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I started following baseball when we moved to NJ in the late 60's and, serendipitously, the first season that really captured my attention was 1969.  We had a color TV (a rarity at that time--it was a big old console job with stereo & turntable built-in.  You sometimes had to bang underneath the picture tube with a hammer to fix the vertical hold) and our next door neighbor Joe Koberlein would come over to watch Mets games.)  Unquestioningly loyal to our beloved Amazins, my brother and I had little doubt that Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones (both of whom happen to have come from Aaron's hometown of Mobile, AL) were the two best outfielders in baseball, maybe the two best ever.   Our Father, who had doggedly remained a Dodger fan despite their move West, would put in a word for Duke Snider.  We lived in Yankee country, so Mickey Mantle still had his backers and their were those residual Giants fans who stumped for Willie Mays--who also won allegiance from many black fans on racial solidarity grounds.  But I really don't ever remember a Hank Aaron fan.  Sure we knew he was good, especially during the NLCS were we reminded of how dangerous he was, but he just wasn't terribly glamorous or personable and he played for a team that noone rooted for, so to our minds he was barely worthy of notice.  The, seemingly all of a sudden, we realized the guy was about to catch Babe Ruth.  I remember NBC breaking into their regular programming to show his 715th HR live.  Then began the arguments over just how good he was; arguments that always seemed to have a whiff of race about them.  In the ensuing years this argument has hardly died down and the racial overtones have certainly not faded.  In fact, the subtle assertion that the only reason you would deny Aaron primacy is that you are a closet racist has added an additional layer of bitterness to his legacy.  All of this combined with Aaron's own demeanor, whether he is aloof or shy or whatever, has always led me to view him somewhat askance.  There's that visceral level on which I just can't grant him equality with Ruth, let alone with the more personable Mays.

So it came as a great surprise and a pleasure when this book was published, to find in its pages a Hank Aaron who was not only a great baseball player but a compelling hero and human being.  Beyond simply providing a complex portrait of a gifted and proud human being, the book serves to provide some context for the pure numbers that Aaron put up in his career and, more importantly, reminds us of the backdrop of persistent racism against which these feats were achieved.  We all find things easier to comprehend if they follow an easy narrative form, so when we say that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier it is easy for us to misperceive this as meaning that racism in baseball ended in the late 40's.  And Aaron, because he was so good for so long, seems to us a figure of the 60's, or even the 70's.  But the book reminds us that Hank Aaron began in the Negro Leagues (with the Indianapolis Clowns), played in minor leagues which had only just lowered the color bar, had to stay in separate hotels and eat at different restaurants on road trips, etc.  And still, some thirty years later, as he approached the Babe's HR mark, received virulent hate mail.  Aaron's incredible career takes on a patina of real grace when considered against this pervasive and corrosive pattern of racial animus.  His accomplishments, monumental in themselves, must be judged as singular when taken in conjunction with the unique challenges he faced.

If I were picking my all-time team today, I'd still take Ruth and Mays over Aaron (Aaron vs. Ted Williams is a tougher call.)  But if you were trying to judge them all as men, I think this book makes a compelling case that Aaron is one of the really great men in the history of sports and even one of the great men in our nation's history.  A lot of people have been yammering about the stupid things that John Rocker said in Sports Illustrated, but when I read Aaron's comments that he found them unacceptable, I was struck by how much more moral authority he brought to the question.  So many of the great men of the Civil Rights era are gone--Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, etc.--it is important to recognize that one remains, and he just happens to have been a great hitter too.


Grade: (A)


Henry Aaron Links:

    -ESSAY: McGwire could be best but still not have Hank's numbers (LONNIE WHEELER, Nando Media)
    -ESSAY: Basketball simply means more here in Kentucky The first of three parts of excerpts from Blue Yonder --Kentucky: The United State of Basketball By Lonnie Wheeler (Lexington Herald-Leader)
    -REVIEW: of United State of Basketball An anti-fan suffers from Wildcat envy )LAURA PULFER, The Cincinnati Enquirer)
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica:  Your search: "Hank Aaron"
    -National Baseball Hall of Fame - Hank Aaron
    -Hank Aaron (Baseball Almanac)
    -Hank Aaron (Atlanta Braves site)
    -Hank Aaron (Total Baseball)
    -Henry "Hank" Aaron: Number 44 Forever (Bravos Web)
    -Hank Aaron Award (The Official Site of Major League Baseball)
    -Hank Aaron Tribute (CNN/SI)
    -MOBILE BAYBEARS - Hank Aaron Stadium
    -ESSAY: SPORTS TO THE TIMES; Hank Aaron Still Wields a Hammer (IRA BERKOW, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of I HAD A HAMMER The Hank Aaron Story. By Henry Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler Fannie Flagg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of INVISIBLE MEN Life In Baseball's Negro Leagues. By Donn Rogosin (Robert Lipsyte, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: 715: Hank Aaron's Glorious Ordeal (Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated)
    -Black Baseball

Book-related and General Links: