May 20, 1991 12:00 PM

by Henry Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler

In some ways, Aaron’s career began April 8, 1974, when he hit a slider from the Dodgers’ Al Downing into the left-field bullpen of Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. That home run—Aaron’s 715th—broke Babe Ruth’s record and elevated the Braves’ slugger to a rare media stardom.

And just as “Hammerin’ Hank” banged away at big league pitching for 23 seasons (retiring in 1976 with 755 homers), he has used his celebrity ever since to decry the lack of representation blacks have faced at the game’s higher levels. Though he has been in the Braves” front oilier since 1977, other blacks, he says, “have found…that baseball is a lot like the ivy-covered wall of Wrigley Field—it gives off a great appearance, but when you run into it, you discover the bricks underneath.”

That is the theme of this engrossing, at times angry, autobiography that is enhanced by the commentary of Wheeler, a Cincinnati sportswriter, and a Greek chorus of ex-teammates and opponents. Recounting his accomplishments, Aaron is as decisive with his assessments as he was with his scimitarlike bat.

He is especially frank about Willie Mays, in whose shadow he played, claiming, “I’ve never seen a better all-around player than Willie Mays, but I will say this: Willie was not as good a hitter as I was. No way.” And he is candid about being able to separate his on-and off-the-diamond lives: “One of the most important qualities I had as a player was the ability to play on despite what was happening in my personal life.” (What was happening included a rough 1971 divorce from Barbara, mother of his four children.)

The most thrilling and chilling chapter of the book recounts the frenzied period before homer No. 715, when Aaron received 930,000 letters, many from whites outraged that a black man was going to break Ruth’s sacred record. A number began, “Dear Nigger.” (The more polite ones started, “Dear Mr. Nigger.”)

Aaron was outraged that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wasn’t in the park when he broke the record. It’s such slights that keep Aaron hammering away at age 57: “Baseball needs me because it needs somebody to stir the pot, and I need it because it’s my life.” (HarperCollins, $21.95)

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