It is the suggestion here—made in small part for the sake of argument, in far larger part out of genuine conviction—that Henry Louis Aaron is the finest all-round player baseball has known. Partisans of Ruth, Cobb, DiMaggio, Mays and Clemente can kick and scream till the cows come home, but I will stick with my man. Had I the honor to manage the ultimate baseball team, Aaron is the first player I would choose.
But playing ability is one thing and charisma is another, and of the latter Aaron has precious little. On the field his playing style is so economical and understated that he stirs admiration but rarely excitement. Off the field he is decent, honorable, upright and pleasant, but he is not, to put it as gently as possible, very interesting, and sportswriters in search of lively copy usually have looked elsewhere.
So it is not surprising that the two Aaron books which usher in the 1974 baseball season are something less than scintillating. Since it is rather difficult to make a book more provocative than its subject, the dullness of these productions is pardonable. What is not pardonable is that the first is a warmed-over reissue disguised as a new book, and the second is a journalistic botch of remarkable proportions.
One would never know from the dust jacket of Aaron (Crowell, $6.95), by Aaron with Furman Bisher, that this is a "revised edition" of a book first published in 1968. That information can be found, in small type, on the title page. The revisions consist of some minor changes in Aaron's first-person text and the addition of an "afterword" by Bisher that brings the book up to date.
This is an old-school sports biography—amiable, bland, essentially unrevealing. Aaron does bemoan the failure of the talented Braves teams of the 1950s to win more than two pennants, and he offers a touching tribute to Ben Geraghty, who managed him in the minor leagues, but otherwise there is little here that his fans do not already know. Bisher's "afterword" is a pedestrian account of Aaron's recent progress toward Ruth's home-run record, written in prose that oozes adulation.
There is more treacly prose in Bad Henry (Chilton, $6.95), by Stan Baldwin and Jerry Jenkins "in collaboration with Hank Aaron." And treacly prose is only a small part of what buyers of Bad Henry get for their $6.95. The book offers, in addition, incoherent structure, hyperbole, sentimentality and hagiography. Judging by much of its contents, Bad Henry was originally written for children and put on the adult list in hopes of cashing in on the home-run chase; one chapter, for example, consists solely of offensively cute letters written to Aaron by grammar school admirers. Even as a children's book, Bad Henry is an egregious mess. And why, in any event, should books for children be written with less style and intelligence than books for adults?
Oh, well. Aaron's reputation will survive the efforts of his earnestly worshipful "collaborators." He will never be an American legend, not as Ruth has been, but he is at last recognized as a ballplayer of complete skills and extraordinary consistency. In his quiet, self-effacing fashion he has given baseball fans great pleasure and splendid memories—greater pleasure and more splendid memories, certainly, than the books mentioned above have managed to convey.