I’ve owned “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron” for almost a year, and I couldn’t wait to crack it open.
The book’s author, Howard Bryant, is one of the best sportswriters of all time. He covers the four bases of great reporting. He writes clearly, concisely, accurately and authoritatively. There are no wasted words and no errant details. His foundation is evident. It’s his diligent research. No doubt he has hundreds of pages of information that never saw the printed page, but that information informed his writing. Bryant’s work has one other aspect that sets him apart. He brings great wisdom to the craft. It’s a trusted axiom that great journalists zig where others zag. Jimmy Breslin wrote about JFK’s grave-digger when most journalists covered the funeral.
Like Breslin, Bryant finds a different way to cover Henry Aaron, a man who became under appreciated despite owning baseball’s most hallowed record. You discover who Aaron is through contrasting the ballplayers around him and his personal relationship with family and friends. Bryant excels at introducing his relationship to Jackie Robinson.
While Robinson and Aaron were competitors for a few seasons, Bryant explains the obvious: that Robinson inspired Aaron. He also points out things not so obvious: like how Aaron was part of a generation that came up as the Negro Leagues were dying and spent his developing years mostly in the barely integrated minor leagues, instead of gaining their professional footing with African American veterans. Bryant’s description of Aaron showing up at a movie theater his teammates were at that was “whites only” drives home this point.
Everyone who knows who Aaron is, knows racism, race relations and Jim Crow are a major part of both Aaron’s story, and America’s story.
I remember watching Ken Burns’ “Baseball” as a teenager with my father. When it got to Aaron’s Chase of Babe Ruth’s record, I asked my dad about it. Did he root for Aaron? He said he didn’t want Aaron to break the record. I was in sixth grade and I was worried the man I most looked up to was about to confess some racism. Then the old man added, “I wanted Willie Mays to do it. I just liked Willie more.”
Bryant brings stars like Mays, Warren Spahn and Eddie Matthews to life in the book too. We see the differences between them and Aaron. How steady Aaron was. We see his grace and strength. We also get to see Aaron through the eyes of people he met in the minor leagues, a Catholic priest he met in Milwaukee and others.
Bryant, who is definitely worth a follow on Twitter if you have an account, has created one of the two best baseball biographies I’ve ever read. Along with David Maraniss’ “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero,” it is the gold standard of the genre.
If you’re looking for a list minute Christmas gift for your favorite baseball fan, pick up Bryant’s biography of one of the game’s best statesmen.