Sunday, January 9, 2011

#3: The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant

Many people age 25 or younger simply know Henry Aaron as the guy who held the home run record before Bonds. He was the avuncular fellow that appeared on the jumbotron in San Francisco when Barry hit #756 and congratulated him.

Aaron's statistics are legendary. He is in the top five in baseball history in home runs, runs scored, RBI, games played, at bats, total bases and hits. What is more impressive is his consistency: Aaron hit at least 20 home runs every year for 20 years. Or, if you prefer, every year of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon Administrations combined. This book is about much more than baseball, however, and presents the achievements of Aaron in historical context. Much is made of the fact that the man who broke Babe Ruth's record was the last active major leaguer who had played in the Negro Leagues. Howard Bryant does a wonderful job in fleshing out exactly what this trivial detail means.

Aaron himself said "Hate mail and home runs, that's all people want to know about." Not that Aaron is the first African American owner of a BMW dealership in the U.S. Not that Aaron was called "instrumental" by President Clinton after his win in the Georgia Democratic primary in 1992. Not that Aaron integrated a neighborhood of Milwaukee for the simple reason he was "the" Henry Aaron. He also was one of the first handful of black players in the South Atlantic (or Sally) League. In the early 1950s, playing in front of segregated crowds at the age of 18 and 19 in places known for intense racism at that time (Macon GA, Jacksonville, FL), Aaron produced despite abuse.

One story in the book drives this home. After an extra inning victory in which Aaron and Puerto Rican teammate Felix Mantilla scored four runs and banged out 7 hits, a man chased after them in the parking lot. When the smiling ballplayers turned around, the man said "Tell you what. You niggers played one hell of a game." Compliment, yes. But this was the hidden burden for Aaron and African Americans in the south, and this is where the biography really shines. It highlights the day to day, matter-of-fact racism that is far too often overlooked. When the Braves left Milwaukee and moved to Atlanta, the large questions for Aaron, Dusty Baker and other black players was will seating be segregated at the stadium? Would they be allowed to buy houses in the suburbs, something they could do in Milwaukee (well, within reason.) Aaron's wife was unhappy about the move. Aaron is never thought of as a "civil rights" leader, but in his consistently excellent way, he was. Much like Hank Greenberg in the 1930s (a Jew hitting home runs against Hitler) Aaron was hitting them against the remnants of Jim Crow. When he spoke out, he was labeled (as Jackie Robinson was back in the 1950s) "angry".

Yes, Aaron received hate mail in the months leading up to his record setting home run. Yes, he received death threats. I had heard Milo Hamilton's call of HR #715 many times, but I have never heard Dodger's announcer Vin Scully's call,which is a centerpiece of the text. After waiting some 15 seconds for the crowd noise to subside, Scully said in part "It's over...What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol."

Of course that all-time baseball idol was white, playing in a segregated league.As Dusty Baker put it, the reason for all those death threats was that "Henry was taking away a record from them and giving it to us." I could not agree more. This text, while filled with excellent baseball, is an exemplary piece of cultural and baseball history. With any biography, a reader should walk away with a new respect or understanding for the subject. With Bryant's text, I have come away with both for Henry Aaron.

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