The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART TWO. MAGIC
Chapter 7. SCRIPTURE
IT WOULD TAKE one of those years when it all came together—when he could not only hear the notes in his head but play each and every one of them beautifully—before the legend could officially commence. It needed to be the kind of season where all you had to do was say the year and the heart of every fan would spontaneously flutter, carrying that person easily back into the warm currents of memory, and when, even decades later, the faces of his peers would firm with professional respect. Sometimes, the faces would betray envy, other times admiration, but in all of them would be the recognition that he was one of the very special ones, that millionth percentile, someone who may have stood on the same field with them but, because of his enormous talent, was playing a game completely different from all the rest.
HENRY RANG IN the year 1957 with the same ritual he would begin every year of his first decade in the big leagues—by sending his contract back to the Braves unsigned. He’d earned $17,500 in 1956 and had no illusions about his value to the team. First for Charlie Grimm and then for Fred Haney, Henry had chopped the wood. Adcock had his best year in home runs, drove in more than a hundred runs, and most importantly, it seemed as if all of those home runs were against the Dodgers late in games. But as the season reached its devastating conclusion, with every at bat critical, Adcock’s batting average dropped nearly twenty points in September, highlighted by a disastrous zero for seventeen in four games against bottom-feeders Philadelphia, New York, and Pittsburgh. Mathews was second in the league in home runs, but he was stuck in low gear for the whole season, hitting .229 at the all-star break before grinding his way to a .272 average.
Henry hit thirty-seven points higher than Adcock, fifty-six points higher than Mathews, and was more consistent than both. Adcock was certainly the signature clutch player on the team in 1956, but Henry had shown, as he did in the Philadelphia doubleheader, that he was not frightened of the moment. Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown in 1956, but Henry was the only player in the majors with two hundred hits, a twenty-five-game hit streak, and 340 total bases.
Thus, he sent the contract back to Milwaukee blank. Two hundred hits had to count for something, and on January 26th, a two-paragraph Associated Press brief hit the wire, filling a corner of the next day’s Chicago Tribune. Henry was home in Mobile and spoke by telephone to John Quinn, who by the end of the conversation understood Henry’s idea of his own market value. He didn’t just ask Quinn for a pay raise; he wanted his salary doubled.
BRAVES’ AARON ASKS PAY BOOST OF 100 PER CENT
MILWAUKEE, JAN. 26 (AP)—A report tonight said that Henry Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves, the National League batting champion for 1956, is asking for a 100 per cent salary boost—or $35,000.
“I think I deserve it, after the year I had last season,” Aaron said in a telephone interview from his home in Mobile, Ala.
The Braves had the reigning batting champion, but little sentimentality existed in dealing with John Quinn during contract time. The salary figures offered to players were hard, for lesser players usually final, and for the more gifted, a higher number was merely far below what a player was actually worth. In those days, there were no agents and no lawyers negotiating deals, no salary arbitration, and no ability to attract interest from another team. And what if you didn’t like the numbers that were being offered? Well, there was always bartending. The big leagues—or O.B., which stood for Organized Baseball, as the clubs liked to be called collectively—even negotiated a lockout deal with the independent leagues in Mexico and the Pacific Coast League, blocking a player who did not sign his contract from playing ball anywhere else.
The Players Association was still two decades away from power. Players walked into the front office, virtually always undereducated and, lacking the leverage to play for another team, always overmatched. Quinn understood management’s inherent advantages and did not hesitate to flaunt his power. The front office turned making players sweat for a few extra pennies into a sadistic little sport.
“I was making ten grand one year and Mathews was holding out. Logan was, too. Quinn was a good baseball man but tough with the negotiations,” Gene Conley recalled. “One day, he calls me over to his office right as my kids are having a birthday party,” Conley said. “He’s got a couple of cups on the table and a bottle of whiskey. He says to me, ‘I’m not giving you what you want.’ I tell him I’m not signing, that if this is the offer, then I have no choice but to go back and play basketball. He pours a couple more cups, and says, ‘You’re going to get it, but you’re not worth it.’ And then he starts asking me about the family again. He knew the highest number I was asking for was low, but he wanted to make me fight for that. The next day, I saw him and he was all smiles, and asked me about my family and the birthday party, like nothing ever happened. Still, he knew baseball.”
Three days after his twenty-third birthday, on February 8, Henry signed his contract for 1957. The papers said he would be making between $25,000 and $30,000, and that Henry’s tough stance with Quinn had gotten him close to the seventeen-thousand-dollar raise he sought. Throughout the season, the papers would refer to Henry as earning $28,000. The actual figure was $22,500. Henry had won the batting title, and a measly raise of five thousand dollars was his reward.
“I think back then we all realized just how powerless we were,” Henry said. “I didn’t have any great strategy. Nobody taught me anything about how to negotiate a salary. A lot of times, you had to take what they gave you. But I figured I would ask. They never gave any of us what we were worth.”
THE ROBINSON sentiment that the Braves were underachieving echoed in a Milwaukee press corps that began to reflect the subtle changes in coverage that would be a harbinger for the contentious years ahead. Traditionally, the writers allowed the explanations for winning and losing to remain within the field of play, but the evidence that the Braves were simply not focused enough, not driven enough, simply not tough enough to be champions was an angle too obvious to ignore.
The Braves were leaving the pennant in the bar, and Milwaukee fans began sending anonymous letters to the local papers in Milwaukee and Chicago, listing the favorite haunts of the players.
The attitudes of the players were one part of the discontentment, and the national writers followed. “The National League pennant has been a mirage for the Milwaukee Braves the last three seasons following their second-place finish in 1953, the year they left Boston,” Edward Prell wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “Haney realized he had a discipline problem when he succeeded Charlie Grimm as manager last June.” What was jarring to the players was the speed with which the Milwaukee writers—and, to a lesser extent, the fans—had become so jaded.
Chuck Tanner recalled the difference in the coverage of the Journal and the Sentinel. “Bob Wolf always kept it to the game, whether we won or lost,” Tanner said. “But that Lou Chapman at the Sentinel, he wanted the story. He wanted to know who was getting along with whom. He wanted a spark. I remember when they traded me to Chicago, Lou used the old trick to get me to say something bad when I walked out the door. He came over to me and said, ‘Chuck, got a pretty raw deal, didn’t you?’ The fact was, I was grateful to the Braves because they gave me the chance. But you could see the change starting then. Talking about the game on the field wasn’t enough. Now look at it.”
The transformation had begun the previous year, when the Braves had been embarrassed by the Dodgers during a June home stand, but in 1957, the press had begun intensified scrutiny of the franchise. Since Perini’s arrival in Milwaukee, his leadership had not been in question. With attendance soaring and competitive teams close to a pennant, the Braves were the model for franchise relocation, but now the scrutiny was as much about whether Quinn and Perini had chosen the right players as it was about when the players were going to perform.
O’Connell and Logan were to form the top double-play combination and more: Together they would give the Braves the toughness and fire the team had always lacked. “Danny was to be the holler guy who would make the club seem less placid on the field,” wrote the Tribune. “The Braves have no quarrel with Danny’s vocal enthusiasm, but the chunky Irishman has fallen short of their expectations as a player.”
Bobby Thomson suffered similar wrath. He had been acquired from the Giants for Johnny Antonelli and hit but .235 as an everyday left fielder. The Thomson injury had expedited Henry’s path to the big leagues, but now another key and expensive deal was starting to look like a failure.
In turn, the manager tightened the screws. This was a championship team, he said. The team didn’t make any moves in the off-season, Haney said, because the Braves were already good enough to win. What they needed was more discipline. Wanting to win wasn’t enough. Relying on fundamentals to buttress talent was what Haney believed separated a championship team like the Dodgers from his own team.
There could be no greater difference between Haney and Charlie Grimm than in spring training. A half century later, Gene Conley recalled Grimm with a reminiscent lilt in his voice. “Jolly Cholly,” he said. “Charlie ran us out there and let us play.” Grimm drank with his players, and gave them plenty of free time in the spring, relying on their professionalism instead of using a hammer. Players brought their golf clubs to Bradenton. Charlie brought the banjo. Chuck Tanner recalled a spring training when Grimm cut workouts short because he had a special surprise for his team. “We were working out and Charlie Grimm called us over because he had invited one of the most famous banjo players in the country over. Here it was, spring training, and we were sitting there listening to this guy play the banjo.”
Haney was different.
Haney instituted two practices per day, plus meetings, and the golf clubs disappeared. Spring training was not to limber up the muscles and get ready for the season, but more a clinic, with repetition of the most mundane baseball drills. Haney used spring training to redraw the rules. Under Grimm, Bruton had been free to steal bases. Grimm had told him to follow his instincts and ignite the ball club, as a leadoff hitter should. Haney announced that no player would steal without his command, or any who did could expect a heavy fine.
Grimm had given Charlie Root, the pitching coach, the authority to make pitching changes. Haney stripped Root of that responsibility. Haney, however, followed the growing trend of the 1950s by managing from the dugout, allowing his third-base coach to wave or hold runners on the base paths. Grimm had managed in the Durocher style, from third base. By 1957, a manager positioned on the coaching lines neared extinction. Only Bobby Bragan, the Pittsburgh manager, managed away from the dugout.
If Grimm had enjoyed being one of the boys, Haney forged a clear line of authority: The Braves were his team. While Charlie Grimm had not criticized his players in public or exposed them to management, Haney, it seemed, used every spring-training interview to expose a player he believed had not performed for him in 1956.
When Arthur Daley of the New York Times came to see him in Bradenton, Haney offered the Times columnist strike one: “We came close to winning the pennant without anyone having an outstanding year. I’m discounting Henry Aaron, who won the batting title, because he’s a kid just starting to develop as a great hitter.” Then came strike two: “Joe Adcock, Bill Bruton and Johnny Logan all had average years. And you can’t tell me Eddie Mathews isn’t better than a .272 hitter.” And finally, in talking to the Associated Press about Thomson, came strike three: “I can’t play a .235 hitter in left field.”
When the Chicago Defender showed up, Haney took a few more hacks at his club, this time taking aim at Danny O’Connell: “He hurt us a lot.” There was one player, though, who made the craggy, five-foot-five-inch Haney’s lips curl into a smile.
“No one on our team had a really big year. Not even Hank Aaron, though he led the league in hitting,” Haney told the Defender.
“Aaron’s the best hitter in our league. Yes, better than Willie Mays. He’s easily capable of bettering his 1956 figures.”
IN LATER YEARS, when the power of the player (and in the 1990s the general manager) would eclipse that of the manager, what Fred Haney had done with Henry Aaron on the first day of spring workouts would be the kind of move that got managers fired. Aaron had won the batting title hitting cleanup. Henry had been the cleanup hitter since midway through his rookie season, but Haney told him he would be the subject of a radical experiment: Henry would be batting second.
His reasoning was simple: The top of the order was not producing, and no one in baseball hit more than Henry. O’Connell couldn’t be trusted in the second spot in the order, yet Haney decided to bat him first. Bruton, normally the leadoff hitter, had been demoted by Haney during the previous year. That left Henry as the most versatile hitter on the team. Haney believed that having Henry hit second would give O’Connell better pitches to hit. The move would also give him more at bats, as he was guaranteed to hit in the first inning of every game. Mathews would remain in the third spot and Adcock would move up to cleanup.
The second spot was usually reserved for crafty batsmen, the ones who weren’t expected to hit the ball over the fence. Henry may not have been in Mathews’s category as a slugger, but he was a run producer. Hitting second would limit his opportunities: In the first inning, he could hit only a two-run homer at best, and later in the game, he would be hitting behind a leadoff hitter, the pitcher and eighth hitter.
But the real reason Henry did not want to hit second was because he knew that being in the two-hole, where you hit behind the runner, wasn’t where the money was.
“Hell, I’ll never drive in one hundred runs hitting second,” he said one day.
Henry set the Braves camp afire. March 11, against the Dodgers in Miami, Aaron yanked a fastball over the left-field fence off Sal Maglie. The next day, against the Cardinals, he hit another. Two days later in Bradenton, against Cincinnati, he hit his third home run of the spring. Against the Dodgers again the next day, Aaron took a fastball from Don Elston and blasted it over the four-hundred-foot sign in dead center, over the center-field fence, with seventy-five feet to spare. The Times called it the “king-sized wallop of the day.” March 16, against the Phillies in Clearwater, Aaron pounded another home run.
It was, thought Gene Conley, as if Henry had decided to focus on another element of his game—power hitting—just for fun.
And that was just the thing about being in the one-millionth-percentile club: It wasn’t hyperbole, for the great ones could do just that. In baseball, you could separate the good ones from the great with your eyes closed—literally, to the veteran baseball ear, it was often that easy. Contact with the ball just sounded different—clearer, cleaner, sharper. When a hitter like Musial or Williams stepped into the cage, there was simply the sound of perfection. The bat didn’t graze the pitch, but caught it flush, not just once every four or five swings, but a dozen times in a row if they found their groove. Teammates would tell stories about Henry choosing which field—left, center, right—he would drive the ball into. Against the fastball, Henry could fire his hands and wrists and hips through the strike zone without hesitation, level and deadly, unleashing the perfect power swing against the sport’s ultimate power pitch.
On breaking balls, the best ones did not shift their bodies too quickly, anticipating a fastball, only to be struggling woefully out of hitting position. They were different. Henry was one of them. He could defy physics and not be caught unbalanced. They could rattle off that mental checklist before the ball reached the plate. They could do what sounded so easy—see his release point … look fastball, adjust to the curve … don’t pull your head off of the ball … stay tight … shoulder in … wait on the ball … be quick!—and make it look like cake. Everybody else in baseball told themselves the same thing before the pitch, and yet they were the ones walking back to the dugout.
And when all else failed, when the pitcher made a great pitch in a great location—and with a different pitch than expected—a fooled, beaten hitter like Henry could simply summon the gods, weight heavy on the wrong foot, looking for the wrong pitch, and still tag it. With Henry, the wrists were already becoming legendary, but unlike the great power hitters, Henry had still not taken to pulling the ball. His power still remained in the right-center-field alley, which meant he could still swing a fraction of a second late and generate tremendous power.
It was true that at times he could look funny, for, unlike Musial or Williams, he did not possess classic mechanics. His teammates and coaches wondered how he could generate such power when finishing on his front foot, instead of his back leg or at his waist, yet they immediately found themselves in awe of just how technically sound he truly was at the actual moment of impact. One day, he tried to explain it to The Sporting News. “Whether I’m hitting good or not depends on my timing,” he said. “I never have any trouble seeing the ball. I can’t even say I see it better when I’m hitting good than when I’m not. When my timing is off, I have trouble, and when it ain’t, I don’t.” To veteran hitting experts, it was something of a remarkable admission. Normally, slumping hitters would decide they were picking up the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand just a fraction too late.
Upon contact, everything was in perfect place, as if Henry were a model: His head was down, his eyes focused on the ball. His hands were back, clearing through the strike zone at the same time his hips whipped through, steady and then lethal. On contact, the ball jumped, spring-loaded.
When Henry stepped into the cage for batting practice, players marveled at his bat control, how he could lash line drives to any part of the ballpark. “I remember it probably better than anybody,” recalled Frank Torre. “I am left-handed, and many times I had to throw batting practice to Henry. He damned near killed me. He was the scariest guy.” During the six weeks of spring, Henry seemed intent on tearing through the league, retribution for stalling in 1956, payback for Herm Wehmeier. He slid into second base against Washington, sprained his ankle, and missed a week, but by the end of March, he was still leading the Braves in runs driven in. When he returned, and the Braves began making their way back north, the rampage continued. He hit a home run in Tampa against Cincinnati, and again April 5 against the Dodgers in San Antonio. When he was finished, and the Braves completed the exhibition season against Cleveland at County Stadium, the Braves were playing with the kind of furious purpose that Haney had long craved.
HANEY, BRAVES SURE 1957 WILL BE THEIR PENNANT YEAR
The headlines followed along similarly, all dwarfed by one that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, quoting Mr. Warren Spahn, who declared three days before the season started that the Braves would not only win the pennant but would play the Yankees in the World Series, and beat them.
At no point during the 1957 season did Henry’s average drop below .308. He homered in every park, against every team, home and away. If he hit when the Braves were ahead, he gave them insurance. He hit when the game was close. He did not steal bases in large numbers, but he stretched singles into doubles, doubles into triples. While Haney had credited him for being a consistent player in 1956, from the beginning of the season in 1957, Henry exuded a special star power that at once elevated him into the elite class of the league.
Take the second game of the season, the home opener in front of 41,506 at County Stadium April 18 against Cincinnati: Burdette and the left-hander Hal Jeffcoat pitched briskly, as if they had a plane to catch, trading fastballs and sliders and double-play balls for five innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Aaron caught a Jeffcoat fastball and golfed it into the Perini pines, the high row of trees that stood between the outfield fences and the miles of parking lot, for the only score of the game. Burdette closed his own deal, forcing the mighty Ted Kluszewski to ground into a double play in the eighth, sealing the 1–0 win. The Braves mashed the Redlegs three straight, and won their first five games.
On April 24, at home against St. Louis, the Braves faced their old nemesis Herm Wehmeier, the man who in 1956 first snatched away Henry’s twenty-five-game hitting streak (after dropping him with cheek-high fastballs during his rookie season), then beat Spahn and ripped the pennant away that fateful final Saturday. Wehmeier lasted just four innings, giving up home runs to Adcock, Aaron, and Mathews before departing. Yet Wehmeier escaped with a no-decision. Crandall bombed the winning home run in the bottom of the ninth.
The Braves played three straight extra-inning games to start May, once at the Polo Grounds over the Giants and twice in Pittsburgh, and won them all. Tied at 1–1 in the tenth against the Giants, Henry drove in the game winner that gave Spahn a ten-inning, complete-game win. The next night, Henry went five for six against Pittsburgh. Burdette was up 5–2 in the bottom of the ninth, only to give up a pinch-hit, three-run homer to John Powers (.195 average, six homers for his career). The Braves scored three unearned runs in the tenth, the second coming when the Pittsburgh right fielder, Roberto Clemente, allowed Henry’s single to skip past him to win, 8–5. The next night, Henry doubled in the fourth to score Gene Conley, smoked a two-out, three-run homer off Bob Friend in a six-run sixth, and scored the winning run after tripling to lead off the eleventh. Henry was muscling his way onto the big stage, armed with a sudden and complete command of his game. His teammates thought of him as a gifted hitter, if not a bit aloof, but during the first weeks of 1957, he took on the look of a superstar. The surge of confidence went back to the first days of spring training, when Henry arrived in Bradenton convinced not only of his own ability but that 1957 would be the year when his talent and self-confidence would intersect. Moreover, he had begun to force the writers and his teammates to view him as a leader.
DURING HIS FIRST three seasons, Henry had escaped the criticism leveled at the rest of the Braves. He was portrayed mostly as a comet, a player too talented to miss as a prospect but too green to be part of the Braves cultural problem. He was just reaching his potential as a player and was asked only to let his play provide his leadership. The press had not yet collectively come to a conclusive opinion of Henry. He was twenty-three, entering his fourth season, and while the Braves did not appear to have the experience of the Dodgers, they were a veteran team, whose leaders were all in their thirties. Spahn was thirty-six, Logan and Burdette were thirty, and Bobby Thomson was thirty-three.
Henry was not quoted often, and when the paper previewed the Braves, it talked about the psyches of Spahn, Mathews, and Burdette as keys to the Milwaukee season. In later years, Henry would see these characterizations as subtle forms of the racism he had dealt with his entire life. He would take the writers’ underestimation of his influence as proof of their cultural reluctance to position a black player ahead of established white stars—even in the late 1950s, when Robinson had already retired and proved that a black player could lead a club without the visible on-field fissures baseball people had long feared.
More than simple racism, the uncertainty of the press with regard to Aaron seemed to prove another vexing phenomenon: the inability of the writers close to Henry to read him properly. Had one, whether it was Bob Wolf of the Journal or Lou Chapman of the Sentinel, been able to connect with him, he would have seen Henry’s confidence upon his arrival in Bradenton as obvious. Henry told the Defender he saw the National League Triple Crown as a goal, and that Willie Mays was one player who could keep him from leading the league in average, home runs, and RBIs. If he could stay ahead of Stan Musial for the batting title, he figured, he would have a chance. The story may have been one of many light spring-training features, that time of pastel optimism. Henry’s comments could have even been considered reckless for a young player, and quickly dismissed. Expecting to have a good year was one thing; talking about surpassing Mays and Musial was quite another, even for a defending batting champion. But in Henry’s case, it was indicative of his emergence as a star player, emblematic of his circuitous method of revealing just how sure he was of his ability. Just a year earlier, it was Henry who had barnstormed with Mays, outperformed other star players, only to be enveloped, swallowed whole, by Willie’s aura.
In just a year, he no longer considered his abilities with deference toward other players, even Mays or Musial, who had won his first batting title when Henry was nine years old and had won six batting titles before Henry turned eighteen. They were great players. Musial had been his idol, true enough … but now they were his peers.
• • •
SUNDAY, MAY 5, with the Braves playing the Dodgers at Ebbets Field up a game in the standings, Haney gave the ball to Bob Buhl, the same Buhl who had beaten Brooklyn eight times in 1956. This night, a heavy bag would have taken less punishment than the shots leveled at Buhl. He recorded just two outs, gave up five runs in the first, and was gone. Before he left the shower, Brooklyn led 7–3.
But it didn’t matter, not with Henry flying. With one on in the top of the first, Henry singled up the middle off Sal Maglie, but the ball got past Duke Snider and rolled 410 feet to the wall. O’Connell scored easily and Henry raced around the bases and scored all the way from first. In the third, Henry doubled to right and scored again. In the fourth, he lashed a two-out, three-run homer over the fence in right to cut the lead down to a manageable 7–6. By the end of the fifth, the Braves led 9–7.
Henry capped the evening by singling off Sandy Koufax in the eighth. He had rattled Snider in the first and then strolled home from third when Koufax chucked a wild pitch. The Braves had won, 10–7, and when the smoke finally cleared, Aaron had gone four for five, with a home run, a double, two singles, four runs scored and three batted in. His average was now .417.
Then there was the frigid forty-degree afternoon of May 18 at County Stadium, when Henry pounded two homers against Pittsburgh, first off Vern Law in the third and then, in the next inning, a two-out, three-run backbreaker that did in Bob Smith, fueling a three-for-four, four-RBI day and a 6–5 win. Henry was now leading the league in home runs and RBIs, and close to the top in everything else. During the first week of June, Haney realized that a hitter of Henry’s gifts couldn’t be a two guy, a power hitter in a Punch-and-Judy role. On June 7, Haney finally came to his senses. He made the switch and restored Henry to cleanup.
The machine was coming together. A year earlier, Eddie Mathews had been dying at the plate, hitting .250 on a good day, under .230 when things went sour. But now he battled Henry for the home-run lead and was hitting over .300. Spahn, Burdette, and Buhl were all winning, and then there was the Kid, twenty-year-old Juan Ramón Cordova Pizarro, the lefty phenom from Puerto Rico, who made the team out of spring training and already was being called the next Warren Spahn.
The Braves played like a team still smarting at having given away a golden opportunity the previous year. There was, thought Johnny Logan, no joy in the chase, as there had been in the years before, that spark of titillation when the writers would put the Braves in the same class as the Dodgers, the Giants, and the Yankees. Instead, Logan recalled, there could be only one outcome that would satisfy the players. “You have to remember. We had been close for probably five years. We felt it was our time. We had earned the right to think that way.”
The beauty of winning is that it always provides a soft landing during the rough spots. The problem with losing is that no one lets you forget it, ever. When the Braves surged, The Sporting News reminded them of their old nemesis, running a forty-eight-point headline above the fold that read JACKIE’S RAP NO SPUR TO BRAVES’ SPURT, in reference to Robinson’s contention that the Braves drank themselves into second place in 1956. “Did Jackie Robinson’s blast at the Milwaukee Braves last winter fire them up and send them away flying in the National League Pennant race?” read the lead paragraph of the story. It was a charge that more than fifty years later still burrowed into Johnny Logan.
“Ah, that was complete bullshit. When we went to the bar, it was to talk baseball. When we won, it was to enjoy getting the job done. When we lost, it was getting the guys together to see how we could win the next day. Total BULL-shit!”
If they had been criticized in the past for not playing their best against the league’s best, the Braves now sent the message to their National League rivals that they weren’t gorging themselves only on the cupcakes. Against Cincinnati, they mashed the Reds the first six times they met and seven of eight, and even started a row with Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts, who railed against Burdette and his spitballs. Haney responded that he was “tired of this spitball wrangle,” and said that maybe the Braves routine coldcocking of the Reds was the real reason Birdie had a beef with the Braves. But there was something special about Cincinnati. The two second basemen, Johnny Logan and Johnny Temple, waged their own little private war, jawing and spiking. Adcock had no love for the Reds, the team that gave up on him. Milwaukee beat St. Louis and the Dodgers both five of eight. The Braves played with the kind of angry drive that vindicated the common belief that Milwaukee was the best team in the National League. These ingredients were supposed to fuel the engine for the whole 154 games.
And yet—and yet—Milwaukee was just as close to the pennant as they were to fifth place. During the first week of June, five teams were separated by only a game and a half. The Dodgers were supposed to be fossils. Newcombe was down, but Koufax, Drysdale, and Johnny Podres entered June a combined 14–6. The writers said the Cardinals would compete, maybe the toughest out in the league, but in the end didn’t have the horses, or so went the conventional wisdom. But the Cardinals were trading afternoons in first place with the Braves. The same was true for the big-hit, no-pitch Reds. Even the Phillies, who could pitch with Brooklyn and Milwaukee but couldn’t hit off a tee, were in the race.
The Braves were hungry and angry and focused, playing each day with a singular intensity, but it just wasn’t possible for a club to get mad and thrive off that rage for the entire season. Baseball is a game of stoic concentration, requiring a maestro’s sense of timing for knowing when to get mad, when to clown, when to floor the accelerator or to forget an especially tough loss and just let the tide pass.
Beyond the star players were real problems. Covington (.143), Pafko (.143), and Thomson (.156) weren’t hitting. Chuck Tanner was swinging—and missing—at .192. Haney had already benched Thomson in May after starting the season three for his first thirty-four. Conley was 0–4. On May 15, Haney shipped Covington back to the bushes, to Wichita, of Class AA ball. Haney had already been victimized by the left-field situation in 1956, vowed it wouldn’t happen again, and yet his left fielders combined to hit .163.
The writers knew Haney wanted to make a deal, and they sniffed around to find out what the Braves next move would be. Haney did his best to play coy, but the little general wasn’t so good at this. Despite the fact that Milwaukee had paid a quarter million for O’Connell, who was still hitting .230, it was rumored that the old hand Red Schoendienst would be traded to Milwaukee to stabilize a position that, in truth, had been an expensive disaster.
“Now there’s a funny one,” Haney told The Sporting News the day Covington was sent out. “I have been asked about Schoendienst for months.” Haney added, “In short, there has been a lot of player trading—in the newspapers. I am not beefing. It doubtless makes interesting reading, and it’s no hair off my thinning noggin. I think we have a fine ballclub, and if you get the impression that I think it’s good enough to win as it stands, you have caught my sentiments.”
Haney focused on two targets for his anger since the spring: they were Bobby (“I can’t play a guy hitting .235”) Thomson and Danny (“He hurt us a lot”) O’Connell. Haney had told just about anyone with a press card that second base and left field would either cost the Braves the pennant or win it. Exactly one month after Haney laughed off the Schoendienst deal, O’Connell and Thomson were shipped to the Giants for Schoendienst, the hard-driving nine-time all-star who at twenty-three had won a World Series title with Musial in St. Louis.
The baseball life would be a bittersweet one for O’Connell. After placing third for Rookie of the Year with Pittsburgh in 1952, O’Connell would never hit better than .266 after being traded from Milwaukee. He hated playing for San Francisco manager Bill Rigney, who, he said, destroyed his confidence. After the Giants moved west to San Francisco, O’Connell played two more years, ceasing to be an everyday player. He played two uninspired years in the cellar with Washington and was finished in baseball after the 1962 season. He caught on as a coach with the Senators. On the night of October 2, 1969, O’Connell’s car skidded off a rain-slicked street near Clifton, New Jersey, and hit a telephone pole, the crash killing him. He was forty-two years old.
For Bobby Thomson, the trade from Milwaukee would be an especially bitter one. For the next fifty years, he would be an American hero, but words like hero and icon could be savored only when the playing stopped. Thomson would have one good season with the Giants, but the broken ankle he suffered his first year with Milwaukee effectively ended his career as an impact player.
• • •
AT THE NATIONAL LEAGUE All-Star Game played in St. Louis July 9, 1957, three future immortals were unanimously voted to start the game: Stan Musial, Willie Mays—and Henry Aaron. Normally, the fans did the voting for the eight starting lineup spots, while the manager voted for the reserves and the pitching staff. The All-Star Game was, after all, the fans’ game. But Commissioner Ford Frick stepped in and took over the voting after an exuberant ballot-stuffing campaign in Cincinnati threatened to hijack the integrity of the Midsummer Classic. Ten days before the game, the Cincinnati Times-Star added 550,000 new ballots. Had the coup succeeded, Cincinnati would have started all eight positions. In later years, both the league and the individual teams would encourage the kind of ballot stuffing Frick believed it was his duty to stop. And if the commissioner had had much of a sense of humor regarding the matter, he would have concluded that the Cincinnatians deserved credit for their moxie, if nothing else.
Without Frick, Wally Post, who trailed Aaron by fifty thousand votes before the flood, would have started. Henry’s old teammate George Crowe would have beaten Musial, and Gus Bell would have toppled Mays. The new starting outfield for the game was a bit more representative, especially for posterity: Frank Robinson in left, Willie Mays in center, and Henry Aaron in right.
Henry had gained more fan votes for the game than Mays. Henry batted second behind Johnny Temple and in front of Musial and Mays. Frank Robinson hit sixth. Henry didn’t do much in the game, going one for four against Jim Bunning, Billy Loes, Early Wynn, and Billy Pierce.
If Henry’s arrival as a player was undeniable, the greater problem was in understanding him as a man. That would be infinitely more difficult, because it required considerably more introspection on the part of the writers and Henry’s teammates than watching his mechanics or marveling at his bat speed.
The local Milwaukee reporters didn’t quite know what to make of him, because they didn’t quite know anything about him, and often they restricted their commentaries to Henry’s latest game-winning hit. His leading characteristic off the field was to be the first person dressed in the clubhouse, often gone from the room before reporters arrived.
From the time Henry arrived in Milwaukee, the more complicated task of confronting the social customs of the day, all of their uncomfortable layers and Henry’s level of acceptance, required skill. In the eyes of the traveling Milwaukee writers, considering the Braves as anything other than belonging in mind and spirit to Spahn and Mathews meant veering from the expected script, one that had been anticipated since the Braves arrived in Milwaukee from Boston.
Henry forced a change of thinking. Outside of the Dodgers and Giants, no team had yet possessed a black player who was not only the most talented player on the team but also its emotional core. The Braves were a raucous and rowdy team. The leaders of the team were Burdette, Spahn, Mathews, and Logan. All were big drinkers, and few took the time to consider Henry as anything but shy. Shy was the operative word.
“You had to drink to hang out with that crowd. That wasn’t Henry’s way,” Johnny Logan recalled. “He never did stay around much. He kept to himself in what was the colored part of town.” Logan reflected a common attitude among white ballplayers, which suggested that Henry and other black players did not socialize with their white teammates merely by choice. So much of it was a question of knowing where you stood. The reality was that in American society, there were too many layers of negotiation. There were no clear rules, no road maps to follow in 1957. “I kept to myself because I didn’t want to be humiliated,” Henry recalled. Inviting a black player and his wife over for a barbeque might have offended half the club, causing everyone discomfort. An invisible line cut through America that no one was quite sure how to cross. Henry wasn’t a big drinker, it was true, but he wasn’t often invited to join the crowd, either.
Frank Torre, the Milwaukee reserve first baseman, was one of the few white teammates to spend time with Henry, and what he saw was a man who was sensitive to slight but who also kept his emotions regarding segregation buried. Henry did not want to be a burden to his teammates, Torre thought, so he often remained solo, preferring to spend time alone. “He went through terrible times. We used to go to the Milwaukee Athletic Club, used to go there all the time, and people would make a big stink because he was a Negro,” Torre recalled. “And that was here, where the Braves were heroes.”
Alcohol provided a subtle yet vitally important subtext of race relations. Black players were often wary of drinking around whites because of its potential dangers. The clubhouse, a relatively controlled environment, was one thing. Being away from the park, in bars that may not have been friendly to blacks, when players unwound and released their inhibitions, was quite another. It was when the alcohol flowed that the real danger lurked, and all it took was one drink, one shot too many, for a potentially explosive situation to develop. The writer Roger Kahn recalled that when Jackie Robinson was playing cards with his Dodger teammates, Hugh Casey, a big right-hander from Georgia, said he fought losing streaks—both on the field and at the card table—by “rubbing the teat of the biggest, blackest nigger woman I could find.” Scenes could be bad enough among teammates when a player got drunk, but add to it the simmering tensions and resentments that existed just under the surface during the first decade of integration and the decision on the part of many black players not to mix socially seemed a wise one.
Gene Conley saw Henry socially on similar terms as Johnny Logan. “He really was all business. He had a job to do and he did it. Then he was out of there.” Conley had competed with and against blacks for years. The racial codes, both real and clumsily ignored by the Braves players, made him uncomfortable even decades later. Conley would be especially aware not because he was a social activist but because he was a basketball player.
“I just didn’t go for that stuff. I didn’t make a big deal of it then or now,” Conley recalled. Logan, too, who came from upstate New York, was not uncomfortable or distant with his black teammates, but he wasn’t unaware of the difficulties.
There were days when Conley seemed intrigued by Henry, but he also knew the strict codes about mingling socially with his black teammates. Conley recalled knowing specifically that during spring training, when teams developed their collective personality, hanging out with blacks in town after games was prohibited. More than his other white teammates, Gene Conley found he was uncomfortable to the point of anger when discussing the racial questions of the day. Conley recalled that later, when he joined the Boston Celtics, he often spent more social time with Russell than with Henry. It all seemed so stupid, he thought. “The 1950s,” Conley said ruefully one day a half century later, “were hard.”
The other power brokers on the team were less predictable, which made the concept of drinking with them less palatable. Spahn wasn’t from the South, but nevertheless he held racial attitudes not always considered progressive. Spahn and Aaron had something of an odd relationship. Throughout the league, Spahn had developed a reputation for being, if not a strident racist, a man who was less sympathetic toward the black situation and, despite his education and combat service in World War II, less willing to change. Both Spahn and Aaron would profess respect for each other’s Hall of Fame talent, but Spahn was glib and aloof, while Henry was known for his deliberate and shrewd assessment of people. Henry, like Bob Gibson, was constantly, if not openly, measuring what kind of men the white people around him were. Spahn could make a joke and if you didn’t get it, well, that was your problem. If it offended you, then maybe you were just being too sensitive, like the time he offered and answered a riddle in the clubhouse. This was during the season the Braves were receiving national attention for being the first big-league club to field an all-black outfield. There was Bruton in center, Wes Covington in left, and Henry in right.
“What’s black and catches flies?” Spahn asked one day in the clubhouse.
“The Braves outfield.”
In the baseball culture, that was Spahn’s right. He had been a star pitcher for so long that he did not have to adjust to his teammates as much as they needed to learn about him, a dynamic especially true in the case of Spahn’s black teammates.
Burdette was from West Virginia, and his hostile attitude toward blacks had been well established, while Adcock and Henry already knew where they stood. Some players engaged in a spirited talk about “niggers” without realizing Henry was within earshot. The Braves may have been teammates, determined to win the World Series together, but Henry did not assume he was necessarily welcome in every situation.
“You had to remember that integration was a new thing,” Henry said. “We had players coming from places where that wasn’t accepted. Everybody had to learn to live differently.”
With the Braves grinding through another tight National League race with four other teams, the national press descended on Henry for a closer look at the man who was, even in July, the leading candidate for Most Valuable Player and the Triple Crown, goals he had set for himself back in spring training. And that wasn’t all. Two days after he joined the All-Star Game, the Associated Press announced that Henry had invaded the thinnest airspace possible for a baseball player.
HANK AARON TIES RUTH HOMER MARK AFTER 77 GAMES
With the 1957 major league season at the halfway mark, young Hank Aaron is even with Babe Ruth’s record home run pace. Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees is four behind.
Aaron, who also leads the National League in batting (.347) and runs batted in (73) has hit 27 home runs in 78 games, the same number Ruth totaled in the same number of games en route to his record 60 in 1927 with the Yankees.
On Monday, July 29, the Braves enjoyed one of their most rousing wins of the season, a 9–8, tenth-inning affair over the Giants at County Stadium. Spahn, taking a terrible pounding, couldn’t get out of the fifth, while Willie and Henry played tit for tat. Mays was thrown out while trying to steal home in the third; then Aaron beat him deep with a triple over his head, and scored when Covington drove him in, to tie the game at 4–4. Willie broke the tie with a long homer off Pizarro in the seventh, and the Giants broke it open in the eighth with three more.
Down 8–4, with one out, in the bottom of the ninth, Crandall homered and started a four-run rally that tied it at 8–8. With two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the tenth, Al Worthington walked Mantilla home for the victory.
That morning, the latest issue of Time magazine hit the newsstands, a sultry illustration of the actress Kim Novak on the cover. Inside were 589 words under the headline THE WRIST HITTER.
In the wildly unpredictable street fight for the National League lead, the Milwaukee Braves were last week’s team to beat.… But the man mainly responsible for the Braves’ surge into first place was a lithe Negro outfielder named Hank Aaron, who is hitting the baseball better and more often than any man in the National League.
The story recounted the old Aaron chestnuts—his days with the Clowns, Dewey Griggs scouting him in Buffalo, the Mobile beginnings—but in the final section of the piece, the subheadline referred to Aaron as “The Talented Shuffler.”
Aaron claims to enjoy playing right field … because “… I don’t have as much to do, especially not as much thinking.” Thinking, Aaron likes to imply, is dangerous. But by now everyone knows that Aaron is not as dumb as he looks when he shuffles around the field (“I’m pacing myself”), and some … think he will … rank among the game’s great hitters.
In later years, when the country’s attitudes shifted and talk that had been common for centuries became socially unacceptable, Henry would gain an annoying reputation among writers for being bland, the same writers who would later attempt to deify him. More likely, Henry had erected a wall around himself, a protective barrier designed to prevent, or at least minimize, the lasting damage of the words written about him.
“I wouldn’t have taken that shit,” Bill White recalled. “I would have had to have a talk with a lot of people had they said those kinds of things about me. But you also have to remember that a lot of those first black players were from the South, and this is what they knew. It had been reinforced in them and their families for so long and they had been taught not to fight back. That’s why it used to anger me when people accused Willie of not saying enough. The reason why Henry is a man of respect is because of things like this. He did not respond with words, but with his bat. But Henry Aaron took a lot of crap.”
The press had traveled to Milwaukee to see Henry before. It was in 1956, when Charlie Grimm was still managing the club and the Braves were the fashionable choice to end the Dodger reign. A month before Haney took over, The Saturday Evening Post ventured to Milwaukee to profile Henry. Like every top prospect or signature player on a club, he had been featured in the local papers, but The Saturday Evening Post, with its Norman Rockwell covers and decades-long residence on American coffee tables, was another matter altogether.
Even in the mid 1950s, as The Saturday Evening Post’s influence had begun to wane and television accelerated its final demise, few magazines reached the heart of America like it did. Its interest in Henry represented his arrival in just his third season, but it also seemed to validate the Perini claim that Milwaukee would one day become the country’s baseball capital. Sports Illustrated and Sport, the two national sports magazines that would carry the industry for nearly a half century, were still in their infancy. The Sporting News had not been surprised by Aaron, but the Baseball bible in those days was more a trade magazine for the industry. A feature in The Saturday Evening Post meant Henry would be introduced to the mainstream. This form of recognition was reserved for only the most gifted players, the ones who either had transcended their own sport or achieved a degree of cultural significance beyond the limits of the batter’s box.
Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio had been on the cover of Time and Life, as had Jackie Robinson. Willie Mays made the cover of Time in 1954 and would win the cover of Life for the first, but not the last, time in 1958, as the Giants arrived in San Francisco. With the interest in him expressed by The Saturday Evening Post, Henry would have two important breakthroughs: He would begin his ascent into the ruling class of baseball players, and for the first time in his career, he would be introduced to a larger American audience interested in reading about important people.
The writer of this profile was Furman Bisher, a thirty-seven-year-old reporter, whose full-time job was covering sports for the Atlanta Journal. Bisher had been raised in Denton, North Carolina. A speck of a town in the central portion of the state, it claimed just six hundred people. As a boy, when he was not milking cows and completing his farming chores, Bisher had longed to be a third baseman, a dream only enhanced when one of his high school friends, Max Lanier, went on to pitch in the major leagues, primarily for the St. Louis Cardinals. Through good luck and good connections, Bisher landed a freelance writing contract with The Saturday Evening Post to write periodic sports pieces. He had gained the trust of a top editor at the magazine after a pair of profiles of college football coaches were well received by the New York office.
Bisher knew Henry from years before, having covered the Sally League in Atlanta when Aaron played for Jacksonville. Bisher liked to tell the story that he supplied the great New York columnist Red Smith with a variation on one of the more memorable lines regarding Henry Aaron. Smith wrote that in Jacksonville, Henry “led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”
For the better part of a week, Bisher absorbed the life of Henry Aaron. He dined at the apartment on Twenty-ninth Street and watched television with Barbara and little Gaile. Bisher would recall particularly enjoying the company of Barbara, whom he would refer to as “shy,” “trim and pretty,” with a “great personality.” “We got along quite well,” he recalled. Early during the visit, he decided that Henry wasn’t equipped for the fame that his talent would ultimately create, but Barbara seemed more readily inviting and eagerly curious about the life of a sports star, a life that was beginning to define their environment.
Bisher talked to Grimm, who told him that Henry was “one in a thousand. You can’t make a Willie Mays out of him. He’s not that spectacular. He does things in his own way. But he’ll probably be around a long time after Willie’s gone.” He retold the few chestnuts about Henry’s early life that became boilerplate for every writer attempting to shape Henry Aaron for the next half century: his brief time with the Indianapolis Clowns, Dewey Griggs’s signing him with the Braves, his brief and wondrous play at each level in the minor leagues. Bisher recalled being taken by the Aaron family and considering Henry a friend.
When the Bisher profile appeared in the August 25, 1956, issue, Henry’s introduction to America in The Saturday Evening Post would not be the triumphant moment that trumpeted his arrival onto the national scene. Instead, it was the most influential and devastating piece of journalism ever written about Henry Aaron.
BORN TO PLAY BALL
Milwaukee’s prodigious Hank Aaron doesn’t go in for “scientific” hitting. He just grabs a bat and blasts away.
In Jacksonville, Florida, where he carried off almost everything except the franchise during the South Atlantic League baseball season of 1953, there is still a considerable degree of puzzlement about Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron, now one of the mightiest warriors in the tribe of the Milwaukee Braves. There was, for instance, the time in Jacksonville that summer when Aaron was in the grip of a rare batting slump, and one of his teammates asked in conversation how he was going to cure it.
“Oh, I called Mr. Stan Musial about it,” was Aaron’s dead-pan reply, “and I coming out of it.”
“What did Musial tell you to do?” asked the teammate, an infielder named Joe Andrews.
“He say, ‘Keep swinging,’ ” Aaron said.
Shortly the slump passed and Henry thundered on to a .362 finish. Meanwhile, the Musial story was repeated often in dugouts around the league. On the day when Aaron got the league’s most valuable player award, manager Ben Geraghty decided it might be well to have Henry repeat his Musial tale to the sports writers who were inquiring into the reasons for his success.
“Man, I never called Stan Musial,” Aaron said, shaking his head vigorously.
“But you told Joe Andrews you did,” Geraghty said.
“I liable to tell Joe Andrews anything.”
Spec Richardson, general manager of the Jacksonville Braves, is representative of the perplexed local opinion that Aaron left behind.
“Tell you the truth,” he says, “we couldn’t make up our minds if he was the most naïve player we ever had or dumb like a fox.”
For decades, journalists would speak of Henry with a mixture of respect for his baseball achievements and deep frustration bordering on anger for what they considered to be Aaron’s unnecessary suspicion of them. Henry would not dispute the writers’ descriptions of him. Often, he would confirm what the writers believed, for his wariness of the press was real. He did not believe that how he thought about himself as a person had ever been accurately conveyed in print, that the gap between his recollections of a given interview and the finished product was always far too wide. Furthermore, it was a gap that never seemed to tilt in his favor. Yet Henry also would not explain that the roots of his remove could be found in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post:
Even in Aaron’s earlier days with the Braves, there were occasions when he surprised everybody with his mental nimbleness.…
Off the field, the Aarons stay pretty well tied to the little apartment when the Braves are at home. For all his natural rhythm, Henry doesn’t dance a step.…
One of the biggest moments in Henry’s career so far was the 1955 All-Star Game, which was played in Milwaukee. Henry scored a run, walked and singled twice. His second single, combined with Al Rosen’s error tied up the game and sent it into extra innings. Stan Musial finally won it with a twelfth-inning home run.
“I enjoy that,” Aaron said. “but my first year in the league I play in Jim Wilson’s no-hit game. That’s the most kick I get out of baseball.”
Over the three-page spread, Bisher exposed, though perhaps unintentionally, an important subtext of the baseball culture at the time. Integration by 1956 was clearly a success—only the Tigers, the Phillies, and the Red Sox had not yet integrated. But in the eight full seasons since Jackie Robinson had debuted, black players had dominated the sport, yet having star black players on major-league rosters did not amount to actual equality. He noted that Henry’s Braves teammates had nicknamed him “Snowshoes” for his stiff-legged running style. At no point did Bisher mention that Henry did not engage with his teammates easily because he, along with Joe Andrews and Felix Mantilla, were the first black players ever to play in the Sally League. Integrating a southern league was no insignificant task; in 1953, most southern states still carried laws on the books prohibiting competition between whites and blacks. Certainly entering such an environment could have explained much of Henry’s hesitation, but Bisher, a southerner comforted by his own sense of normalcy, saw Henry merely as an unsophisticated black character. Even Jackie Robinson, insulated in the minor leagues by playing in Montreal, had not had to endure the indignities that came with playing in the South on a daily basis.
The Sally League had long been considered perhaps the most notorious of the minor-league systems, and baseball people believed the league seemed the most unlikely to transition smoothly to integration. The Sally League’s reputation (combined with the cities and states that comprised it) was so formidable that big-league teams (the Red Sox and Cardinals primarily) used the fear of conflict in their minor-league affiliations in the South as reasons the big-league teams did not integrate. Bisher, and by extension Henry’s teammates and the men in the Jacksonville front office, captured Henry’s reticence, but they interpreted his hesitancy as an inability to navigate or a lack of intelligence, instead of recognizing the social forces at work. In the South, blacks were forced by habit, custom, and the law to be careful about how or if to approach whites. Henry had been taught from birth not to assume, and thus he would not have believed that he was entitled to the perk—which likely seemed extravagant at the time—of choosing a personal collection of bats.
In the fifteen hundred words he used, Bisher painted a disturbing portrait of Henry as nothing more than a country simpleton. Bisher wrote of him in the most condescending of terms, portraying a kind of hitting savant unaware of the larger, sophisticated world around him and without a passable IQ. The device Bisher used most effectively was language. Sharp and yet subtle, language could convey intelligence, stupidity, or nothing. It could be deftly used to feed into racial stereotyping.
“I guess the thing I’d most rather do of all,” he said, cocking his head and biting his lower lip, “I’d rather hit four hundred. A lot of guys are hitting forty homers nowadays, but nobody is hit four hundred since Ted Williams a long time ago.”
In 1955, Henry and two other Braves players arrived in Bradenton to begin early work before spring training. Today, players are allowed to work out at a club’s minor-league facilities during spring training but are prohibited from arriving at the major-league grounds until the league-scheduled reporting date.
But in 1955, players were not allowed to use the club facilities at all until the mandatory reporting date. Commissioner Ford Frick wired the Braves and fined the players fifty dollars. Charlie Grimm alerted Henry with a note, telling him he’d been fined by Frick, and Aaron’s reply was, “Who’s that?”
The Frick story had been told many times and would become an apocryphal anecdote that would follow Henry. FRICK—“WHO’S THAT?” HENRY ASKED WHEN TOLD OF FINE, read one headline in The Sporting News.
Aaron, so the story goes, crumbled a telegraphic notice of his fine without reading it. Manager Charlie Grimm asked if Aaron knew who sent him the wire. Aaron said he didn’t.
“Ford Frick,” Grimm told him.
“Who’s that?” asked Aaron without batting an eyelash, tossing the wire into the wastebasket.
Bisher retold the Frick story in his profile.
When Manager Charley [sic] Grimm handed Aaron his copy of the telegram, Henry shoved it into his pocket unopened.
“Better read that thing, Henry,” Charley said. “It’s from Ford Frick.”
The picture of innocence, Henry looked at Grimm and said, “Who’s dat?”
As even the best hitters must, Aaron has his batting slumps. He got into one at the end of spring training, going nine straight times without a hit. “I saving up for opening day,” he said.
If Bisher was taken by Barbara, he did not spare her in his writing.
In Milwaukee, the Aarons live in a little upstairs flat at the rear of a faded brown house on North 29th Street, just off busy West Center. Two pieces of furniture eat up most of the limited space in the living room—a big leather easy chair and a large screen television set. “He just sit there and watch those shooting westerns and smoke cigarettes,” his wife says, chuckling at the chance to poke fun at her mate.
Later, Bisher asked Henry if he had been motivated to play baseball because Satchel Paige, one of the great pitchers of the day, had grown up in Mobile. “I never heard of him till I was grown,” Bisher quoted Henry as saying. “I didn’t know he come from Mobile, and I never seen him till yet.”
With language, that was all it took—a little manipulation in pronunciation here, a phonetic license there—and the desired effect could be achieved. Though both were southerners at a time when social issues were reaching the confrontation point, Bisher did not ask for Henry’s opinion of the emerging fight for civil rights. Bisher did not believe Henry to be particularly bright, and the clear picture he painted of Henry is unmistakable for any reader.
The most devastating effect of the profile would be its influence on future profiles about Aaron. A profile on him would always be some form of referendum on his intelligence. It would, however, be misleading to suggest that Furman Bisher alone created the composite that would become Henry Aaron’s public personality. He did not. It would be more accurate to say that the Bisher story legitimized that point of view, for ever since Henry’s rookie season, a certain type of scrutiny had always been reserved especially for him.
Three weeks before the Bisher’s story was published, The Sporting News took note of Henry’s batting surge and ran a two-page feature. If Bisher focused on Henry’s diction, The Sporting News article, written by Lou Chapman of the Milwaukee Sentinel, portrayed Henry as graced with natural hitting talent but insufficiently intelligent to grasp such a complicated game.
BRAVES’ BLAZING AARON BIDS FOR BATTING TITLE
Amazing Wrist-Action Gives Outfielder Whiplash Power
The accompanying cartoon—a montage of illustrated anecdotes that underscored the widely held perception of Aaron’s disdain for hard work or hard thinking—was more demeaning than the story itself, but one section remained with him.
Aaron was guilty of particularly atrocious base-running in one game.…
… one of the veterans took Henry aside to give him some pointers.…
“Henry,” he said, “you’ve got to watch the ball when you’re running the bases and you’ve got to decide whether and when you should tag up and go to another base.”
“I can’t do all that,” Aaron said, thus ending the discussion.
For years, Henry would speak about Herbert’s determined pride, and the admiration he held for his father, who had been able to carve out an existence despite his harsh circumstances. The early portrayals of Henry were painful. He had endured the taunts and assumptions of the Sally League (“Just wanted to let you niggers know you played a hell of a game”) and now was in the major leagues, beyond the reach of his expected place in Mobile, beyond the reach of the old limitations. Race was never America’s dirty little secret, for it was never a secret at all. The real secret was class, and all of its insidious tentacles. If Henry had thought he had finally escaped and was ready to be introduced to the American public as the new force on baseball’s emerging team, Bisher, with a pen stroke, brought Aaron, if not physically then at least mentally, back into the condescending caste system of the South.
A FEW WEEKS before the all-star break, Fred Haney was in the dugout, grousing about his bench. The reserves, usually the strength of a balanced team, were melting over the summer months. Pafko wasn’t hitting. Frank Torre was an excellent defensive first baseman, but he didn’t scare anyone at the plate, and Haney had already sent Covington out. The front liners—Aaron, Mathews, Bruton, Logan, and Adcock—were holding up their end and more. The starters who weren’t—Thomson and O’Connell—well, they’d been shipped out, responding to being traded from the Braves by going on hitting tears for the Giants. During one pregame bull session, a reporter asked Haney, “What would happen to your club if Adcock were to break his leg?”
It was one of those apocryphal baseball stories, surreal, ridiculous, and, of course, 100 percent true. On the afternoon of June 23, in the second game of a bitter doubleheader with the brash, contending Phillies at County Stadium, Joe Adcock broke his right leg. He would be gone until mid-September.
On July 11 in Pittsburgh, two days after the All-Star Game, Bill Virdon led off the bottom of the first with a dying quail to short center. Bruton raced in from center, Mantilla out from short, and neither slowed down. When the play was over, Virdon was on second with a double. Mantilla and Bruton were both knocked cold. When Bruton came to, he was on a stretcher, out for the year with a knee injury that would affect him for the rest of his career. Even Haney spent a week in the hospital, missing six games due to ulcers.
With Bruton gone, Haney chose Henry to fill the space in center field. To Fred Haney, acknowledging Aaron’s versatility was a compliment. Henry filled in at second base a few times. He had batted second, and now, in the middle of a five-team race, he would be the new center fielder.
But for Henry, the constant shifting hampered his development as a player. He wanted to learn how to be a great right fielder, and playing center would not help. Haney had placed him out of position in the batting order and now in the outfield.
IF THE PENNANT had been lost at happy hour in 1956, the 1957 flag was being left in the emergency room. Already Bob Wolf in the Journal crafted a preemptive epitaph, referring to the Braves as “fading.”
John Quinn made two moves. He acquired first baseman Vernal “Nippy” Jones to back up Frank Torre at first. Second, he purchased from Wichita the contract of light-hitting outfielder Bob Hazle, who then put on the greatest five-week show in the history of baseball.
And that was the other beauty about the American game of baseball: There isn’t just one way to become an immortal. The gods could go to Mobile and touch Henry Aaron, giving him so wondrous a gift that he could hit a baseball four hundred feet with his hands in the wrong position, or you could be twenty-seven-year-old Bob Hazle, a guy held in such low esteem that the Braves tried to give him away for free in the draft and nobody wanted him.
That included Quinn, who told his farm director, John Mullen, that Ray Shearer, hitting .330 at the time, was the guy he wanted. Mullen convinced Quinn that Hazle was the better choice, because with Frank Torre in the starting lineup, the Braves did not have a left-handed batter on the bench.
On August 1, Conley shut out the Dodgers, 1–0. It was the kind of day Conley craved. He had started the season 0–4 but had evened his record and was beginning to see the results reflect how good he felt about his arm. The Braves were 61–41 after the win, in second place by half a game to St. Louis and two and a half games ahead of the Dodgers. Three days later, Hazle rapped two hits in another win over Brooklyn.
Then came the showdown for first place at Sportsman’s Park against the Cardinals. In the opener, Henry doubled home a run in the first. Hazle led off the second with a long homer off Lindy McDaniel. Henry hit a two-run homer in the third, and it didn’t matter that Buhl was in the middle of another heinous masterpiece (complete game, nine hits, eight walks, but only two runs), because Hazle went four for five with two runs scored, two RBIs, and a home run in a 13–2 demolition. The next day, Hazle ripped three more hits and drove in three more in a 9–0 win. In two games, Hazle was seven for nine with five RBIs and a home run, and the Braves swept. In Cincinnati, Hazle led a sweep of the Reds by scores of 12–4, 13–3, and 8–1, going seven for ten with a home run and five RBIs.
Robert Sidney Hazle was born December 9, 1930, in Laurens, South Carolina. He grew to cut an imposing figure at six one, 190 pounds, but baseball had never come easily at the professional level. After two years in the army, Hazle played two games for Cincinnati before being traded to the Braves as a throw-in as part of the deal for George Crowe. He remained in the minor leagues, with their punishing schedule and meager pay. He had often thought about quitting. At the time Quinn called him to the Braves, Hazle was hitting .289, but even the Braves front office hadn’t thought his streak was anything more than that of a mediocre player enjoying a rare hot month; thirty days earlier, Hazle had been hitting .230.
The Braves had won ten straight, and Hazle’s average was .556. In forty-one games, Hazle hit .403, and now the press was making up nicknames for Hazle. Within a year, his career would be over, a rash of swings and misses, harmless outs and feeble explanations, either for his miraculous 1957 season or his inexplicable inability ever to hit the ball safely again. For the next thirty-five years, until his death in 1992, Bob Hazle would forever be known as “Hurricane” Hazle, named by teammates and writers after Hazel, the deadly 1954 hurricane that killed close to two hundred people from North Carolina to Toronto. He would be the greatest of comets, and when Milwaukeeans would speak of the Braves years in Wisconsin in elegiac tones, he was as important and beloved a figure as Henry, Spahn, and Mathews, his more accomplished Hall of Fame–bound teammates.
For the month of August, Hazle hit .493. By the end of the month, the Braves finally had separation. Twisted in the wreckage were the Dodgers (seven back), the Cardinals (seven and a half out), Philadelphia (Good night and good luck at fourteen and a half out), and the Reds (fifteen and a half back: See you next year and drive safely!). The Hurricane rampaged, and all that was left in his wake was the inevitable clincher.
The great irony was that as the Hurricane was unleashing his greatest damage and the Braves had engineered that championship run that distanced themselves from the pack, Henry Aaron, the Triple Crown threat and MVP leader, endured his worst month of the year, hitting .255 during August.
WHEN THE HISTORY of the great ones is written, the words are never merely a mundane compendium of numbers. Somewhere, there must be a singular feat that stands as a calling card. Just being good every day by itself does not merit a ticket to Olympus. It is the reason why there is a difference between stars and superstars.
Ted Williams took his team to only one World Series, and in it he hit poorly, but people still talk about the Williams starbursts: the home run in the World Series in 1941, going six for eight over the season-ending doubleheader to hit .406, instead of sitting out to qualify for .400 at .3995, the home run in the final at bat of his career.
Ruth? Too many to count, but leave it at the 1932 World Series. Mays wasn’t just electric. He was a one-man power grid. Every great Yankee pennant run contained some DiMaggio stretch where he was the difference maker. In Clemente’s lionish pride, you could practically hear the Puerto Rican national anthem with each and every one of his raging steps. Then, lonely on the other side of the trail, was Ernie Banks, who carried that heavy and unfortunate asterisk of being the greatest player never to take his team to the World Series, of never having the moment that separated winning from losing, and him from the rest.
That’s why they were different, these millionth-percentile players. Just having one on the team meant somewhere, at some point, even if it occurred just once, there would be champagne at the end of the summer journey. They would do something that made the words sparkle when they hit the page, leaping magically, like a child’s eyes on Christmas morning.
THE OLD BRAVES modus operandi of squeezing the bat just a little tighter as the September leaves changed did not disappear without resistance—old habits die hard—and the result was a tension that could have been felt from County Stadium up and down Wisconsin Avenue. The “Slop Thrower,” Herm Wehmeier, journeyman to the rest of the world but a Walter Johnson against Milwaukee, pitched a twelve-inning complete game, striking out eight, and St. Louis beat the Braves 5–4. The losing streak hit three; it swelled to eight out of twelve when the Phillies beat Spahn 3–2 in ten innings September 15. The lead was shrinking, and that wasn’t the only part of the trouble. Two of Henry’s greatest pitching enemies were the ones threatening to steal 1957 the way one of them had taken 1956. While Spahn was losing, Wehmeier beat the Pirates in the first game of a double-header, and Sam Jones finished the sweep in the nightcap, cruising 11–3. The lead was two and a half games.
During the next seven days, Henry Aaron took hold of the National League pennant, wrestled it to the ground, and stomped the life out of it: two hits and an RBI against the Phillies, three hits and home run number forty-one in the eighth inning to finish the Giants, two runs scored and an RBI the next day as Burdette beat the Giants again.
And on it went: back-to-back two-hit games in routs of Chicago, the first a 9–3 win for Spahn’s twentieth, home run number forty-two in the 9–7 finale September 22, when Hazle won it with a homer in the top of the tenth. They had won six straight and the lead was now five, with six games left to play.
The Cardinals arrived at County Stadium, with the Braves needing a win for the pennant. As is so often the case in baseball, the parallels were delicious, poetic. The Braves had been here before at the end, looking at the World Series, only St. Louis blocking their view of the promised land, when the Slop Thrower snatched the title away and Fred Haney promised them a summer of hell.
The night was September 23, Burdette versus that old cur, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. They would play three hours and thirty-three minutes, the second-longest game of the year, topped only when Gino Cimoli had homered off Red Murff in the bottom of the fourteenth at Ebbets way back in May. Burdette had been on the mound that day, too, a twelve-inning, eleven-hit, six-walk no-decision. Koufax was the winner.
Forty thousand came to County to witness the completion of the mission. One, a twenty-three-year-old history major at the University of Wisconsin named Allan Selig, was faced with a difficult choice: go to a night class or go to the game, with the hope that the Braves could clinch it that night. In later years, Selig would recall that the choice was not such a difficult one after all. He bought a bleacher ticket. In the first, Burdette escaped the first two batters before giving up an opposite-field double to Stan Musial, who would be stranded at second. Schoendienst singled in the bottom of the inning, only to have Logan kill the momentum with a double play.
Henry pulled a single to lead off the second. Adcock, back from his broken leg, and Pafko followed as the crowd fidgeted, eager for a reason to explode. Covington drove Henry home with a sacrifice fly that sent Fred Hutchinson out of the dugout. After one inning, Mizell was finished.
Into the game came another Aaron nemesis, head-hunting Larry Jackson, the same Jackson whom Henry had accused of throwing at him back in his rookie year, the same Jackson whom Chuck Tanner would refer to only as “that right-handed son of a bitch.”
But Jackson was good this night, quelling the insurrection. He would pitch the next seven innings on a wire, dancing into trouble as Milwaukee waited to erupt. In nine of ten innings, the Braves would put a runner on, and yet there would be no celebration. In fact, the place was at times monastery-quiet.
With one out in the sixth, Wally Moon singled and Musial doubled again. This time, Alvin Dark bounced a two-run single to center and Burdette would not escape.
In the seventh, Schoendienst singled. Logan sacrificed him to second and Mathews doubled him home to tie the score. Fred Hutchinson’s next move made clear Henry’s influence. With none on and one out in a tie game, the Cardinal manager intentionally walked Aaron—the go-ahead run—with another right-hander, Adcock, on deck to face the lefty Jackson. Adcock bounced into a rally-killing double play.
The Cardinals increased the pressure. Moon singled in the eighth and Musial knocked him to third with his third hit of the game. Irv Noren grounded to short and Logan threw out Moon at the plate.
For the Braves, dying to exhale, the game was excruciating. Milwaukee loaded the bases, with one out in the tenth, off Billy Muffett. Haney called Burdette back for Frank Torre, who hit into a double play to end the inning.
Fifty years later, Chuck Tanner sat behind the dugout at the Pittsburgh Pirates minor-league facility in Bradenton, not far from the Pink Motel, where he and Gene Conley had been roommates, and where he and Henry had become friends those dusty years past. He had been traded to Chicago earlier in the summer and hadn’t been part of the final pennant race, but Milwaukee was never far from him. He had struggled badly before he was traded and understood that being a bench player, sitting around for days, cold without being in the action and being asked to produce without the benefit of rhythm, was the hardest of jobs. Tanner was fond of Fred Haney, and it was Haney who’d given him his first job managing in 1963. The Braves were long gone from Bradenton, but Tanner thought about Henry.
“I don’t know if there was a way to figure it, but I felt it then and I feel it now. There wasn’t a player I’d ever seen get more hits with two outs than Henry Aaron. A two-out hit, one that scores a run, is just devastating to a pitcher. It’s like a tease. You think you’re gonna get out of it, but you’re not. Before you know it, you’re dead meat, mister.”
Muffett retired Henry in the ninth, but the two had met in extra innings before, on August 17, when the Cardinals were taking three of four from the Braves. With a chance to sweep the series and make a tight race even closer, Henry hit a game-winning, one-out double off Muffett in the tenth for a 5–4 win.
Now, here they were in the eleventh. Logan singled between outs by Schoendienst and Mathews. Henry stood at the plate, with two outs. With none on back in the seventh, Hutchinson had walked him intentionally. Now, Adcock wasn’t even in the game, having been lifted for a pinch runner, and the pitcher, Conley, was on deck. Yet Fred Hutchinson made the fateful decision to pitch to Henry.
Bud Selig would not forget the sequence. It was the first pitch, and Henry leaned forward, hands back, and sliced the ball into the right-center gap. He quickly rose to his feet, more hopeful than certain that the ball would drop, that Logan could score from first. The right fielder, Irv Noren, took a hard angle racing toward the fence.
Chuck Tanner had seen that kind of swing from Henry many times before. “You wanna know how quick his hands were? There was a game when Henry had two strikes on him. The umpire was an old, tough bastard, Al Barlick. The ball was on the outside corner and Barlick had raised his right hand to call strike three. Henry was out! The ball was by him. The signal was up. And he swung and hit the ball out of the ballpark. Never saw anyone do it as many times as he could. Hit it right out of the park.”
Logan ran furiously, head down, and only the crowd told him the ball had cleared the fence. Henry had won the pennant. During the weeklong stretch that turned a close race into a title, Henry had come to bat twenty-eight times, nailed fourteen hits, scored eight runs, and hit three home runs.
The next day, after a night of beer showers and champagne and thinking about the Yankees in the World Series, “Toothpick Sam” Jones took the mound for the Cardinals. It was a meaningless game, but no confrontation between Henry and Sam Jones could ever be entirely meaningless. Jones loaded the bases in the first inning, and Henry, looking for an appropriate exclamation point to the regular season, blasted home run number forty-four—a grand slam—into the left-field seats.
When the pennant-winning home-run ball cleared the fence, Henry’s teammates carried him off the field. Time, which two months earlier had referred to him as “The Talented Shuffler,” now used words out of Scripture, Exodus 8:17, to paint the deed: “For Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth.”
When Henry was a boy, tossing stones in the air, driving them into the right-center-field gap of his imagination, he wanted to be Bobby Thomson, carried off the field by his teammates. The front page of the Journal the day after the Braves-Cardinals game served as a bittersweet reminder of the conflicts and contradictions that would define the rest of his life.
On the left side of the newspaper was a photo that even the notoriously conservative Sporting News would say reflected the true ideal of America: Henry’s dark body hoisted in the air above a sea of jubilant, mostly white teammates.
Above the fold, adjacent to the photograph of Henry, was a news story, dateline Little Rock, Arkansas, detailing a white mob beating several black students attempting to enter Central High School.