- The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant
Howard Bryant's thought-provoking biography of Henry Aaron portrays an athlete whose influence extended beyond statistics and highlighted his complex relationship with celebrity and his historic rivalry with Willie Mays. Aaron was never supposed to be the player to break Babe Ruth's home run record. Yet despite this monumental accomplishment, Aaron remains an "underrated superstar." Bryant attributes this oversight to Aaron's background and demeanor to a press with its own agenda and unaware of its prejudice and to the frightful, mental, and spiritual toll exacted from Aaron as he overtook the Babe. Bryant traces Aaron's baseball career, from the early days through his swan song as a designated hitter with the Milwaukee Brewers. Although sportswriters compare Aaron to Willie Mays—with whom he appeared to have a cantankerous relationship—the non-confrontational, quiet, poorly educated Aaron strived to emulate Jackie Robinson and desperately wanted to be recognized for more than hate mail and home runs.
Bryant provided several insightful issues regarding Aaron's remarkable experience. As a teen attending Central High School in Mobile, Alabama, Aaron watched Brooklyn Dodgers' second baseman Jackie Robinson play in an exhibition game. Aaron was captivated by Robinson. He had a tendency to listen to the Dodgers' second baseman, but not hear him. From that day forward, Aaron traveled down a path that Robinson never traversed. Aaron would bank his talent and his ability to swing the bat. He rarely attended school, choosing rather to frequent pool halls, evading his father who knew his son was drifting away from his studies.
The ways in which Aaron changed the perception of his teammates' attitude was also interesting. In many ways, it embodied the ways in which the club's organizational culture was transformed. With the exception of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, no team in the National League possessed players of color who were not only the most talented players on the team but also their emotional cores. The Braves were considered a rowdy team, whose leaders consisted of Warren Spahn, Ed Matthews, and Johnny Logan. All consumed large quantities of alcohol, and few considered Aaron as anything but shy. Shy, according to Bryant, was the operative word. Alcohol provided a subtle yet important subtext of race relations. African-American players were somewhat reluctant about drinking around whites. While the clubhouse was a relatively controlled environment, being away from the park and consuming alcohol in a bar that may not be friendly to players of color was quite another. It was when alcohol flowed that the real danger lurked, and it took one drink too many for a potentially explosive situation to develop.
As an executive, Henry Aaron was evasive on the ethical question of steroids. He was ambivalent about whether using performance-enhancing drugs was cheating. Aaron refused to engage his feelings toward specific players and their chemically-enhanced accomplishments, providing vague statements about how unfortunate the current situation was. He chose to distance himself. [End Page 491]
Bryant's biography of Aaron would have been stronger if he had illustrated the ways in which the integration of players of color in Major League Baseball embodied the desegregation process that occurred in the U.S. in the 1950s. The Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) marked the end of a long phase of legal war between the NAACP and the defenders of racial inequality. As early as 1938, the Supreme Court ordered Missouri to guarantee its African-American residents who applied for state schools that equal education provisions existed. In 1948, the Court outlawed any real estate agreements that racially discriminated against purchasers. The following year, Sweatt v Painter (1950) ruled that Texas law schools for blacks were inherently unequal in every respect to its law school for whites. McLaurin v Oklahoma declared in 1950 that Oklahoma had to desegregate its law schools. Thus, before Brown a pattern of desegregation had been set in motion...