Monday, June 20, 2011

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Brandt

In 1991 I read Henry Aaron's excellent autobiography I Had a Hammer, in which he told about his childhood in Mobile, his month in the Negro League, and his career with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves. In this book, Aaron recounts many stories about the struggles of the second wave of African American baseball players in the major leagues and the countless death threats that he received as he neared Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. There is a mixture of pride, anger, and warmth within the pages of what I thought one of the best baseball books that I had read. I did not imagine I would read another big book about Aaron.

I hesitated to start The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron because it is so long - nearly 22 hours as an audiobook. Did I really want to revisit the story that much? I am now glad I did, for the author Howard Bryant drew me into the story, which focuses on Aaron but also recounts a half century of baseball in civil rights history. As I listened, I recalled much of my own 1960s, including reading about baseball in newspapers, watching games on television, playing baseball in vacant lots, and collecting baseball cards of most of the players who played with and against Aaron. I especially enjoyed learning about the Milwaukee Braves, which won the World Series in 1957, lost the Series in 1958, and were in the pennant race in the surrounding years. These were great years for Aaron who was in the shadow of Willie Mays, who played in the New York media market. Being a quiet player, he never even got the attention focused on Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn from his own team.

Readers learn much about the bad side of the business of baseball, too. Owners were stingy with salaries, traded or released injured players, and failed to challenge Jim Crow laws. They also had little loyalty to their fans. During their years in Milwaukee, the Braves were second only to the Dodgers in attendance, but the Braves owners imagining a gold mine moved the team to Atlanta to tap the large untapped market of the South. In retrospect, it was a great business move, but it was a tremendous blow to Milwaukee fans.

Bryant continues his story through the Barry Bond years, describing the dilemma that faced Aaron as his home run record was eclipsed. Should he have congratulated Bonds or denounced him for his suspected illegal steroid use? Doing a bit of both reluctantly, some critics thought Aaron misplayed the situation. With some sympathy, Bryant shows how Aaron really wanted to stay out of the debate, an unrealistic desire for a man of his stature.

Producers of the audiobook should have coached the reader Dominic Hoffman on the pronunciation of baseball names. Most glaring error was his calling Bill Veeck "Bill VEEK." Of course, that is the way it is spelled, but everyone in baseball knows the book title Veeck - As in Wreck. His pronunciations of Bill Virdon seemed wrong to me, too. Otherwise, I greatly enjoyed the epic story.

Bryant, Howard. The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. Books on Tape, 2010. ISBN 9780307736901.

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