"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Built to Last

Good long piece by Hillel Italie in the Huffington Post on Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and cooperative biogrpahies:

“Before I got to Aaron, the best advice I got was from David Halberstam, who wrote a book on Michael Jordan without getting Jordan and a book about Bill Clinton without getting Clinton,” [Howard] Bryant said of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist.

“He said to me, `The strategy was very simple – for every day they didn’t talk to me, make three phone calls to other people.’ You have to work around obstacles. It was the best piece of advice anyone’s given me.”

After Bonds overtook Aaron, in 2007, Aaron opened up to Bryant.

“When Henry and I finally spoke, he was tremendous, he was unbelievably gracious,” Bryant said. “He was even somewhat embarrassed someone was taking an interest. He didn’t ask for any money. He didn’t ask for any review copy of the book. He could have made the one phone call that every author dreads – which is to call all of his people and say, `Hey, this guy is writing a book about me. Don’t talk to him.’”

Earlier this week, Allen Barra gave his take on Bryant’s book:

Just when it seemed as if all the great baseball subjects had been done, Howard Bryant checks in with this biography of Henry Aaron, which, amazingly, Mr. 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.

And in the Village Voice, Barra praises Bryant’s frank handling of the relationship between Aaron and Mays:

Bryant argues that “so much of the relationship between Mays and Aaron was perceived, often rightly, as tense if not acrimonious, stemmed from their personalities — the self-centered Mays and the diplomatic Aaron.”

There’s no doubt, says Bryant, that “Mays exemplified the rare combination of physical, athletic genius, and a showman’s gift for timing. What went less reported and, as the years passed, became an uncomfortable, common lament was just how cruel and self-absorbed Mays could be.”

…Bryant cites a first-hand account from 1957, a United Press/Movietone News reporter named Reese Schoenfeld, that Mays ragged on Aaron from the sidelines while Henry was being interviewed in front of a TV camera: “How much they paying you, Hank? They ain’t payin’ you at all, Hank? Don’t you know we all get paid for this? You ruin it for the rest of us, Hank! You just fall off the turnip truck?”

While Aaron became more and more agitated, Mays laid it on thick: “You showin’ ‘em how you swing? We get paid three to four hundred dollars for this. You one dumb nigger!”

According to Bryant, “Henry’s reaction for the next fifty years — to diffuse, while not forgetting, the original offense — would be consistent with the shrewd but stern way Henry Aaron dealt with uncomfortable issues. The world did not need to know Henry’s feelings towards Mays, but Henry was not fooled by his adversary. Mays committed one of the great 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.”

Say Hey: fight, fight!

One last thing about the Aaron book that’s interesting to me is that it was written by a black man. So many sports biographies of black and Latin players, from David Maraniss and Larry Tye, to James Hirsch and Brad Snyder, are written by white guys. That’s not a knock just a fact. And it’s not to say that race is enough to judge the merit of the final product. Reporting and writing is what makes a great book no matter if the author is white or black, man or woman. Bryant wasn’t magically granted access to Aaron’s inner circle because he’s black, he did so because he’s an ace reporter who has paid his dues.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of sensitivity and empathy he brings to the subject that a white writer might not. For instance, when I was writing about Curt Flood, I had to imagine what it was like to be a black kid playing ball in the deep south in the mid-1950s. I was earnest, no doubt, but it was largely an intellectual excercise, one where, through reporting and research, I attempted to intuite something beyond my experience. That’s a distance Bryant doesn’t have to cover. It doesn’t necessarily mean his writing will be better, but it’s sure to be palpably different.

Moreover, I think great biographies often tell the story of the subject and in some way, even if it is largely subconscious, the story of the author as well. My Flood book was no great biography, it was a first book, but when I look back on it, I see that I was drawn to it for several personal reasons too. The first was to learn more about Flood (and to learn how to write a book) and share his story with a YA audience.  But I think my attraction to him had everything to do with my relationship with my father. Flood was talented and troubled, alcoholic. My need to find out more about him, to appreciate his accomplishments, and forgive his failings, was directly related to how I felt about my Old Man.

[The Tortoise and the Hare picture by Esoule]

15 comments

1 Alex Belth   ~  May 5, 2010 10:56 am

I'm curious if Hirsch will have any public response about this.

2 Jon DeRosa   ~  May 5, 2010 11:20 am

[1] Bryant and Hirsch can have the fight Aaron and Mays never had!

3 Alex Belth   ~  May 5, 2010 11:30 am

Which one is Mailer and which one is Vidal?

4 Bluenatic   ~  May 5, 2010 11:31 am

[1] His response, if any, should be to point at the New York Times bestseller list, which his book hit and which Bryant's isn't likely to. I'll read 'em both, though.

5 Alex Belth   ~  May 5, 2010 11:42 am

4) Good point. Why don't you think Bryant's book will get there? Because Aaron doesn't have the star power of Mays? Just curious about that.

6 Jay Jaffe   ~  May 5, 2010 12:02 pm

I've got mixed emotions about Bryant. On the one hand, I think he did a great job researching and reporting in Shut Out and Juicing the Game, though his actual prose is often somewhat labored. On the other hand, some of the recent stuff he's written over at ESPN regarding steroids — the leaks on guys like Sosa, Ramirez and Ortiz — has been some of the most sickening, pandering bullshit from a guy who certainly should know better, having dug as deep as he did for Juicing.

Having said that, it's something of a relief to read good words about his Aaron book, because Aaron certainly deserves a good, definitive bio, and Bryant's first two books position him ideally to tackle his subject. I look forward to reading it.

7 Alex Belth   ~  May 5, 2010 12:09 pm

I think of Mays much as I think of Brando. They are both genius' at what they did, but seem like such shitheads in real life I don't know that I'd be compelled to read about them. That said, several people I trust have raved about Hirsch's book.

8 Yankee Mama   ~  May 5, 2010 12:09 pm

One thing I found interesting is Barra's comment about his experience writing about Flood's life as a black player in the deep south was largely intellectual, whereas Bryant would be better able to relate to Aaron's life through his empathy and sensitivity.

Still, I think Bryant is a decent writer, a fine reporter, who I enjoy reading and I'm not entirely sure why this book won't land him on the bestseller list. So far, Aaron's biography has been well-received, especially by his peers.

9 Yankee Mama   ~  May 5, 2010 12:13 pm

[6] I agree about the pandering articles.

His work somethimes feels a little overwritten, but I think he threads his ideas well.

10 Bluenatic   ~  May 5, 2010 12:25 pm

[5] That's mostly it. Fair or unfair, Aaron's star just doesn't shine as brightly as Mays' does. Aaron also never played in New York. Beyond that, Mays did a bunch of high-profile publicity appearances in promotion of Hirsch's book, and I haven't heard anything about Aaron doing that.

Bryant's book has a chance, sure. It will probably be a success. But like other just-released bios on Musial and Kaline, I don't think it will hit the list.

I hope I'm wrong.

11 Alex Belth   ~  May 5, 2010 12:27 pm

8) I said that about writing about Flood, not Allen.

12 Will Weiss   ~  May 5, 2010 12:48 pm

[10] The best parallel to make is Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain. A bio on Russell would probably be received at the same level as Bryant's book on Aaron. But anything about Chamberlain, for so many reasons including basketball, would have greater appeal because Wilt as a personality was more popular. Basketball-heads, I believe, would prefer to read about Russell over Wilt. I would too; he's more interesting from an intellectual standpoint.

13 Yankee Mama   ~  May 5, 2010 1:25 pm

[11] Sorry about that, AB. Nice observation, dude!

14 Jay Jaffe   ~  May 5, 2010 2:55 pm

[12] Not to take anything away from Russell, who's a fascinating guy, but Chamberlain was pretty interesting from an intellectual standpoint. I read the long-out of print David Shaw as-told-to (Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door) a couple times when I was in high school and college, and beyond the salacious stuff about his sex life, I remember there being plenty of good stuff about race, materialism, and especially about being publicly cast as the villain throughout his career and particularly in the rivalry with Russell. Leagues rewrote the rulebooks to stop him, and until he won a championship, fans piled on him for being a selfish stat-monger the way they piled on A-Rod. It was an eye-opener.

15 Bruce Markusen   ~  May 6, 2010 9:21 pm

Alex, just wanted to point out that I wrote a bio of Clemente (Roberto Clemente: The Great One), and am myself half Puerto Rican on my mother's side.

No one would know that from my name (which is Danish) or appearance (I am white), but names and appearances can be deceiving. For what it is worth.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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