- Hammering Hank: How the Media Made Henry Aaron
In the introduction to Hammering Hank, Stewart and Kennedy explain the premise of their project: "Somewhere between the reams of printed information produced on Aaron during his career and the post-career reflections of Aaron . . . lay a more balanced and thought-provoking story" (viii). Unfortunately, their final product is neither thought provoking nor ground breaking. The premise that the media "made" Aaron conjures up images of cigar-chomping Hollywood producers taking a pretty girl working in a soda shop and making her into a star.
Aaron needed no such help; he was "self-made."
If anything, the media fell short in bringing Aaron to the forefront of baseball fans' consciousness, especially those from the coasts, whose panoply of stars—Mantle, Mays, and Snider—drew the lion's share of press. To be fair, sports coverage was vastly different in the mid-1950s, when television was still in its infancy and radio and newspapers were the main sources of information. Today, cable TV and the Internet have turned sports into a multibillion dollar, 24/7/365 industry with no off-season.
The authors wish to impress readers with the copious work that went into their book, "locating every major magazine article we could find on Aaron" and "acquiring, reading, and comparing the numerous books written about Aaron" (ix). This emphasis is significant. There are thirty-one books listed in the bibliography; three are coauthored autobiographies, three are adult biographies, and two are children's books. The remainder ostensibly contains references to or chapters on Aaron. (Conspicuous in its absence is Tom Stanton's recent [and superior] account, Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America.)
To be sure, there are citations from columnists of the era, such as Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal (with whom Aaron collaborated on a 1968 autobiography), Dick Young of the New York Daily News, and William Leggett of Sports Illustrated, but their contributions are relatively brief. According to the authors, Aaron himself "chose not to participate, which is certainly his right" (xi). One gets the feeling that if Aaron had had a hand in the book, it would have conflicted with the thesis.
These gentlemen of the press do not "hammer" Aaron in the sense that contemporary writers go after Barry Bonds or others accused of pharmaceutical shenanigans. If anything, they were, with the exception of Milwaukee and Atlanta-based reporters, guiltier of benign neglect until, of course, Aaron came [End Page 136] within striking distance of the acme of sports records: Babe Ruth's 715 home runs. At that point the media—both sport and nonsport—took him to heart.
After basking in the warm embrace of Milwaukee, Aaron and other African American players were leery of the team's relocation to Atlanta in the heart of the Deep South, where the Confederate flag still flew proudly and "I Wish I Was in Dixie" was still considered by some as the regional anthem. "As far as Aaron was concerned, the lack of support he received in Atlanta was more hurtful than any nasty letters from faceless, and often nameless, fans," the authors observe (152).
They compare Aaron's achievement with that of Roger Maris who, in 1961, broke Ruth's single season record of 60 home runs. Although Maris faced similar negative comparisons from those who felt him infinitely inferior to the mighty Babe, he never came close to the intense hatred as Aaron. Likewise the media, some of whom actually covered Ruth as a member of the Yankees and felt obliged to serve as keepers of his flame, looked down their collective noses at Aaron. But not to the extent of belittling the Braves' batsman.
The bibliography is replete with books and newspaper and magazine articles, as if they back up the authors' argument. Judging by the titles, they do not. For example, pieces in The Sporting News that feature such headlines as "In Midst of Uproar, Aaron Just Pays It Cool," "Touch of Class—HR...