When it comes to the generation of baseball stars whose playing days were long done before I was even born, their names typically call up a specific moment in time. Unlike the players I grew up watching, who I can associate with a singular game, play, or at-bat, these greats are captured in a time long past their playing prime. Ted Williams is riding the golf cart around Fenway Park during the 1999 All-Star Game and being assisted by Tony Gwynn. Mickey Mantle is frozen at that Baylor University press conference a month after his liver transplant and less than a month before passing away.
Hank Aaron’s defining moment in my memory came on an August night in 2007. Out in San Francisco, in a game against the Washington Nationals, the Giants’ Barry Bonds had taken a middling Mike Bacsik fastball over the fence. This wasn’t just any home run off a pitcher who was just a year or two away from being out of the game, pitching for a team never in contention. This shot put Bonds at the top of the all-time home run list, passing Aaron. After Bonds had rounded the bases, a video went up on the jumbotron. It was Aaron, less than enthused, congratulating Bonds for his achievement. Hank Aaron’s defining moment.
But what of Henry Aaron, the person, not Hank, the media creation?
In “The Last Hero,” Howard Bryant explores the multi-faceted Henry Aaron. Aaron’s story is one of growing up in Jim Crow-dominated American South, the Civil Rights Era in northern cities where segregation was nearly as bad as it was in the south, and the tale of how an African-American broke Babe Ruth’s home run record while playing in 1970’s Atlanta. Bryant does yeoman’s work explaining Aaron’s family, giving context and an understanding for much of Aaron’s demeanor towards the press and others during his playing years and after his retirement.
Most people retire in their fifties or sixties. In sports, retirement beckons much sooner. Bodies fall apart; the split second reflexes slowing infinitesimally are the difference between batting .300 and struggling to pass the Mendoza Line. Seeing Henry Aaron struggle to find a post-playing purpose and navigate his retirement is a rare glimpse into a player after they call it quits. Bryant ably covers more than one hundred years of American history, baseball history, and Aaron history.
Reading this book as I rode the subway in Boston, I was struck by the historical what ifs that accompany tales of the past. Henry Aaron spent all but two years of his career with one team. During his time with the Braves, he played in two different cities: Milwaukee and Atlanta. It could have very easily been three as the Braves played in Boston when they signed Aaron. The Braves moved out of Boston before Aaron joined the major league squad after years of declining attendance figures and ownerships desire to take advantage of open media markets further west.
At the time, the Red Sox weren’t that good. The Braves were on the cusp of being in the playoffs for the better part of the 1950s, making the World Series in 1957 and 1958. With talents like Warren Spahn, Eddie Matthews, and Aaron, the Braves could have possibly forced the Red Sox out of town. And this is where it gets interesting. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate in the major leagues. If the Braves had stayed in Boston, and the middling Red Sox decided to move west, what impact would this have had on Boston?
Consider that Boston was a city that struggled with racism, inequality, and disparities on par with other urban areas. Boston is synonymous with the issue of busing. Would things have been different, even just a little bit, if Aaron, who was developing into a voice for civil rights in the 1970s, was playing in Boston as he pushed to pass Babe Ruth in career home runs?
One of the most intriguing parts of the book comes at the beginning. Chronicling Aaron’s experience in 2007 at a New York City event where he is signing memorabilia, Bryant relays to the reader the difference between Hank and Henry Aaron. Hank is his public persona. The one he had placed on him in the 1950s. The one, whom reporters assumed, could roll out of bed and hit the ball. Hank is the one whom reporters portrayed as a simple guy who was blessed with a preternatural talent that required little intelligence. Henry is the man who struggled with growing up black in the South, a man whose talents were maximized by his dedication to his craft, the man who found truth in the words of James Baldwin. Of the people in his inner circle, only Dusty Baker calls his Hank. At the end of the book, I wish baseball had more Henry Aaron’s – smart, thoughtful individuals who took the game, and its history seriously.
February is Black History Month. This Saturday, Henry Aaron will turn 77. To me, Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier is the most important moment in baseball’s history and up there for American history too. We as Americans, and the MLB in general, need to do a better job of honoring the players who broke less famous, but just as consequential color barriers. Henry Aaron was one of the first players to break the color-barrier in the South Atlantic League, where all the games were played in the deep south. Other players did the same in minor leagues throughout the American South in the 1950s. The animosity and racism Aaron and his fellow players faced is unconscionable. This bittersweet chapter deserves more recognition.
In an era where admitted PED user A-Rod does a photo shoot kissing his image in a mirror, Mark McGwire tells a Congressional committee he won’t talk about the past, and Sammy Sosa forgets the English language, the integrity of Henry Aaron is missed. In a sport where federal indictments against Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens dominate the headlines, Henry Aaron is “The Last Hero.”