Willie Mays and Henry “Hank” Aaron share many things. Both were born and grew up in Alabama in the segregated South. They both played in the Negro leagues. Both men were outfielders. And both would have stellar careers that would land them in the Hall of Fame. Where they differed was in style. Mays was an outgoing fellow, who always had a smile. It was not uncommon to see pictures of him, nattily dressed, signing autographs for young fans. He was all energy on the field—from his speed to his skill as a fielder—as evidenced in the amazing catch in the 1954 World Series, which James S. Hirsch analyzes in his wonderful biography, WILLIE MAYS: The Life, The Legend (Scribner, $30).
Aaron was a steady Eddie. No flash, just a mind-numbing consistency that was hardly noticed outside of Milwaukee and, later, Atlanta, until he was on the verge of shattering the most sacred record in baseball, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs. Breaking the record was a blessing and a curse. Doing it opened him to an onslaught of racist threats. Aaron had the last laugh, not only breaking the record but leaving the field as the record-holder and becoming an executive with the Braves. If he had one regret, it was that his record was broken in the steroid era. As his biographer, Howard Bryant, author of THE LAST HERO (Pantheon, $29.95), said in an interview, Barry Bonds is the record-holder, but Hank Aaron is the standard-bearer.
Laura Hillenbrand’s new work, UNBROKEN (Random House, $27), is more than worth the nine-year wait since her last book. The author of Seabiscuit turns her eye this time to Louie Zamperini: recalcitrant juvenile delinquent, Olympic runner, WWII Army Airman, POW survivor, and ultimately a man who found God and the strength to forgive his tormentors and forge a happy life. Zamperini’s story, as improbable, resplendent, horrific, despondent, and triumphant as it is, reveals Hillenbrand’s fantastic skill in portraying Louie both as a staunch individualist, which allowed him to survive a difficult life, and as a touchstone for the times in which he lived.