Baseball Books Reviewed: The Last Hero

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant (Pantheon Books, 600 pg., $29.95). HB, 2010.

There is much to admire and enjoy about this fulsome biography of Henry Aaron, not the first book about him, but certainly the most ambitious and thorough. Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN and ESPN.The Magazine has published two previous books about baseball, the very titles of which illustrate his willingness to go beyond superficial story-telling: Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston and Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball. As a result this is more than a biography of one of the game's greatest players. It is also a history of society's and baseball's on-going struggle with racism and of the contradictions inherent in baseball being both a game and a business.

As biographer Bryant provides a clear portrait of the man Aaron by careful attention to the elements which shaped him from the ethos of Mobile in his youth, the character of his parents and his passion for the game, to the influence of the people who befriended him and the incidents along the way that challenged him. As much as we rightly celebrate the courage and character of Jackie Robinson we should not forget that the black players who came after him had no easy way of it for far too long.

Branch Rickey was wise in his selection of the mature and strong-minded Robinson yet still eased him into white man's baseball by assigning him to Montreal for his first experience. Those who came after, including Aaron who was a mere eighteen when he signed with the then Boston Braves, had the task of integrating such towns as those who composed the southern Sally League.. It was good fortune for Aaron that when he reached the majors the Braves had moved from Boston to Milwaukee. Not that Milwaukee was open-minded on matters of race: only when Aaron had established himself as a star was he able to live anywhere in Milwaukee but the “colored section” and even then it was a privilege conferred only on him and his family. But Milwaukee was more passive in its racism than Boston. the Red Sox would be the last major league team to integrate--and I use that term loosely.

There are three threads in the story Bryant tells which reflect the deftness with which he portrays Aaron. The first is his pointing out that Aaron himself, and those who knew him best, always used the name Henry. “Hank” was a creation of others and was in a sense demeaning. This distinction persists through Aaron's career and life. The other is that an early injury to his right ankle led him to develop a swing in which he was hitting off his front (left) foot. Despite the reiteration by many in baseball that you can't hit with power off the front foot, Henry did it his way. And finally Bryant's sense of place: his understanding of what growing up in Mobile meant in Henry's life, of what the moves to Milwaukee and then subsequently to Atlanta meant, both for Henry and his family.

Of course the pursuit of Babe Ruth's career home run record is a part of the story, but it is not pervasive until late in Aaron's career when the assumption that Willie Mays would accomplish that feat was fading with Mays' career. Bryant points out that from early in his career Aaron had set the 3000 hit standard as his goal. Having attained that in 1970 he began to think of the Ruth chase, a thought reinforced by the competition with Mays. Aaron's pursuit has been well-chronicled, both the thrills and excitement, but also the darker aspect: the voluminous hate mail complete with threats and mindless invocations of the “N” word. As Bryant makes clear the anger was not confined to anonymous bigots, but was also expressed in more refined terms by reporters and columnists who piously pointed that mere longevity had allowed Aaron to make the challenge, and therefore dismissed his remarkable endurance and consistency.

Another important element of Bryant's approach is what I would call his digressions from the main road which put flesh on the people who touch Aaron's life such as Robinson, Dusty Baker, Charley Grimm, Fred Haney, Bill Bruton, Lou Perini, Bill Bartholomay to name but a few. I'm no great fan of Bud Selig, but I found Bryant's observations about his friendship with Aaron almost making me like him. All these vignettes enrich our understanding, not only of Aaron, but of baseball itself. The detail with which he treats the franchise shifts do the same.

The dust jacket blurbs are appropriately enthusiastic and I share much of that enthusiasm, but I have two reservations. Given the length of the book the first may be niggling, but Bryant was owed some better proofreading: for example Pakfo rather than Pafko at one point, Carl Sawatski identified as a catcher, a reference to a home run by Ted Williams in the 1941 World Series. Perhaps less petty is my discomfort with the title , The Last Hero. Is that a code for “The Real Home Run King?” If not, for what then?

That said Bryant, through diligent research including numerous interviews, has given us a rich and rewarding read about a great player, a complex and decent man, and about the imperfect world in which he pursued his boyhood dream to play the greatest game at the highest level.

Reviewed by: William J. McGill (September 30, 2010)