Reviews

It's hard to decide what to make of this book.  It certainly tells the story of Henry -- don't call him Hank if you actually know him.  But is this the definitive book, rather than Hank's own autobiography "I Had A Hammer" or one of the many other books written about the baseball legend?

the_last_hero The Last Hero:  A Life of Henry Aaron
By Howard Bryant
Published by Pantheon Books, Pages: 600
Read an excerpt posted on ESPN.com here.
The answer is that maybe it is.  After all this isn't the story of Hank Aaron, but of Henry Aaron.  Hank was just the persona that the world saw, it wasn't the man himself.  In fact, you could argue that what has been told before bears no more relation to the inner man as does one of his old baseball cards.  No, the card is about statistics -- impressive statistics to be sure -- but those statistics don't tell us about the man, or about how he reached those statistical goals.

The card tells us that the man could hit, but not about what motivated him, his struggles, his yearnings, his desire to be a force for good socially, not just athletically.  This book, however, does -- or at least attempts to show us who Henry Aaron is today, and who he was then, both on and off the field.

Howard Bryant's work is not a light or easy read, but it is compelling and opens the doors into a world that isn't just about the on the field performance, but about the life of a baseball legend and the trials and tribulations he faced, not just as a ball player, but as a black ballplayer in an age where baseball was barely integrated, but much of the world still wasn't.

This volume spans Henry's life, from his early childhood to his current business triumphs and failures and when it is not telling you about Henry's on the field accomplishments it gives you plenty of insight into a very private man who had some very public moments.  The persona Hank may be defined by those moments and the plaque that hangs in Cooperstown, but Henry didn't just fight opposing pitchers, he fought for social justice and equality, perhaps not always eloquently, but from his heart.

And while the modern baseball fan, or even those of generations past, tend to think that when Jackie Robinson strode onto the field for the first time that the battle for racial equality was won, that was far from true even for the black superstars of their day.  It was a battle on many fronts: for equal treatment in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, for fair salaries and for the betterment not just of their own lives, but for the lives of every other person of color.

Aaron perhaps has been characterized unfairly as "simple," "ignorant," "difficult," "bitter" and even as a "tool" of people who wanted to use him to advance their own causes, yet Bryant works hard to take us past those characterizations and to try to give us a glimpse of just who Henry really is and was.

To a degree he succeeds in at least opening our eyes to the man though it is still difficult to judge him, nor to even tell if you'd like Henry if you sat down to lunch with him rather than his Hank persona.

Perhaps to me the most interesting part of the book however was toward the end and Henry's feelings about steroids, Barry Bonds and the breaking of his home run record.  Something he considers fraudulent because of the cheating.  Yet you don't feel that Henry mourns the loss of the record, so much as despises the way it was lost.  That was a personal affront to a man who believed in playing the game fairly, honorably and to the best of one's natural abilities.

All in all this is a very enjoyable and enlightening book although it can be a bit of a heavy read.  Still I'd give it a strong 2.5 Balls and say it is well worth reading.

AtHomePlate.com writes its book reviews with the following rating scale in mind:
Four Balls: An exceptional book that truly earns a walk straight to the local book store to get a copy.
Three Balls: This book stands out from its peers and is highly recommended.
Two Balls: A book worth reading/owning and is usually above average.
One Ball: This book has something to say but is nothing special.