The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron
624 pp., $29.95
Michael R. Stevens
The Last Hero
As in so many instances throughout his life, Hank would not speak publicly about the struggles, but would suffer and brood and sometimes snap under their weight. The slow road of healing—healing from the success of one of the greatest feats in sports history!—would be aided by many relationships (his second wife Billye, his siblings and dogged parents), but Bryant brings into relief the contributions of three white icons of the progressive South: Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner and Bill Clinton, each of whom affirmed Hank more as a man than as a player, filling a void that was dug deep even by his own black peers (the account of Willie Mays's arrogance towards Hank is one of the painful sub-themes of the book). Turner gave Hank his chance in the Braves' front-office, developing minor-league talent, a breakthrough position for an African American in the mid-'70s. But it was Clinton who brought Hank his sense of fulfillment as a political advocate, and Clinton who bestowed national honors on Hank for his humanitarian work. Hank, ever loyal and enigmatic, even supported Hillary Clinton's bid over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary.
Time and space conspire against the inclusion of too many baseball-related gems from the book, but there are tidbits of lore not to be missed, especially regarding the Braves' tense pennant-battles of the late '50s. One instance of obscuranta leaps out from the 1956 hunt: "in a ten-inning span over the two-game onslaught, hit seven homers off one guy, sad-sack Cubs hurler Warren Hacker." Tough to be a Cub in any era! The comments about Hank's legendary wrists are myriad, and his battles with the dominant pitchers of the era (at the very end of the book, referencing a Bob Costas public interview of Hank and Willie in 2008, Bryant notes the wonderful fact that "the auditorium at the Skirball Center at New York University erupted in an extended standing ovation. Bob Gibson was the exception. Seventy-two years old and still unyielding, Gibson held out, the only person in the audience not to stand"). And on and on the legend goes, Hank the enigma everywhere but in the batter's box. But the slow emergence of Hank the man, the person whose voice and energy helped keep baseball in touch with some integrity in recent bleak times, the man who has seen his life come out from the dark shadows of both his and the nation's past—that is Bryant's worthy theme. If it doesn't come easily, it's because Hank doesn't emerge easily. Instead of The Last Hero, Bryant might well have titled Hank's story Hero at Last. The long hard journey of this book is worth the beneficent arrival.
Michael R. Stevens is professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Copyright © 2010 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.