By Michael Lewis
RIP, Henry Aaron, one of baseball’s all-time greats.
Aaron passed away Friday morning. He was 86.
It seems many sports fans of my generation have their own stories about Aaron.
I have a special one as well, one that I actually shared with the public.
Even though he disputed what I saw that afternoon at Shea Stadium, I will always remember and treasure the interview I had with Henry Aaron in July 1973.
Let me set the scene.
I was a 21-year-old summer intern at my “hometown” newspaper, Newsday, having the best summer of my life. I was covering all sorts of events, from tennis tournaments, lacrosse games, shark fishing contests and I even picked winners of trotters at Roosevelt Raceway. When the editors figured out I could write more than two sentences together and not disgrace the English language very much, they allowed me to cover some baseball games, at Shea and Yankee Stadiums.
It was more in the role as a sidebar writer and quote accumulator, but this writer had no complaints.
The Mets were going through some tough times, so they sent me out to help get fan reaction as to how manager Yogi Berra was doing at a game against the Atlanta Braves July 6. At the time, I did some stories for a local baseball weekly called Play Ball and I got assigned to write a story about Aaron.
I showed up at Shea Stadium early that Friday afternoon, waiting outside the players’ entrance.
The Braves bus pulled up. Aaron was the first off the vehicle and four security policemen surrounded him immediately escorted him to the Braves’ clubhouse.
Needless to say, I was stunned. Never saw anything like that in my life.
During a pregame interview I asked the Braves right fielder about the security personnel.
“Guards? I didn’t see any guards,” he replied while looking at me.
He obviously did not want to comment on something so sensitive or tell the world at that time.
No one had a follow up question, although I knew I had seen something special.
Of course, the media was swept up in Aaron closing in on one of the greatest records in baseball history.
What the world didn’t know at the time was that Aaron was getting loads of hate mail and death threats because he had the audacity of breaking the all-time home run record of Babe Ruth.
Undaunted, this was the headline on the story and my lead for Play Ball:
Hank Aaron Has His Security
Both Physical And Mental
By MIKE LEWIS
Outside Shea Stadium, Henry Aaron stepped down from the College Lines Bus and was greeted, not by a flock of fans, but by four security policemen, who promptly escorted him into the Atlanta Braves clubhouse.
Aaron’s arrival was well guarded, although by the end of the weekend every baseball fan in the Metropolitan area would know of his journey into Fun City – even if he didn’t hit a home run. The Hammer did oblige, though. Not once, but twice, in the final game of the Braves’ three-game sweep of the Mets a week ago.
Sunday was a day for the over-35 set to shine. Not only did Aaron swat two homers, Willie Mays of the Mets added two of his own and robbed Darrell Evans of a home run on a sparkling catch. By the time he left the Big Shea, Aaron had totaled 23 homers for 1973, leaving him only 19 shy of Babe Ruth’s magic figure of 714.
Little did I know I had broken a story, a major story that would grab national headlines.
The hate mail Aaron received was revealed several weeks or months later.
He was playing under enormous pressure, with his life at stake.
I could not conceive of performing at such a high level under those ridiculous conditions, but Henry Aaron always found a way, and I admired him for that, even if he disputed what I saw.