Along Comes Willie Mays and Hank Aaron
Another foundational element that served Ellington well throughout his life, Cohen explains, was his well-founded reputation as a musical genius. There were many such geniuses in Ellington’s day, of course, but none of them were ever effectively branded as such. Here, the 13-year business relationship with promoter/song publisher Irving Mills, at the beginning of Ellington’s career as a bandleader, is critical. Although that partnership was relatively short-lived, and Mills didn’t act ethically every step of the way, his acumen at positioning Ellington’s compositional inventiveness as the marketable difference above the other bandleaders of the swing era created the Ellington brand identity.
Mills’ efforts helped give Ellington’s music a cachet of elegance and distinction previously associated only with classical music, never with pop (and certainly not with any black pop). Of course, the music itself had a little bit to do with that, but Mills helped create a framework for audiences to receive Ellington’s music as more than just dance fare, which drove up his radio and concert appearances and favorable media coverage. Like his refined upbringing, the image of Ellington being “beyond category” helped propel his stardom across the globe and across generations (indeed, that phrase became the title of a popular Ellington primer and more than one collection and retrospective on his work).
Cohen is surprisingly generous toward Ellington in the ‘60s. It’s not that this period doesn’t deserve deeper attention; indeed, most basic appreciation of his work ends in the ‘40s, neglecting that he alone kept a big band operating more or less continually for another 30 years after swing’s heyday (and Cohen goes into much detail about the financial aspect of that Herculean ordeal). But jazz had long since evolved away from big bands for cultural and economic reasons, and by the ‘60s Ellington was a breed apart from the music’s standard-bearers (a session with John Coltrane and a trio date with Charles Mingus and Max Roach notwithstanding). Nonetheless, Ellington created several major long-form works during the last decade of his life, music that got subsumed amidst the maelstrom of free jazz and electrified fusion but has gained appreciation over time. Cohen overreaches to suggest that Ellington was a ‘60s counterculture hero because he dared to dress and wear his hair as he felt like, but his excavation of these years, the closest the book gets to the straight-ahead momentum of a biography, will send the casual Ellington fan off in search of this “new” music.
With Cohen’s valuable contribution to our knowledge of how all that great music happened, Ellington now shares something in common with the likes of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan: a book that sees his life within the arc of American history, and vice versa. A book titled (Your Name Here)’s America suggests not merely a significant life but a transcendent one. Such a title implies that the reader can learn something about not only you but also the America you lived in and influenced. It says that your life story is a prism for seeing the entire country in a whole new light.
There is, of course, no substituting experiencing Ellington’s music first-hand, and there are plenty of useful guides an Ellington novice should have handy while doing that. And this book, while thorough in its work and accessible in its style, doesn’t quite achieve the loftiness of its title; only the discussion of Ellington as a reluctant, understated player in the civil rights struggle talks about his impact on American life beyond music. Nonetheless, Cohen makes clear how epic his career was, and how that career became a masterly American epic. No wonder millions today still love the Duke madly.
It’s probably only fitting that major biographies of Willie Mays and Henry “Hank” Aaron hit bookstores around the same time. Throughout their playing days, the two men were joined at the hip, their names routinely mentioned in the same breath, their careers tracing parallel arcs from overcoming history to making history, and then on to rewriting history.
And it’s probably equally appropriate that the styles of their books are as dissimilar as the styles of their games and the actual paths of their careers.
Both men are sons of Alabama, Aaron from Mobile and Mays from Tuscaloosa, born during the Great Depression. Both passed through the Negro Leagues during the institution’s tailspin after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1946. Both men were quickly snatched up by major league clubs, and had brief, electrifying cups of coffee in the minor leagues before being promoted to the big time. And both men became the standard bearers of the wave of black baseball stars, including Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, who emerged in the post-Robinson ‘50s
From this point, the differences in their careers became greater than the similarities. Mays played for the New York Giants at the height of that city’s baseball prominence. His flashy, infectious abandon for the game, along with a dose of calculated showmanship, made him a fan favorite, and folks made songs about him. Aaron played for the Milwaukee Braves, a smaller-market team far removed from the limelight. He was inordinately gifted as a batter and held his own in the field, but did not enjoy anything close to Mays’ notoriety (or salary and endorsement income). The media gravitated to Mays’ charm, while regarding Aaron as aloof and simple.
It was not until the late ‘60s, more than a decade into both their careers, before Aaron took on any greater level of celebrity. That’s when the general public realized that both men were on the verge of surpassing baseball’s biggest icon, Babe Ruth, and his most iconic record, 714 career home runs. As the ‘70s dawned, it became evident that Aaron was more likely to do it than Mays, whose production had taken a sharp downward turn while Aaron’s remained consistently stellar. Indeed, Mays retired in 1973 well short of the record, an aged shadow of his former great self, while Aaron held off Father Time (and sacks of racist hate mail) long enough to break the mark in 1974 and play two more seasons.
Then, decades later, both men were linked again, in the controversial figure of Barry Bonds, Mays’ godson and the man who would break Aaron’s home run mark. Bonds, never the most cuddly person to begin with, was widely suspected of having cheated the game by using steroids, prompting people to call for slapping an asterisk next to any record he broke. Mays, bound by familial and professional ties (he worked for the Giants, Bonds played for the Giants), could not say much about the resulting uproar as Bonds neared Aaron’s record in 2006 and 2007. Aaron distanced himself from the issue, making no great effort to wish Bonds well on his quest (and rejecting an opportunity to cash in on it). He recorded a carefully worded congratulatory video to be played when Bonds broke the record, but by that point the mere statistic was almost a footnote. Henry Aaron, not Barry Bonds, is still considered by many baseball purists to be the greatest slugger of them all.
And that is from where Howard Bryant’s treatment of Aaron’s life, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, draws its mojo. Bryant is uniquely positioned to write this story, having previously done books on both race and steroids in baseball. The current book begins with something of the tone of a conventional sports hero biography (albeit one with more talk about black post-Civil War genealogy than most), then morphs into a more exploratory, interior-driven tone. Bryant collapses whole seasons at the peak of Aaron’s career into a few paragraphs, preferring instead to talk about his life as a celebrity black in a town not necessarily friendly to non-celebrity blacks. Race played a far more central role in framing Aaron’s career than Mays’, which Bryant explores in discussing the Braves’ relocation to Atlanta after the 1965 season, bringing Aaron back to the Deep South. And Bryant goes into great detail about Aaron’s post-baseball life, showing how Aaron finally achieved some measure of respect and acclaim from the game (not to mention financial security) at long last.
Bryant’s tone, perhaps appropriately, is not unstintingly cheery; if Aaron is indeed baseball’s last great, untarnished figure (in addition to Bonds, the all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, is banned from the game for betting on baseball), there’s hardly a sense of fanfare and victory lap-taking about it. What Bryant does is humanize Aaron, for all his faults and moods, as a person in full, with deep-seeded motivations and complications. If there is a triumphant sense about the way his life has turned out, Aaron seems to have indulged it quietly, far removed from the limelight – just like the vast majority of his playing days.
Those needing a more straight-ahead sports bio fix are advised to turn to Willie Mays: the Life, the Legend, written by James S. Hirsch with the cooperation and authorization of Mays, which he had not granted to any of his previous biographers. Hirsch rewinds Mays’ playing career down to the at-bat —all 10,881 of them, it seems, going into far more detail about Mays’ on-the-field work than Bryant is interested in doing for Aaron. Hirsch also usefully sheds some secrets about how hard Mays worked at his trade, and how many of those seemingly effortless great plays he made came as the result of hard work and advance study (so much for the lie about blacks being “natural athletes”; even a man of Mays’ prodigious physical gifts worked constantly on refining his game). But Hirsch is less compelled than Bryant to parse the inner motivations of his subject, even though Mays had money issues, marital drama, and had to deal with racism as a famous black person just like Aaron did. Further, Hirsch dispenses with Mays’ life after hanging up the spikes in an epilogue, while Bryant takes three whole chapters – including one on Bonds’ quest – to bring our knowledge of Aaron current.
Thus, it makes sense that it’s Bryant, not Hirsch, who mentions the last time these two giants’ paths have met – the 2008 taping of an HBO special hosted by Bob Costas, in which Mays and Aaron talked about baseball and life before a rapt audience of current players and fans. And it’s in that special where the biggest differences between them are clear. Fans like Aaron, but they cheer for Mays. Fame clung to Mays and still does, whereas Aaron’s entire life has been – and in a way still seems to be – one continuous, under-heralded grind towards respect. Ultimately, both men made history, but Aaron became the one who changed history, and who was changed more by it.