Marking the 40th anniversary of Henry Aaron’s home run record, Aaron Devine reviews Howard Bryant’s biography of the slugger, a more complicated man than nostalgia will allow him.
This past April marked the 40th anniversary of Henry Aaron’s 715th home run—still the most by a non-asterisk bearing ballplayer, and a landmark on the timeline of race in American sports history. So I finally read Howard Bryant’s The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron (Anchor Books 2011), which, like Aaron himself, deserves a closer look.
Today, most people know Hammerin’ Hank hit homeruns. But did you know:
• Aaron was among the first black players to integrate baseball in the Deep South when he joined Jacksonville’s “Sally” League A-Ball team in 1953.
• Entering the pros, Aaron’s baseball idol was Stan Musial because his dream was not to smash homeruns but to collect 3,000 hits.
• No one who actually knew Aaron called him “Hank” (save Aaron’s teammate and mentee Dusty Baker, who later coached Barry Bonds). The nickname was media-fueled and suited a racially charged mischaracterization of Aaron as simple-minded.
• During Aaron’s MVP season in 1957 he earned a salary of $22,500, which was “nearly three times less than [Warren] Spahn and slightly more than half of what [Eddie] Mathews” earned (both teammates).
• Major League Baseball did not respond—no phone call, no congratulations—when Aaron hit his 700th home run in front of a mere 16,236 fans at home in Atlanta.
When an achievement outshines the achiever, and history is simplified by a word like hero, important complexities are left out of the conversation.
“People want their memories of me to be my memories of me,” Bryant quotes a present-day Henry Aaron as saying. “But you know what? They’re not.”
Memory is what’s at stake in The Last Hero. How to rescue Aaron from the too-simple title of home run king and shed light on his far more complicated struggle with a society he batted both for and against.
As in the best biographies, Bryant’s book doesn’t lionize Aaron: it humanizes him.
The Last Hero narrates Aaron’s life and career in the context of other change makers: most notably Herbert Aaron (his father), Jackie Robinson (his hero), and Willie Mays (his rival) who receive their own chapter headings.
Of Aaron’s father Herbert, Bryant tells how he built his own house from scrap materials in a Mobile neighborhood nicknamed “Struggleville.” Few blacks owned their own homes at that time, yet Herbert understood ownership’s importance in dealing with segregation. He told his children, “When you own something, nobody can take it away from you.” From his father, young Aaron (who dreamed of playing baseball and flying airplanes) learned hard work, as well as what it took to survive in Herbert’s America—one with “no colored pilots,” Herbert would say. “And there ain’t no colored baseball players, either.”
Jackie Robinson’s historic signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Bryant writes, “signaled the first time in [Aaron’s] life that. . . the path of the son did not have to follow that of the father.” The veteran Robinson and his Dodgers played rival to the young Aaron and his Braves in the mid-1950s. But Bryant directs our attention to Jackie’s influence off the field:
“When Robinson retired, to the business world and the somewhat foreign but important arenas of politics and philanthropy, Henry saw the value, the necessity of not being limited by baseball. Only in following in the footsteps of Robinson could Henry realize his true path: to use whatever influences his baseball life afforded him to have some effect on society at large.”
Aaron’s desire to affect social change would always be in conflict with the media’s relentless mischaracterization of him, which Bryant frames as a divide between Henry the man and Hank the public figure.
Willie Mays, however, had the star charisma that Aaron lacked, garnering the bulk of the public’s attention, on and off the field. He earned double or near double Aaron’s salary throughout their mostly concurrent careers. Bryant traces the arc of their confluence from an all-black barnstorming team in 1955 to the chase for Babe Ruth’s homerun record, which highlighted their contrasting personalities.
Aaron was the diplomat. In one story, a baseball executive’s house was burglarized, and the thief took a ball signed by Aaron over one signed by Mays. In response, Aaron quipped: “All that proves is that there’s a crook in Houston who can’t read.” Mays never shared the humility. When asked if Aaron could overtake Ruth, Mays responded, “Well, he has to catch me first.”
What’s best about The Last Hero is Bryant’s engagement with all the right questions that challenged not only Henry Aaron, but also the world in which he moved—and all of us still move. Questions about “that dangerously double-sided word—dignity” and “[T]he difference between actual and perceived equality.” Rather than tell the reader what Aaron believed, Bryant poses these questions, complicating history instead of clarifying it. The result is an empathic experience that forces readers to locate their own understanding of sport and society, as well as Aaron’s particular triumphs and struggles.
Bryant’s book also imbues the number 755 (Aaron’s final homerun total) with scale and intimacy: sensually reminding us of the power and toll of each home run struck by those relentless, magic wrists, as well as each indignity Aaron endured both on and off the field.
Readers can settle into the 525-page book as they would for a full nine-inning game. Bryant keeps the narrative moving through the tensions of Aaron’s self evolution: from talent-riddled youngster in search of excellence to conflicted veteran in search of respect to living legend in search of legacy and meaning.
Has Aaron finally showed us his true self? Has he earned the respect he once craved? Bryant doesn’t make a definitive case. Instead, we see the continuing struggle between Hank and Henry that has been present so much of Aaron’s life.
And as he became increasingly important to baseball’s nostalgic retelling of its own history, Aaron’s place in the game has become at once more relevant and more fraught. While he has embraced some commercial opportunities and honorifics, he has repeatedly declined to comment on Bonds and the steroid era. To understand why, Bryant argues, you have to understand what was taken from Aaron during his pursuit of 715. You have to understand how this loss resonated with the influences of Herbert, Jackie, and Willie.
Still, Bryant’s book gives the impression that Aaron has moved the conversation forward, like Jackie Robinson before him, giving the discussion “an entirely different starting point.” More than mere biography, The Last Hero weaves the narratives of Aaron’s times together, showing us one man inside a larger society. Reminding us once again how baseball is America, America is baseball. And there has been progress.
Of Robinson, Bryant writes: “His enemies…all would stand on the wrong side of history.” So it is with Henry Aaron, now aided by Bryant’s thoroughly researched and imagined book. The moral arc of baseball and America being long, but bending—like a high fly ball—toward justice.
Photo: Harry Harris/Associated Press