It was 1974, and HANK AARON was rounding the bases, having just smashed home run No. 715 over the left-field fence. As cannons in the outfield fired to celebrate the shattering of BABE RUTH's record, Aaron's mother ran onto the field and into the arms of her son, tears brimming in her eyes. Mrs. Aaron wasn't just proud of her son, Sandy Tolan's ME and HANK offers the darker story behind the story: she rushed the plate because she thought her son had ben shot. For more than a year, as Aaron closed in on the Bambino's "Record That Couldn't Be Broken," he and his family were on the receiving end of death threats. "My grandmother thought someone was shooting at Daddy," Gaile Aaron, Hank's eldest daughter, told Tolan. "And she's holding him like that because she was saying, if they're gonna kill him, we're gonna go down together. She was going to go down with him."
The ATLANTA BRAVES assigned a bodyguard to protect him. His daughter had a posse of undercover agents orbiting her every move at Fisk University in Nashville. Armed guards escorted her younger siblings to school in Atlanta. To this day, the author states, Aaron won't ride in a convertible, out of fear of giving an assassin an easy target. This is less a book about baseball than it is one about race. Tolan's premise - that if Aaron hadn't been black, he wuld have been showered with accolades for breaking the Babe's career record - is supported anecdotally and makes its point: The nation's black and white community had vastly different views of Hank Aaron's home run record. While there is ittle doubt that prejudice played a large role in the shortchanging of one of baseball's greatest players, Tolan's love for Aaron occassionally diminishes the story.
After his one interview with Aaron, for example, he says he "floated" out of the Brave's offices. As a result, there are moments in the book when it would have served Tolan's purpose better if he had inserted some distance instead of seeking to make Aaron the reader's hero, too. Tolan blames prejudice for omissions and slights that could be explained just as well by circumstance. He says recism was behind the dearth of bidders for Aaron's 755th home run ball. He also fingers prejudice as the reason why SAMMY SOSA's 66th home run ball was auctioned for just $ 150,000, while that of MARK McGWIRE for his 70th homer, raked in over $ 2.7 million. At the same time, some of Tolan's hyperbole is easily forgiven because it is clear that he is, after all, writing about his hero. It is unclear why Aaron, who gave Tolan only a single interview, eventually distanced himself from the project. Tolan says Aaron grew skeptical of his intentions, and Aaron has declined to comment on the finished volume.
Given the result, Hank Aaron needn't have worried. ME and HANK is a tribute to a great ballplayer who didn't disappoint even his most ardent fan.
Me and HANK: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-Five Years Later
written by SANDY TOLAN
Published by FREE PRESS, 311 pages, $ 24.00 (US)300