By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010; B07
THE LAST HERO
A Life of Henry Aaron
By Howard Bryant
Pantheon. 600 pp. $29.95
He was the ebony-hued swatter, the black baseball player chasing Babe Ruth's great home run record. In a game of mythology, the Ruth total of 714 homers was a near-illusory benchmark. Many thought it would stand forever.
It was in 1973 and '74 that Hank Aaron's pursuit of Ruth took on its dramatic and spellbinding arc. He'd break the record -- if he wasn't shot or maimed first. He had well-wishers, to be sure, but the death threats were relentless and kept the FBI busy. There were those who couldn't tolerate the possibility of the black Hank toppling the white Babe. Aaron worried but kept swinging. And when he broke the record shortly into the 1974 season, it seemed that more than a whopping statistic had been smashed. It was an athletic achievement and a signature civil-rights moment: A black player had toppled the supreme number in baseball, the very game that had once been off-limits to his people.
But, alas, record-book heroes who began their climbs in the 1950s -- and who were black -- suffered. (Willie Mays, a fellow Alabaman, may have avoided racial confrontation, but not Aaron.) In the years after he left the game, Aaron wondered why he didn't get the all-American adulation. How come there hadn't been sweet music behind his accomplishments? He longed for the Ruth treatment or the DiMaggio affection. He bemoaned the dreadful lack of opportunities for blacks in the front office of baseball teams. The autograph seekers could hardly feel his hurt. "God had given me the ability to play baseball, and people in this country kind of chipped away at me," he said in retirement. "So, it was tough. And all of those things happened simply because I was a black person."
Howard Bryant's "The Last Hero" is the saga of the beguiling Henry Aaron and his journey. In this beautifully written and culturally important biography, Bryant, who covered the steroids controversy in his book "Juicing the Game," tells the Aaron story with gusto and a ferocious sweep. There is plenty of baseball, but just as important the book includes front-office politics and the struggles of those who, like Aaron, came up right behind Jackie Robinson. It is also a deft examination of how white writers and black writers wrote about Aaron.
Like many great dramas where the central character is a black American, this one begins in the South. Aaron was raised in Mobile, Ala., in a two-parent home. Money was scarce, but the hardworking Aarons -- the father, Herbert, was a truck driver and laborer -- got by. Mobile had a baseball tradition; Satchel Paige was a native son. Mobile also had Ed Scott, who worked as a porter but scouted for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team. When Scott found young Henry Aaron on the diamond, he was a promising high-school player who dreamed of pro ball. In 1952 he was signed by the Clowns.
Aaron set the league afire with a .483 batting average. Columnists for the Negro newspapers were soon raving about the young player. He wasn't long for the Negro League. Bryant richly conveys what the passage of time meant in Aaron's short Negro League stint: "Henry Aaron's month in the Negro Leagues was nothing less than the final period on the obituary of the great black leagues." By 1954 -- that epochal year in black America -- Aaron was playing for the Milwaukee Braves. Because he was quiet, skittish around whites, and looked nonchalant in the outfield, white sportswriters took to calling him "Stepin Fetchit" after the Negro vaudevillian who engaged in loopy, stereotypical antics for a paycheck. Aaron was hurt, and ever afterward he kept his distance from writers. He played in a mixed atmosphere of fame and struggle, suffering the "bittersweet confines" of race throughout his career. After the 1965 season, the Braves moved to Atlanta. Aaron was not happy about returning to the South of his youth. The city had long suffered racial turmoil, but the irrepressible Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced Aaron that the city would welcome him, as it did. In Atlanta the home run pace continued. "He was the man chasing Babe Ruth" from 1969 onward, writes Bryant.
On the night Aaron broke Ruth's record, Vin Scully was doing play-by-play: "What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. 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. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron."
He left baseball on the highest note, the home run king, with a record that has since been eclipsed by the asterisk-haunted Barry Bonds. (Aaron has steadfastly refused to address the controversy of Bonds and steroid use.) In recent years, thankfully, Aaron's pain has seemed to lift. He finally got the big endorsement deals that had long eluded him. Blacks got more and more front-office and managerial positions. Former President Clinton appeared at a 75th birthday bash for Aaron in Atlanta. Himself a son of the South, Clinton told Aaron that night, "You've given us far more than we'll ever give you."
As for "The Last Hero," Bryant may just have given us a classic.
Wil Haygood, a national reporter for the Post, is the author most recently of "Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson."