating on him. They were thinking they could cut the head off the snake. And Jackie couldn't fight back. That's the first thing Branch Rickey told him: You can't fight back. If Jackie hadn't been strong enough in his mind, he'd never have made it. The whole thing would have been set back years.

If he'd made one mistake, if he'd crossed the line Rickey laid out for him, everybody would have said, "Told you so. He can't do it."

And if he hadn't done it, you'd never have seen a Henry Aaron. You'd never have seen a Willie Mays. You'd never have seen an Ernie Banks.

What I went through was basically the same thing that Jackie went through. They hounded him because they knew he could play baseball, and they didn't want him to. They hounded me because they knew I was going to break the record, and they didn't want me to.

If I'd been white, it would have been another story. But if a black person is breaking a white man's record, well, let's just say people weren't prepared to succumb to that easily.

I tried not to let it bother me as much as they wanted it to. I tried to stay as calm as I could. I tried to do my job. But some of those letters were filled with vicious hate, crazy hate. Sometimes they made you wonder if maybe somebody might be crazy enough to do something. If those people are still living, do they stop and wonder, How silly could I have been? To sit down and write those letters ... Man, it's just plain crazy.

What was I doing? Playing baseball. What was I doing? Hitting home runs. What was I doing? Entertaining people and trying to win a pennant with my teammates. Was I doing something wrong?

If you look back in history, and if you read the books about slavery, you'll see. It's always the same thing: Cut the head off the snake.

This is the way it works: If they can demoralize me, then I'll go home and demoralize my family. I'm going to be hard on my wife, my kids, and everybody around me. If they can make me feel small while I'm at work, then I'll take it home. And when you take all this crap back to your home, your wife and children have to eat it and suffer with you. Destroy the spirit of a black man, and you destroy the whole black family.

Cut the head off the snake.

That home run chase was supposed to be a really great thing in my life, and yet it was probably one of the saddest. I try not to dwell on it. I don't try to avoid looking at that videotape or anything, but I sure don't go out of my way to look at it.

It's just that there were so many unhappy moments going through the last part of the chase that I want to forget it. It's better for my mental health to look forward. Because when I talk about these kinds of things, it brings up sad moments, and I don't like to dwell on sad moments.

I'm sure right now people are writing Barry and telling him, "You ain't never gonna get Hank's record whether you break it or not."

I think the circumstances are different with Barry because he's going through all this steroids stuff. Most of it is simply because of the press. They've accused Barry of taking these prohibited substances.

Go back to O.J. Simpson. The reason most blacks were behind him was simply because of the way the press came out and ate him up alive. Ate him up, ate him up, ate him up. Whether O.J. did it or not, the press wouldn't look at how we were seeing what they were doing. We were looking at it and thinking, If they can do that to O.J., they can do it to any of us.

Most black people in this country have been victimized at one time or another by circumstantial evidence. We've been judged a lot of times before we ever went to court. We've been judged for a long, long time, and we've been suffering for a long, long time.

As much evidence as everybody said there was, that's why 99% of black people were in O.J.'s corner. So I'm not going to sit here and say that Barry is guilty. I can't do that. Because black people have been found guilty before we were proven guilty for many, many years.

Hell, we walked across the tracks and we were found guilty.

Barry going after my record doesn't put me in a conflicted position. None whatsoever. Records are made to be broken. It doesn't really make a difference to me whether he breaks it or Ken Griffey Jr. breaks it or if years ago Harmon Killebrew had broken it. I've held the title long enough, and now it's time for somebody else to have it.
For me, breaking the record is something that happened in the past. What's important for me now is what I'm doing now.

What am I doing for my brothers? As long as one of us is in the hole, hollering for help, then all of us need to be down there.

Jackie used baseball as a platform to help others do other things. But collectively, we haven't stuck together and helped each other out. Those of us who've been successful have to learn how to pull the others up. Is it ever going to happen? Collectively, we haven't been able to do that.

The other day, I was talking with one of the boys who's been in my Chasing the Dream Foundation since he was 9 years old. He's now in a performing arts school. This boy plays the harp. He's getting ready to go to college. And there were 11 colleges after him. Eleven! Trying to give him scholarships. He sat talking with me and my wife, and it made me feel so good, I wrote him a check over and above what he would be getting from the scholarship. I don't want him to have to worry about money as he's getting ready to make a giant leap into another world. He's going to be able to study without having to worry.

Now, I'm not a big fan of the harp. I don't know what the heck's going on with the harp, really. About the only thing I know about harps is that you don't see too many black people playing 'em. But whatever the top of the line for the harp is, I told him, "You've got to go for it."

I don't think this young man understands what's in front of him. But he'll learn. He will learn.

It's like I try to tell my sons and my grandsons. No matter what you do in this country, remember one thing: You may have a pocketful of money, and you may have reached halfway to the stars, but you're going to be looked at as a second-class citizen.

I hate to say that, but that's the way it is, because this society has figured out one thing: If they cut the head off the snake, they can kill the entire family.

I have small grandkids now. And I preach to my son-in-law: You see these two children right here? Let me tell you, this little girl will go anywhere she wants. She will get anybody she wants. Black, white -- people'll just slobber all over her like nobody's business.

But this little boy here? Let me tell you, you've got to teach him everything, and especially you've got to teach him to be strong.

The one thing you've got to make sure of is that the young black male grows up strong. Because if he's not strong, he'll get torn up, and if he gets torn up, he'll tear the family up, and another black family will be destroyed.

That's it in a nutshell. Kill the spirit of a black boy, and it'll end up killing a family.

Our job is to stop letting that happen. And this keeps coming back to Jackie, because Jackie showed us the way.

-- Henry Aaron