While the reputations of many baseball heroes lie shattered, Henry Aaron’s stature keeps rising. Now his truly remarkable American story is told in Howard Bryant’s “The Last Hero, A Life of Henry Aaron.”
Aaron rose from poverty in Jim Crow Mobile, Ala., to break Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. As I was somewhat surprised to find out from Bryant’s book, he’s also at the top or near the top of most major offensive categories. Statistically, he’s the greatest hitter of all time.
What’s amazing is that he was a purely natural talent. When my son was involved with Little League, I watched parents pour hundreds of dollars into hiring hitting coaches, buying expensive bats, acquiring instructional videos and all the rest. Henry Aaron needed none of that; he knew how to hit with little if any coaching. Bryant makes a big deal out of his unusual style; he “hit off his front foot.” But, Roberto Clemente hit that way too, if I remember correctly, as did Rod Carew. Still, Bryant recounts several anecdotes of Ted Williams, the best all-time hitter in terms of technique, being amazed that Aaron could generate so much power with his apparent lack of a weight shift.
With very little education, and having grown up in the brutal world of white supremacy, Aaron first caught notice of pioneer black scout Ed Scott, who gave the young Aaron rudiemenitary instruction. Scott signed Aaron to the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns. The young Aaron stayed with the Clowns for a month before moving on to the Boston Braves, who would soon move to Milwaukee. Aaron thus holds the distinction of being the last Negro League player to make it in the Major Leagues. Remarkably, the raw young man persevered in the Braves’ minor league system, overcoming acute home sickness and the desire to go back home to segregationist Mobile, and quickly rose to the Major Leagues. He quickly blossomed into a star, leading the Milwaukee Braves to a 1957 World Series win over the Yankees and a repeat appearance in 1958, in which the Braves fell to the Bronx Bombers after leading them 3-1. Interestingly, the inaccuracy of Aaron’s country bumpkin image is shown by the fact that he quickly learned to take a tough stance in salary negotiations with the Braves.
The great 1957 and 1958 Milwaukee teams were loaded with talent: Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, Del Crandall. The most consistent, the most explosive, and the most isolated player, was Aaron. From the beginning, Aaron had to fight racist perceptions that he was an “instinctive” player, with limited intelligence. The book relates who he was never asked to join the other players socially, that as a black, he had to shower last, and that he had to suffer racist slurs from the white players.
The Braves dynasty quickly fell apart, but Aaron quietly built a stellar career on mediocre teams. Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson received more national publicity, as Aaron kept ringing up prodidgious seasons. At last, as the career of Mays waned in the early ’70s, the baseball world woke up to the fact that Henry Aaron was on track to beat the Babe’s hallowed career home run record.
After the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, Aaron pulled closer and closer to the great Ruth. For months, Aaron received a blizzard of hate mail containing death threats from those who didn’t want a black man to break the record. At last, in a white-hot glare of media attention, Aaron broke the 714 barrier on April 8, 1974, at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He struck the blow (above right) against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing.
The record, and the abuse he’d suffered in pursuing it, left Aaron bitter and resentful. Bryant shows a complex, proud man quick to perceive slights and insults, who felt insecure in public and remained guarded in dealings with many fellow players and the press. “The Last Hero” exhaustively details how Aaron overcame all of that to become a highly successful Atlanta businessman and philanthropist, and the recipient of two of America’s most prestigious awards from Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Finally, Aaron’s reputation grew stronger during his magnanimous acceptance of Barry Bonds breaking Aaron’s career home run record. In comparison to the churlish Bonds, alleged to have used steroids, Aaron indeed appeared as “the last hero.”
Bryant’s book is flawed by clumsy writing, narrative confusion and factual inconsistency. Yet, the personality of Aaron, his dogged professionalism, his uncanny talent, his undeniable business acumen, comes through. Atlanta newspaer buffs will find many entertaining stories about Aaron’s often contentious relationship with Journal and Constitution sportswriters. No doubt, Aaron would agree with archracist Gene Talmadge’s views of “them lyin’ Atlanta newspapers.”
Not much new is reported about how Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen and bank chief Mills B. Lane, with the help of Atlanta Journal sports editor Furman Bisher (a recurring character in the book) spirited the Braves from Milwaukee, but the story remains absorbing. The best chapter is Bryant’s account of the moment when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record, particularly since he quotes from classic Dodgers announcer Vin Scully’s masterly account. Those two then young men who bounded from the stands to follow Aaron on his historic trek around the basepaths were lucky; Bryant recounts how Aaron’s bodyguard almost drew his pistol and fired.
Such moments stand out. But all too often, Bryant overreaches in trying for the grand, significant statement. He’s prone to awkward constructions and cliched sportswriting jargon. He’s at his best when he just tells the story with simple language. Despite the book’s problems, Bryant achieves a multisided view of Aaron. The old ballplayer turned BMW auto dealership mogul didn’t fully cooperate with Bryant, but didn’t discourage associates from talking with the author. Those who give in-depth views of Aaron include baseball commissioner Bud Selig, a friend from Milwaukee days. Selig, during his reign as commissioner, has played a major role in making Aaron a national symbol of baseball. Bryant, a former Washington Post sportswriter now with the ESPN empire, tells this story well.
While not matching sports bios like David Maraniss’ books on Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente, Al Stump’s classic life of Ty Cobb, and Bill Veeck’s “Veeck as in Wreck,” “Last Hero” overcomes its shortcomings. Finishing strong, Bryant makes his case that Aaron is a hero of American society, not just of baseball. Early in the book, Bryant frequently engages in long digressions on the life of Jackie Robinson. His book shows that Aaron has matched and in many ways surpassed Robinson’s legacy.
This article was originally published by Chasing the Blues, Louis Mayeux’s journal on art, books, sports and travel