Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

November 4, 2010

Hank Aaron's Ascent

Author Howard Bryant traces the former home-run champ's rise from segregated Alabama to the height of acclaim in baseball.

Evan Hilbert

Hank Aaron held baseball's all-time home-run record for 33 years despite owning an unnatural swing. He used the quickness of his wrists to compensate, flicking the ball away quickly. Similarly, Aaron employed a blithe attitude towards reporters and fame to deflect attention from himself. This worked to his detriment in some cases, as he was often forced into the public's consciousness, reluctant as he may have been.

Howard Bryant. Photo by Erinn Hartman.
"Aaron serves as a timeline for where this country has gone and where it is going."

Howard Bryant. Photo by Erinn Hartman.

ESPN writer Howard Bryant's The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron bounds through two decades of one of our nation's most trying periods. In the end, Aaron comes out on top, setting baseball's most recognizable record and becoming, himself, an icon. The book details the struggles of Aaron, including his discordant childhood and unceremonious entrance into a newly-integrated sport. Aaron endured both an insensitive manager and a populace still coming to terms with racial equality. In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Bryant explains Aaron's historical context, imagines an Aaron-Lincecum matchup, and says circumstance made Aaron play in Willie Mays's shadow.

Gelf Magazine: What compelled you to write this biography? Howard Bryant: I thought Henry Aaron represented a natural progression coming off of my second book, Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time and had not enjoyed a reappraising treatment of him in biographical form.
Gelf Magazine: Did you find yourself mired too deep in a historical narrative at times, or was that needed for contextual purposes? Howard Bryant: It was necessary to understand both him and his era. I spent a lot of time on the Milwaukee Braves in the middle sections of the book because the Braves are one of the great, forgotten teams of all time. They needed to be reintroduced. In the early chapters, the Aarons came from Wilcox County, Alabama—one of the most notorious regions for slavery—and his great-grandfather was either one of the first African Americans born free or one of the last born into slavery. You couldn't understand Henry without going back into the history of Alabama.

Gelf Magazine: Is Henry Aaron, in your mind, the greatest player who ever lived?

Howard Bryant: No, the greatest player of all time is Babe Ruth, because of his combination of pitching and hitting, plus his historical significance to the game.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think he was overshadowed by Willie Mays, despite felling the home-run record?

Howard Bryant: Willie Mays had more athletic charisma, but the biggest reason was because Mays played in New York and San Francisco, places where a more sophisticated media wrote of him legendarily, while Aaron played in dowdy baseball towns and never had a writer champion his legend to the same degree. Also, the Braves fell out of contention both in Milwaukee and Atlanta just as Henry began to have his most productive years.

Gelf Magazine: How much did Aaron's attitude toward fans affect the way he was viewed, then and now?

Howard Bryant: The biggest thing that affected Aaron's attitude off the field was how the writers viewed him, calling him "Stepin Fetchit" and "Snowshoes" in print during his early years in Milwaukee.

Gelf Magazine: What would Aaron do with Tim Lincecum? Or, better, what would Lincecum do with Aaron?

Howard Bryant: If Henry could hit Sandy Koufax, he would hit Lincecum—but he would battle.

Gelf Magazine: Is there truth to the idea that Aaron (and his contemporaries) benefited from weaker pitching than today's players face?

Howard Bryant: No.

Gelf Magazine: What made Aaron heroic?

Howard Bryant: He serves as a timeline for where this country has gone and where it is going, from a man who watched his father give up his place in line to a white man, to an American who has slept in the White House.

Front-page image of Aaron at 2008 All-Star Parade from Rubenstein's Flickr via Creative Commons.

Evan Hilbert

Evan Hilbert is a writer living in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Article by Evan Hilbert

Evan Hilbert is a writer living in Louisville, Kentucky.

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