Although I HAD A HAMMER is an autobiography, it is also a sociopolitical commentary on racism in baseball and in American society. The book almost ignores Aaron’s childhood in Mobile, Alabama, and concentrates instead on his baseball career, which began with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League; after a season in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he helped integrate the Sally League in the Deep South before he joined the Milwaukee Braves in 1954. After the successful Milwaukee years, the Braves moved to Atlanta, a supposedly liberal Southern city where Aaron once again endured racism, this time aggravated by his pursuit of records held by the legendary Babe Ruth. Like Roger Maris, who broke Ruth’s single-season home-run record, Aaron was under tremendous pressure, but unlike Maris, Aaron was black. The book includes some of the more vitriolic racist diatribes Aaron received in 1973, out of almost a million letters.
Despite his records and achievements Aaron was unappreciated by many fans, some of whom resented his criticism of baseball racism and his refusal to “play the game” and remain silent. Snubs by commissioner Bowie Kuhn, attacks by New York sportswriters, and lack of recognition (he was often overlooked in choosing the Most Valuable Player)—Aaron endured it all. His records were “explained” away, denigrated by fans of white hitters with shorter careers and of popular, less controversial black hitters like Willie Mays. Aaron emerges as an angry, bitter person, upset not just at his own fate but at that of other black ballplayers: everyday players who, lacking extraordinary talent, were passed over in favor of whites of equal or even lesser ability; stars who did not receive their fair share of MVP awards and All-Star selections; and retired players who found the door closed to coaching, managerial, and administrative positions in major league baseball. Aaron’s book, which includes chapter introductions by Wheeler and testimonials by major league players, is an interesting and readable indictment of an American institution.