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UPI Hank Aaron, seen here with his wife Billye, is the subject of new book 'The Last Hero.'Related Stories   Hamill: Baseball's big cheaters can't fool kids   Lupica: 'Roids tarnish 600 home run club   'The Last Hero' examines Hank Aaron's legacy   Aaron enjoying life after Bonds' record chase As trains rumbled onto the Manhattan Bridge overpass and Thursday's rainstorm mellowed into a hypnotic drizzle, sportswriter Tommy Craggs finished reading aloud from his thoughtful essay on the legacy of Hank Aaron and   raised his eyes to his audience at a Brooklyn art gallery."If you want to ask questions about athlete penis now, go ahead," said Craggs.The crowd laughed into their Bud Light cans. Craggs had managed to read for about 10 minutes without puking on people - something his editor, A.J. Daulerio, had giddily promised would happen in a Twitter posting about an hour earlier.Daulerio and Craggs work at Deadspin.com, the website that last month published photographs of Brett Farve's privates, which have now drawn more than 4.6 million gawkers to the publication. Deadspin paid money for the images, a journalistic sin that wouldn't fly at most newspapers or magazines, which usually maintain what Craggs calls "a more constipated approach to ethics."Craggs, 31, was the third writer of the night to speak at the Varsity Letters reading series, a monthly gathering of sports writers and readers organized by Gelf Magazine at the Jan Larsen Art Studios in DUMBO. Craggs followed ESPN writer Howard Bryant, whose most recent book was a Hank Aaron biography, and David Jamieson, author of "Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession."Jamieson narrated a slideshow of iconic baseball cards, including the famed Billy Ripken  Yankees Beats By Dre 1989 Fleer  Beats By Dr Dre Cheap Price error card with the obscenity scrawled on Ripken's bat handle Ripken explained the episode in 2008. Jamieson's work follows a previous book on the baseball card industry and the frauds it has generated, "The Card," by Daily News sports investigation writers Teri Thompson and Michael O'Keeffe.Most of the evening, however, was given over to a philosophical discussion of Aaron the person, Aaron the historical concept, and the existential gap between the two. Bryant recounted Aaron's lengthy hesitation before participating in the making of Bryant's book, "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron." Aaron had grown alienated from his own public image as it became a rhetorical pawn in the Steroid Era."He often says, 'People want their  Cheap Beats By Dr Dre Studio Headphones memories of me to be my   memories of me, and they're not,'" said Bryant, who eventually won Aaron  Just Beats By Dr Dre over and conducted interviews with Aaron's wife, Billye."The Last Hero," released May 11, tells Aaron's life story from his 1930s childhood amid the institutional racism of rural Alabama to his breaking of Babe Ruth's all-time homerun record (while the FBI guarded his daughter amid death threats) in 1974, to the two stays Aaron and his wife Billye have had as guests of honor at the White House.Bryant describes Aaron as "an introvert in an extrovert's role," occasionally passive-aggressive and ultimately proud to be considered the true homerun master given the asterisk problems Barry Bonds has. He also underlined how well Aaron has done for himself, taking $12,000 fees for autograph sessions, joining corporate bigshots in golf foursomes for $40,000 a round, and building an auto-dealership empire that he sold for close to $40 million."He gets so many offers for the autograph signings that he has to turn a lot of them away," says Bryant, adding that Aaron donates a lot of his income to the Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta.Aaron isn't a perfect hero though. Bryant matter-of-factly said that Aaron made use of amphetamines, the most common performance-enhancing drugs of that baseball era. But Aaron is still most often cited these days as a moral antithesis of Bonds, who broke his record in 2007 and goes on trial in March of 2011 for perjury and obstruction of justice.Craggs attacked that revisionism in "Hammering on Hank: How the Media Abuse Baseball's Homerun King," an essay in Slate.com that made its way into the 2008 Best American Sports Writing compilation. The piece begins with an itemization of the different ways the word "dignity" was deployed to describe Aaron in articles written in the lead-up to Bonds' ascension to the homerun throne."This is baseball telling fairy tales to itself, pretending the bad things away, using a Hall of Famer as a rhetorical bludgeon and in doing so diminishing the very man it pretends to exalt," wrote Craggs.Craggs says he "doesn't go in for the shaming" of players busted for doping, and thinks that Bonds' connections to the BALCO doping ring that was uncovered in the fall of 2003 have distracted fans from appreciating Bonds' hitting genius. Bryant had said he was offended by dopers insofar as they looked him in the eye and lied, and Craggs conceded that had been lucky to dodge that insult while working at Deadspin's offices, where locker room access isn't held up as a virtue.Aaron is 76 years old now. His ballplaying years spanned between the eras of Negro leagues and collective bargaining. He retired in 1976, just before the rise of hyper-professionalized athletes whose gargantuan salaries probably inspired some of the outlandish pharmaceutical experimentation that distorted the record books. Had Aaron played in the past 15 years, much more than dignity and records would have been at stake, and he wouldn't have the luxury of holding himself apart from celebrity culture.Just surviving in the big leagues might have forced him to make a choice that would have led him to appear in the Mitchell Report on Performance-Enhancing Substances in Baseball. Who knows? Aaron might even have even suffered the indignity of having photos of his penis posted online at a sports-oriented Web site.
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