THE LAST HERO: A LIFE OF HENRY AARON
By Howard Bryant
Pantheon Books, $29.95, 624 pages
Reviewed by Allen Barra
Just when it seemed all the great baseball subjects had been done, Howard Bryant checks in with “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron,” which, amazingly, Henry Aaron had to wait 34 years to get. Mr. Bryant, author of “Shutout,” the definitive study of race in baseball, and “Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball,” is a great writer for a great subject.
Mr. Aaron’s story is the epic baseball tale of the second half of the 20th century, in many ways the equal to Jackie Robinson’s. Henry, as he prefers to be called, not only helped integrate the Southern minor leagues, he became the first great major-league hero of the South when the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966.
For many years, Mr. Aaron was rated on a par with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, but he never garnered anything like their media attention. As it turns out, this might have been for the best. It was perhaps fortune that Mr. Aaron, who did not like New York City, moved, along with his team, to Atlanta, described by Mr. Bryant as “a city with a restless business community and a political landscape undergoing a revolutionary transition, one that would either exacerbate or soothe the racial conflicts that branded the region and divided the nation.”
For many Americans in all parts of the country, black and white, the New South began on April 8, 1974, when Mr. Aaron, at the now-vanished Fulton County Stadium, lashed into a fastball delivered by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing, drove it over the left center field wall, and surpassed Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 home runs. In doing so, he obliterated a year’s worth of hate mail, including a blizzard of death threats, from crackpots - not all of them in the South - who were outraged that a black man was closing in on the most hallowed record in American sports.
Dodgers announcer Vin Skully, who broadcast the game to much of the nation, said it best: “It is over. And for the first time in a long time, that poker face of Aaron shows the tremendous relief. … What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world.”
That “poker face” and quiet dignity were Mr. Aaron’s trademarks for decades, but they often served to keep fans and sportswriters at arm’s length. Mr. Aaron was never known and thus never embraced by nationwide fans like most of the other great stars of his era. In truth, it wasn’t until Barry Bonds approached Mr. Aaron’s record that No. 44’s stature grew in the eyes of most Americans. Mr. Aaron himself summed up the ongoing debate over whether he or Barry Bonds was the all-time home run champion: “Barry Bonds?” he said at the dedication of a plaque to commemorate his last home run, No. 755. “I don’t even know how to spell his name.”
For the most part, Mr. Aaron has remained silent on the subject of Mr. Bonds and his use of performance-enhancing drugs, though, Mr. Bryant says, “The truth was Henry was personally and permanently offended by Barry Bonds.” The true irony is that for nearly two decades before Mr. Aaron surpassed Ruth, he played in the shadow of Mr. Bonds’ godfather, the more charismatic fellow Alabamian Willie Mays. “The Last Hero” dares to say what James Hirsch’s recent biography of Willie Mays chose to ignore: Mr. Mays and Mr. Aaron, Mr. Bryant writes, “were not friends, and if Henry had his way, they wouldn’t have been rivals, either, because Henry truly seemed to admire Willie … but there was also something about Willie that wouldn’t allow a real friendship with Willie. Willie wouldn’t, or couldn’t ever give Henry his due as a great player.”
Mr. Mays “committed one of the greatest offenses against a person as proud as Henry: he insulted him, embarrassed him in front of other people, and did not treat him with respect.” Mr. Aaron had more to battle on the way to the home-run record than bigotry: He had to overcome the animosity of the other great black ballplayer of his own time. Bob Costas best defined the difference between Mr. Mays’ image and Mr. Aaron’s: “Fans associate Willie Mays with fun. With Henry Aaron, it is all about respect.”
Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is “Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009).