Roy Exum: ‘I’m Henry Aaron’

Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It happened so long I couldn’t begin to guess the year. I can’t even remember why I was on a late morning flight from Miami to Atlanta. But I do remember Delta Air Lines had done something really nice for me when they made me a “Flying Colonel,” which would get you bumped up to First Class whenever they had an empty seat. It had perks that allowed you to take friends inside their Crown Rooms, which were VIP waiting areas, and things like that.

Your part of the deal was you were requested to wear a coat and tie and fly Delta whenever you could. We went well over a million miles together down through the years and just before takeoff a pretty flight attendant approached to ask if it wouldn’t be an imposition if they assigned the seat beside mine to a late arrival. Of course, I was delighted and just before push-back this handsome black guy was directed my way.

I knew exactly who he was. I stepped into the aisle, giving him room to window seat, stuck my hand out and said, “Hi, I’m Roy Exum.” He flashed a smile and countered, “I’m Henry Aaron.” That’s right, maybe the best baseball player in the world at the time. I offered him one of the newspapers in my lap … “no thanks” … and left him alone.

When they brought Cokes, it offered an opening and I asked, “What was it like growing up in Mobile?” That told him I knew exactly who he was and gave him the option of a one-sentence answer or the start of a conversation. Well, soon we were two guys who enjoyed visiting with each other. The word “baseball” was never mentioned in the conversation.

I’ve had a “bump rule” for all my life. This is to say I don’t acknowledge famous people when I see them out, ask for an autograph, or encroach on their private lives. If they approach me I am flattered, of course, but other than nod or wave I respect their privacy. There is a time and a place for interviews and Aaron was flying to Atlanta after spring training. Last thing he wanted to talk about was baseball, or the silver-dollar-sized bruise in the palm of his hand from the knuckle of a spring training bat.

Several years later I saw him and reminded him of our conversation. “I knew you were a news guy … it said as much on your carry-on tag … and I really appreciated the fact you didn’t push … so, now, ask me what you wanted to ask back then but decided to be a nice guy instead!”

I don’t foist myself on people. Take Peyton Manning, for example. I see him out and wouldn’t dare approach him. If our paths cross I’ll always tell him my name, unlike Phillip Fulmer who is a longtime friend and knows my name. I just think that’s the nice way to treat people.

In case you may have missed it, Hank Aaron, age 86, died peacefully in his sleep on Friday in Atlanta. Aaron had a lifetime batting average of .305, 3,771 career hits and 2,297 RBIs. He broke Babe Ruth's lifetime home run record with 755 in 1974 and held that record until 2007 when it was broken by Barry Bonds.

Aaron remains baseball's all-time leader in RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856). If each of his 755 home runs were removed from his statistical record, Aaron would still have 3,016 hits. In 1982, Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility.

Jim Murray, my favorite sportswriter of all time, wrote a profile piece on Hank Aaron that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 3, 1963 (yes, 59 years ago) that instantly became a classic. Jim died 23 years ago but immortal words about legendary men live forever.

* * *

JIM MURRAY: “Oh, Henry!”

I like to watch Henry Aaron play ball for the same reason I like to watch Spencer Tracy act, or Jan Peerce sing, or Nureyev dance, or the sun set over an open body of water.

I don’t get a lump in my throat, but I have a feeling I’ll remember it long after I’ve forgotten a lot of other things that happened about the same time, and that I’ll bore people talking about it when I get old.

What I mean is, it’s an EVENT in your life – like your first sight of Edward G. Robinson holding off the whole damn FBI in “G-Man” or “Public Enemy.” It’s Cagney yelling “Come in and get me, coppers!” Bing Crosby singing “Please,” Victor McLaglen stumbling through the Irish rebellion. Your first walk home with a girl in the blond pigtails. Your first look at the Empire State Building or Spode china or a Botticelli. Its pure pleasure is what it is. You can forget the mortgage, the hole in your shoe, the fight with your wife, the date who turned you down for the prom, your boss, your income tax, your ulcer, and you can lose yourself in admiration. He’s a one-man escape for you.

It’s an aura given only to a few athletes. With most of your heroes, you agonize. Henry is curious in this regard. He is to enjoy only. The way he plays it, baseball is an art. Not a competition. He is grace in a gray flannel suit, a poem with a bat in its hands.

Hold on you say? What’s that? Willie Mays has more “color?” Well, if “color” is your hat flying off, or “color” is the over-the-shoulder catch, or “color” is the wild 360-degree swing and the all-purpose pratfall, Willie is your man. Henry is mine.

With Willie the effort is there. You see it. You empathize with it. You strain when he strains, struggle when he struggles. Willie is a bit of a ham. With Henry Louis Aaron it’s as smooth and effortless as a swan gliding along a lake. He underplays like a British actor. Willie attacks the game. Aaron just gets it to cooperate with him.

“He’s a pretty hitter – about the prettiest I’ve ever seen,” the Dodgers’ Vin Scully, who must have seen 2,000, says. “Henry’s no trouble on or off the field,” his manager Bobby Bragan says. “He’s the perfect ballplayer, the kind, if you get one in your lifetime, you’re one-up on most every other manager in the game. The beauty of Henry is you don’t even know he’s there.”

With most ballplayers, when you don’t even notice if they’re there, it’s usually because they’re not – and when they’re needed. No one ever needed to look around for Henry Aaron when the chips were down. And he kept his hat on.

When he steals a base, it’s stealable – and necessary. He’s stolen 24 of 27 this year. In his whole career he’s been caught stealing only 3-4 times a year. And he’s stolen 149 bases. Percentage-wise, he may be as hard to throw out as Maury Wills.

His skills are so deceptive that, when he first came up to the big leagues, his manager thought he had hired a somnambulist. “Why doesn’t he sleep on his own time like everybody else?” he protested. The scout who signed him was not worried. “Unless you hear him snoring, don’t throw him anything out over the plate or you’ll run out of baseballs before spring training is over. He’s the most wide-awake sleepy-looking guy you ever saw.”

If Willie Mays gets $150,000 next year, Henry Aaron will be the most underpaid guy in the world this side of a rickshaw. Frankly, the only thing Willie Mays does better than Henry Aaron is hit home runs. Frankly, of course, the only thing Caruso did better than me was sing – but it is a fact that up until two years ago, (and if you weighted Mays’ average with a year – 1952 – when he played only 34 games), Aaron led Mays in (average per year) every single category from hits to runs to runs-batted-in to home runs.

“You can’t compare one man to another,” Henry protested to me one night this week as he got in some hardly needed bat work fungo-ing grounders to infielders. Of course, the hell I can’t. I positively enjoy comparing Aaron to Mays. To me, it’s a rock’n roll versus a symphony.

Of course, the only person you really can compare Aaron to is Joe DiMaggio. Like DiMag, he’s in the right place at the right time. Like DiMag, he never throws to the wrong base. Like DiMag, he’s one of the most consistent hitters in the long history of the game. Neither of them ever had what you could consider a slump. A “slump” for Henry Aaron is going one whole day without a hit or one whole week without a home run.

Unlike DiMag, he’s dubbed “colorless.” “Color” is also playing most of your career in New York. The camera lights are brighter, the ink is blacker, the Ed Sullivan Show is just around the corner. The guest panelists on “What’s My Line?” must wear masks when you come on because if you play in New York, everyone knows your face. In Milwaukee, the only recognizable thing comes in kegs! No one ever pays any attention to anyone from Milwaukee. You’re just the second line of a vaudeville joke. You’re better off in Sheboygan.

Henry Aaron is not my personal discovery. He’s well acquainted with every pitcher around the league. “With Aaron,” says Johnny Podres, “the thing you have to do is not let him come up with anybody on base. You throw your best pitches to guys in front of Aaron or you’ll get dizzy watching the runs come around when he gets to bat.”

“I have tried everything with Aaron but rolling the ball to him,” confesses Don Drysdale. “You can get him out once in a while – but you better not count on it.”

He does one thing wrong: He hits off his front foot. It’s such a terrible fault some years he has trouble leading the league in everything. He could bat an annual .320 on his knees.

When he first came up, a spindly, silent kid from the streets of Mobile, he attracted so little notice that a coach once asked him, “Say, is your name ‘Aaron Henry’ or is it the other way round?”

Nowadays, around baseball, when you say “Henry,” that’s enough. There’s only one of him in this game. And that’s enough, too, for my dough. I mean, why be greedy? Beethovens don’t come by the dozen. Baseball is not the philharmonic, but it is like it in that when you get someone who doesn’t need the music right in front of him, people pay to see him. As for you Willie Mays fans – Liberace, baby. My man is not the sequined-suit type. No vulgar flash. Just hits the right notes. And the high curveballs.

-- Jim Murray. Oct.6, 1963, The Los Angeles Times.

* * *

* -- "It took me 17 years to get 3,000 hits in baseball. It took one afternoon on the golf course." – Henry Aaron.

* -- “I need to depend on Someone who is bigger, stronger and wiser than I am. I don't do it on my own. God is my strength. He gave me a good body and some talent and the freedom to develop it. He helps me when things go wrong. He forgives me when I fall on my face. He lights the way.” -- Hank Aaron

* -- “You may not think you're going to make it. You may want to quit. But if you keep your eye on the ball, you can accomplish anything.” -- Hank Aaron

* -- “Does Pete (Rose) hustle? Before the All-Star game he came into the clubhouse and took off his shoes and they ran another mile without him." – Hank Aaron

* -- “You can only milk a cow for so long, then you’re left holding the pail.” -- Hank Aaron

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