Monday, September 20, 2010

Aaron bio presents the private Henry behind the heroic Hank

Baseball's collective memory can be unkind, allowing a single moment in time to define a man's career. Fred Merkle failing to step on second base. Al Downing serving up Hank Aaron's 715th home run. Bill Buckner letting a grounder scoot through his wickets. Think of the man and the moment is right there, negating all his accomplishments.

The blunders and bloopers aren't the only instants capable of rewriting a resume. Sometimes the great milestones blot out all the little ones that came before and made them possible. The highlight which for all future generations will overshadow a fabled career. For Hank Aaron, that moment was April 8, 1974, the night he made Downing an eternal goat by driving a ball over the left center field fence.

As Howard Bryant puts it in The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron: "Technology-that is, television-would rob Henry of his speed, his arm, his youth, reducing him forever to a sagging forty-year-old worthy of only one moment, leaving it to his contemporaries and admirers to remind future generations of what a complete, dynamic ballplayer he once was."

The other 754 home runs Aaron launched seem not to matter. How many of them have we seen replays of? How many of his other 2,295 RBIs have we watched? How many of his other 3,770 hits? Do we ever see highlights of the defense that won him three Gold Gloves, or revere him for winning two batting titles and finishing in the top five in hitting 11 times?

I was five years old the night Aaron passed Babe Ruth. I'm relatively certain I didn't even know who he was then. When Hank Aaron's name came to mean anything to me, I can't pinpoint. Most likely Topps taught me about the game's most prolific home run hitter, via baseball cards handed down from my cousin. I can still picture the old, weary looking Aaron in a Brewers uniform in the 1976 set, listed as a designated hitter.

In time I learned of the chase and the stress Aaron endured as the racist hate mail stacked up around him. I also learned that he had nearly 4,000 more at-bats than Ruth, and for some reason that took a little luster off his record, despite the fact that many other men had accumulated more at-bats than Ruth and never threatened his mark.

I was just a kid. What was everyone else's excuse for downgrading Aaron's accomplishments? Why was baseball's all-time home run king one of its most underrated superstars?

Bryant does a great job explaining this, by putting Aaron's career in the context of his life. Race always mattered, as a child, as a minor leaguer, even after his playing career ended. Where contemporaries like Willie Mays were able in some ways to transcend race, Aaron couldn't and didn't. Despite his obvious greatness on the field, he became a target of both teammates and the press, who stuck him with unflattering nicknames like Snowshoes or Stepin Fetchit.

Aaron quickly grew distrustful of everyone around him. The writers, even those who appeared sympathetic, described him as an uneducated simpleton. They didn't know him, because he quickly stopped opening up to them. So they assumed there was little going on in his head. Even his great hitting was devalued by those who wanted to assign all the credit to his physical tools and none to his mental abilities. It took more than the quickest wrists in the game to accomplish all he did, however.

The wall of privacy he constructed resulted in two different Aarons. Hank was the heroic hitter who made the All-Star team 21 years in a row. Henry was the man inside, who was so much more complex off the field than most people knew. Henry was the one who mentored young black players like Ralph Garr and Dusty Baker. And with one exception (Baker), those who called him Hank never knew the real Henry.

Because his career neatly overlapped with Mays' the comparisons were inevitable. Mays, who played with more flair and joie de vivre, generally came out on top, much to the consternation of Aaron, who felt he was every bit as good. While outwardly the duo enjoyed an almost friendly rivalry, to Aaron there was little friendly about it much of the time. Bryant includes an episode from 1957 where Mays heckles Aaron while he's being interviewed on field for a Jimmy Fund promo. Rest assured Aaron never forgot such a display, for respect, from his peers as well as all others, was one of Aaron's main drivers.

Tied together throughout their careers, Aaron and Mays have been intertwined in more recent years as well. Aaron, who loathed cheaters during his playing days, had no goodwill to share with Barry Bonds as the inflated slugger neared and surpassed the 755 home run mark. Mays, who is Bonds' godfather, took a different view, celebrating the accomplishment which came amidst a whirl of accusations of both using illegal performance enhancing drugs and lying about it.

And here we are several years later, with voluminous biographies released on both, within a matter of months. (James S. Hirsch's Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend came out in February.) Each was done with the blessing, if not the full cooperation of its subject, neither of whom was enthusiastic, at least at the outset. They are very different men, and the books are as a result quite different, but for both titles you wish the subject had been more forthcoming. There's a difference between cooperating and opening up.

Aaron, even now in his mid-70s, remains a private man, shielding himself against those who come looking for Hank. He didn't change that for this project. Bryant didn't, or couldn't, dig into Aaron's family life, particularly what exactly ripped his first marriage apart. We know only that Barbara Aaron cited "mental cruelty" when she filed for divorce in 1970. We see her during the earlier, happier times, but aren't privy to what undid that. Of course, baring that very personal wound would be well out of character for Aaron, even four decades later.

So Mays or Aaron? Leaving their on-field accomplishments aside and weighing just the books, the edge goes to Aaron, or should we say Bryant. It's difficult to discern exactly how much more accommodating Aaron was than Mays, but The Last Hero feels a little fresher, less like a compilation of previously written stories, which Willie Mays suffers from in spots. Bryant also dug a little deeper into his subject's personality, which may be unfair as Mays didn't bury his so far below the surface. Hirsch's book is thoroughly researched and will stand up long after Mays is gone as the definitive biography of the Giants star. I just liked the Aaron book better.

We've been blessed with a number of significant biographies this year. Of the ones I've read, I'd rank them in the following order:

Fifty-nine in '84 (Old Hoss Radbourn) - Edward Achorn
The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant
Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero - Tom Clavin and Danny Peary
Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend - James Hirsch
Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball - Mark Armour
Reggie Jackson - Dayn Perry

The first five are all quite good and very well researched.

Next on my reading list is Jane Leavy's Mickey Mantle bio, which comes out next month. From what I've heard, I expect it to contend for the top of that list, but we'll see soon enough where it stacks up.

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