Cover image for The last hero : a life of Henry Aaron
Title:
The last hero : a life of Henry Aaron
ISBN:
9780375424854
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, c2010.
Physical Description:
xvi, 600 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
Personal Subject:
Summary:
In "The Last Hero", Bryant chronicles Aaron's childhood in segregated Alabama, his brief stardom in the Negro Leagues, his complicated relationship with celebrity, and his historic rivalry with Willie Mays--all culminating in the defining event of his life: his shattering of Babe Ruth's all-time home-run record. Bryant also examines Aaron's more complex second act: his quest to become an important voice beyond the ball field.
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Summary

Summary

In the thirty-four years since his retirement, Henry Aaron's reputation has only grown in magnitude: he broke existing records (rbis, total bases, extra-base hits) and set new ones (hitting at least thirty home runs per season fifteen times, becoming the first player in history to hammer five hundred home runs and three thousand hits). But his influence extends beyond statistics, and at long last here is the first definitive biography of one of baseball's immortal figures.
 
Based on meticulous research and interviews with former teammates, family, two former presidents, and Aaron himself, The Last Hero chronicles Aaron's childhood in segregated Alabama, his brief stardom in the Negro Leagues, his complicated relationship with celebrity, and his historic rivalry with Willie Mays--all culminating in the defining event of his life: his shattering of Babe Ruth's all-time home-run record.
 
Bryant also examines Aaron's more complex second act: his quest to become an important voice beyond the ball field when his playing days had ended, his rediscovery by a public disillusioned with today's tainted heroes, and his disappointment that his career home-run record was finally broken by Barry Bonds during the steroid era, baseball's greatest scandal.
 
Bryant reveals how Aaron navigated the upheavals of his time--fighting against racism while at the same time benefiting from racial progress--and how he achieved his goal of continuing Jackie Robinson's mission to obtain full equality for African-Americans, both in baseball and society, while he lived uncomfortably in the public spotlight. Eloquently written, detailed and penetrating, this is a revelatory portrait of a complicated, private man who through sports became an enduring American icon.


Author Notes

Howard Bryant is the author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, which was a finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research's 2003 Seymour Medal, and Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball. He is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine ; appears regularly on ESPN's The Sports Reporters, ESPN First Take, and Outside the Lines ; and serves as sports correspondent for NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. He lives in western Massachusetts.


Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

This biography of the African-American baseball great doesn't amount to the epic it wants to be. ESPN reporter Bryant (Juicing the Game) portrays Aaron's journey from Jim Crow Alabama to superstardom with the Milwaukee, then Atlanta Braves during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s as both a sports saga and a struggle against racism. (The Braves' spring training facilities stayed segregated into the 1960s, and Aaron's 1974 breaking of Babe Ruth's home run record was marred by racist death threats.) But while the author takes very seriously the sports commentator's traditional task of investing trivia with near-biblical portentousness-"And thus it came to pass that Henry Aaron became the first black majority owner of the first BMW franchise in the country"-he never quite succeeds at establishing Aaron's heroic stature. The slugger comes off as a superlatively skillful but unspectacular player whose civil rights activism is cautious and muted (though more outspoken later when he became a Braves executive). Throughout, he's a wary, reticent man given to rancor over slights, and the narrative can't help wandering toward more charismatic figures like Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson. Mightily as he swings, Bryant fails to knock Aaron's story out of the park. Photos. (May 11) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, delivers a definitive biography of Hall-of-Famer Henry Aaron, whose reputation only grows as those of such modern-day sluggers as Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez become tainted. Bryant's research here is exhaustive, but it only serves to add texture and context to Aaron's compelling story, which starts with an impoverished but proud Mobile, Alabama, boyhood, then follows Aaron's long and steady trajectory as the greatest home-run hitter (if not player) of his generation, ending with Aaron's public and private responses to the breaking of his home-run record by Bonds in 2007. There's thorough, concise play-by-play of Aaron's benchmark games; good background on such seminal events as the Milwaukee Braves' move to Atlanta in 1966; and a solid account of Aaron's agonizing though successful conquest of Babe Ruth's homer mark, in 1974. And Bryant addresses the long-standing rivalry between Aaron and Willie Mays, giving justice to both careers James S. Hirsch's Willie Mays (2010) helps do that, too while showing that Aaron's stats more than hold their own. Must reading for baseball fans of every generation.--Moores, Alan Copyright 2010 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

BASEBALL'S true golden age appears, increasingly, to have been the 1950s and '60s, decades of change that left many fans fearing the game was being taken away from them or becoming something they scarcely recognized. The innovations have been well documented, and often lamented: the franchises that deserted New York and its scruffy urban pastures for the shirty lure of California; the dwindling number of afternoon games, played in weekday heat, in favor of televised night contests, with their floodlit lunar glare; the decline of the multitiered farm system and its flavor of the county fairground. But the most important break with the past was, of course, the advent of a new generation of black stars who dominated the National League (the American League was much slower to integrate), prodding the sport out of its horse-and-buggy torpor and into the hyperkinetic present. At the head of this class stood Henry Aaron, his era's most consistently proficient hitter. When he retired, in 1976, after a 23-year big-league career, "nearly a century of organized baseball had been played," Howard Bryant writes in "The Last Hero," his illuminating and rigorously researched new book. In that time, only Ty Cobb "had recorded more hits. Only Cobb had scored more runs. Nobody had come to the plate more, driven in more runs, amassed more total bases, produced more extra-base hits or hit more home runs." It was this last feat, achieved in 1974, that everyone remembers, in part because it completed the transformation of an all-white sport into an all-American one. In theory, at least. Although Aaron and other black contemporaries were spared the ordeal of toppling the formal barrier of baseball's color line, they faced, almost daily, the malign inheritance of bigotry. Bryant, a writer for ESPN the Magazine and the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," opens his account with a thorough description of Aaron's hometown, Mobile, Ala., and its Jim Crow ordinances and customs, which were rigidly and degradingly enforced. Blacks had to yield their place in line at the general store to "any whites who entered," and yield their jobs, too. When racial violence erupted at the shipbuilding company where Aaron's father, Herbert, was employed as a riveter, in 1943, a local newspaper blamed the company for not adopting "a clear-cut policy of absolute racial segregation." Still, modernity pressed on. Henry Aaron was 14 when the Brooklyn Dodgers passed through Mobile to play an exhibition in 1948. The presence of Jackie Robinson, about to begin his second season, dispelled the admonition Aaron had heard from his father: "There ain't no colored baseball players." Not in the major leagues, he meant. Mobile was a hatchery of black talent - Satchel Paige, for one; and later Aaron and his Hall of Fame coevals Billy Williams and Willie McCovey. Aaron, a tireless fixture on the sandlots, was sturdy but unflashy, and of only average size. But he developed an explosive wrist-powered swing, so efficient that he was able, even at age 40, to delay an extra fraction at the plate before he dipped his bat into the depths of the catcher's mitt, or so it seemed, to flick another fastball over fences 400 feet away. An alert local scout cleared Aaron's path to the Negro leagues, already outmoded, the one regrettable casualty of baseball's integration. As late as 1945, when the 26-year-old Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs, his teammates included Paige and the home run giant Josh Gibson, both still "kings of black baseball." Five years later, when the prodigy Willie Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons, it was a brief pause on his winged flight to the majors. By the time Aaron signed with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 - he stayed only a month - "the dominant baseball team in black America was not even a Negro league team, but the Brooklyn Dodgers," Bryant writes. His contract purchased by the Boston Braves, Aaron became a pioneer, assigned the thankless task of helping integrate the South Atlantic League, a circuit of Jim Crow cities, where black and white fans, seated separately, formed two hostile camps. Aaron, at 19, brought hope and pride to one contingent but absorbed brutal taunts and outright threats from the other (and dodged beanballs from white opponents). But at other stops he found encouragement from old baseball hands, like Mickey Owen, the former Dodger catcher who briefly managed Aaron in the Puerto Rican League and saw in him the next Rogers Hornsby, a potential .400 hitter born to "take that whip swing and drive the ball all over the park." Much of this has been told before - most vividly in Aaron's autobiography, "I Had a Hammer." Written with Lonnie Wheeler and published in 1992, it explores the tangled theme of baseball and race with cleareyed asperity and biting wit. The young Aaron, summoned to the parent team in 1954, eagerly sought wisdom from established pros, only to encounter their raw prejudice, whether from Joe Adcock, a hulking first baseman who spoke in open vulgarities, or from the team's ace and resident "intellectual," Warren Spann, who asked in puzzlement amid the Montgomery bus boycott, "Henry, just what is it that you people want?" Meanwhile, Aaron and the few other black players were barred from the hotels where their white teammates stayed during spring training and were refused restaurant service on road trips to Cincinnati and St. Louis. An unspoken apartheid ruled the clubhouse: blacks, banished to a far corner, showered only after the last white player had finished. These conditions went unquestioned by a press corps content to recycle worn clichés. Aaron, a high school dropout with an Alabama drawl, was an easy target. "The newspaper and magazine stories described me with words like 'uncomplicated,' 'slow-talking,' 'shuffling,' 'lethargic,'" he recalled. He was mocked too when he was unable, as a rookie, to name the pitchers he had punished in spring training. "What it didn't say in the paper was that I knew what they all threw, and how hard, and where their release points were." And yet Aaron flourished with the Braves. Newly transplanted to Milwaukee, the team drew grateful fans who indiscriminately regarded the players, black and white alike, with homely awe. This was deserved. Strong, balanced and deep, the Braves flirted with greatness, capturing back-to-back pennants in 1957 and 1958, and splitting World Series titles with the Yankees. Aaron, in his 20s, was the most complete player on a roster of stars, especially once he was positioned in right field (he captured three successive Gold Glove awards). In principle, Mickey Owen had been correct. Aaron wasn't a natural home run hitter and didn't wish to be. He consciously modeled his game on the all-around stars of the preceding generation, in particular Joe DiMaggio and - Aaron's beau ideal - Stan Musial, high-average power hitters with level, grooved swings, whose value was measured not in the number of bombs they muscled over the outfield wall but in the runs they scored and drove in. In his peak years, from 1957 to 1963, Aaron batted as high as .355, hit as many as 45 homers, collected as many as 223 hits, and in six of those seven seasons had a minimum of 120 r.b.i. His goal was not to total 500 home runs, the mark of a slugger, but to accumulate 3,000 hits, the mark of the all-field hitter. In the end he achieved both, the first player ever to do so. For all this he remained in the shadow of the charismatic Mays, a supernal blend of power and speed who twice had 50-plus-homer seasons - Aaron's best was 47 - and initially seemed the top candidate, along with Mickey Mantle, to challenge Babe Ruth's career home run record. But Mays fell victim to the treacherous gusts of Candlestick Park, and Mantle broke down physically. Aaron, his swing retooled to give the Braves' depleted lineup the long ball it needed, emerged as the game's most formidable cleanup man. And once the Braves relocated to Atlanta, in 1966, nestled in a bandbox whose cradling air currents lofted any decently smacked fly ball out of the park, the chase for immortality was on. Bryant confirms what one sensed at the time, that Aaron approached it more as grim chore than joyous mission. To a teenage fan like me, the long siege, spanning several seasons, felt exhausting. Even as I rooted for Aaron, counting each home run, I yearned for it to end, in particular the racist abuse. It was well known that as each fresh trophy was being shipped to Cooperstown, Aaron was hoarding his own, much darker souvenirs, the torrent of hate letters, including no small number, Bryant acerbically reports, "from his fellow Americans, guaranteeing his death should he continue the quest." That he was pursuing it in Dixie only heightened the pressure. He was given the protection of a "two-man personal security force," and the F.B.I. kept watch. Three decades later it still pained him, Bryant writes, to recall "how a piece of his life had been taken from him and how it had never come back." It was one of baseball's ugliest passages. AND it helps explain the confusing signals Aaron sent in 2007, when Barry Bonds concluded his own dour march, and Aaron, now in his 70s, with lucrative stakes in car dealerships and fast-food franchises, was dragged back onto the public stage and thrust into two contradictory roles - first as the gallant soon-to-be-dethroned king, next as the wrathful god of baseball past, invoked by moralists to smite Bonds's steroid-swelled head. Neither role sat well with him. According to Bryant, Aaron loathed Bonds's mercenary self-absorption and firmly refused to be enlisted as a supporting figure in "what could only be termed a Barry Bonds victory tour." But at the same time, he was less forthright than his contemporary Frank Robinson in condemning steroids, partly out of loyalty, Bryant says, to the baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, a longtime Milwaukee pal and benefactor. No doubt this is true. But one suspects as well that Aaron recoiled against the blandishments of baseball "purists" who in an earlier day had viewed his own accomplishments as a kind of defilement. He had not forgotten - and why on earth should he? - that after he hit his 700th home run, a milestone many thought unreachable, Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner at the time, didn't even send him a telegram. As Aaron drew closer to Babe Ruth's record, the racist abuse got worse; it was one of baseball's ugliest passages. Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the Book Review.


Choice Review

Bryant (ESPN sportswriter) presents the story of Hank Aaron the ballplayer, one of the greatest of all time, and Henry Aaron the man, a complex individual. While Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, it was the next wave of black players who broke the color line in the minor leagues. Aaron was the first black in the Sally League in the Deep South, and despite overt racism, he dominated the league, winning MVP honors. Race followed Aaron wherever he went--Milwaukee, a city of de facto segregation, and Atlanta, the first southern city with a marquee black player. Throughout his playing career, Aaron had a rocky relationship with the press and never believed he received the acclaim he deserved. It was only in retirement that Aaron made peace with his demons, becoming a successful businessperson and philanthropist as well as a spokesperson for baseball in 1999, the 25th anniversary of his 715th home run. Especially moving are the chapters on the pressures surrounding his assault on Babe Ruth's home run record and his response to players of the "steroid era" (e.g., Barry Bonds). Bryant adds photos and an appendix of career statistics. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. W. T. Lindley Union University


Kirkus Review

An eye-opening biography of the Braves' outfielder, the real home-run king. Though he retired as the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases, Henry Aaron was "never supposed to be the guy" who ran down the game's most cherished record: Babe Ruth's career 714 home runs. Known for his durability and his amazingly strong wrists, which allowed him to wait until the last millisecond on a pitch, the never-flashy Aaron remains, if there can be such a thing, an underrated superstar. ESPN senior writer Bryant (Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball, 2005, etc.) attributes this oversight to Aaron's background and demeanor, to a press insistent on its own agenda and blithely unaware of its prejudice and to the frightful mental and spiritual toll exacted from this black man from the South as he overtook the Babe. The author pays close attention to Aaron's baseball career, from the early days through to his curtain call as a designated hitter for the Brewers. If we never come to know the introverted Aaron, Bryant allows us, at least, to understand him, keenly evoking the social environments that shaped the man. Although sportswriters frequently compared him to Willie Mayswith whom he seems to have had a somewhat peevish relationshipthe non-confrontational, quiet, poorly educated Aaron ached to emulate Jackie Robinson and wanted desperately to be recognized for more than merely "hate mail and home runs." Applying the single-mindedness that made him such a great player, Aaron reached the Braves' front officethe first black ex-major-leaguer making decisions for the home cluband enjoyed business success selling cars. Baseball's tainted steroid era has, if anything, bestowed an even brighter shine to Aaron's on-field achievements, but Bryant makes clear that this slugger's story was always about more than merely overcoming blazing fastballs. Plenty of baseball for the fan, but even more insight into why Aaron matters beyond the game. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

Not just another book on Hank's prodigious ability to elevate baseballs over the fences, this explores Aaron's talent in elevating himself, his family, and his community. Bryant (senior writer, ESPN.com; Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball) reveals a multifaceted man, a great American, and an accomplished athlete, in that order. Indeed, the postcareer exploits of Aaron will inspire all readers. Bryant evokes the apparently distant world marked by cruel segregation, racism, and poverty of the soul, as well as reliving some of the greatest moments of baseball. A most welcome book, most highly recommended. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter Two HENRY   Henry Aaron set out to be a professional baseball player, having hardly been an amateur one. At Central High, he had dabbled in football, and once, either in 1947 or 1948, he played a regular-season game against Westfield High and its sensational running back, Willie Mays. Central, however, had no baseball team, and Henry would not play football with great enthusiasm, for fear an injury would ruin his baseball prospects. He was expelled from Central, and was uninter­ested in anything but baseball while at Josephine Allen, which only fielded a softball team anyway. Henry's résumé consisted of hitting bottle caps with a broom handle.   As he grew older and more prominent, journalists would seek to know more about his early years, about his upbringing and his family, about how he could have been so sure he possessed the special ability it took to play baseball at the highest level. A lot of kids were the best in their neighborhoods, but it wasn't exactly a given that Henry was even that. Henry would depend on a few of the old chestnuts that would be repeated for the next half century. The stories were odd and colorful, but none was particularly true or carried the kind of insight that would fill in the important pieces of his personal puzzle. At dif­fering times, he told various tales about the origin of his legendary wrists. He told one writer that despite his wiry frame, his bulging forearms came from a job hauling ice in Mobile; he told another he benefited from mowing lawns; and he told people that for all of his right -handed greatness, he would have been an even better switch-hitter. That was because he batted cross-handed, which for a right-handed hitter was to say with his left hand on top, as a left-handed hitter would.   In 1959, the writer Roger Kahn would attempt to profile Henry for Sport magazine. He encountered the same frustration that sports editors of the Mobile newspapers had: Depending on the day, Henry would tell a different story about his origins, and, when placed side by side, no two stories ever exactly meshed.   Kahn was never quite sure if he found himself more frustrated by Henry's early story or by Henry's unwillingness to tell it. "I did not find him to be forthcoming," Kahn recalled. "He wasn't polished and really did not have the educational background at that time to deal with all of the things he was encountering in so short a time. If there was a word I would use to describe him then, it would be unsophisticated. "   Even as a teenager, Henry was expressing his lack of comfort with public life. On subjects both complex and innocuous, he would not easily divulge information, and he developed an early suspicion of anyone who took an interest in him. The reason, he would later say, was not the result of any personal trauma, but, rather, that of growing up in Mobile, where the black credo of survival was to focus on the work and let it speak for itself. It was a trait that was equal parts Her­bert and Stella. Not only did Stella remind him never to be ostentatious but Herbert and all black males in Mobile knew what could happen to a black man who drew too much attention to himself. "My grandfather used to say all the time, 'They don't want you to get too high. Know your place,' " recalled Henry's nephew, Tommie Aaron, Jr. "I think a lot of that rubbed off on all of us."   In fact, Henry would employ the recipe for star power best articu­lated in the old Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance : "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That, too, was fitting, because as a movie fan, Henry fell in love with Westerns. He did not volunteer much truth, so the scribes printed the legend. There was more than one drawback to Henry's approach, however: As difficult as it was to piece together his early years, writers--virtually all of them white, carrying the prejudices against blacks that were common at the time--filled in the blanks for him, defined him, creating a cari­cature, from which he would not easily escape.   There was no magic moment to his childhood, no secret formula or bolt of lightning that transformed the broomstick -swinging boy into a baseball-playing man. He was not a particularly charismatic teenager, but he was single-minded. When he was not playing base­ball, he spent his time on Three Mile Creek or in the pool halls of the Avenue, smoking with the adults.   Henry would occasionally cut the postage stamp of grass in front of the house. He would gather wood as Herbert demanded and he did his chores dutifully. Sometimes the two would clash, as fathers and sons do, over the future. Herbert, who earned sixteen cents an hour on Pinto Island, would have three quarters in his pocket and give his son two. There was, Herbert would say, an opportunity for Henry to have more than three coins in his pocket, to have, perhaps, an easier go of life if he would care more about school.   Like the rest of the Aaron children, Henry attended Morning Star Baptist Church, a mandatory requirement in Stella Aaron's house. For his part, Herbert didn't care much for the fire -and -brimstone carrying-on that was part of the tradition of the southern black Bap­tist Church. He preferred the more sober Episcopal Church, and attended somewhat regularly. After church, Henry would rush over to Carver Park, and that was where part of the legend was actually true.   In another place, just being a good ballplayer, better than the rest, would have been enough to attract the attention of someone who mattered--an influential college coach or one of the big-league scouts who seemed to know someone in every corner of the baseball-playing world. But Henry Aaron came of age in Mobile at a time when baseball was the lifeblood of the city, and being a good ballplayer in Mobile had all the distinction of a sunny day in California. It had been that way--for the odd, unquantifiable reasons that certain regions seem to breed highly skilled professionals of any stripe--since the 1920s. On the black side of town, before Henry's time, there was Satchel Paige, who had come from Down the Bay--he'd lived on Alba Street--and became the most celebrated pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues. There was the great Negro Leaguer Ted Radcliffe, who caught at one end of a doubleheader and pitched at the other so many times, they nicknamed him "Double Duty." Radcliffe played for thirty-six years in the Negro Leagues. He and Paige were the big names of black baseball, but the culture of the sport was not rooted in the success of a couple of players. Across the tracks, on the white side of town, there were the Bolling brothers, Milt and Frank. Both would play in the big leagues, as would Henry and Billy Williams, but state law and local custom forbade interracial competition, and a generation of talented players lived in parallel universes.   Neighborhood kids would collide on the sandlots. On the black side of Mobile, the boys from Toulminville would play a group of kids from the other black areas, like Whistler or Plateau (which happened to be pronounced "Platt-toe"). Plateau was a depressed, historically rich, and significant part of Mobile. The town was nicknamed by the resident blacks "Africa Town," because Plateau was the docking point for the Clothilda, the final slave ship to land in Alabama. During Henry's childhood, Africa Town was also the part of Mobile where many former slaves had relocated following Emancipation. In Plateau, when the Mobile establishment grew more determined to enact Jim Crow statutes, blacks founded the Hickory Club in 1906, a local organization formed to police black neighborhoods from within (black policemen were not hired in Mobile until the mid-1950s) but also, if necessary, to protect them from the Ku Klux Klan.   There was a boy from Plateau who happened to be best in that neighborhood. He was just a little kid at the time Henry was on the field in Toulminville, so Tommy Agee just watched the big kids play.   The boys from Whistler would ride their bikes (the ones who had bikes) over to Toulminville for weekend epics that would last on the Carver Park dirt for hours and in memory forever. Another kid, five years younger than Henry, used to sit and watch unless the teams weren't even and they needed another body. When he got the call to play, Billy Williams would follow his big brother and do whatever he was told. The boys used their imaginations, the way kids do. Billy Williams recalled calling the dusty little park Carver Stadium instead of Carver Park, to give the place its proper regality, lending dreams their proper setting.   Billy's brother Clyde, a left -handed pitcher, often used to pitch to Henry. There was another younger kid in a different part of Mobile, Magazine Point, named McCovey, and people were already talking about keeping an eye on him, as well as another kid, Charley Pride, who wasn't sure if he wanted to be a baseball player or a musician.   Mobile's obsession with baseball was like something out of an old movie. Many of the factories in the city sponsored company teams, as did other industries. The men who played were grown and grizzled; they were welders and riveters and boilermakers in their mid-twenties and early thirties who ran down fly balls and threw in on the hands. Interspersed on these teams were some teenagers. Some of the kids could play, while others were bodies who filled out the ros­ters on days when numbers were short.   For a time, Henry played with the Pritchett Athletics, earning two dollars per game, and then he joined the Black Bears for three bucks a game. The traveling Negro League teams would come into town and play the industrial teams, and as a fifteen-year-old, Henry would play against Negro League competition. He played infield mostly, third base and shortstop, and as much as how he wielded the bat, players remembered the odd, slingshot style he used to throw the baseball, wide and to the side--"three o'clock," Billy Williams said. Williams himself played against the adults, first on the Mobile Black Shippers as a teenager, and also on the Mobile Black Bears, the Negro equivalent of the minor-league Mobile Bears. Saturdays and Sundays would showcase doubleheaders. There was also another team, in a different part of the city, the Mobile Mohawks. The games were scheduled for 3:00 p.m., just after church. Willie McCovey played for the Mobile Buckeyes.   Periodically, Henry would have a chance to play in a game and dream a little bit bigger. Other times, he would have his ambitions temporarily broken, like the time he showed up at an open tryout held by the mighty Brooklyn Dodgers but couldn't generate the nerve to stand up for himself and get in the batter's box. The older kids intimidated him and he skulked off the field without ever hold­ing the bat in his hands.   The story might have ended right there except for two important but underplayed factors: the confidence Henry possessed in himself to hit any pitch from any pitcher, and the sureness of a man named Ed Scott, who had been watching Henry since 1950, when Henry was sixteen. Henry was not a prodigy and had played in only a hand­ful of organized games. Billy Williams remembered his demeanor as unchanged even then. "A lot of guys were playing a helluva baseball game. Every day, he didn't stand out. He was just good. "   There were bigger kids and more confident ones who might have been further along in their development at the time, but there was something about the way the ball sounded when Henry hit it, a sound the untrained ear might have missed. Ed Scott was convinced that the raw talent Henry displayed on the dusty sandlots of Toulminville might just be sufficient to allow him to play baseball at the next level.   Ed Scott worked in one of Mobile's factories, but on the side he provided the eyes and ears for a Negro League team, the Indianapo­lis Clowns. Their time was essentially over, and everybody knew it. Robinson had integrated the big leagues, and the unintended--or, depending on whom you talked to and how much money was being taken from their pockets, the intended-- consequence of integration was the end of the black leagues. But in 1951, the Clowns could still attract young black ballplayers, and the major leagues still turned to the Negro Leagues as a source of talent. It was a relationship that would end before it began, for it would only be a matter of time before big -league clubs hired their own scouts to find black players.   Scott estimated he spent "every other day" with Henry. They would meet at Carver Park and Scott would shag flies for him. He believed Henry had a special ability, not simply because of Henry's swing but also because he was able to make such consistent contact with crude equipment. "He could hit the ball with a broken piece of wood. That was hard to do," Scott recalled. "Especially the black kids. You'd see them out there hitting and running and catching, with a tennis ball or broken pool stick. A broken pool stick was a Louisville Slugger to us."   The more Scott talked to Henry about his ability, the more he understood that Henry was afraid of Stella. More to the point, he was afraid of telling his mother he wanted to find out if what Ed Scott was saying about him was true, that he truly did possess the ability to be a big -time baseball player. Scott recalled needing to summon all his courage to approach the Aaron household and confront the formida­ble Stella with his thoughts about her son's future. On a few occa­sions, Scott would hide behind the side of the house. Stella Aaron sat on her porch. It was her favorite place at the house, her grandchildren thought.   In the fall of 1951, Scott made his case. Henry Aaron had the talent to go as far as he wanted as a baseball player. The Indianapolis Clowns were willing to give him a look. The Clowns were a legendary Negro League team, known for being the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. The team featured good ballplayers but also high circus-style entertainment. Toni Stone, a woman, played second base. King Tut, an enormous man with a round belly, served as a mascot, wearing nothing but a grass skirt. If Henry made the club, the Clowns would pay him two hundred dollars per month, which was twenty-five dollars a week less than what Herbert brought in at ADDSCO. At first, Stella said no. After more discussion, the reality that college was not going to be an option settled in. Henry's gaining a college education had been, understandably, a mother's fantasy. The harder truth was that Henry had no interest in school and no track record as a student.   In those days, children in Mobile were not obligated to attend school for their senior year. Students could enter the workforce after eleventh grade. That rule created an opening: If he did not make it, Henry promised his mother, he would return to the Josephine Allen Institute for his final year. Stella agreed. Henry Aaron would then report to Winston -Salem to meet the Clowns. Bunny Downs, the Indianapolis business manager, would be at the depot to meet him. Unlike Stella, Herbert tended to lean toward Henry's way of thinking. Perhaps Henry's leaving Wilcox as a teenager to discover his own destiny influenced Herbert's viewpoint.   Ed Scott recalled the difficulty in convincing Stella to let her son go. As much as she wanted Henry to attend college, she was also largely unaware of just how talented her son was.   "I told her, if this kid was Satchel Paige, I wouldn't be bothering you," Scott said. "But you really don't know what you have." Excerpted from The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.