Henry Louis Aaron had to wait longer for recognition than any superstar in baseball history. Born in Mobile, Ala., in 1934, he was the last great star of the Negro Leagues, where he had to perform Harlem Globetrotters-style antics as a member of the Indianapolis Clowns in the early 1950s.

Aaron closed out the decade by winning two major league batting crowns, a Most Valuable Player Award and appearing in two World Series. Yet, at the start of the '60s, he was frequently left off preseason all-star lists compiled by the nation's top sportswriters. Unlike his superstar contemporaries - Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente - Aaron was never the subject of a definitive biography. Now, Howard Bryant, author of "Shut Out" and "Juicing the Game," checks in with "The Last Hero."

Aaron's story is the epic baseball tale of the second half of the 20th century, in many ways the equal of Jackie Robinson's. He not only helped integrate the Southern minor leagues, he became the first black major league hero of the South.

Aaron, who never craved national publicity, moved with the Milwaukee Braves to Atlanta in 1966. For many Americans in all parts of the country, black and white, the New South began on April 8, 1974, when Aaron, at the now-vanished Fulton County Stadium, lashed into a fastball delivered by the Los Angeles Dodgers' Al Downing, drove it over the left centerfield wall and surpassed Babe Ruth's career record of 714 home runs. In doing so, he obliterated a year's worth of hate mail from crackpots - not all of them in the South - who were outraged that a black man was closing in on the most hallowed record in American sports.

Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who broadcast the game to much of the nation, said it best: "It is over. And for the first time in a long time, that poker face of Aaron shows the tremendous relief. . . . What a marvelous moment for baseball."

THE LAST HERO: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant (Pantheon, May 2010)

That "poker face" and quiet dignity were Aaron's trademarks for decades, but they often served to keep fans and sportswriters at arm's length. Aaron was never known and thus never embraced by fans nationwide.

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It wasn't until Barry Bonds approached Aaron's record in 2006 that No. 44's stature grew in the eyes of most Americans. Aaron had this to say about the challenger: "Barry Bonds? I don't even know how to spell his name."

Aaron had more to battle on the way to the home run record than bigotry: He had to overcome the animosity of the other great black ballplayer of his own time. Willie Mays, writes Bryant, "committed one of the great offenses against a person as proud as Henry: he insulted him, embarrassed him in front of other people, and did not treat him with respect."

Sportscaster Bob Costas best defined the difference between Mays' image and Aaron's: "Fans associate Willie Mays with fun. With Henry Aaron, it is all about respect."