As a journalist, I’m not impressed by much. I’ve sat in more Governor’s offices than Principal’s offices, interviewed more inflated egos, shot more starlets than I care to admit. Musicians? Yep, Sweet Sweet Connie Hamzy might even be jealous.
It was Spring of 1997. I was working as a chief photographer for WPMI-TV in Hank’s hometown of Mobile, Al. All of LA — that’s Lower Alabama for the uninitiated — was abuzz with the success of Mobile’s triple-A baseball team the Bay Bears. The team had been founded a few years earlier, and the large crowds it drew had eventually led city big wigs to build a brand new, state-of-the-art ball park for the Bay Bears to call home. When it came time to name the stadium, there was only one logical choice — the most famous baseball player ever to call Mobile home.
Rumor had it Hammerin Hank himself would be present for the naming and the opening, but no one knew when he’d be in town. The day before the home opener in the brand new stadium, my bosses thought it would be cool if we could score an interview with the home run king. It was an assignment everyone in the newsroom was drooling over. I mean, who wouldn’t be jazzed to earn a little facetime with a living legend?
Growing up in Louisiana, we weren’t a big baseball family. SEC football rules the day, but I remember sitting in the living room with my dad and watching as Hank smacked #715 into the Braves bullpen in the fourth inning of the Braves 1974 home opener. We jumped and cheered and watched those two idiots rush the field and run the bases with him.
The assignment to track down Mobile’s favorite son fell to reporter Dave Straker and me. I had no idea where we would start. I figured the Braves media office, or some type of sports agent agency. Dave had an ace up his sleeve that I didn’t know about. He knew the address of Hanks parents.
It was a modest home in a seedy section of the city. Even after all of their son’s fame, Herbert and Estella Aaron had decided not to move from the family home. I sent Dave to knock on the door while I grabbed a few shots of the house. It was my way of forcing him to take the rejection. To both of our surprise, Herbert came out to talk.
Hank, he said, would be flying in for the opening then jetting right out. There would be no time for interviews, but I rolled the camera as Mr. Dave worked his charm. Herbert regaled us with a few stories from Hank’s childhood and of the threats both Hank and the family received durning the run-up to Hank’s record-breaking hit.
Right before we broke down, Herbert asked us if we would like to hear a story about Hank that he had never seen reported. What journalist wouldn’t want scoop on one of the most famous sports figures ever? So Herbert stepped to the side and pointed at the windows on his home. He told us Hank and his brothers loved to play baseball in the front yard. They had broken so many windows on that house, that He and Estella had been forced to take the baseball from them.
Without a ball to practice with, Hank and his brothers did what any other kid with a passion for the game would do. They improvised. Hank and his brothers would search roadsides and garbage cans for pop bottle tops. When their pockets were full, they’s hurl the little tin discs for each other to hit. The ridges on the edges of the caps would cause them to dip, dive, and curve wildly, but they refused to stop practicing. Herbert credits those bottle caps with Hank’s success as a hitter.
I never did get to meet Hank Aaron — another photog got the opening night story — but I like to think the half-hour Mr. Dave and I spent with Herbert Aaron and the story we got sort of makes up for it. I mean, where else have you heard the story of Hank Aaron and His Bottle Caps.