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.
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.
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.
I guess we can call it one of the benefits of living in Cooperstown. The great Henry Aaron visited the Hall of Fame last weekend to commemorate a new exhibit detailing his life and career in baseball. Aaron becomes just the second man to have an entire room dedicated to him at the Hall, joining Babe Ruth in that exclusive club. When a Milwaukee reporter asked Aaron how he felt about being put on the same level as Ruth, he did not opt for a modest answer based on political correctness. “It means I’m supposed to be on the same platform [as Ruth],” Aaron told the reporter. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.”
I can’t disagree with Aaron, who overcame a childhood filled with poverty to become one of the game’s legends. While “Hammerin’ Hank” was not the equal of The Babe—no one is—he is unquestionably one of the all-time greats. Still the major league career leader in RBIs and total bases, Aaron was a phenomenal five-tool talent who excelled in every important area. He also deserves extra credit for breaking Ruth’s home run record under the extraordinary duress of racial hatred. Aaron and his family received horrific threats, both in the form of venomous phone calls and vicious hate mail. His sustained excellence in 1973 and 1974, when he was chasing the record and ultimately breaking it, is impressive enough on the surface; it becomes even more pronounced in view of the emotional distress and genuine concerns for his safety.
Unfortunately, Aaron was subjected to racial torment at various times in his career, especially at the beginning and the end. As a minor leaguer developing in the Milwaukee Braves’ farm system, Aaron received an assignment to report to Jacksonville of the South Atlantic League. He and two of his teammates made history, integrating the previously all-white league while dodging the race baiters. “We had three black players on that team,” Aaron told a capacity crowd in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. “I had a very good year. I led the league in everything but hotel accommodations.”
Not only did Aaron and his two black teammates have to endure the embarrassment of staying in separate hotels and eating in different restaurants; they had to endure uncivil behavior at the games. “The problem we had was with spectators. We had a rough time in the South. It got ridiculous. At some ballparks, we could not dress in the clubhouse. If you went 0-for-4, the fans would throw bananas at us.
“We used to talk about how silly people can really be when all we wanted to do was play ball. The thing that made me succeed more was how hateful they were.”
The hatred certainly did not stop Aaron. It did not prevent him from breaking a wide-ranging set of records. Some would say he is the greatest living player. Is he at the top of the list? Maybe, maybe not. Willie Mays has his supporters, as does Barry Bonds. But at the very least, Aaron deserves to be in the argument. For someone who overcame so much racism and poverty, that’s a pretty good legacy to have…
Not only did the Yankees do the right thing in reducing the prices of some of their high-end box seats, they did the smart thing. In this case, let’s refer to the “Empty Seat Syndrome.” Empty seats are the worst thing that can happen to a professional sports team. Empty seats don’t buy concession items. Empty seats don’t buy souvenirs or memorabilia. Empty seats don’t tell their friends about their wonderful experiences at the ballpark. On top of all that, empty seats just look bad, especially when they are located so close to the playing field. When a team is coming off back-to-back seasons of four million fans in paid attendance, there is no excuse for not filling the ballpark—especially a new one that has so many improvements over the old house—on a regular basis. Hopefully, the Yankees have learned their lesson…
As long as Joe Girardi keeps using Jorge Posada as a DH on days when he does not catch, the Yankees will continue to need a third catcher. (Anything would be more useful than a 13th pitcher.) Otherwise, Girardi will find himself strapped in the late innings, unable to pinch-hit or pinch-run for Jose Molina. One potential pickup is Brayan Pena, a switch-hitting catcher who was designated for assignment by the Royals last weekend. The 27-year-old Pena is a rare breed in 2009: a backup catcher who can hit and who carries enough versatility to fill in at third base or first base. As a player who has been DFAed (designated for assignment), Pena will cost almost nothing in a trade, assuming that he is not waived or given his outright release.
Bruce Markusen, who writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com, can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Hank Aaron has made news on several counts this month. He turned 75 years of age, attracting scores of celebrities to a birthday party held for him in his native Georgia. The Hall of Fame has announced that it will open the “Hank Aaron Records Room” this spring. Additionally, Aaron has commented publicly on Barry Bonds, taking the high road in saying that the ex-Giants slugger should be considered the all-time home run king in spite of mounting evidence that he used steroids during his days in San Francisco.
Thirty five years ago, Aaron completed his own assault on the home run mark. Steroids were not an issue at the time, but reports of death threats and some unfavorable comparisons to Babe Ruth filled the newspapers. In spite of those roadblocks, Aaron remained poised as he stood on the edge of rewriting the game’s record book.
On Monday night, April 8, Aaron and the Braves hosted the Dodgers at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Given the grand possibilities of the evening, NBC Television decided to provide a special broadcast of the game, even though the network did not feature regular Monday night telecasts at the time. Moments before Braves right-hander Ron Reed threw the game’s first pitch, National League umpire Lee Weyer took a look at the crowd of 53,755 fans, a record for the ballpark, and remarked, “I’m glad I’m here. History might be made tonight.”
Braves manager Eddie Mathews inserted Aaron, his left fielder and former teammate, into the cleanup spot, behind Darrell Evans and ahead of Dusty Baker. In the bottom of the first, veteran left-hander Al Downing, a former Yankee and a onetime 20-game winner, took to the mound for the Dodgers. He immediately produced a sense of disappointment for the capacity crowd, as he retired Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr, Mike Lum, and Evans on three consecutive groundouts. Any record-breaking theater would have to wait until the second inning, at the earliest.
After impatiently watching the Dodgers go down in the top of the second, Atlanta fans anticipated the first head-to-head matchup of the night. Leading off against Downing, Aaron drew a walk. He came home to score on a double by Baker, assisted by Bill Buckner’s error in left field. Interestingly, when Aaron touched home plate, he broke Willie Mays’ record for the most runs scored in National League history, a record almost entirely overlooked in the midst of media and fan attention surrounding Hank’s home run pursuit. (The connection between Aaron and Mays has become especially noteworthy because of the growing rivalry that has developed between the two men. Each summer, Hall of Fame officials are careful to sit Aaron and Mays apart from each other during the annual induction ceremony.)
Atlanta fans, however, had little interest in watching Aaron score a run after a walk. They wanted the run to come via the home run and were unhappy that Downing did not give Aaron a pitch to hit. After all, most fans were not only anticipating the possibility of a record being broken, but nervous as well. There was no guarantee that “The Hammer” would deliver that night; yet many fans had tickets only to that game.
In the fourth inning, Aaron came to bat again. With the Braves trailing 3-1, two men out and a runner on first, Aaron patiently watched Downing’s first pitch, a change-up in the dirt. Ball one. Now behind in the count, Downing threw Aaron a slider. The pitch was low, but down the middle, perhaps a strike if he let it go. Aaron did not. Using his classic top-hand swing and follow-through, Aaron lifted the pitch deep toward left-center field. The ball had only moderate height, typical of Aaron, who rarely hit towering fly balls. As the ball carried, left fielder Bill Buckner and center fielder Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn raced in the direction of the warning track, converging just a few feet from the outfield wall. Placing his arms on top of the wall, Buckner tried to prop himself higher, above the boundary of the fence. Young and spry at this early stage of his career, Buckner saw his valiant attempt fall well short. Both Billy Buck and The Cannon watched the ball land in the glove of relief pitcher Tom House, who was standing in Atlanta’s bullpen.
Two overly enthusiastic fans accompanied Aaron on his tour around the bases. Security forces must have cringed at the site of the intruders, but they carried neither weapons nor ill intentions. (They would, however, have to spend a memorable night in an Atlanta jail before eventually becoming friends with the new home run king.) By the time Aaron had reached home plate, his entourage of followers and well-wishers numbered nearly a dozen, mostly Braves’ teammates and coaches. Aaron’s swarm of notable teammates included Baker (who had been kneeling in the on-deck circle), future Mets manager Dave Johnson, and Frank Tepedino, a former Yankee who would gain fame in later years for his role as a New York City fireman during the tragic day of September 11.
The umpires temporarily halted the game, allowing for an understated on-field ceremony that lasted a modest 11 minutes. During the proceedings, Aaron spoke to the crowd at Fulton County Stadium. “I’m happy it’s over,” Aaron said of his grueling chase of Ruth’s record, once thought unreachable by baseball historians. “Now I can consider myself one of the best. Maybe not the best because a lot of great ones have played this game—[Joe] DiMaggio, Mays, Jackie Robinson… but I think I can fit in there somewhere.”
Even 35 years later, few fans would argue with Aaron’s humble assessment.
Bruce Markusen, who once had the privilege of interviewing Henry Aaron, writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.
Thirty five years ago, baseball fans bided much of their time by obsessing over Hank Aaron’s pursuit of a record once deemed unbreakable—the all-time home run mark owned by Babe Ruth. Although many fans expressed support of Aaron’s continuing run at Ruth’s record, there were also those who clearly did not want him to succeed. As a black man who had started his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Aaron received numerous pieces of mail from people who resented him because of his race. Some of the letters were downright vicious; others implied or dictated threats on his life.
When people found out about the angry and hateful notes, Aaron started receiving a greater number of positive letters. In 1974, Aaron noted that he had received over 900,000 the previous year; “the overwhelming majority” of the mail supported his quest to overtake Ruth’s record. Still, the negative notes bore watching because of their menacing tone and direct threats of bodily harm.
The FBI began reading and confiscating the negative letters, which could best be characterized as “hate mail.” The bureau began investigating some of the letters, as a way of determining whether real dangers to Aaron’s life existed. The Braves, gravely concerned about Aaron’s safety, hired two off-duty Atlanta police offers to serve as personal bodyguards. Lamar Harris and Calvin Wardlaw would attend each of Aaron’s game from the stands, observing the stands and the playing field area for potential perpetrators. Wardlaw equipped himself with a .38 Smith-Wesson detective special in the event that Aaron faced an immediate threat of violence during the game.
“My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
The stunning fact about Aaron’s assault on The Babe was that he came on so suddenly. For years, Willie Mays was the leading pretender to the throne. Willie made a hard run for it until time sent its battalions up against his flesh. Those of us who loved Willie watched our hero backed against the outfield wall by the caprices of old age, by that semi-death of extraordinary athletes who dance too long, then stumble home in a last graceless waltz that is the cruelest, most public humiliation of sport. Years ago, the world knew that The Babe was safe from Willie. But in 1971, a 37-year-old man hit 47 home runs and the chase was on again. The next year Aaron hit 34. Last year he hit 40 and at the end of the season was staring eyeball-to-eyeball with Babe Ruth.
…It was…in many ways, one of the most boring sports stories of the century. Every sportswriter in the country searched the rills and slopes of his brain hoping to find the different angle, the fresh approach or a new way of looking at Hank’s assault on Babe Ruth’s record. They asked Hank every conceivable question. They interviewed every person who had known Hank in the past 40 years, from Vic Raschi, who surrendered Hank’s first home run, to Aaron’s daughter, sons, sisters, brothers, mother, father, managers, coaches, players and friends. There was something about the obscenely crowded press conferences with Hank that made a reporter feel like a participant at an orgy. After each game last season, the flock gathered to ask Hank the same watered-down questions and Hank, salivating on cue, would render the same colorless, good-natured answers he had delivered the day before and the day before that. The chase ate up a lot of good words, and left a lot of semi-burned out reporters staring into the outfield lights.
And if you missed it, do yourself a favor and check out Tommy Cragg’s wonderful 2007 piece on Aaron for Slate:
Because he was so outwardly bland in personality and performance, Aaron seemed to take on character only in relation to things people felt strongly about: Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, civil rights. On his own he was, and remains, an abstraction, someone whom writers could only explicate with banalities like “dignified.” Our perception of Aaron today stems almost entirely from his pursuit of Ruth’s 714 home runs, in 1973 and 1974, during which time he faced down an assortment of death threats and hate mail. By then, Aaron had shed his reticence and begun to speak out against baseball’s glacial progress on matters of race. Still, very much his own man, he seemed to dismiss some of the loftier interpretations attached to his home-run chase. “The most basic motivation,” he wrote in his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, with Lonnie Wheeler, “was the pure ambition to break such an important and long-standing barrier. Along with that would come the recognition that I thought was long overdue me: I would be out of the shadows.”
No matter. Aaron was fashioned into something of a civil rights martyr anyway. “He hammered out home runs in the name of social progress,” Wheeler recently wrote in the Cincinnati Post. And Tom Stanton, in the optimistically titled Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America, dropped what has to be the most unlikely Hank Aaron analogy on record: “[P]erhaps it’s The Exorcist, the period’s biggest movie, that provides a better metaphor for Hank Aaron’s trial. … Hank Aaron lured America’s ugly demons into the light, revealing them to those who imagined them a thing of the past, and in doing so helped exorcise some of them. His ordeal provided a vivid, personal lesson for a generation of children: Racism is wrong.”
Small wonder that, upon eclipsing Ruth, the exorcist told the crowd, “I’d just like to thank God it’s over.”