A highly personal account of one man’s boyhood admiration for Hank Aaron, and a reevaluation of his feelings from adult perspective.
As a Milwaukee schoolboy Tolan followed his hometown Braves through seasonal ups and downs and remained loyal even when the franchise moved to Atlanta. By radio he monitored Aaron’s pursuit of the career home-run record and learned that the ballplayer had been receiving threats; he wrote a letter of support and received a personally signed letter of thanks in return. Twenty-five years later, as the anniversary of Aaron’s achievement approached, Tolan (now a radio producer) used the occasion to examine more closely the role of racism in Aaron’s career, in baseball itself, and in American society. He interviewed characters ranging from Aaron’s daughter and wife to the street people living outside Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. He spoke to politicians and civil-rights leaders like Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, to baseball commissioners, managers, Hall-of-Famers, and fanatics; he traveled to Cooperstown (where he was shocked by the minimal space allotted to Aaron’s achievements) and met with the record-holder himself. Tolan uses a loose, peripatetic tone and style; Aaron is never far from the center of the story (which began as an NPR project), but this isn’t just about the ballplayer or his achievement. To an extent, it’s one long double-edged argument for the primacy of Aaron’s achievement as an athlete and a black man, as well as for the deeper understanding of race in American society and history, but Tolan is honest and tenacious without being strident. Reading him is like listening to someone argue a point you already agree on—yet between the personal and the reportorial (and editorial) stretches there are moments of high drama and poignant discovery.
Amiable on the surface, tough-minded beneath, with a fan’s fervor at the core.