The Remembering Henry Aaron Edition

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S1: The following podcast includes explicit language not restricted to words, beginning with F. S, B and Q.

S2: Hi, I’m Josh Levine, Slate’s national editor. This is Hang Up and listen for the week of January. Twenty fifth twenty twenty one. On this week’s show, we’re going to talk about a mystifying field goal attempt by the Packers. A 10th Super Bowl appearance for Tom Brady and the Kansas City Chiefs run for a second straight NFL championship will also go long on the life in the legacy of baseball legend Henry Aaron, who died last week at the age of 86.

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S3: I’m in Washington, D.C. I am the author of The Queen, the host of Slow Burn Season four on David Duke. Also in D.C., Stefan Fatsis. He is the author of the book Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic. Hello, Stefan.

S4: Hi, Josh. Bad week for field goals. Oh, those are great games, man. All those field goals were awesome. Warmed my heart.

S3: With us from Palo Alto, Slate staff writer, Nonomiya Field Goals, host of Slow Burn Season three and six. Joel Anderson, tejal.

S5: Punch it in. Have a good running back. Just punch it in. That’s right. That’s what you need. A good running back.

S3: LSU running backs Clyde Edwards player Deron Williams, Leonard Fournette all scored touchdowns. And if LSU Baynie.

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S5: Wow. Yeah, I mean one national championship out all of that, that’s you expecting them to win.

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S3: All right. It’s going to be a buck, Steve. Super Bowl in Tampa on Sunday, February 7th, the first time a team has ever played a true home game in the Super Bowl. LSU didn’t make it. I don’t know. The 43 year old Tom Brady will be going for his seventh title, his first outside New England. Twenty five year old Patrick Mahomes will be going for his second in a row. The chiefs are hoping to be the first team to win back to back titles since the Patriots and Tom Brady in 04 and 05. Before we get to that, we’ve got to say a few words about the Green Bay Packers. The NFC number one seed was playing at home on Sunday there at Lambeau Field. They’re led by the NFL’s likely MVP quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. After trailing twenty eight to ten to Tampa Bay, the Packers had the ball. They had a chance to tie the game with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter. But after three straight and completions from the yard line, Packers coach Matt LeFleur elected to kick a field goal, making the score bucks. Thirty one, Packers twenty six. You’ll note that the Bucs in that scenario had more points than the Packers did. Green Bay would never get the ball back after the game. All the floor would concede it was any time it doesn’t work out, you always regret it. Joel, try not to belabor coaching decisions because I feel like it takes away credit and blame from the players. They’re the ones who really determine who wins and loses. And in this case, the Packers were probably going to lose no matter what. Ben Baldwin’s fourth down, but on Twitter said that even if Green Bay had converted that fourth and goal, they’d still have just a twenty four percent chance of victory. So stipulating all that. But given the stakes and the situation and the quarterback, this was one of the most baffling and probably dumbest calls that I have ever seen.

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S5: Yeah, I just what I think about this, I think about how hard it is to get to this point in the playoffs, where a team is literally only two players away from potentially tying the game that will determine a spot in the Super Bowl. And players, coaches, everybody that works in a franchise, you spend an inordinate amount of time like some spend an off season, some their whole damn lives, trying to get to a point in the competitive stakes, every football game where you can control your own destiny. Right. And the Packers were right there. It’s like the sort of scenario you dream about if you’ve ever been part of a team sport. So the Packers have fourth and goal from the eight with maybe the most gifted quarterback of the last decade, the best red zone offense in NFL history this season. And they settle for twenty six yard field goal. And I mean, there’s all sorts of reasons why this is done right. Because to make that field goal not hurt them, it required the Packers to stop Tom Brady in the Bucs, preferably him three downs, and then go back down the field and score another touchdown. So it just doesn’t make a lot of sense any way you look at it analytically or otherwise. And this is reminiscent of the cowardice that Mike Vrabel and Mike Tomlin had shown in punting the ball the way late in their playoff losses earlier in the year. So it’s I guess what I always just come back to, it’s so hard to get to this point in the season, in your career and to figuratively punt to say, well, get it back, boys. It really doesn’t fit with the do or die nature of a one game elimination playoff. Right. You have to press your advantages while you have them. And I don’t understand why more coaches don’t feel the urgency in that moment. Like what is it about coaches that makes the vast majority of them go conservative in a moment that calls for boldness. And even if it’s not boldness, isn’t it just a matter of odds? Isn’t it just a matter of probabilities, Stefan?

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S4: Oh, it’s a matter of odds, probability. The lack of boldness and imagination and all of those things tend to define a lot of coaches, particularly young coaches like Matt LaFleur, who’s like 40 ish, has spent the last 15 or so years working his way up the ranks inside NFL organizations. And the most telling to me reflection on what happened from the floor in his postgame news conference was his defensiveness and saying, well, you know, we just didn’t get it. And of course, I regret it now. But then he said we’re always going to be process driven here. And NFL coaches, too many of them rely on this conceit that I know what I’m doing. There is only one way to do it. It’s an arrogance that, you know, this is the process and we are going to stick to it when in fact, in this situation, all of those other factors that you mentioned, the best red zone offense, the best quarterback of the last decade, not to mention the moment itself and expecting your best player to rise to it. That’s what didn’t happen here. He didn’t give Aaron Rodgers a chance to do something great and he deprived the fans at home in Green Bay and everyone watching on television of something exciting potentially happening. And that to me was the other lost thing here. It reflected the the rampant conservatism of NFL coaches that, you know, predates all these guys. But here it was in stark contrast in this moment, the downside risk was the same. If they didn’t score the touchdown, they still would have been down a touchdown. They kicked a field goal. They’re still down a touchdown. They chose the boring option in addition to the the conservative one.

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S3: Well, I think we should be clear here. This didn’t actually reflect the conservatism of NFL coaches. It was more conservative. A guy, Rob Daniels on Twitter searching pro football reference, found that in the last twenty five plus years in the scenario team down between four and eight points, fourth down in the red zone with between two and three minutes left in the fourth quarter. That’s like a pretty narrow set of circumstances that that it actually happened a hundred and fifteen times and teams that attempted a field goal three times out of one hundred and fifteen. So I don’t think it’s fair to say that, oh, Matt LaFleur is like conservative, like other NFL coaches. And this is a problem with NFL coaches. I think conservatism is a problem with NFL coaches. But this was just this was beyond any of that. I think he choked in this moment. You don’t necessarily think about coaches choking, but to talk about this is a process oriented move. This is a process that did not work.

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S5: Let me ask you guys a question. Did you all think that he knew something that we did in the moment? Because I was like, I remember thinking, am I missing something here? Like I would like he’s making this decision. Is there some sort of like math or odds? The probability that I’m not considering because I was just like it was so flabbergasted.

S4: I just was screaming, what are you doing?

S3: The thing that surprised me actually was the reverse. I was surprised when the fourth down bat thing came up on Twitter and said it was actually like a pretty close call. But that doesn’t take into account the context of this being Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense.

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S4: But I think the thing or the context, Josh, of Tom Brady being required to basically get one or maybe two first downs?

S6: No, I mean, it does it does take into account that context. It takes into account time and and score and the fact that they could. Yeah, but it’s Tom Brady like it is Tom Brady.

S3: Right. It doesn’t take into account the Rodgers and Brady of it. The reason I think that it’s maybe a closer call than it might feel like intuitively is the fact that we as fans and I think coaches to overrate the value of a tie because, OK, let’s say the best case scenario, I think maybe not the absolute best case scenario, but the best case likely scenario for the Packers. If they score and if they get the two point conversion is that it goes to overtime where they then have a 50 percent chance of winning. It’s it’s not like even if they had made it, they would have they still wouldn’t have been favorites to to win the game. But I think that the reason that the fourth downbeat is wrong in this case and saying, oh, it’s a ten, you know, 10 percent versus nine percent or whatever, is that you have to consider your your best case scenario of going for it, making it and getting the two point conversion. And then you’re like right back in the game. The best case scenario with the field goal is like, as you guys have been saying, you still have to stop tempo. And Tom Brady, get the ball back and then go all the way down the field and score like you’re just you’re giving yourself such a low ceiling at that point.

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S4: The shocking thing to me, Joel, also was that was also revealed in the postgame news conferences was Aaron Rodgers saying that on third down when he tried to throw the ball to the goal line to score, when he had an open field to the right pylon and possibly, you know, getting into the end zone or even just getting it down to the two or three and having a better shot on fourth down. He said that I thought maybe we were going to have four chances to go, meaning he tried to thread that ball in there thinking, I’m going to get another crack at it on fourth down. Did they discuss this? That shocked me that Rodgers went out there on third down, not knowing what would happen if they didn’t succeed. That’s a complete failure of preparation and communication.

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S5: I guess I just have we we probably can just not fathom the amount of communication and things that they all have to hold in their head moment by moment. None of this. Right. So but yeah, but that that was sort of surprising to me that they did not know that Aaron did not have some sort of hint as to what might happen on fourth down. And you can see that reflected in his disappointment at the end. Right. It came pouring out of him in a way that is really familiar. All of us that have watched football for a long time and you see quarterbacks at the end of their careers. They know that this moment comes around only so much. And to know that you literally left an opportunity out there on the field, which is the way Aaron Rodgers basically described it, and he said it was gutting.

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S4: He also said that he might have called a different play on third down had he known they weren’t going to go for it on fourth down.

S6: Did the reporter ask him, could you have just gone out there and, you know, gone for it on fourth? That I mean, that would have been a fascinating thing that hypothetically would have happened to Rodgers being insubordinate and going out on the on the field. I wonder if, like, LaFleur would have tried to pretend that it is I did it. I mean, that’s kind of what we want as fans from Rodgers in that moment. Like you want you want the story to be like the you know, I I convinced the coach and then we scored and and, you know, what Roger was saying was wasn’t my decision. Like, I didn’t I didn’t have any control over it.

S4: Right. Which points out the hierarchy of NFL teams, even someone like Aaron Rodgers either in the moment failed to or felt he didn’t have the authority or his relationship with this new head coach, didn’t allow him to walk up to him and say, no, we’ve got to go for this now. Please put this on my back. This is a moment that I live for. So there was something screwed up about all of that dynamic.

S6: Rodgers definitely would have gotten away with it if he had done that. Like, I don’t think anyone would be mad at him or blame him. But I can tell I totally understand the fact that he didn’t do it. It’s not like, you know, I do think, Joel, that there is this like thing in my head. And I don’t know if this is just like fan fiction or something, but I’m like I had I that Peyton Manning would have just ignored the coach would have gone out there in the book.

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S5: Yeah, I was sort of surprised that Aaron Rodgers deferred to a guy who doesn’t have his credibility in that moment, but that says a lot about sort of the militarism of football in the hierarchy system in the game that even a dude at the peak of his powers, like Aaron Rodgers, thought that he had to defer to his much less accomplished, much less prominent guy. But I mean, that’s sort of to me encapsulates the entire relationship with Aaron Rodgers with the Packers this year, because, man, he has to I mean, like he has to be hurt in a way that you can’t quite get your arms around because, like, even let’s just talk about the whole season, right. Like, where is the Bucs went all in on Brady this season understanding that long term planning doesn’t do much for the great players currently on your roster. They brought in Gronk, they brought in Leonard Fournette, they bought an Antonio Brown. They did all of these things to press their advantage. So we’ve got Tom Brady. We should try to win a Super Bowl this year. Right. They realize they don’t have a lot of seasons left for rebuild. The Packers in a deep draft took a project from Utah State to be Aaron Rodgers successor in a year when everybody knew that the Packers were going to be a great team this year. Right. And so that speaks a little bit to me to the pull that Aaron does or does not have within the organization. And I mean, just think about the ways in which they failed him on Sunday. You know, you’ve got one of his receivers dropped a pass in the end zone. You’ve got the disappointment at your code for kicking a field goal down eight late. You got your opponent taking advantage of a glaring weakness, that corner, you know. For Kevin King, who had one of the worst days that any NFL quarterback has had under that sort of spotlight, and it’s just, you know, if you’re Aaron Rodgers, you’re just like, why is this all on me, you know, at this point in my career? Like, why is it like why does it all depend on my excellence? And why didn’t you help me to press the advantages we have this year? You guys let me down. And that’s what I felt like when I was watching him, you know, playing, you know, psychologists from home. That’s what I felt like. Oh, Aaron Rodgers is like, oh, you guys let me down.

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S3: Let’s let’s transition quickly to the AFC before we get too deep into this, because the one kind of overwhelming sensation that I have watching the Kansas City Chiefs and this goes back a couple of years now is like everyone in this organization and everything in this organization is like pulling in the right direction, like they have all of the talent that you would want or need to succeed in the NFL. And yet their success is so much more than that. It’s, you know, the underhanded pass to Travis Kelsey on the one yard line. It’s like all the stuff that they do with scheme and getting these players and positions to succeed. And it’s a really beautiful thing to watch. They’re a fun team to watch for neutral fans. And it was great to see Patrick Mahomes back on the field after making it through the concussion protocol. It was a very kind of good and fun and convincing performance by a team that’s been good and fun and convincing for multiple years now.

S1: Yeah, Patrick Mahomes was back on the field because he probably got through the concussion protocol and also probably took an injection of Toradol to allow him to run because he was diagnosed with turf toe in the past week. So the you know, the miracles of the NFL are often preceded by the miracles of modern medicine.

S7: And Tyreek Hill is like the most fun player to watch and also like an incredibly problematic figure.

S4: Like I’m not saying that the chiefs are, you know, an unmitigated force for good and sweetness and light, but it was never what I was going to say is that what the chiefs reflect to me is the flipside of what we saw at the end of the Green Bay game. It’s it’s a coach, Andy Reid, who empowers his players to do creative things and builds a scheme that makes it more fun for them. It was fun to see that shovel pass. Right. That was really creative. Hard to execute, requires tons of practice. And I bet the players love working on that because it’s different. Contrast that with, well, we’re down by eight and if we kick a field goal, maybe we can stop them and we’re going to rely on the defense. You know, there’s a difference in approach that is really evident. I think it’s pretty stark when you watch Kansas City play, it starts with having amazing athletes like Patrick Mahomes, who could wind up one of the best quarterbacks of all time if he’s not already. But you take, you know, how you utilize that and what kind of freedom you give to the players to enjoy what they’re doing in the field rather than feeling they’re just part of a process.

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S5: Well, remember, I mean, just last week, it was the chiefs that went for it on fourth and one, you know, on their end of the field in that late in that game against the Browns, which a play that shocked Tony Romo. Right. Like I mean, if you’re talking about Paul Anderson and Joel Henderson. Right. If you’re talking about, like sort of the opposite of cowardice, like a team that’s bold and empowers its players and says, I have faith in you, we’re going to do this and excite your guys in a key moment, that is what the chiefs are. And, you know, I’m sort of ashamed to admit this, that I listen to Colin Cowherd every now and again and he mentioned something that I think is really interesting. And it does ring true to me that the chiefs remind him of an NBA team, you know, and that like they just like first of all, throughout the season, they just sort of toy with their opponents until they’re roused from this slumber late in the game and kind of pull away. But the way that they move the ball and the way that they’re able to get around and showcase their athletes, it does just reminds me of basketball on turf. It like this so much more athletic, so much more freeform. It just seems like a fun way of playing. And I, I don’t know. The best offenses I’ve seen in my life have been the 07 Patriots, the ninety eight Vikings, the ninety nine Rams and maybe the twenty thirteen Broncos with Peyton Manning in all of those teams eventually ran into a defense that it couldn’t solve. Right. Like even those Patriots would. Randy Moss and Tom Brady got stopped by the Giants. I struggled to think of who could stop these chiefs. Right. Like if the cheap like like maybe you might stop them for a few drives, but it just seems like it’s impossible to contain them over the course of an entire game.

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S3: So Erik Fisher, the left tackle for the Chiefs, hard his Achilles and the Bucs really bothered Aaron Rodgers with a pass rush with Jason Pierre-Paul and kill Barea. Like that’s the formula here is getting pressure on Mahomes. I mean, the Saints played really strong defense against the Chiefs this year. They held Mahomes like really low yards per attempt and the Chiefs scored thirty two points. I mean, the know the way to beat the Chiefs is to hold them to thirty in. When thirty five to thirty or something like that, before we go, I want to note and pro football acad that Tom Brady is now three and one in the playoffs. When he throws three interceptions, he threw three interceptions and the goat, he threw three interceptions in the span of seven passes, all of which were his fault. Just the like the Brady narrative, just in that game, like in the first half, and especially on that last second touchdown pass when the Bucs went for it and were rewarded for it. And by the way, the bills kicked field goals instead of going for it on Fourth Down and their game against the Chiefs. Anyway, you know, the narrative on Brady in the first half, especially with that long touchdown right before halftime, that Scottie Miller. I mean, you know, for all you want to make fun of him and say he’s washed because he threw three interceptions, like he does not look like Drew Brees. He does not look physically compromised in any way. He looks he throws the ball fast is you know, Reid seemed sharp when they’re sharp. And I think this was just a case of him making some bad throws and the Packers being unable to capitalize that. But it didn’t. Look, I mean, I’m curious for you guys thoughts. It doesn’t look to me like to the extent that Brady had a bad game, it means like he’s not good anymore or he’s not capable anymore. I mean, he’s still a very good player.

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S5: I mean, he’s good enough. I mean, he’s up. Yeah. Even if he didn’t like even if he wasn’t great, something is going on here. I still don’t look at him and say that’s the best quarterback we’ve ever seen. But I mean, just put to put a pin on it. The game’s greatest winner went to the franchise with the worst all time win loss record in NFL history, a team that had made the playoffs since twenty seven and took them to the Super Bowl in his first year. I mean, it’s just kind of hard to deny his greatness now.

S1: The thing that shocks me every time I watch the footage of Henry Aaron’s record breaking 715 home run on April 8th, 1974, is the two young guys, one in a blue sweater, the other in a maroon alligator shirt and tan jacket, both of them white, who run up to Aaron between second and third and pat him on the back. Aaron looks momentarily surprised and he flicks out his right elbow to push away blue sweater and then his left elbow at tan jacket. Storming the field at sports events wasn’t uncommon in the 70s, but in the case of Aaron’s homer, the context mattered. After he started closing in on Babe Ruth’s sacred mark, Aaron received hundreds of thousands of letters. A lot of it was hate mail, racist screeds and death threats. People said they’d shoot him from the stands, including on the very night he broke Ruth’s record. And yet two fans were able to get on the field and literally touch him while he rounded the bases, Aaron told the crowd in Atlanta.

S4: I just thank God it’s all over. Henry Aaron died late last week at the age of 86. We’re going to devote some extra time on the show to talk about his life and his career and also to read and listen to some writing about him. Maybe a good way to approach this, Josh, would be chronologically. So let’s start at the beginning. Aaron was born in the segregated Deep South in Mobile, Alabama.

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S3: So Howard Bryant’s obituary of Aaron for ESPN was excellent. And Howard also wrote a biography of Aaron. We’re going to be hearing from him a little bit later in the show. But there are a couple of things from that obit that really I wanted to pull out here. This actually starts even before Henry Aaron with his father, Howard, wrote about the fact that Henry Aaron’s father worked at the Mobile shipyard in Alabama during World War Two, when white workers rioted because African-Americans were being hired. And he also wrote about how Henry Aaron’s father built the family house with saved money and leftover planks of wood and nails he scavenged from vacant lots. This was a man and a family growing up in the Deep South at a time. And and Howard writes about this as well, where there’s the kind of belief and expectation that nobody else in the world is going to look out for us. The government’s not going to look out for us. We have to kind of do for ourselves and take care of ourselves. And the thing that happened that Aaron sort of talks about as being transformative in his life was Jackie Robinson getting the chance to play in the major leagues. And not only that, but Jackie Robinson coming to mobile for a spring training game. And Henry Aaron’s in the crowd as a kid, watching him, listening to him and sort of seeing a vision of himself that he hadn’t seen before. He had wanted to be a ballplayer. And seeing Jackie Robinson get this chance was, I think, a very powerful and important moment in his life. And the thing that sort of is important to know and think about with Aaron is that he is the sort of bridge between the past and the present and future of baseball in that he does play in the Negro Leagues for the Indianapolis Clowns for a very brief period of time and is one of the last players due to the longevity of his major league career, was one of the last or the last Major League players to have that Negro Leagues experience. And so he is the sort of bridge figure, Joel, and someone who is deeply familiar with the Negro Leagues and that heritage before he ever plays in the majors.

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S5: Yeah, I thought a lot about his connection to the roots of, you know, the first black people playing in the major leagues. You know, like as you mentioned, it’s something that comes up over and over again when you read the story of his life about that trip that Jackie Robinson made to Mobile, Alabama, which is still sort of random, too. I mean, obviously, Mobile held a different place in the American landscape in the 1940s as opposed to today. But just think about the miracle he is that he is raised in the Jim Crow south Mobile, Alabama, and deciding he wants to play baseball and making that happen in a time when there was no real clear path to professional baseball for black men in America. There was no guarantee that just because he was great at it, that he would get to do it and is audacious, an unlikely as it is to make the majors today. Like, if you decide that you want to play baseball today, it’s still a very hard path. Right. But just imagine being a black teenager in Alabama in the 1940s and thinking that you could or should play baseball for a living. Like just imagine that.

S8: And that ultimately his parents raised in a time and a place where black people like they barely could afford to have dreams of any kind, let alone something like that, and they didn’t necessarily dissuade him from pursuing that. That’s a miracle.

S4: Yeah, it’s almost like they could have just ended in a conversation that he had with his parents when he was 17 years old. You know, he was playing for sandlot semipro teams in Mobile when he was 15, playing with adult men. And he was approached his family was approached with this offer to go to Indianapolis and play for the clowns. And you have to understand that the the Negro Leagues at this point were a shell of what they were. The clowns were a barnstorming team for the most part. They played in what was left of the Negro American League. This was not the established Negro Leagues. There were the best players had already been siphoned off and were playing either in the majors or in the affiliated minor leagues. His parents, I think, didn’t want him to go. And it was a struggle. Aaron did not like school. He he had said he skipped it. He skipped school, dropped. Yeah, he skipped senior year. You didn’t have to go to senior year in Mobile back then, but they let him go. They they put him on a train with a duffel bag. And there’s this incredible photo of Aaron standing at the train station ready to leave to go to Indianapolis. His ability was so clear from such a young age, though, that if anyone was going to make it on ability, it was going to be Henry Aaron. He he when he shows up in Indianapolis, he still batted with his left hand on top of his right hand backwards and still was raking these semipro adults in mobile. And a coach in Indianapolis makes him switch to a conventional grip on the bat. He dominates this league. He’s he just turned 18. When he gets to Indianapolis, he dominates the league. He is leading in multiple categories through the first two months of the season. And the New York Giants and the Boston Braves scouts have him on their radar and try to sign him. The Giants didn’t for like want of a few thousand dollars and could have ended up with Hank Aaron’s and Willie Mays in their outfield. So the Braves pay ten thousand dollars to the clowns and they send him to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to one of their minor league teams.

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S7: The thing that’s so interesting about his early career is the way in which he bounces between the Deep South in the north, how he goes from Mobile Ten to Annapolis, he goes to Wisconsin, then he goes to the South Atlantic League. Then he goes to Milwaukee.

S1: He integrates the South Atlantic League in Jacksonville.

S7: He’s one of three or four players on the team that integrates and talk from the stands about how they’re going to feed black players to the alligators. And and then he goes to Milwaukee and just thinking about him, like part of this, you know, making it to the major leagues, making it as a big time baseball player, there must be in him the sense of escape or improving his his life and his family’s life and just to keep getting thrown, you know, you know, back in to this sort of, like, maelstrom where he’s not respected or appreciated. That must have been incredibly challenging and tormenting. And Stefan, you mentioned his talent being so obvious. I mean, he’s kind of the player of the year and all of these minor leagues that he is in. And yet you also mentioned that the Giants don’t want him because of a couple thousand dollars. And the thing that’s so telling to me, Joel, about the integration of the majors in these early years is just how so many of these franchises, they must have known how much talent these people aren’t idiots. They must have known how much talent there was in black baseball. They must have known that having good players means that you’ll have a good team and be successful. And yet prejudice, racism was more important to them than winning and even more than that.

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S4: And let me just jump in here for a second. Even more than that, having black talent on your team would have increased their gates. Baseball teams weren’t selling out stadiums in the 1940s and 1950s. Black fans wanted to come and watch black players, so they denied them so well.

S7: Maybe that was part of it, that they just didn’t want black. They didn’t want black fans.

S4: Even they were paying black fans, even if they could make more money.

S9: Right. I mean, I guess the thing is and that’s something that we know and then we’ve lived through even more recently here, is that racism doesn’t make any sense. And I mean, even if you just break it down to a very basic level, I mean, segregated schools meant that the government had to. Build two sets of schools now, one set was inferior, right, but, you know, America is willing to embrace idiocy, to keep black people apart. And one thing that I thought about in Hank Aaron talked about this is that when those first black players got together, man, and they knew they knew that like they were, you know, under a microscope and that they had to succeed and they had to succeed under these, like, really difficult circumstances. You know, he talked about sitting in Jackie Robinson’s hotel room and like talking with Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Junior Gilliam and Joe Black. And they talked about what to do if a fight broke out on the field, if a pitcher threw it, if somebody called them the N-word. Right. And just as great as they were, as much talent as these black players had. I also wonder what life would have been like if they had just been able to play baseball, you know what I mean? Like, if they did not if like, there weren’t all these obstacles placed in front of them and people denying them opportunities and when they afforded these opportunities, trying to make life difficult for them, like what would it have been if Henry Aaron had just been able to focus on his craft and not be a pioneer? Right.

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S10: It’s hard to imagine him being any better than he was. But I think you’re right that it’s that it’s possible.

S7: And and it’s, you know, looking looking at these numbers, Stefan, I think we should we should talk about Aaron, the player for a bit before we get too far into the conversation. Career batting average of three or five, two time National League batting champion, MVP in 1957, all star in every season except his first and last all time. This is from the New York Times obituary that I’m reading here, Aaron.

S3: Number one, in total basis ever, number one in RBIs, ever. Number three in hits ever. And then we obviously know about the the homerun total.

S4: He played 23 seasons. He was almost never injured. You could take away all of Hank Aaron’s home runs and he’d still have three thousand hits. Babe Ruth could have slugged like two hundred and fifty more home runs, and he still wouldn’t have had as many total bases in Henry Aaron. And yet Aaron was denigrated for his longevity. Oh, he did all of this with more at bats. Oh, he wasn’t as flashy as Mays. Oh, he wasn’t as charismatic as Mickey Mantle. The numbers that Henry Aaron posted and the fact that he was able to play as long as he did at that high level, it was like forty five home runs year after year after year. He never hit fifty in a season. Those are testaments to his greatness. They don’t diminish his greatness.

S7: The other thing that I found amazing is he only had one three home run game ever in his career. He was not somebody who who would you like on a day to day basis, even necessarily? He was somebody who to appreciate him. You had to watch him every day. And the contrast with Willie Mays is really interesting. And they were often pitted against each other as like Mays being the more kind of fun and flashy and standout sort of player and Aaron kind of being. It’s not even just that Aaron was denigrated, I think, during his career. And this is written about in all of these pieces, he just wasn’t even really talked about at all or even noticed or or noted. But when he was talked about, it was just sort of like, oh, you like in the way that that black athletes are so often insulted, it looks like he’s just gliding out there. He’s not even trying.

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S9: He looks slow and like what is what is even they called him Stepin Fetchit, like his own manager called him Stepin Fetchit, which he said was a reference to his gait. Right. Like the way that he carried himself.

S3: But I mean I mean but imagine, Joel, like denigrating the efforts and work ethic of a guy who never misses a game and his great year after year. And it was only with his approach to Ruth’s record that, oh, you know, he starts speaking magazine covers and people start paying attention to him. This being in the 70s after he’s won an MVP, after he’s had this long, incredibly distinguished career, when people kind of step back and be like, oh, Henry Aaron. Yeah, I guess that guy was pretty good.

S9: Right. You know what’s interesting, too, and this is probably a terrible analogy, and I had enough time to think of something better, and I did. And I apologize in advance. But I think of it in the way that Evander Holyfield is remembered in comparison to Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson, somebody who had these, you know, was dynamic, had these amazing peaks and sort of flamed out really quickly, whereas Evander Holyfield was a dominant heavyweight boxer, Pete. Mike Tyson twice head to head and still isn’t regarded in quite the same way as Mike Tyson, you know, when you when you look back at it. But another thing that sort of comes to mind to me, like having read all this material about Hank Aaron, is that he had to do all this without any of the technology or training that athletes had today. Right. Like Hank Aaron couldn’t rely on video or film of opposing pitchers. Right. Like he couldn’t study in that way. So, so much of it is recall and timing and his own like dedication to the craft. He talked one time about his mental preparation as a process of elimination. So he said, suppose a pitcher has three good pitchers, a fastball, the curve and a slider. What I do after a lot of consideration and analyzing and studying is to eliminate two of those pitchers, since it’s impossible against a good pitcher to keep all three possibilities on my mind at the plate, like he’s making this sound like this is just like simple arithmetic. But this is actually very complicated strategy that he was able to basically come up on his own with very little help. And it’s I mean, obviously, all athletes of his time had to play under those same circumstances, but it speaks to his mind and his knowledge of the game, which is not something that I actually hear a lot about. Even up to this, like you hear about him, is just like this steady sort of automaton of a player. But you don’t think of him as like this analytical beast, which is what he was like. He’s a guy that had seen every pitch, knew how to break it down in a way that not many others had. And like to me, that’s just sort of incredible.

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S1: Know Publisher wanted Ted Williams to write a book titled The Science of Hitting. I don’t think Henry Aaron wrote a similar book about the techniques and the technicalities of being as great as he was. So he came up with his own ways and he just didn’t share. I mean, part of this was personality to write. It’s like part of it was this is who Henry Aaron. Was he wearied of these comparisons with Mays? He wearied of being told that he didn’t look like he was trying hard. I read one anecdote about how in his very first spring training with the Braves in 1954, he was told by coaches, by a coach, at least at least make it look like you’re trying harder out there. And Aaron later reflected that his father had always told him, you don’t try harder than you need to try. You do what you do to get it done. His approach was, was that so there was no you know, even as he was being sort of compared unfavourably in that regard to Willie Mays. And he was I mean, here’s a here’s an excerpt from a piece that George Plimpton wrote in Sports Illustrated after the 715 homer in which he’s describing Aaron’s approach. And he says there’s nothing in Aaron’s approach to the play to suggest such an intensity of purpose. His stride is slow and lackadaisical. He was called snowshoes for a time by his teammates for the way he sort of pushes himself along. He steps into the box. Even here, there is no indication of the kinetic possibility, none of the ferocious tapping of his spikes to get a good toe hold that one remembers of Willie Mays, say, or the quick switching of his bat back and forth as he waits.

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S7: The thing that Aaron is always credited for is his quick rests. His ability to wait on the ball like that is the key.

S4: And he got up to get some big legs, too.

S7: Those are also credit is the key to hitting is being able to recognize what the pitchers are. Joel, you mentioned that. And to wait and see what you know, we’re talking about milliseconds here. And so somebody who is able to to wait and then snap their wrists and turn on the ball like Aaron did is a very special player. But when I think about a player who’s I think in his case, rightfully credited for having that attribute, that’s something that’s like insider sort of baseball knowledge. It’s not something that is particularly showy. It’s not something that is remarkable physically to look at. It’s a testament to skill and like a in a in a skill sort of game. And it’s something that might allow you to pile up, hit after hit and just win these like one on one battles every day with pitchers. But it’s not you know, it’s not something that just on an individual kind of basis or when you’re like looking at an individual at bat, you’re going to be like that is the most remarkable baseball player I’ve ever seen, even if in reality he hits off and was. All right. Let’s take a pause there and we will come back momentarily talking about the record breaking home run number 715.

S6: On this week’s bonus segment for Slate plus members, we’re going to talk about new Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell’s instantly legendary press conference rant in which he suggested that his team resorted to cannibalism.

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S11: One ball and no strikes and waiting the outfield deep in straight away fastball is a high five of the deep right center field that goes back to the San Diego.

S12: A marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country in the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all time baseball.

S4: That was Vin Scully with the call of Aaron’s 715. And what’s striking, of course, is that Scully chooses to note Aaron’s race. There’s a consciousness there of what Aaron went through. The letters that he had received had gotten publicity, the struggle that he had faced, and not just 1974 at the beginning of the season when he hit the homer, but pretty much all through the 73 season when he started to approach seven hundred. And even in 72, when it was clear that Aaron was going to break this record, had been national news.

S10: This was an enormous moment in America, in American history, and it was treated as such.

S7: And the fact that Aaron had ended the previous season on seven 13, one shy of Babe Ruth’s record, just added months upon months of kind of buildup and suspense to this moment. And it also gave kind of the country an opportunity to think about how it felt about a black man beating Babe Ruth’s record. And numbers are more important in baseball than any other sport. And this was the most hallowed number in a sport where numbers are most important. This was also the biggest sport in America for decades. And so it’s hard to overstate how significant this was. And a lot has been said recently about the letters that Hank Aaron received, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them. And it was publicized in 1973 that Aaron was getting hate mail. And after that happened, the letters reportedly shifted to being 99 to one in favor of Hank Aaron. But in a piece that Henry Rahbar wrote for Slate last week in which he talked to the woman who is tasked with answering or opening Henry Aaron’s mail, it was the hate mail that Henry Aaron kept and that stood out to him. And Joel, if a lot of people are telling you that they’re happy for your accomplishment and that they love you, and then some number of other people are saying that they want to kill you and want to kill your family and saying the most heinous and awful things about you when you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. Quite the opposite when all you’ve done is be excellent, the most excellent that’s ever done, this thing that’s so important to America and Americans. Of course, that’s going to be the stuff that sticks with you and that you’re a member. And I don’t want to. And also just like ninety nine to one, since he was getting so many letters, the like denominator there is huge. He was getting a ton of this horrible mail, even if it was, you know, outweighed in terms of volume by the positive messages.

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S8: Yeah. Even if the the breakdown is 99 to one, that’s still a lot of people like that one percent can make your life hell. So I read this profile of him in Sports Illustrated in 1992 and it sounded like he had something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. You know, I mean that like, you know, his bodyguard, who was an Atlanta police major guy named Calvin Wardlaw, said even now, assassination is always in the back of his mind. Now, this is a 1992, right. There’s always that possibility someone will try to make a name at this late date. And I think that’s just profoundly sad to me. And it kind of goes back to what I said earlier about like, what kind of player would Henry Aaron have been if he did not have to bear this burden of racism and like that, like as great as he is, we don’t know what was left on the table because he talks all the time. And it actually is sort of and I know we’re going to talk about, like the way that his dignity keeps coming up over and over again and his grace. But he was actually very open about how damaging that year was to him. And he said in that same article in Sports Illustrated, it should have been the happiest time of my life, the best year. But it was the worst year. It was hell. So many bad things happen. Things I’m still trying to get over and maybe never will. Things I know I’ll never forget, I don’t want to forget. And that is just profoundly sad to me that what should have been. The high point of a long and distinguished career ended up becoming a nightmare for him.

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S7: Let’s listen to a clip now. So we asked Sandy Tolin, the writer, the author of the book, Me and Hank, a Boy and his hero. Twenty five years later to read an excerpt from his book. And what you’ll hear now is a part of the book where Sandy is meeting with Henry Aaron’s daughter, Gail, and they’re looking through a scrapbook that Sandy Tolan made of Henry Aaron, his childhood hero. And they’re looking through the photos of these just remarkable moments and Henry Aaron’s life and career. So here is Sandy Tolan.

S13: There’s her father in a broad smile of relief. After seven 15, we can see the back of his mother’s head, her arms flung around Hank squeezing him tight. Looks like a picture of a proud mother congratulating her son. It isn’t. See how she’s holding him. She was hugging him. Gail says he’s glad it’s over. She has something else on her mind. This is worth it. Right around the time that the cannon went off, I asked, yes. Well, he rounded the bases. There was a cannon that went off in the outfield. My grandmother thought it was a gun. She thought somebody was shooting at Daddy. And she’s holding him like that because she’s saying if they’re going to kill him, we’re going to go down together. She was going to go down with him. I think about this at the moment. Hank Aaron established the greatest record in sports. He didn’t celebrate. His mom didn’t celebrate, and his daughter Gail didn’t celebrate. She couldn’t even be there. Instead, Gail says, I was with the FBI. She was a student at Fisk University in Nashville for two years. She’d been under the FBI’s protective surveillance after caller threatened to kidnap her if her father didn’t quit the chase.

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S1: Who is so profoundly saddening and also not at all surprising in America, it was this toxic combination of a black man. Breaking not just a record, but this mythic record, you know, Babe Ruth was a caricature, you know, he’s grafted onto American consciousness this this round Fun-Loving dominant athlete, he stood for everything.

S4: You know, when Roger Maris broke Ruth’s single season record of 60 homers in 1961, when he had 61, you know, Maris, his hair fell out because of the stress. So Ruth has at the start this standing in American mythology that is above everything else. And then you graft onto it the fact that a black man from the Deep South, as Vin Scully said, was about to shatter the last big record that Ruth held. Aaron talks about it, this duality in his retirement. He talked to Bill Rhoden of The New York Times in 1994, the 20th anniversary of 715.

S1: And Rhoden wrote, Aaron said that it wasn’t just the breaking of Ruth’s record that touched off the venomous outpouring. Rather, the hatred was a delayed reaction to the onslaught against black athletes who began to dominate baseball during the mid 1960s, precisely at the time when the game needed an infusion of fresh blood. Quote, We change the face of baseball, said Aaron, referring to players such as Billy Williams, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, Willie McCovey and Lou Brock. They don’t want people to know that, he said, referring to the owners, writers and others charged with interpreting baseball history. They want people to think that Babe Ruth was the man who changed the game. He hit the home runs, he had the big belly, he trotted around the bases and he was the one. And then he says, April 8th, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball. It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids have to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats. And I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.

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S8: Damn, yeah, I mean, that’s just that’s devastating and, you know, I think that, like, there’s a lot of talk about like what the the home run chase did to him. But I also think that he’s right and that there was a delayed build up, you know, this racial backlash to the black players taking over the game.

S4: And also he also doesn’t mention Ali and Jim Brown and Bill Russell. Yeah.

S5: And I mean, just like think about like the accumulation of all these slights over the course of your life, like integrating the Salli League of the South Atlantic League, playing in all of these towns, dealing with all these racist taunts like just the life that he had to live and remember the Braves when they moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. And this is this is another I’m just always shocked that people keep talking about his dignity and grace, because actually Hank Aaron was very up front with, like the racism that he dealt with. It’s normally these are the sorts of traits that normally antagonize white people or racist white fans. And you don’t get tagged as like dignified or gracious. But he was fairly upfront about it. So when you think about when they were moving the franchise from Milwaukee to Atlanta, they had to convince Hank Aaron that this was something that was worth his while. They brought out the president of the local NAACP. They bought out Whitney Young, who is the president of the National Urban League. They brought out Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King had to convince Hank Aaron, look, playing baseball is something that you can do that can help us with changing, you know, the landscape down here in the Deep South. And so I’m just like I’m just thinking about, like, you know, all that stuff, like all the things that he had to deal with. And he was still skeptical of his native land, his homeland, the Deep South. And, yeah, like it’s no wonder he got to the end of his life and he’s like, I did not get a chance to enjoy much of that.

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S7: So he is an ambitious guy and he had an ego and he wanted this record. He also didn’t want the record. I mean, he didn’t want all of the pain and misery that came with the record. But everything that we have talked about in terms of him not getting his do the comparisons with Mays and Mantle and him kind of being seen as a lesser or less entertaining figure and like he’s piling up these numbers. And this is the one number that if he gets it, they’ll have to respect me.

S10: There’s no way that you can get this record and not be the greatest. And then he gets there. And when he does get it, he is treated the way that he’s treated. It’s a great kind of tragedy. And with time, his story has been sort of rewritten or the past has been rewritten and the more kind of in recent decades.

S7: Joel, you mentioned that about how he’s praised for his grace and his dignity. And a lot of it is similar to the way the Martin Luther King has talked about where the people, the people or the kinds of people who would have been harshly critical or worse of him during his life. Now look at him as a sort of paragon and like, why isn’t everyone like this guy? Why isn’t everyone so, you know, graceful and dignified? And they trot out the quotes, even though it wasn’t like that during his lifetime. But, Stephan, you do get the sense, even with that really bracing quote from the road in peace. And I’m not I’m not just saying this because, you know, you want there to be a happy ending or you want things to be nice, but you do get the sense and maybe we’ll hear this from Howard Bryant in a minute, that Aaron actually did find some peace and contentment in his life towards the end.

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S4: I think that does sound right. And based on what Howard reported and Howard kept up a relationship with Aaron for more than a decade, right up until the time of his death, after he wrote his biography of Aaron. And but it was always a struggle for him. He kind of rejected baseball. He worked in the game for, you know, more than a decade. I think after his retirement, he had a bunch of businesses. He was very successful. He never lacked for anything. But he felt that every everything he did for baseball or around baseball was to an end. It wasn’t because he had some fondness for the sport itself. It was a way to capitalize on his legacy, which he never felt matched the reality. And that was something that Howard writes about in the book and in the ESPN piece, the sort of tug between the legend that was created around Hank Aaron and the person Henry Aaron, who he was.

S1: They never were the same. And that troubled him for many years, it was he, Howard writes that in the book that it wasn’t supposed to be difficult terrain. He was supposed to be like Reggie or Ruth, Ted Williams and John Wayne, where the person and the legend meshed so seamlessly that the individual became the myth. And he never got to enjoy that or experience that. And I think gets because of what he went through during his career and the recognition that on the one hand, all of these fans wanted to idolize 715 and then 755. But underneath all of that was what he went through to get there.

S3: So let’s listen to Howard Bryant reading an excerpt from his biography of Aaron.

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S1: And this is from the end of Howard’s book. It set in 2007, where Aaron goes to Milwaukee for the fiftieth anniversary of the Milwaukee Braves only championship. And Howard talks about how only 13 players were still alive, how Aaron had survived at all, how there was a trail network in Milwaukee named for him and there’s a statue for him at Eau Claire. And there are streets named for him in Mobile and Atlanta and Parks.

S14: And this is sort of how Aaron is now sort of come to terms with all of that and a safer move when there were no more points to prove, no more misunderstandings to correct, no more fights to solve. The competition’s ended in the deeds could finally speak for themselves. Henry Aaron lowered his guard and allowed the warmth of the sun of his life to save his face. Not too long ago, we went away for 15 days on a cruise to the Panama Canal. He said I had been on cruises before but never on the water for that long a time. I remember when the boat was in the canal, in that narrow space, I looked out at the blue ocean and saw the birds swoop down into the water and then settle onto the land. And then I understood how much I wanted to be like them free. I leaned over to my wife and I told her that it was at that very moment that I finally felt like them. No one was asking me about baseball. The people that were around us weren’t interested in me because I played baseball. I was as free as a bird. And I told my wife, I said, I’ve never felt this free in my life.

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S8: Yeah, man, that’s just I mean, that’s beautiful, if that’s the place that he got to and, you know, I guess there’s the thing about Henry Aaron and I first of all, this think about, man, what a waste like this is the last year of his life. And he had to spend it like this and this bullshit and how O’Brien actually makes this point. And one of the stories he wrote about Hank Aaron over the weekend about how he wanted people like Henry Aaron to outlive the Trump presidency so that they could see the very end of it. But for me, this is really personal because, you know, my parents are basically of the same generation as Henry Aaron. And I really fret about this loss of generation of black Americans, particularly those from the old Jim Crow South. They know things about this country that many of us have never known or tried to forget, and they’re useful. Check on the myths that Americans tell themselves about this country. Right. Hank Aaron said years after his career ended, he told a reporter that he occasionally looked through that hate mail that we talk about all the time and he received during the home run chase and after. And he said, I read the letters because they remind me not to be surprised, hurt. They remind me what people are really like. And I think that’s the thing that I would take them. You know, Hank Aaron’s legacy beyond his greatness, he was willing to tell America the truth about itself and he wasn’t willing to smile and be happy just for the sake of it, that he was willing to say, hey, look, man, these are your people. This is what you are doing to me. You hurt me. And I didn’t get my just reward. And I just think that’s profoundly sad. And if he did feel free at the end, then God bless him, because that’s beautiful.

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S7: Yeah, very well said. And when Aaron said to Bill Rhoden in 1994, we changed the face of baseball. A lot of the men whose names he mentioned are not with us anymore. Bob Gibson and Lou Brock just died in 2020. It’s a whole generation of black baseball players and American heroes from a particular era. The one that you described so well, Joel. And there was one guy, Billy Williams, who’s from Alabama, who’s been interviewed about Aaron this past week, who is still alive. And the other guy in that sentence that Aaron read, he’s still alive, is Willie Mays. And so it’s a really dwindling number of these guys. And so we should be listening to the ones who are still alive while they’re still here.

S4: And we should be reading the words of Henry Aaron and his contemporaries about what it was like.

S7: Thank you to Sandy Tolan and Howard Bryant for reading from their books for us. We will have links to those books and a whole bunch of stories on our show page at Slate. Dot com slash hang up. And now it is time for after balls and aname that we have not mentioned yet in relation to Henry Aaron. Is Tommy Aaron and that was Henry Aaron’s younger brother. He hit 13 home runs in a major league career of his own, giving Henry and Tommy a combined seven hundred sixty eight the record for brothers in the major leagues. Tommy Aaron died at the age of 45 of leukemia and he had actually been a manager in the minor leagues. He was the first black manager in the International League for the Richmond Braves and won Richmond’s first in our National League pennant in 1978. So he is a successful manager. Joel, when I was looking at Tommy Aaron’s biography and there’s not that much about him, if you just kind of scrape the surface of Google just made me think of, you know, it’s a miracle that Hank Aaron made it to the major leagues, but he wasn’t the only one in his family. Like, think of how remarkable it is that a pair of brothers made it to the majors. So let’s remember, Tommy, Aaron, that’s even more credible.

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S8: I mean, it’s not like that father was a professional baseball player. You know, like this isn’t Dell Curry and Steph Curry. I mean, this is that they worked at a lumber yard. That’s actually right. So, yeah, that’s that’s incredible. Man Salute. Tommy, Aaron.

S10: Stefan, what’s your time hearing?

S4: On May 27th, 1952, Syd Pollack, the owner of the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, laid out the terms of a proposed sale of 18 year old Henry Aaron to the Boston Braves. I feel this youngster is another Ted Williams in the hitting department. He wrote to a Braves executive named John Mullin Pollock ask for ten grand, detailed a payment schedule and noted Aaron’s military draft status. He is worth waiting two years for should he be called into the service. Then in the last paragraph, he mentioned another player on pitcher Leander Torgerson. If possible, would like to see you bring him in to Milwaukee to pitch one game for this club. Pollack said he thought Torgerson could be a regular starter at Boston’s top farm team.

S1: But if he fails to win and go the full route, return him to us with transportation only expense involved. The Braves didn’t appear to take up Pollock on the offer, and Leander Torgerson never made it to the big leagues. But he wasn’t just a footnote to Hank Aaron’s immortality. Torgersen was a six one right hander from Florence Villa, Florida. He had joined the clowns in 1950 and in a postseason barnstorming game, beat Don Newcombe and the Brooklyn Dodgers. His older brother Jim, a six four righty, joined him on the Clowns in 1950 1951. Big Jim went Tennen for Leander, whose nickname was Schoolboy went fifteen and four, including a no hitter with sixteen strikeouts. After the season, Leander was sold to the Chicago White Sox and sent to Colorado Springs. But he didn’t stick and he returned to the clown’s Big Jim roomed with the young Arron. Both pitchers dominated and wanted to play affiliated baseball and get a shot at the majors. On April 1st, 1953, Jim and Leander reported for spring training with the hot springs bathers of the classy Cotton States League. The league at eight teams, one in Louisiana, three in Arkansas, including Hot Springs and four in Mississippi. Like the majors, the minors, as a rule, were now prohibited from barring black players. Not surprisingly, given its name, the Cotton States League, though, hadn’t integrated. But the white owner of the bathers needed pitching help, and he knew the Tugger Suns would attract black fans, which was a common phenomenon after integration. We know our place in the South because we are from the south, Jim said after the Torgerson joined the team. All we want is an opportunity to prove our ability as baseball players. But the owner of the Jackson, Mississippi, team said the league, quote, is hardly ready for Negro players, end quote. Mississippi’s attorney general said that, quote, Mixed white Negro athletic contests would violate public policy in his state, a state that outlawed interracial marriage and integrated schools. Within a week, club owners voted to expel hot springs from the league entirely. Minor League Baseball overturned the vote and the league replied that it would disband if the Torgersen played. So the pitchers agreed to be loaned out to a Class D team in Knoxville, Tennessee, but they didn’t hide their anger. Are we fit to work in your homes and fields? Only the brothers wrote.

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S4: In a statement, we can help elect you when it’s time for voting, when you were young, was it fair for a Negro made to raise you? Now we’re the forgotten ones. You haven’t been fair to us in the South. We don’t want to, as Negroes, stay with you or eat with you. All we want to do is play baseball for a living. This, too, is a job. We are still working for you. A few weeks later, short of pitchers and still angry, the owner of the Hot Springs Bathers recall the gym. A capacity crowd of fifteen hundred filled the stadium in Hot Springs. But as Jim was warming up, the team got a telegram from the league president ordering the umpire to declare a forfeit.

S1: The crowd booed the ruling and cheered Jim, but the team caved and sent him back to Knoxville. I’m not bitter, but I think he did the wrong thing in making Hot Springs forfeit that game, Jim said afterward. I hope I land in the majors someday. I want to be in a league where they will let me play ball against inferior talent in the league. Jim won twenty nine games and struck out two hundred and eighty six batters. He also bravely sued the Cotton States League in federal court, arguing that the league breached his contract and denied his civil rights by preventing him from working. A federal judge dismissed the civil rights action and Jim dropped the case after the team sold his contract to Dallas of the Texas League. Jim didn’t make the majors, but he pitched through the end of the 50s, reaching as high as triple triple-A. After baseball, he became the second African-American police officer in Winterhaven, Florida, and coached youth baseball there. He died of a heart attack in nineteen eighty three. There’s a baseball field named for him there. Hot Springs wound up integrating the Cotton States League in 1954, but the league folded a year later. As for Leander Torgerson, he pitched in just 10 games in Knoxville before heading home with arm trouble that ended his career. An excellent SABR biography of Jim Torgerson, written by my friend Peter Morris, says that not much is known about Leander’s post baseball life. I did find a story about his death. He was electrocuted while moving a TV antenna from a roof in Florida in 1965. He was just 37 years old.

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S4: Hank Aaron made it, Leander Torgerson didn’t, but they shared more than space in a letter from one white baseball executive to another, they shared what all black baseball players of their time did, the fight against systemic racism just to play the game.

S5: Wow, I did not know that about the Cotton States League man. That’s jarring. You know, my family is my father’s from Hot Springs, Arkansas. I thought so. Yeah. Yeah. So this I can’t wait to till he hears this because that will surely spark some memories. That’s man, everything is just such a tragedy, man, who you just think about, you know, how many people were denied and, you know, never got a chance to live out, not even their dreams, but just like their potential. You know, that’s just deeply depressing.

S10: Yeah, very well told, Stefan. And deeply depressing. I mean, as we were talking about Erin during the show today, I was wondering if he would have done things differently, like if he had known that things would have turned out the way that they did, if he would have wanted to have a different kind of dream when he was a kid, one that wouldn’t make him such a public figure. And then you hear a story like this and realize that there’s tragedy or potential tragedy and any kind of potential pathway that you go down. Just being a black man living in the South in this period in American history, there’s not any kind of way that you can go in life that can ensure that you would have an easier time.

S1: It’s just that the truth of it, there’s a generation of former black baseball players for whom Henry Aaron was the embodiment of overcoming everything to make it. And, you know, Jim and Leander Torgersen were just to two athletes that didn’t. And like you said, people didn’t even get really a chance to fulfill their potential, not to make too broad of a claim here.

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S5: But there’s been a lot of talk about America being on the cusp of fascism, whatever. And it’s just really important to remember that, like just the generation that preceded mine, like they grew up in a fascist America. So that’s something to think about.

S2: That is our show for today. Our producer is Melissa Kaplan, tolerant of fascism. Subscribe or just reach out to Slate dotcom slash, hang up. You can email us at Slate dot com. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show and to rate and reviews on Apple podcasts for Joel Anderson and Stefan Fatsis. I’m Josh Levine, remembers MBT and thanks for listening.

S3: Now it is time for our bonus segment for Slate plus members, and now it is also time for one of the more dramatic tonal shifts. And hang up and listen history. We’ve talked about a lot of dark and sad things on today’s show, and rightfully so. But last week there was a press conference by the new coach of the Detroit Lions, Dan Campbell. And you need to hear this. If you haven’t heard it and if you have heard it, you need to hear it again.

S15: All right. And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we’re going to get up. And on the way up, we’re going to buy the kneecap off. All right. And we’re going to stand up and then it’s going to take two more shots to knock us down. All right. And on the way up, we’re going to take your other kneecap and we’re going to get up and then it’s going to take three shots to get us down. And when we do, we’re going to take another hunk out of you before before long. We’re going to be the last one standing. All right. That’s going to be the mentality.

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S7: So dull as an editor, I’m often telling writers that specificity is your friend, just like don’t speak in generalities or clichés. And so I got to give Dan Kemel credit the. Way that he describes the sort of general mentality of like we’re going to be tough.

S6: It’s quite evocative and the the way in which it’s also just like so specific. And we’re going to take your you know, it’s going to take two more shots, knock us down, and then we’re going to take your other kneecap and sort of it makes it seem like either he’s done this before or he’s just you know, he came in to the lions with a binder and this was like all written down, like it’s like as part of the process.

S5: Yeah. I mean, it kind of reminded me of the Dwayne Wade, you know, fall time, fall down seven times, get up eight, something like that. But like with kneecaps. And what huncke is he going to take out of a person? I mean, that’s something that that that demanded a little bit more specificity because he. Exactly. And I think there’s always room for improvement in a piece of writing. And I also think that he was probably going to try to take another kneecap out. And then he realized that he had already taken out two kneecaps and taking out a third kneecap was really not something that could be done. So he got the news like, well, after that’s done, we’ll just take some hunks out. You know, he could have taken out a patella tendon to me.

S7: So so there’s a kind of classic football coach mentality. It’s like, all right, we’ve handed it off to Anderson, like power, you know, but they haven’t stopped it. So we’re going to keep doing it over and over again until they prove that they can stop it. But the problem with that, Stephon, is if the players bite off the kneecaps, then you might just run out of kneecaps and you’re going to have to go for something else in the playbook. You can’t you can’t be running that play three times in a row. No, no, no, you can’t.

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S4: Can we stop talking about how stupid it was for a second? I mean, no sense of humor about humor, about it afterward, claiming that, you know, everything was really positive, the reaction from friends and family and that his wife said, yeah, you probably could have stopped at one knee cap. And I’m like, yeah, you’re probably right. My wife, she’s great. She can be pretty critical of me. She lets me have it. I respect the hell out of her for that. And let’s step back and now assess this guy. He’s just been hired as the head coach of the National Football League team at a time when the conversation about hiring in the NFL is about white guys getting opportunities over black coaches. And this guy comes out there and and blares this bullshit coach speak, which, yeah, goes viral and is funny. And yet he thinks that this is good. Right. He thinks that this is going to work, that the players are going to want to, you know, run through a brick wall for this guy. And my my assumption is that players listen to this shit and we’re like, you got to be fucking kidding me. Like, this is not what I want. This is old school shit. This is not the modern NFL coach. This is actually a denigration to the notion of treating football players, National Football League football players as adults, as mature, sentient beings who are professionals and treat this as a job. To me, this was like offensive dumb ass coach shit.

S5: I mean, I guess for me, the thing about football is that if you make it to the NFL, I don’t think your toughness is really up for debate. You know what I mean? Like, it’s like, you know, out physical eating people and beating them up. Like, I mean, that can happen if you are more physically talented than your opponent. But just the idea that guys need to be encouraged to be tough and that that will provide some margin for error for you, that will make you a winner, it just seems really it just like if this was nineteen ninety three, like maybe, you know, people were buying that. But people know better now, like we see that Andy Reid and, you know, Sean McVay and Sean Payton and all of these other guys and Bill Belichick, like the hallmark of their teams, are not that are going to get down and take out hunks. You know, it’s that they’re scheming and that they’re treating their players like adults and there’s like collaboration and that, you know, that you’re beating people as much with your brains as with your brawn. And it just seems like a real bad throwback. Like, I would just it would have maybe I don’t know if that’s the speech that he gave to the the Lions brass when he was making his pitch for being the coach. But I would have liked to have heard more about why he thought he was the right choice for that team. And like maybe he could have conveyed that in the press conference as opposed to falling back on this like tough guy should never been an offensive or defensive coordinator, was actually an assistant with the Saints.

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S10: For a long time and so credited Sean Payton for kind of teaching him how to beat head coach, and so he’s been around one of those guys, Joel, who you said is, you know, someone who’s succeeded by kind of being smart and being smart about scheme. Then again, Sean Payton also was suspended by the NFL for a year because of his connection to Bountygate. Whatever way we seem to where we want to say about Bountygate and and the punishment, he still presided over a team that was, you know, giving bounties to players for intentionally injuring other players. And so that mentality exists in the league, even in franchises that we want to credit for being smart and enlightened.

S7: And the thing that I think is interesting about Campbell is that I think it would be too easy to say that he’s just an idiot. He might very well be, but he is somebody, as you said, Stefan, who seems to have a sense of humor. Maybe he was saying the stuff and some sort of misguided sense of like, I’m going to try to be entertaining and like this is for the fans. And he talked a lot about in the press conference about we’re going to that the cliche and maybe fans eat this shit up, I don’t know. But the cliche is like we’re going to embody the people of Detroit and we’re going to be tough and fight for you. So maybe this was all just like, you know, putting on a nice putting on an act. And maybe he’ll, you know, he played in the NFL and he’s like, he’s all right.

S4: Exactly. He played in the NFL and, what, the early 2000s, late 90s.

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S5: He’s been a head coach twice. He’s been twice. He’s 44 years old already.

S7: One of them was interim one. But he would know he would know what NFL code, what NFL players roll their eyes at. Right.

S4: But something does change in coaches when they become coaches to switch flips. There is a switch between when you’re playing and what you want to hear and when you’re a coach and what you think the players want to hear.

S5: And he’s he also played I mean, the culture of football has changed a lot just in like the last decade than the way that we regard injuries and head injuries and all this other stuff.

S7: And you have to imagine he’s going to be a coach who’s going to, like, complain at some point in his first year about a targeting penalty, like they’re not letting go.

S5: But you know what? Yeah, no, I mean, yeah, it’s just it’s he’s he’s emblematic of a of a of an older era of football. In fact, by the way, I have a personal connection to Dan Campbell that he came out of the same very small Texas high school that a guy that was in my freshman class at TCU came from Glen Rose, Texas. So Glencross, Texas, over over performing in terms of NFL talent, because that guy, Mike Keithley, he ended up playing, you know, briefly in the NFL. But, yeah, I mean, like it’s just it’s just emblematic of an old school era football. And, you know, there’s a lot of things outside of I guess that’s why I try not to focus too much on, like, Dan Campbell and like how stupid he is because he just we never know what coach is going to work out. Right. Like it. It’s entirely possible that he could end up leading the lines to the playoffs in a couple of years, but having a bunch of good coordinators. Yeah, right. So but we so we just don’t know. But it’s just not it just seems like the response to him makes me feel a little bit better about the game and in the way that we look at the game, because everybody now is like, oh, that’s ridiculous. But fifteen years ago, people might eating this shit up.

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S7: Well, the thing that I find a little bit confusing about the hire is like I think it was Peski who actually introduced me to this phrase, which is a good one. The saying after a fat pope, a skinny one, or after a fat pope and then pope and. Matt, Patricia got fired from Detroit for I mean, not saying that his team was going to eat the opponent’s kneecaps, but he was like sort of this kind of football guy, right? I mean, I guess he came from Belichick and was credited as like a defensive schemer. But you would think that they might want to, like, go and like a really vastly different direction. And then they come up with this. That’s that’s the part. I mean, I guess maybe maybe I mean, I’m certainly in total agreement with Joel’s point that we don’t know anything and he could be successful. And I don’t want to claim that I know something. But just with even just like the public presence of him in the kind of person that he just like seems to be and is evoking in his, like, speech and characteristics, it’s just surprising that they would bring in somebody like that for this role at this time.

S4: It really did strike me to joshed that, given that the entire conversation, the last few weeks since the season and the regular season ended has been about black head coaches, black coaches not getting an opportunity to get head jobs in the NFL that this clown show, because that’s what it was. I mean, if it was for entertainment or whatever, it was still a fucking clown show that this guy gets up there and does that. And you end up with that video being juxtaposed with Eric, the enemy, the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, going back to the Super Bowl again, just sort of having a really straight, smart, thoughtful exchange in an interview that he gave. We’re going to be talking more about this next week. Yeah, but but, you know, just the notion that we’re hearing about how black head coaches don’t interview well, and yet this is what we get from the podium while white coaches hired.

S10: Well, let’s let’s leave it there because we want to leave some for a future. A little meat on the bone, OK? A little meat on the bone. All right. Thank you. Sleepless members left a little meat on the bone for you, but we’ll be back with more next week.