September 13, 2010
Henry Aaron has often been called an underrated superstar. Few knew him, and few valued him for what he truly was: One of the five best players in baseball history, and perhaps the second-most important integrator of the game, after Jackie Robinson himself.
Aaron was elusive because he didn't play in New York, and he was a deeply private man, reticent toward nearly everyone outside his closest family and friends. In "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," Howard Bryant does an admirable job of unpacking the man's history, but even he struggles to reveal Aaron's true voice. After 755 home runs and a lifetime in baseball, Henry Aaron is still a hard man to know.
Because he'd been spurned by his teammates and portrayed by racist sportswriters as lazy and unintelligent when he was a young player, Aaron rarely confided in his teammates and didn't trust the media. The more attention he received, the more he withdrew into himself, and the man who was the first African-American star athlete in the Deep South became one of the best-known, but least-understood athletes of his time.
Bryant makes much of the fact that, other than his protege Dusty Baker, no one who truly knew him ever called him Hank: "Henry Aaron" was who he truly was, while "Hank Aaron" was the man the press wrote about, the man who hit all those home runs whom almost no one really knew. Bryant writes insightfully about the profound affect of race on Aaron's life and career, using the disparity between "Henry" and "Hank" to illustrate the gap between his public and private lives, and this analysis is Bryant's greatest contribution.
Much of Aaron's natural reticence was instinctualized from childhood, when he grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and learned that keeping a low profile was essential. He learned from his father: "They don't want you to get too high. Know your place." The great foil of his career was Willie Mays, a fellow Alabaman who nonetheless took a completely different approach. Where Aaron instinctively tried to keep a low profile, Mays was a natural showman. Mays overshadowed Aaron during the vast majority of his career as the premier power hitter and outfielder in baseball, until Mays's body began to break down and Aaron pursued Babe Ruth's record in earnest. Aaron's contrast with Mays is fascinatingly contradictory. He admired Mays' talent but hated his self-centeredness. While Aaron didn't enjoy the limelight, he bristled whenever failed to recognize his true worth. He wanted to be left alone, but he also didn't want to be forgotten.
Bryant clearly admires Aaron, so while the biography isn't authorized, in many places it reads as though it may as well have been. As hard as it is to understand the real Aaron, it sometimes feels as though Bryant, respecting his privacy, is shielding him from view. Bryant doesn't pry into Aaron's darker side, like when his first wife files for divorce citing "mental cruelty." In several places Bryant mentions that Aaron leavened his public shyness with wickedly cutting sarcasm and dark humor in the clubhouse, but he provides almost no examples of things Aaron actually said. In fact, we hardly hear a single verbatim quote from Aaron's early playing career, almost nothing to suggest his state of mind in his own words. Perhaps Bryant left them out because so many of those quotes were mangled by sportswriters into misspelled dialect to make him look backwards and uneducated, but the omission serves to keep Aaron at arm's length. Instead, we hear the older Aaron's recollections.
The race to Ruth is riveting, but it's ground that's well covered in Aaron's terrific 1991 autobiography, I Had a Hammer, which Bryant frequently quotes. The major new material here deals with Barry Bonds' pursuit of the home run record, about which Aaron tried as hard as he could not to comment. Privately, though, he was disgusted by a crass man who was cheating to break his record. Again, despite all his fame and latter-day recognition as an American hero and baseball legend, Aaron refused to acknowledge publicly how he felt privately.
Bryant has brought more of Hank Aaron's legacy and mindset to light than we previously had known, and he's written a fine book. But as much as Bryant uncovers, the true Aaron remains tantalizingly out of reach. Howard Bryant has written the best Hank Aaron biography on the market. But the definitive biography has yet to be written.
One wonders if it ever will be.