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BOOK REVIEW

Portrait of a private hero behind the legend

Playing for the Atlanta Braves, Henry Aaron hit his 715th career home run on April 8, 1974. Playing for the Atlanta Braves, Henry Aaron hit his 715th career home run on April 8, 1974. (Harry Harris/Associated Press)
By Bill Nowlin
May 17, 2010

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Henry Aaron, who many would argue remains baseball’s legitimate home run king, has long seemed a bit of a cipher. Reticent by nature, he’s been misinterpreted as bland, lacking in personality, and, even some had hinted, not as bright as he might be. Born in Mobile, Ala., to caring parents who were very supportive, though not literate, Aaron found school less compelling than baseball. At baseball, he was very, very good.

Aaron grappled with the racial codes of the day in his typical quiet, inward way. He presented such a relatively featureless front for so many years that when he later spoke up on issues regarding civil rights, there were those who asked who was putting ideas in his head.

In “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron,’’ veteran sportswriter Howard Bryant assumes the task of trying to get inside this misunderstood baseball legend. Supported by impressive research and interviews with Aaron’s former teammates, family members, and the Hall of Famer himself, Bryant paints a portrait of a man who grew up and played amid a racially tumultuous period in American history and did so with such an abundance of courage and dignity that he earned the respect of fans, players, and the leadership of Major League Baseball.

Aaron’s professional career began during the tail end of the Negro Leagues and continues to the present day with Aaron’s role as an executive in the Atlanta Braves organization. In 1954, Aaron began playing in the major leagues. By early 1974, he had slugged so many home runs for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves that he was poised to break Babe Ruth’s record of 714. He’d already achieved his personal goal of 3,000 hits.

Aaron, who was raised in the Jim Crow South and had faced racism throughout much of his life, was now threatening to break one of baseball’s most sacrosanct records, and that offended and angered many whites. There was sufficient vitriol in the air that when he hit his 715th homer, his mother embraced him on the field, and “held him so tight to prevent anyone from shooting him.’’

After breaking Ruth’s record, Aaron became a national figure, always called “Hank’’ by the public. Yet Bryant emphasizes he had never been anything but “Henry’’ to family and friends. He never made an issue of it.

Quiet as he was, he was “ill-equipped for the hero’s role’’ and privately struggled to define himself throughout his life. “Hate mail and home runs,’’ he lamented to Bryant. “You know, there’s more to me than that.’’

Bryant’s nuanced portrait offers far more than just that facile juxtaposition. He acknowledges as Aaron did to his biographer that the quiet hitter hadn’t much helped others to know him.

The book details Aaron’s two marriages, his children, and explores many of his other relationships — perhaps most interestingly, with Willie Mays, who appears to have never welcomed, and even resented, Aaron coming to share the spotlight he may have felt rightly his own.

After leaving baseball, Aaron would become one of the first blacks to work as an executive in MLB and would become more vocal about civil rights. And after his home run record was eclipsed in 2007 by Barry Bonds, who had been suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, disillusioned fans found a renewed appreciation for Aaron and his accomplishment.

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. Only when he’d reached the end of his career, when there was “after Ruth, nothing left to chase,’’ was Aaron able to take stock of himself and truly begin to find his own way.

Bill Nowlin, author of “Red Sox Threads’’ and more than 20 books about baseball and the Sox, can be reached at BNowlin@rounder.com.

THE LAST HERO:

A Life of Henry Aaron

By Howard Bryant

Pantheon, 624 pp., $29.95