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.