The Standard Bearer
The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron is a curious title, and not because the legendary baseball player is still alive. Aaron evolved from a legendary athlete into a beloved humanitarian, shrewd businessman, and affable sports icon. But most people don’t care. They want to revel in the 755 homers, the rivalry with Willie Mays, and the battles with Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. “You know what the hardest thing is?” Aaron tells the book’s author, Howard Bryant. “What nobody wants to understand—is me. People want their memories of me to be my memories of me. But you know what? They’re not.”
Bryant’s exhaustive, humane look at Aaron examines the travails of a proud man who spent a lifetime adjusting, and can now rest. It’s a terrific book, just like Andre Agassi’s Open, because it focuses on the person, not their accomplishments. Though not as rollicking a read as Open—which featured sex, drugs, and Barbra Streisand—The Last Hero feels like a great, eras-spanning novel that reveals bigger truths about its subject and the world we thought we knew.
Aaron grew up in talent-rich Mobile, Alabama—also the home of Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, and Charley Pride—and came of age when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. As Bryant reminds us, Robinson’s historic act didn’t automatically enlighten baseball. Whites still ruled the game and sensibilities were slow to change. Also, the Major Leagues didn’t go below Washington, D.C. As a minor leaguer, Aaron and his black teammates were faced with the task of desegregating the South Atlantic League. All the games were played in the Deep South, which meant that Aaron wasn’t even welcome at his own ballpark. “You cannot believe what it must have been like to be Henry Aaron in 1953,” says his former teammate, Jim Frey, who is white. “It was a heartbreaking thing to watch.”
Thankfully, Aaron didn’t stay there long, beginning his illustrious career with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, but the second-rate treatment continued. Henry and his black teammates initially spent their Florida spring trainings in a blacks-only boarding house. In the Braves clubhouse, whites showered, then blacks. The black players’ lockers were in the same corner, away from the whites. Aaron not only had to navigate this backwards thinking, but he had to survive in a white-run sporting world. Herbert Aaron told his son, “Never move faster than you have to,” a maxim the younger Aaron applied to baseball. A scout taught Aaron that in baseball “perceived effort was often as important as actually working hard, and the appearance of working hard carried a great deal of value,” Bryant writes. It was hard for a personality to emerge. Too often the writers were happy to oblige. Furman Bisher’s 1958 profile for The Saturday Evening Post had Aaron sounding like Jim from Huckleberry Finn; Time included this glowing phrase in its 1957 feature: “But by now everyone knows that Aaron is not as dumb as he looks when he shuffles around the field.” Aaron was labeled as being too shy—can you blame him?—but as he became more politically-minded in the 1970s, reporters scoffed at his opinions on anything beyond the game.
The old adage is that Aaron spoke with his bat, but even that did little good. He wanted to be in the same class of hitters as his idols Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, and there’s no argument that he was. But Bryant points out that a contemporary was always getting more attention, like the electric Mays (Aaron’s nemesis), the graceful Roberto Clemente, or the hard-living, aw-shucks Mickey Mantle, who also happened to play in the world’s media capital on the game’s most storied franchise. Aaron, grinding out consistently awesome numbers for mostly middling Milwaukee/Atlanta clubs, was an acquired taste. Aaron finished his career ranked third in hits, third in total bases, first in runs batted in, and first in home runs. Yet he earned only one Most Valuable Player award. That’s borderline criminal.
Aaron’s whole life was built on slights: growing up in Jim Crow Alabama, the fickle and close-minded media, competing with Mays (who never recognized his talents), being neglected by the Atlanta Braves’ original ownership (which neglected to ask him to manage). He seethed when baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn’t reach out to him after hitting his 700th home run; he was frustrated that people only knew him for one accomplishment—breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. When Barry Bonds, pumped up (allegedly!) with so many performance-enhancing drugs that he looked like the black Michelin Man—closed in (and broke) Aaron’s mark, Henry said nothing. He resisted every profitable overture from Bonds’s camp to join Mays and Bonds as three black men redefined sports history. “He's trying to buy me,” Aaron’s confidants remember him saying. “And I resent that.” Aaron was even upset that he didn’t get unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame. He got 97.8 percent of the votes.
The beauty of Bryant’s book is we understand Aaron’s emotional journey. He was on a lifelong quest for respect, and got it. People finally came around. Major League Baseball learned that Aaron was a warm-hearted, dignified ambassador. Ted Turner, when he first owned the Atlanta Braves, recognized that Aaron was the team’s history, and made sure he had a job for life with the franchise. The nation, aside from San Francisco, realized that Bonds was a fraud and that Aaron was the genuine article, or as noted sociologist Harry Edwards explained, “the standard of excellence.”
By the end of this splendid book, we finally see Henry Aaron as a man who learned to trust and who at age seventy-seven is comfortable in his own skin. Robinson may have broken the color line, but he died young, neglected by baseball and beaten down by life. There was no happy ending. Aaron earned his, making him important for reasons that are (predictably) unsexy, but vital: Achieving athletic greatness only takes you so far; another set of skills and tenacity is required after the game.
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Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.