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A Life of Henry Aaron

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On Sale: May 11, 2010
Pages: 608 | ISBN: 978-0-307-37924-5
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In the thirty-four years since his retirement, Henry Aaron’s reputation has only grown in magnitude: he broke existing records (rbis, total bases, extra-base hits) and set new ones (hitting at least thirty home runs per season fifteen times, becoming the first player in history to hammer five hundred home runs and three thousand hits). But his influence extends beyond statistics, and at long last here is the first definitive biography of one of baseball’s immortal figures.
 
Based on meticulous research and interviews with former teammates, family, two former presidents, and Aaron himself, The Last Hero chronicles Aaron’s childhood in segregated Alabama, his brief stardom in the Negro Leagues, his complicated relationship with celebrity, and his historic rivalry with Willie Mays—all culminating in the defining event of his life: his shattering of Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run record.
 
Bryant also examines Aaron’s more complex second act: his quest to become an important voice beyond the ball field when his playing days had ended, his rediscovery by a public disillusioned with today’s tainted heroes, and his disappointment that his career home-run record was finally broken by Barry Bonds during the steroid era, baseball’s greatest scandal.
 
Bryant reveals how Aaron navigated the upheavals of his time—fighting against racism while at the same time benefiting from racial progress—and how he achieved his goal of continuing Jackie Robinson’s mission to obtain full equality for African-Americans, both in baseball and society, while he lived uncomfortably in the public spotlight. Eloquently written, detailed and penetrating, this is a revelatory portrait of a complicated, private man who through sports became an enduring American icon.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter Two
HENRY
 
Henry Aaron set out to be a professional baseball player, having hardly been an amateur one. At Central High, he had dabbled in football, and once, either in 1947 or 1948, he played a regular-season game against Westfield High and its sensational running back, Willie Mays. Central, however, had no baseball team, and Henry would not play football with great enthusiasm, for fear an injury would ruin his baseball prospects. He was expelled from Central, and was uninter­ested in anything but baseball while at Josephine Allen, which only fielded a softball team anyway. Henry’s résumé consisted of hitting bottle caps with a broom handle.
 
As he grew older and more prominent, journalists would seek to know more about his early years, about his upbringing and his family, about how he could have been so sure he possessed the special ability it took to play baseball at the highest level. A lot of kids were the best in their neighborhoods, but it wasn’t exactly a given that Henry was even that. Henry would depend on a few of the old chestnuts that would be repeated for the next half century. The stories were odd and colorful, but none was particularly true or carried the kind of insight that would fill in the important pieces of his personal puzzle. At dif­fering times, he told various tales about the origin of his legendary wrists. He told one writer that despite his wiry frame, his bulging forearms came from a job hauling ice in Mobile; he told another he benefited from mowing lawns; and he told people that for all of his right -handed greatness, he would have been an even better switch-hitter. That was because he batted cross-handed, which for a right-handed hitter was to say with his left hand on top, as a left-handed hitter would.
 
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.
 
There was no magic moment to his childhood, no secret formula or bolt of lightning that transformed the broomstick -swinging boy into a baseball-playing man. He was not a particularly charismatic teenager, but he was single-minded. When he was not playing base­ball, he spent his time on Three Mile Creek or in the pool halls of the Avenue, smoking with the adults.
 
Henry would occasionally cut the postage stamp of grass in front of the house. He would gather wood as Herbert demanded and he did his chores dutifully. Sometimes the two would clash, as fathers and sons do, over the future. Herbert, who earned sixteen cents an hour on Pinto Island, would have three quarters in his pocket and give his son two. There was, Herbert would say, an opportunity for Henry to have more than three coins in his pocket, to have, perhaps, an easier go of life if he would care more about school.
 
Like the rest of the Aaron children, Henry attended Morning Star Baptist Church, a mandatory requirement in Stella Aaron’s house. For his part, Herbert didn’t care much for the fire -and -brimstone carrying-on that was part of the tradition of the southern black Bap­tist Church. He preferred the more sober Episcopal Church, and attended somewhat regularly. After church, Henry would rush over to Carver Park, and that was where part of the legend was actually true.
 
In another place, just being a good ballplayer, better than the rest, would have been enough to attract the attention of someone who mattered—an influential college coach or one of the big-league scouts who seemed to know someone in every corner of the baseball-playing world. But Henry Aaron came of age in Mobile at a time when baseball was the lifeblood of the city, and being a good ballplayer in Mobile had all the distinction of a sunny day in California. It had been that way—for the odd, unquantifiable reasons that certain regions seem to breed highly skilled professionals of any stripe—since the 1920s. On the black side of town, before Henry’s time, there was Satchel Paige, who had come from Down the Bay—he’d lived on Alba Street—and became the most celebrated pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues. There was the great Negro Leaguer Ted Radcliffe, who caught at one end of a doubleheader and pitched at the other so many times, they nicknamed him “Double Duty.” Radcliffe played for thirty-six years in the Negro Leagues. He and Paige were the big names of black baseball, but the culture of the sport was not rooted in the success of a couple of players. Across the tracks, on the white side of town, there were the Bolling brothers, Milt and Frank. Both would play in the big leagues, as would Henry and Billy Williams, but state law and local custom forbade interracial competition, and a generation of talented players lived in parallel universes.
 
Neighborhood kids would collide on the sandlots. On the black side of Mobile, the boys from Toulminville would play a group of kids from the other black areas, like Whistler or Plateau (which happened to be pronounced “Platt-toe”). Plateau was a depressed, historically rich, and significant part of Mobile. The town was nicknamed by the resident blacks “Africa Town,” because Plateau was the docking point for the Clothilda, the final slave ship to land in Alabama. During Henry’s childhood, Africa Town was also the part of Mobile where many former slaves had relocated following Emancipation. In Plateau, when the Mobile establishment grew more determined to enact Jim Crow statutes, blacks founded the Hickory Club in 1906, a local organization formed to police black neighborhoods from within (black policemen were not hired in Mobile until the mid-1950s) but also, if necessary, to protect them from the Ku Klux Klan.
 
There was a boy from Plateau who happened to be best in that neighborhood. He was just a little kid at the time Henry was on the field in Toulminville, so Tommy Agee just watched the big kids play.
 
The boys from Whistler would ride their bikes (the ones who had bikes) over to Toulminville for weekend epics that would last on the Carver Park dirt for hours and in memory forever. Another kid, five years younger than Henry, used to sit and watch unless the teams weren’t even and they needed another body. When he got the call to play, Billy Williams would follow his big brother and do whatever he was told. The boys used their imaginations, the way kids do. Billy Williams recalled calling the dusty little park Carver Stadium instead of Carver Park, to give the place its proper regality, lending dreams their proper setting.
 
Billy’s brother Clyde, a left -handed pitcher, often used to pitch to Henry. There was another younger kid in a different part of Mobile, Magazine Point, named McCovey, and people were already talking about keeping an eye on him, as well as another kid, Charley Pride, who wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a baseball player or a musician.
 
Mobile’s obsession with baseball was like something out of an old movie. Many of the factories in the city sponsored company teams, as did other industries. The men who played were grown and grizzled; they were welders and riveters and boilermakers in their mid-twenties and early thirties who ran down fly balls and threw in on the hands. Interspersed on these teams were some teenagers. Some of the kids could play, while others were bodies who filled out the ros­ters on days when numbers were short.
 
For a time, Henry played with the Pritchett Athletics, earning two dollars per game, and then he joined the Black Bears for three bucks a game. The traveling Negro League teams would come into town and play the industrial teams, and as a fifteen-year-old, Henry would play against Negro League competition. He played infield mostly, third base and shortstop, and as much as how he wielded the bat, players remembered the odd, slingshot style he used to throw the baseball, wide and to the side—“three o’clock,” Billy Williams said. Williams himself played against the adults, first on the Mobile Black Shippers as a teenager, and also on the Mobile Black Bears, the Negro equivalent of the minor-league Mobile Bears. Saturdays and Sundays would showcase doubleheaders. There was also another team, in a different part of the city, the Mobile Mohawks. The games were scheduled for 3:00 p.m., just after church. Willie McCovey played for the Mobile Buckeyes.
 
Periodically, Henry would have a chance to play in a game and dream a little bit bigger. Other times, he would have his ambitions temporarily broken, like the time he showed up at an open tryout held by the mighty Brooklyn Dodgers but couldn’t generate the nerve to stand up for himself and get in the batter’s box. The older kids intimidated him and he skulked off the field without ever hold­ing the bat in his hands.
 
The story might have ended right there except for two important but underplayed factors: the confidence Henry possessed in himself to hit any pitch from any pitcher, and the sureness of a man named Ed Scott, who had been watching Henry since 1950, when Henry was sixteen. Henry was not a prodigy and had played in only a hand­ful of organized games. Billy Williams remembered his demeanor as unchanged even then. “A lot of guys were playing a helluva baseball game. Every day, he didn’t stand out. He was just good.
 
There were bigger kids and more confident ones who might have been further along in their development at the time, but there was something about the way the ball sounded when Henry hit it, a sound the untrained ear might have missed. Ed Scott was convinced that the raw talent Henry displayed on the dusty sandlots of Toulminville might just be sufficient to allow him to play baseball at the next level.
 
Ed Scott worked in one of Mobile’s factories, but on the side he provided the eyes and ears for a Negro League team, the Indianapo­lis Clowns. Their time was essentially over, and everybody knew it. Robinson had integrated the big leagues, and the unintended—or, depending on whom you talked to and how much money was being taken from their pockets, the intended—consequence of integration was the end of the black leagues. But in 1951, the Clowns could still attract young black ballplayers, and the major leagues still turned to the Negro Leagues as a source of talent. It was a relationship that would end before it began, for it would only be a matter of time before big -league clubs hired their own scouts to find black players.
 
Scott estimated he spent “every other day” with Henry. They would meet at Carver Park and Scott would shag flies for him. He believed Henry had a special ability, not simply because of Henry’s swing but also because he was able to make such consistent contact with crude equipment. “He could hit the ball with a broken piece of wood. That was hard to do,” Scott recalled. “Especially the black kids. You’d see them out there hitting and running and catching, with a tennis ball or broken pool stick. A broken pool stick was a Louisville Slugger to us.”
 
The more Scott talked to Henry about his ability, the more he understood that Henry was afraid of Stella. More to the point, he was afraid of telling his mother he wanted to find out if what Ed Scott was saying about him was true, that he truly did possess the ability to be a big -time baseball player. Scott recalled needing to summon all his courage to approach the Aaron household and confront the formida­ble Stella with his thoughts about her son’s future. On a few occa­sions, Scott would hide behind the side of the house. Stella Aaron sat on her porch. It was her favorite place at the house, her grandchildren thought.
 
In the fall of 1951, Scott made his case. Henry Aaron had the talent to go as far as he wanted as a baseball player. The Indianapolis Clowns were willing to give him a look. The Clowns were a legendary Negro League team, known for being the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. The team featured good ballplayers but also high circus-style entertainment. Toni Stone, a woman, played second base. King Tut, an enormous man with a round belly, served as a mascot, wearing nothing but a grass skirt. If Henry made the club, the Clowns would pay him two hundred dollars per month, which was twenty-five dollars a week less than what Herbert brought in at ADDSCO. At first, Stella said no. After more discussion, the reality that college was not going to be an option settled in. Henry’s gaining a college education had been, understandably, a mother’s fantasy. The harder truth was that Henry had no interest in school and no track record as a student.
 
In those days, children in Mobile were not obligated to attend school for their senior year. Students could enter the workforce after eleventh grade. That rule created an opening: If he did not make it, Henry promised his mother, he would return to the Josephine Allen Institute for his final year. Stella agreed. Henry Aaron would then report to Winston -Salem to meet the Clowns. Bunny Downs, the Indianapolis business manager, would be at the depot to meet him. Unlike Stella, Herbert tended to lean toward Henry’s way of thinking. Perhaps Henry’s leaving Wilcox as a teenager to discover his own destiny influenced Herbert’s viewpoint.
 
Ed Scott recalled the difficulty in convincing Stella to let her son go. As much as she wanted Henry to attend college, she was also largely unaware of just how talented her son was.
 
“I told her, if this kid was Satchel Paige, I wouldn’t be bothering you,” Scott said. “But you really don’t know what you have.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Howard Bryant|Author Q&A

About Howard Bryant

Howard Bryant - The Last Hero

Photo © Erinn B. Hartman

Howard Bryant is the author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, which was a finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research’s 2003 Seymour Medal, and Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball. He is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine; appears regularly on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, ESPN First Take, and Outside the Lines; and serves as sports correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. He lives in western Massachusetts.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Howard Bryant
Author of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron
 
 
1.                   Why Henry Aaron?
After my second book, Juicing the Game, the natural progression for my thought process was heading toward one question: “Who in baseball do you admire? Is there anyone this sport can be proud of?” It wasn’t simply the fatigue of writing about steroids and tainted heroes that drifted me toward Henry Aaron, but because the steroids scandal occurring during the same time as the housing-and-mortgage scandal told me something larger was taking place in this country, that the value systems we ostensibly seek—honor, integrity, accountability—were becoming almost quaint. In baseball, as the drug scandal intensified, players would tell me, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” It was that level of cynicism that made me consider writing about someone who certainly was not perfect but had a larger mission for himself beyond money, that here was a person for whom those values are not quaint.
           
2.                  Did he cooperate?
It took roughly eighteen months for him to agree to speak with me. I first began working on this project in May 2006 and that was in the middle of when Barry Bonds was nearing Henry’s record. Henry Aaron wanted nothing to do with the Bonds record chase. He didn’t want to be asked questions about Bonds, did not want to be placed in the debate about anabolic steroids. He did not want to engage at all.
            When Henry’s attorney, Allan Tanenbaum, and I spoke for the first time, he was extremely pessimistic about the book and the public’s reaction to Henry Aaron. He was convinced that the public did not care about him except in being positioned as the polar opposite of Bonds. He was certain that I was only interested in one thing: Bonds. Over many phone calls spanning several months (the key conversation taking place over Thanksgiving 2007), Allan finally accepted that my motives for writing the book had nothing to do with Bonds and everything to do with a man I considered to be an American icon.  
            A few months later, on January 31 (ironically on Jackie Robinson’s birthday), Henry Aaron and I had our first phone call. He was extremely pleasant and engaging but echoed Allan’s sentiments about his own life. “People don’t care about me,” he told me. “They only care about what I did as a baseball player. There’s more to me than that.” I was amazed at the considerable divide that existed between the enthusiasm I received whenever I mentioned the possibility of writing about Henry and what he considered to be the public’s perception of him. 
 
3.                  What most surprised you during the writing/research?
There were many surprising aspects of the research, which is why I truly love to research and write books. Whatever your initial thoughts of your subject are, they will invariably be altered the deeper you learn.
            I was as guilty as anyone in following the accepted Aaron myth: played in Milwaukee, was always overshadowed by players in bigger markets, snuck up on even the shrewdest evaluators of talent from the day he entered the big leagues to the day when suddenly he and not Willie Mays was in the best position to break Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.
            None of this is true, and that was the most surprising thing. Henry Aaron was a phenom, a top prospect from the day he joined the Indianapolis Clowns. He was a comet tearing through each level in the minor leagues, and when he arrived for his first spring in Bradenton, Florida in 1954, all eyes were on him to be the next great player.
            The myth came later. As the Milwaukee Braves fell in the standings at the beginning of the 1960s, people did begin to forget about Henry, and he quietly accumulated Hall of Fame numbers. But that was only because the public lost interest in a losing team, not because it was unaware of his enormous ability.
 
4.                  What is the lasting legacy of Henry Aaron?
A famous sociologist told me during an interview that the steroid scandal has created a gap between the record holders and the standard bearers of major league baseball. Barry Bonds is a record holder. Henry Aaron is a standard bearer. The latter is far more important and valuable than the former.
            And it carries weight beyond the baseball diamond, where Henry always wanted respect. He spent his life being compared on the baseball diamond to Willie Mays, but Henry Aaron wanted to follow in the legacy of Jackie Robinson, to use his platform to provide opportunities for people who did not have them. Baseball was simply a means to that end. 
 


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Beautifully written and culturally important . . . tells the Aaron story with gusto and a ferocious sweep. . . . Bryant may just have given us a classic.”
The Washington Post

“Illuminating and rigorously researched.”
New York Times Book Review

“A welcome and long-overdue portrait . . . thoughtful, insightful and deeply engaging. . . . It easily stands as one of the most impressive profiles of a ballplayer in years.”
San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Bryant 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.”
Atlanta Journal Constitution

“Impressive. . . . Nuanced. . . . For baseball junkies, The Last Hero offers enough about ballplayers of the era and the game to amply satisfy. But fortunately this book offers more. This is not mere hagiography. This is the tale of a man performing in the public eye, laboring under a persona projected by others with preconceptions of their own, but who gradually moves forward in his quest for self-determination.”
—Bill Nowlin, The Boston Globe
 
“Brawny. . . . The Last Hero had the forceful sweep of a well-struck essay as much as that of a first-rate biography.”
The New York Times
 
“The best baseball biography to come along in years, a work that fuses the storytelling acumen of a David Halberstam with the sensitivity for race and sport embodied by writers such as Dave Zirin and William Rhoden. . . . For readers eager to know the man behind the numbers and the footage, Bryant hits one out of the park.”
The Bay State Banner
 
“Perfect for the sports fan and the history buff.”
—Good Morning America
 
“No one was more important to the game of baseball in the last half of the 20th century than Henry Aaron and no one writes about that supremely talented man, that tumultuous time and this treasure of a game better than Howard Bryant. Together, they are an extraordinary combination, and the book Bryant has written gets to the heart of the complicated and dignified, patient and consistent genuine hero that is Henry Aaron.”
—Ken Burns
 
“Marvelous. . . . Wrists, legs, heart, brain—here is the full picture of a great man and ballplayer who finally gets his due.”
—David Maraniss, author of Clemente
 
“There will surely be other books on Hank; there may never be a better book on Henry Aaron than Bryant’s The Last Hero.”
Mobile Press-Register
 
“A fascinating and at times a troubling book, which revivified the lovely old game for me.”
—Tracy Kidder
 
“A must read for baseball fans of every generation.”
Booklist
 
“We already know Henry Aaron as one of the greatest players in the history of baseball.  Now, in Howard Bryant’s impeccably researched and nuanced biography, we know Henry Aaron not just as a great ballplayer, but as a remarkable man. In The Last Hero Bryant asks the hard questions and cuts through the myths to create a timeless and unflinching portrait of an American icon and his times.  And as in any great biography, in learning about Aaron’s life we also learn something about our own.”
—Glenn Stout, series editor, The Best American Sports Writing


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