Hank Aaron's Uncomfortable Fame Henry Aaron was a deeply private person and a well-respected icon whose pursuit and ultimate success in toppling Babe Ruth's home run record brought him attention and expectations from the public he never imagined, nor asked for. Host Scott Simon talks to Weekend Edition sports commentator Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine about his latest book, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron.
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Hank Aaron's Uncomfortable Fame

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Hank Aaron's Uncomfortable Fame

Hank Aaron's Uncomfortable Fame

Hank Aaron's Uncomfortable Fame

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Henry Aaron was a deeply private person and a well-respected icon whose pursuit and ultimate success in toppling Babe Ruth's home run record brought him attention and expectations from the public he never imagined, nor asked for. Host Scott Simon talks to Weekend Edition sports commentator Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine about his latest book, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Henry Aaron has always been known as, will always be known as Hammering Hank, the man and Brave that many people still consider the real leading career homerun hitter of all time. But Henry Aaron never liked that name or what he thought it implies. A new biography has just been published, "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron."

The author is our friend and sports voice on this program, Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the magazine. He joins us from New York. Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HOWARD BRYANT (Author, "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron"): Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And you open with this really unforgettable scene of Henry Aaron at a sports memorabilia convention. And, you know, people talking about, oh, I was here when you hit number 715 to break the record - and thinking they're getting on his good side, but you offer another view.

Mr. BRYANT: Yes. Well, one thing that's very interesting about Henry Aaron is that there is this great gap between Hank Aaron public figure, homerun hitter and Henry Aaron human being. And I think one thing that's very interesting about him is that it's very it's not uncommon with professional people and superstars to have a private side and a public side, naturally. But the gap between his was so great.

And the night of April 8th, 1974, when he broke Babe Ruth's record, was not a joyous time for him. It was joyous for the fans who wanted to see him succeed. But for him it wasn't happy, it was not a happy moment at all.

SIMON: Yeah. That was a difficult time for him. He was under a lot of pressure and not just pressure.

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I think the thing for him that's very difficult for him to reconcile is this notion that something was taken from him that he could never get back. And the only reason that this wasn't a joyous occasion was because he was an African-American. And the irony of it all is that during his moment, which was not very joyous, and then 33 years later when Barry Bonds broke his record, also a moment that was not joyous for the country for other reasons based on the steroid era, it was Henry Aaron that the baseball public wanted to turn to to remind it of its values.

And I think that it was a collision or a conflict that Henry was never quite sure how he felt about. And I think it's a very interesting moment for him now because I know there's a part of him that is thinking, well, where were you in 1974 when it was my turn?

SIMON: How do you explain the rivalry between Willie Mays and Henry Aaron? I mean, all team rivalries aside, pro players know they could be teammates tomorrow and rivalries tend to be personal rather than across team lines.

Mr. BRYANT: I think Henry Aaron admired Willie Mays as much as he admired any ball player not named Jackie Robinson. He had always said in interviews how much he admired Willie, how much he loved Willie's skills and Willie's electricity. And was, in a lot of ways, I wouldn't say envious because I don't think he took a backseat to anybody as a hitter, but he certainly loved Willie's game. And as his career...

SIMON: Well, Willie Mays is arguably the greatest outfielder of all time.

Mr. BRYANT: The best five tool player ever in terms of being able to do everything well. And I think that Willie truly was a hero of Hank Aaron's. But on the other side, I think that it was very difficult for Willie Mays. The narrative for Willie Mays had always been that he was going to be the one to break Babe Ruth's record. He was going to be the one who challenged Ruth. But Mays' career slowed down and Aaron's picked up by the late 1960s. And by '68, '69, '70 it was very clear that it wasn't going to be Mays, it was going to be Henry Aaron who had the chance to challenge Ruth.

And I think that Henry was such a proud man and so sure of his accomplishments, that I think what he wanted Willie to do was just to say congratulations, and it was very hard. And I could imagine that it would be hard for anybody when you're that good for that long to have to give up the spotlight.

SIMON: To complicate that, your book throws yet another spotlight on the years in which Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants - by the way, the godson of Willie Mays - is advancing on Henry Aaron's all-time home run record, and Henry Aaron had, to say the least, complex thoughts.

Mr. BRYANT: Well, the hard part with the Henry Aaron story in general has always been that he's always been compared to someone else throughout his career. He was compared to Mays when he came up. And then as he challenged the record, he was compared to Ruth. And now that his record was being challenged in 2006 and 2007, ultimately, he was now being compared to Barry Bonds.

And for me, the question had always been: why can't we look at this man on his own terms? Why can't we assess him in his own terms? Why does he always have to be part of this unfavorable comparison to another player?

And during 2007, when the record was broke, Henry Aaron decided that there was no way he could win in this comparison. If he had come out and said that he was in support of Barry Bonds breaking the record, then he was giving tacit approval to the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, since Bonds was caught up in that controversy.

And if he came out against Barry Bonds then he would look like a bitter old man who didn't want to see his record broken. So, his conclusion was, was I'm going to say nothing. I'm going to just let history decide. And ultimately he ended up winning even more respect from the public because he was the person who maintained his dignity.

Barry Bonds may be the record holder now, but Henry Aaron is the standard bearer, and that's much more important today.

SIMON: Yeah. Howard, you're a man who uses words carefully. Why do you call Henry Aaron a hero?

Mr. BRYANT: I call him - not only do I call him a hero, I call him the last hero. And that title is not just for effect. I think one of the reasons why I was drawn to this book in the first place was because of my second book, "Juicing the Game," was about the steroid era. And obviously, when you're dealing with that era, you begin to wonder about the value systems of this county and of the game and of what stands for cheating and what does it mean to do things the right way?

And as I found out over 2005 and 2006, it wasn't just the steroids. It's the housing crisis and it was Enron and it was this feeling that the only thing that matters is to accumulate as much money as you possibly can and nobody cares how you got it. And I began to think, especially in baseball, when they have the saying, if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying, and I really was offended by that.

And I began to think about not just the game but who was I interested in? Who did I think represented these values of accountability and integrity and such that seem quaint today? And it was Henry Aaron, because he wanted to be a person of substance. He didn't just want to be a baseball player. His record, the home run record, was the last record that wasn't tainted by drugs.

SIMON: Did Henry Aaron cooperate with you?

Mr. BRYANT: That's a very good question, Scott. It took two years for Henry Aaron to agree to talk to me about this book. I started to work on the project in May of 2006, and we did not speak, ironically, until Jackie Robinson's birthday, January 31st, 2008. And I spent a lot of time trying to convince him that I was interested in the full sum total of his life as an American icon, as a person that I respected.

And I remember the first time that we had spoken, he had said nobody cares, nobody cares about the fact that I raised five children or the fact that I was trying to use my baseball celebrity to create a foundation to help young people. They only care about what I hit on a 3-2 pitch or which home run I hit off of which pitcher or what I have to say about steroids. And I said to him, Mr. Aaron, do you honestly believe that that's what you think the public feels about you? And he said, yes, because that's all that people ask me.

And I said, well, sir, I'm calling for your blessing because I would like to do a little bit more than that. And he agreed. It was not an authorized biography. He never asked me for a dime. He never made the phone call that all biographers hate, which is to say, hey, this guy is doing a book on me, don't talk to him. He let me into his life as much as he could and I was very, very thankful for that.

SIMON: Howard Bryant, his new book, "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron." Thanks so much, Howard.

Mr. BRYANT: Thank you.

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