Howard Bryant’s first book Shut Out was a crisply-reported history of racism in Boston sports that suffered from, among other things, poor editing. Bryant made a huge leap forward as a writer with his second book, Juicing the Game. The prose was cleaner, more confident, the narrative structure, sound, the reporting still sharp. It was a real page-turner and a worthy sequel to John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm (full-disclosure–this book was edited by Cliff Corcoran).
Now, comes Bryant’s most ambitious project to date, the one where he aims to hang with the big boys, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. I give Bryant credit for his reach–he’s read all the right guys (Halberstam, Cramer, Montville, Haygood)–and has a compelling subject in Aaron. Bryant is Reggie here, it’s October, there are men on base, game is on the line, and all eyes are on him.
I just got my copy in the mail and am eager to tear into it. It is “of weight,” an exceedingly handsome-looking book.
In the meantime, dig this excerpt:
In 1959, the writer Roger Kahn would attempt to proﬁle Henry for Sport magazine. He encountered the same frustration that sports editors of the Mobile newspapers had: Depending on the day, Henry would tell a different story about his origins, and, when placed side by side, no two stories ever exactly meshed.
Kahn was never quite sure if he found himself more frustrated by Henry’s early story or by Henry’s unwillingness to tell it. “I did not ﬁnd him to be forthcoming,” Kahn recalled. “He wasn’t polished and really did not have the educational background at that time to deal with all of the things he was encountering in so short a time. If there was a word I would use to describe him then, it would be unsophisticated.”
Even as a teenager, Henry was expressing his lack of comfort with public life. On subjects both complex and innocuous, he would not easily divulge information, and he developed an early suspicion of anyone who took an interest in him. The reason, he would later say, was not the result of any personal trauma, but, rather, that of growing up in Mobile, where the black credo of survival was to focus on the work and let it speak for itself. It was a trait that was equal parts Herbert and Stella. Not only did Stella remind him never to be ostentatious but Herbert and all black males in Mobile knew what could happen to a black man who drew too much attention to himself. “My grandfather used to say all the time, ‘They don’t want you to get too high. Know your place,’ ” recalled Henry’s nephew, Tommie Aaron, Jr. “I think a lot of that rubbed off on all of us.”
In fact, Henry would employ the recipe for star power best articulated in the old Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That, too, was ﬁtting, because as a movie fan, Henry fell in love with Westerns. He did not volunteer much truth, so the scribes printed the legend. There was more than one drawback to Henry’s approach, however: As difﬁcult as it was to piece together his early years, writers—virtually all of them white, carrying the prejudices against blacks that were common at the time—ﬁlled in the blanks for him, deﬁned him, creating a caricature, from which he would not easily escape.