Mr. Bryant’s book can be read as a companion piece, and a reply of sorts, to “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend,” the recent biography by James S. Hirsch. These two ballplayers were both born in Alabama during the Great Depression (Mays in 1931, Aaron three years later), and both were among the last Hall of Famers to have played in the Negro Leagues. Their years on the field overlapped almost exactly. But they could not have been more different as personalities. Mays was joyous and electric, on the field and off, while Aaron was introverted, sometimes painfully so. They became lifelong, if low-key, antagonists.
Mr. Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN magazine, quotes the sportscaster Bob Costas as remarking, about Mays, that we “associate him with fun” and remember him with fondness. With Aaron, he added, “it is all about respect.” That quotation lingers like wood smoke over “The Last Hero.” These biographies of Mays and Aaron, taken together, are a striking and elegiac assessment of race relations in America during the 20th century. They are elegant portraits, as well, of two different ways of being a man. Wrap them both up for the 14-year-old in your life. The volume that’ll be left standing when the major book awards are handed out, though, is Mr. Bryant’s, I suspect. His is the brawny one, the one with serious and complicated swat.
…Aaron is clearly a hard man to get to know, and I’m not sure Mr. Bryant entirely does. His life off the field is detailed haphazardly: his two marriages, his children, his passions. His own words, quoted here, are mostly unmemorable. But “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron” had the forceful sweep of a well-struck essay as much as that of a first-rate biography. In an era in which home runs are now a discredited commodity, Henry Aaron looms larger than ever: a nation has returned its lonely eyes to him.