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The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 11, 2010


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Read an excerpt from The Last Hero by Howard Bryant [PDF].

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (May 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375424857
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375424854
  • Product Dimensions: 10 x 5.9 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #659,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the thirty-four years since his retirement, Henry Aaron’s reputation has only grown in magnitude: he broke existing records (rbis, total bases, extra-base hits) and set new ones (hitting at least thirty home runs per season fifteen times, becoming the first player in history to hammer five hundred home runs and three thousand hits). But his influence extends beyond statistics, and at long last here is the first definitive biography of one of baseball’s immortal figures.
 
Based on meticulous research and interviews with former teammates, family, two former presidents, and Aaron himself, The Last Hero chronicles Aaron’s childhood in segregated Alabama, his brief stardom in the Negro Leagues, his complicated relationship with celebrity, and his historic rivalry with Willie Mays—all culminating in the defining event of his life: his shattering of Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run record.
 
Bryant also examines Aaron’s more complex second act: his quest to become an important voice beyond the ball field when his playing days had ended, his rediscovery by a public disillusioned with today’s tainted heroes, and his disappointment that his career home-run record was finally broken by Barry Bonds during the steroid era, baseball’s greatest scandal.
 
Bryant reveals how Aaron navigated the upheavals of his time—fighting against racism while at the same time benefiting from racial progress—and how he achieved his goal of continuing Jackie Robinson’s mission to obtain full equality for African-Americans, both in baseball and society, while he lived uncomfortably in the public spotlight. Eloquently written, detailed and penetrating, this is a revelatory portrait of a complicated, private man who through sports became an enduring American icon.



Questions for Howard Bryant on The Last Hero

Q: Why Henry Aaron?
A: After my second book, Juicing the Game, the natural progression for my thought process was heading toward one question: "Who in baseball do you admire? Is there anyone this sport can be proud of?" It wasn't simply the fatigue of writing about steroids and tainted heroes that drifted me toward Henry Aaron, but because the steroids scandal occurring during the same time as the housing-and-mortgage scandal told me something larger was taking place in this country, that the value systems we ostensibly seek--honor, integrity, accountability--were becoming almost quaint. In baseball, as the drug scandal intensified, players would tell me, "If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying." It was that level of cynicism that made me consider writing about someone who certainly was not perfect but had a larger mission for himself beyond money, that here was a person for whom those values are not quaint.

Q: Did he cooperate?
A: It took roughly eighteen months for him to agree to speak with me. I first began working on this project in May 2006 and that was in the middle of when Barry Bonds was nearing Henry’s record. Henry Aaron wanted nothing to do with the Bonds record chase. He didn't want to be asked questions about Bonds, did not want to be placed in the debate about anabolic steroids. He did not want to engage at all.

When Henry's attorney, Allan Tanenbaum, and I spoke for the first time, he was extremely pessimistic about the book and the public's reaction to Henry Aaron. He was convinced that the public did not care about him except in being positioned as the polar opposite of Bonds. He was certain that I was only interested in one thing: Bonds. Over many phone calls spanning several months (the key conversation taking place over Thanksgiving 2007), Allan finally accepted that my motives for writing the book had nothing to do with Bonds and everything to do with a man I considered to be an American icon.

A few months later, on January 31 (ironically on Jackie Robinson’s birthday), Henry Aaron and I had our first phone call. He was extremely pleasant and engaging but echoed Allan's sentiments about his own life. "People don’t care about me," he told me. "They only care about what I did as a baseball player. There’s more to me than that." I was amazed at the considerable divide that existed between the enthusiasm I received whenever I mentioned the possibility of writing about Henry and what he considered to be the public's perception of him.

Q: What most surprised you during the writing/research?
A: There were many surprising aspects of the research, which is why I truly love to research and write books. Whatever your initial thoughts of your subject are, they will invariably be altered the deeper you learn.

I was as guilty as anyone in following the accepted Aaron myth: played in Milwaukee, was always overshadowed by players in bigger markets, snuck up on even the shrewdest evaluators of talent from the day he entered the big leagues to the day when suddenly he and not Willie Mays was in the best position to break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.

None of this is true, and that was the most surprising thing. Henry Aaron was a phenom, a top prospect from the day he joined the Indianapolis Clowns. He was a comet tearing through each level in the minor leagues, and when he arrived for his first spring in Bradenton, Florida in 1954, all eyes were on him to be the next great player.

The myth came later. As the Milwaukee Braves fell in the standings at the beginning of the 1960s, people did begin to forget about Henry, and he quietly accumulated Hall of Fame numbers. But that was only because the public lost interest in a losing team, not because it was unaware of his enormous ability.

Q: What is the lasting legacy of Henry Aaron?
A: A famous sociologist told me during an interview that the steroid scandal has created a gap between the record holders and the standard bearers of major league baseball. Barry Bonds is a record holder. Henry Aaron is a standard bearer. The latter is far more important and valuable than the former.

And it carries weight beyond the baseball diamond, where Henry always wanted respect. He spent his life being compared on the baseball diamond to Willie Mays, but Henry Aaron wanted to follow in the legacy of Jackie Robinson, to use his platform to provide opportunities for people who did not have them. Baseball was simply a means to that end.

(Photo © Erinn Hartman)


Photographs from The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron
(Click on Thumbnails to Enlarge)

Clemente, Mays, and Aaron

Jacksonville, 1953 Bradenton, 1957 Aaron and Family

Aaron in Atlanta Breaking Babe's Record Aaron Today



From Publishers Weekly

This biography of the African-American baseball great doesn't amount to the epic it wants to be. ESPN reporter Bryant (Juicing the Game) portrays Aaron's journey from Jim Crow Alabama to superstardom with the Milwaukee, then Atlanta Braves during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s as both a sports saga and a struggle against racism. (The Braves' spring training facilities stayed segregated into the 1960s, and Aaron's 1974 breaking of Babe Ruth's home run record was marred by racist death threats.) But while the author takes very seriously the sports commentator's traditional task of investing trivia with near-biblical portentousness—And thus it came to pass that Henry Aaron became the first black majority owner of the first BMW franchise in the country—he never quite succeeds at establishing Aaron's heroic stature. The slugger comes off as a superlatively skillful but unspectacular player whose civil rights activism is cautious and muted (though more outspoken later when he became a Braves executive). Throughout, he's a wary, reticent man given to rancor over slights, and the narrative can't help wandering toward more charismatic figures like Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson. Mightily as he swings, Bryant fails to knock Aaron's story out of the park. Photos. (May 11)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

More About the Author

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He has also served as the sports correspondent for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday since 2006.

Prior to joining ESPN in 2007, Mr. Bryant spent the previous two years at The Washington Post. He has worked at the Boston Herald, The Bergen Record, The San Jose Mercury News and The Oakland Tribune.

A native of Boston, Mr. Bryant is the author of three books: Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball and The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron.

He has also contributed to five other books: Thinking Black: Some of the Nation's Best Black Columnists Speak Their Mind (1995), Red Sox Century, Yankees Century, The Dodgers and The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston.

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Customer Reviews

I have not yet read this book.
James R. Keating
This is a very good book and I recommend any true fan of baseball read it as you will enjoy it.
R. C Sheehy
I knew that Aaron was a great baseball player but Willie was my favorite.
M. A. Filippelli

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Geoffrey Precourt on May 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Don't get me wrong: All the bits and pieces we all love about baseball are here--the great games, the odd sets of personalities, the drama of a penant race (or two or three) and, yes. the march toward Ruth's record. But Byrant is a voracious reporter. He digs as deeply into the microfiche of Mobile newspapers from the '40s to track the beginnings of a legendary career. And, in doing so, he paints a portrait of the a time and place as fully dimensional as any proper historic treatment. And, in that sense, this isn't just a great baseball book. It's a great book about America--delivered with a sense of authority, a natural story-teller's comfortable grace and elegance, and a healthy sense of humor.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Larry Underwood on May 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In a rather bizarre article in "Sport Magazine", written over 40 years ago, lamenting the lack of "superstars" in major league baseball, the following assessment of Henry Aaron was given: "He's a star; but he's not a superstar."

Today, we realize that was an inaccurate assessment of one of the greatest players the game has ever known; however, for most of his career, Henry Aaron was widely regarded as merely "a very good player"; certainly no Mays or Mantle. While Mays and Mantle got the national attention, Hank Aaron quietly went about his business, year in and year out; and business was good. For fifteen out of twenty-three seasons in the big leagues, Aaron pounded out 30 or more home runs; eleven times he had over 100 runs batted in, while accumulating a lifetime batting average of .305.

At long last, Howard Bryant has compiled this wonderfully comprehensive biography of this introverted superstar; in the process, the reader will come away with a better understanding of the man's accomplishments on and off the field. Henry Aaron certainly deserves the recognition; better late than never.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By John L. Autin on December 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I both enjoyed and learned quite a bit from this book, which provides plenty of historical and biographical context that I did not know, despite being a dedicated amateur baseball historian. If the book does not deeply illuminate Henry Aaron, the man, that seems to reflect less the author's failure but more the simple fact that Aaron was and is fairly guarded, sometimes contradictory, and not (based on what I've read) especially articulate. It's still very much worth reading. I particularly liked the organization of the book into thematic (not purely chronological) chapters.

However, Mr. Bryant's gifts, as represented here, seem to lie more in developing themes than in the nuts-and-bolts of writing proper sentences, and the lack of editing and proofreading eventually becomes a serious distraction. The book contains dozens (if not hundreds) of punctuation errors, grammatical mistakes, ill-formed sentences, confusing and contradictory play-by-play accounts, misused words, etc.

The most frequent example is the consistent failure to use an apostrophe for the possessive form of the word "Braves":
-- "The Braves lead was now six."
-- "In the Braves first test under Haney...."
-- "For more than two seasons, he had been the Braves best pitcher...."
-- "... Perini beamed his gap-toothed smile as the Braves fifteen-by-thirty-seven-foot pennant was raised before the game."
-- "... maybe the Braves routine coldcocking of the Reds was the real reason...."

... and on, and on, and on.

Factual errors include:
-- "In 1952, the Boston Braves had officially become the Milwaukee Braves in between innings of a spring-training game...."
No, that was in 1953, as was clearly described earlier in the book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By New England Pat on June 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Howard Bryant's biography of Henry Aaron is a wonderful, moving story of a man who overcame the injustices of racial segragation to become one of the icons of the great American pastime. Bryant researched Aaron's early life, family and acquaintances to piece together a man who is proud, complex and driven to suceed in his chosen profession. Bryant also gives considerable space to other black stars such as Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson and Willie Mays and allows the reader to draw his own conclusions, especially about Aaron's relevence to the social and political issues of those times. The National League pennant races of the 1950s are detailed here and are a treasure trove of memories to baseball fans who remember those races, the players and the World Series contests, always against the hated and feared New York Yankees. Bryant notes that Aaron's "don't rock the boat" philosophy didn't sit well with many blacks who felt that a player of his stature should have been more outspoken on their behalf. Aaron craved respect, not only from the white press and baseball's brass (especially the Commissioner's office) but also the respect of his peers. Willie Mays comes off in a very poor light in this book and his mistreatment of Henry Aaron does him no credit. Bryant gives us a great story of a man, his family and his legacy.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Robert D. Archer on June 10, 2011
Format: Paperback
There's a lot of interesting material here: in-depth discussions of Jackie Robinson's electric career, both in and out of baseball; the history of the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves, and all the intrigue surrounding their city-hopping; sharp analyses of such dynamic minority ballplayers as Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Roberto Clemente (every time one of those charismatic superstars appears on the page the action seems to suddenly heat up); good character profiles of such integral teammates of Aaron's as the brooding but explosive Eddie Mathews, the enigmatic Warren Spahn, the racist Lew Burdette, the savvy Bill Bruton, and the Braves inept but colorful manager, "Jolly Cholly" Grimm; the fears and misgivings black players such as Aaron had about the Braves' move to Atlanta, deep in the heart of the still rabidly racist South; and the unrelenting bigotry and hatred that accompanied Aaron's triumphant but excruciating chase of Babe Ruth's home run record, and the toll it took on Henry.

The problem is, there just isn't a lot of Henry Aaron here.

Aaron disappears for dozens of pages as Bryant delves in detail into the racist south, the history of the Braves, Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball, the cultural milieu of the 50's and 60's, and myriad other topics. The book is supposed to be about Aaron, but it becomes obvious that there are a whole lot of other things that are more interesting for Bryant to discuss than the apparently bland Henry Aaron, so Henry is too often left behind, and then only tentatively connected to these subjects by Bryant as an afterthought.
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