The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART TWO. MAGIC
Chapter 8. BUSHVILLE
THE STORY HELD that the Pittsburgh Pirates lost the 1927 World Series to the Yankees before a single pitch was thrown. Overmatched by the greatest team ever assembled, the 110-win New York Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, and Lazzeri, the Pirate players watched the mighty Yankees take batting practice and crumbled, piece by piece, player by player, immediately deciding that they could not win.
The lore of the 1949 pennant race captured a similar tone. The Red Sox players believed they were equal to the Yankees that year, but their manager, the ex–Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy, feared the great DiMaggio and the innate toughness of the Yankees to such a degree that his players sensed his lack of confidence in them. Needing to win just one of the final two games of the season at Yankee Stadium for the pennant, the Red Sox folded just when they needed their championship wits the most. Boston lost both, and the Yankees won another pennant and World Series.
Even against those tough-as-hell Brooklyn teams, the ones that could run away with the National League or beat you at the end—take your pick—the Yankees always found a way to get in their heads—a play here, a stolen win there. Take 1953, when Brooklyn was armed to the teeth—105 wins, 955 runs scored, Robinson, Reese, Snider, the MVP in Campanella, the best club in the world—and the Yankees still handled them in six games.
That was how the Yankees cut teams down, first mentally and then by bleeding them, game by game, inning by inning. Each generation of New Yorkers told a story of some pennant race that reinforced Yankee October dominance, and in each, there was always a worthy team good enough or even better than their Yankees, only in the end to be forced to kneel before the lordly pinstripes, and the shadow of the big town itself. All of which reinforced the Yankees—and the city’s—sense of superiority. There was a lesson in the mythology: All things being equal, New York itself would be the critical difference.
Charlie Root, the Milwaukee pitching coach, knew firsthand a consequence of losing to the Yankees was a hagiographic blend of truth and myth, and how, once written, the legend could be impossible to overcome. For Root was on the mound during the fifth inning of the third game of the 1932 World Series, October 1, 1932, at Wrigley Field. Babe Ruth had already homered in the first, been pelted with tomatoes and fruit from the Wrigley fans, and verbally abused from the Chicago dugout. In the fifth, he took a strike, two balls, and another strike from Root before jawing with the pitcher. At that precise moment, he pointed his bat toward the center-field fence, toward the great beyond—Ruth called his shot. And then the Babe parked Root’s next pitch, a sloppy curveball, over the center-field ivy and into the land of fable. Whether Ruth had actually called his shot, or was simply adjusting himself to hit, or was pointing out a local species of pigeon did not matter, nor did Root’s salty protestations for the rest of his life that he would have “knocked Ruth on his ass” had the audacious Bambino tried to show him up like that, in the World Series, in his home park no less.
All that mattered was that the story would have been different had Root not served the Babe such a juicy morsel in the first place. And it was like that for every unfortunate soul who suffered through the monotony of spring, fought through summer, and clutched the pennant, only to be caught in the sticky web of the Yankee mythology. Had they put up a better fight, even won just a couple of games, the 1927 Pirates might have been able to escape the idea that they cringed under the immense shadow of the Yankees, the story that would haunt each one of them till the end of their days. Maybe … might have … if only—loser’s words, every last one of them. Like Charlie Root and the Cubs, they didn’t. Pittsburgh was swept into the Yankee mist in four easy games, and the legend became fact.
The Yankees were intimidating because they didn’t lose. After winning the first of their seventeen titles in 1923, the Yankees lost the World Series just three times in thirty years. The Cardinals beat them in 1926, when in the seventh game, trailing 3–2, Ruth ended the Series in a spectacularly boneheaded fashion, getting thrown out by a mile while trying to steal second with big Bob Meusel at the plate and Lou Gehrig on deck. It was again the Cardinals—and their prized rookie Stan Musial, fresh from the hills of Donora, Pennsylvania—who beat the Yankees in 1942, back when Henry was eight, hitting bottle caps with a broom handle. And the Dodgers, after failing five times, beat the Yanks in 1955, only to lose to them the following year.
The city grew to expect the exclusivity of the fall. Since 1949, no team outside of New York had even won a single Series game. Both teams outside of the boroughs in the World Series had lost badly. The 1950 Whiz Kid Phillies were swept out of the Series by the Yankees, which would be the last Series between two all-white teams in baseball history. The 1954 Indians of Feller, Wynn, and Garcia steam-rolled to 111 wins, only to be swept four straight under the brilliant spell of Mays and the New York Giants.
In the days leading up to the 1957 World Series, the New York writers naturally suggested a similar psychological phenomenon would overtake the Braves as they landed in New York. Only two regulars, Warren Spahn and Red Schoendienst, had ever played in a Series. When Johnny Logan and Del Rice entered cavernous Yankee Stadium for the first time, the word that reached the newspapers was that two seasoned pros, tough, grinding competitors, both spent that first walk-through slack-jawed, looking up at the familiar moldings and trellises of the majestic ballpark, overcome by small-town wonder, no different from a family of four visiting the Empire State Building for the first time. When Fred Haney disembarked from the Braves charter bus, a reporter approached and asked if the Braves expected to be another good-intentioned victim of the famed dynasty.
“Fred, do you think your team will choke up against the Yankees?”
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Haney barked. “What kind of question is that?”
That the midwestern Braves, whose naïve and grateful fans delivered milk and eggs to their heroes, contrasted so sharply with the cold and impersonal victory machine that was the Yankees made for an irresistible—and to the Braves, wholly irritating—story line. Still, Logan was convinced that his team held an edge over the Yankees because of the rugged terrain of the National League. The Braves had won a five-team race, had finally beaten the Dodgers, and relished the opportunity to stand with the Yankees.
The Yankees took over sole possession of first place June 30, two full weeks before the all-star break, and polished off Chicago by eight games. The third-place team, Boston, finished sixteen games out, and the writers and fans (and to no small extent the Yankee organization) spent the final days of the regular season positioning the Braves as fodder, just another fill-in-the-blank October opponent.
The facts were, as always, just a bit different.
Johnny Logan was wide-eyed that first day at the Stadium, but not because he had adopted the role of awestruck newcomer. He had spent the final week of the season leading up to the Series working himself into a competitive lather to beat the Yankees. The only way for the Braves to avoid being folded into another Yankee yarn, he decided, was not to make it close, not just to give a better showing than the Dodgers, but for the Braves to win, plain and simple. Logan had grown up in Endicott, New York, but quickly had identified with Milwaukee. He settled on the south side of Milwaukee, a working-class neighborhood, and like a few of the Braves—Felix Mantilla was another—Johnny Logan would never leave Milwaukee. “Before the thing even began, we were hearing it from Casey Stengel and the smart guys from New York, who started calling the town ‘Bushville.’ Believe me, we sincerely wanted to stick it to them. We wanted to show them that there were some ballplayers in Bushville.”
Logan heard the old saws regarding the Yankee mystique and how even great teams buckled under its power. How else, he would often recall having been asked, could he explain how a bunch of tough bastards like the Dodgers, who grew tougher in the roughest clinches of a fight in the National League, lose to the Yankees so many times, in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, and 1956, winning only once, in 1955? Logan believed the questions were designed only to produce doubt, and that those critical dips of self-confidence, invisible to the eye, were precisely what gave the Yankees that intangible edge.
Spahn, who would start the first game against Whitey Ford at the Stadium, was blunter. Spahn had been vindicated, for when the season began, he had told Furman Bisher in The Saturday Evening Post that the Braves would win the pennant and face the Yankees in the World Series. He said in that April article that the Braves would beat the Yankees in seven games, and days before facing Ford, he told the writers that the Yankees did not, during the long season, have to face the same level of competition as the Braves. “They had to beat the White Sox,” Greg Spahn said. “They had to beat the Dodgers, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. They faced tougher teams.”
There was something else, a score to be settled from many yesterdays. Spahn hadn’t forgotten that the Yankee manager, Casey Stengel, had sent him to the minors years earlier for not decking Pee Wee Reese when Stengel managed Spahn in Boston. More importantly, Spahn’s father, Edward Spahn, hadn’t forgotten, either.
“Before the start of the 1957 World Series between the Braves and the Yankees, Stengel was walking through the lobby of the Commodore Hotel in New York. I’m not sure why he was there, probably for some promotional thing,” Greg Spahn recalled. “My grandpa saw him and threw him up against the wall. He said, ‘Now what do you think of my son? You think he has enough guts to play in the major leagues?’ They were about the same size, not very big people. My dad and a few other guys had to pull my grandfather off of him.”*
Logan had another concern. When his eyes scanned the three-tiered stadium, he wasn’t buckling at the thought of the Yankees, but doing a certain amount of math in his head: Yankee Stadium held nearly seventy thousand people, County Stadium more than forty thousand. World Series earnings were based in part on stadium capacity. That meant the winner’s share of the Series was going to be a considerable amount of money. In that regard, Logan couldn’t have been happier to be playing the Yankees.
Playing the Yankees meant money, and winning the World Series meant even more. Gene Conley recalled a similar sentiment. “We weren’t scared of the Yankees,” he said. “We knew we were finally going to get some postseason money. For some of the guys, that check was a pretty good chunk of what they were making in the regular season.”
Fifty years later, Logan, still pugnacious, tar-throated at eighty years of age, said it even better: “When we went in 1957, we wanted to win, yes sir. We wanted to show Casey Stengel we weren’t Bushville.
“And you know what? I’ll tell you something else. We wanted the money, too.”
HENRY DID NOT say much during the buildup to the World Series. Both the Journal and the Sentinel ran daily front-page stories, with the Braves (IKE CONSIDERS ATTENDING GAME HERE OCT. 5) competing for space above the fold with local news (TAVERN PATRON SLAIN BY NERVOUS ROBBER) and national (LITTLE ROCK SCHOOL IS QUIET AS NEGROES ENTER AGAIN). The local angle from the Yankees centered on the success of the sensational rookie from Milwaukee, Tony Kubek. Henry was the fulcrum of the Braves offense, the front-runner for Most Valuable Player honors, but he stood far from the front of the club publicly.
From a motorcade that spanned two and a half miles, from Wisconsin Avenue to Lake Michigan, Spahn and Burdette kissed babies during a pre-Series rally that caught 150,000 Milwaukeeans in a state of pride. Henry and Wes Covington shared a convertible, with Barbara sitting regally in the back. Fred Haney received a gold statue nearly equal to his five-foot-five-inch frame. On two occasions, Henry found his name prominently mentioned in ink: The first was a front-page story in the Journal detailing a three-way scrum for the pennant-clinching home-run ball, the participants being Henry, who hit it off Billy Muffett, Hubert Davis of 1307 McKinley Avenue, who caught it, and Donald Davidson, the Braves public-relations man, who wanted to showcase the famous heirloom for the public and offered Davis World Series tickets in exchange for the ball.
THE PENNANT VICTORY BALL FLIES INTO SERIES SQUABBLE
Henry stated his claim to the home-run ball modestly: “Sure, I’d like to have it”; while Davis assumed the position of insulted practitioner of English common law, which held that possession was nine-tenths of the law: “I wasn’t gonna settle for no bleacher seats,” he said. “If he offers me grandstand, I’d consider it.” Davidson was on the defensive: “I didn’t offer him any tickets. I just asked him if he wanted to see the World Series. I didn’t mention bleacher tickets.”
The second instance was the revelation that the ankle injury Henry had suffered in Philadelphia had not only cost him five games but likely the Triple Crown, as well. At the time of the injury on July 17, Henry was hitting .351, and he wound up losing thirty points off his average. In later years, when age would transform Henry from phenom to elder statesman, he would stress to younger players the importance of playing through pain, coining a slogan that one of his future protégés, Ralph Garr, never forgot. “You can’t help your club from the tub,” Garr recalled. “Henry used to say it all the time.”
AARON’S SWAP: CROWN FOR PENNANT
“Few fans understand how seriously Aaron was handicapped,” Manager Fred Haney said. “His ankle was not completely mended for weeks. He favored it somewhat for all the rest of the season.
“Of course it hurt his chances for the batting championship. He made the sacrifice for the good of the team.”
Henry produced magnificent results in 1957—his forty-four home runs led both leagues, as did his 132 RBI; Musial beat him out for the batting title, .351 to .322. There was that famous publicity shot with Henry and Mantle posing in their batting positions, but Henry was not instantly propelled into a leading role at the dawn of the World Series. That said more about the times than it did about Henry Aaron. The common response to his relative lack of public notoriety in contrast to his offensive achievements was attributed to his demeanor and his desire for fame. Henry was ill-equipped for the hero’s role. He was not quick with a verbal jab or glib with the writers. He chose to avoid the spotlight. He did not want publicity. These were simple elements of a more complicated equation. While each description of Henry was true to varying degrees—as was the very real fact that Henry often contributed to his own misrepresentation with sarcasm or evasion during interviews—the image of the Milwaukee Braves was a loud one. The public image of the club reflected more the personalities of Burdette, Spahn, Mathews, Logan, and Charlie Grimm, even though the latter had been gone for over a year. To a large extent, that image steered the press and the public away from Henry Aaron.
Most importantly, 1957 was still years away from the time when a black player would represent the public face of a franchise with all of its unspoken facets. That meant being the player who would speak for the club during winning and losing streaks, the player who held enough clout in the clubhouse to criticize elements of the team’s or an individual player’s performance. It meant being the highest-paid player on the team, the player upon whom management would rely, not only by offering kind words but by fortifying rhetoric with financial investment. Black players led on the field, by the examples of their play, but in 1957 did not do the talking.
In 1957, Henry Aaron held none of these titles. He was arguably the best player on the team, and even at twenty-three years of age, it was clear to the Braves that he was the most versatile player and possessed tremendous long-term potential. As the Series approached, Henry was not an underestimated talent by the press. Frank Finch, the longtime Los Angeles Times baseball writer, called Henry “already one of the game’s great hitters.” The New York Times referred to Henry as “Milwaukee’s answer to Mickey Mantle.”
For all of Henry’s potential, the personality of the Braves belonged to Eddie Mathews. By 1957, Mathews was nearly two hundred home runs ahead of Babe Ruth at a comparable age, and it was Mathews, not Aaron, who was considered the best candidate (if there ever was such a thing) to break Ruth’s career home-run record.
Henry did not have particular influence in the clubhouse, a domain belonging to the rugged, moody Mathews, the diffident Spahn, and the other veterans on the team. As a black player, his locker was not centrally located, but in the far corner of the home clubhouse, geographically sealed away, along with those of the other black players, from the mainstream areas of the clubhouse. During spring training, the most important bonding time for a team, Henry and the black players did not even stay with the team at the Dixie Grande Hotel. In later years, when the rigid line between the sports world and the real world would be effectively erased, it would have been impossible for a player of Henry’s status to escape discussing the current events of the day, especially during the World Series, when baseball lived on the front page in every American city.
But as the World Series commenced and the violence during the dramatic integration of Central High School in Little Rock intensified, dominating the front pages of newspapers across the country, at no point did an interview with Henry on the subject appear in either the Milwaukee or the New York papers.
In regard to political issues facing black players, such as lodging and dining concerns during spring training and the regular season, it was Billy Bruton, not Henry, who held sway in the home clubhouse and the front office. Outside of macro predictions (“I think we’ll win the pennant this year”), Henry did not often discuss in print the direction or mood of the club.
Henry earned $22,500 in 1957, nearly three times less than Spahn and slightly more than half of what Mathews was earning. Burdette, Schoendienst, and Logan ($25,000) also earned more than Henry. Moreover, the sport was far from reaching the point (which would be common in the future) when one of the youngest players on the team, regardless of ability level, could command the kind of salary that gave him instant credibility in the clubhouse. Young players were still expected to play and not be heard.
Given that perspective, it seems wholly appropriate that Henry played a secondary role on the Braves outside of the batter’s box. The day before the Series began, he did his part in turning the crank on the hype machine by posing for the newsreels with Mantle, but in general, he left the publicity to the more established stars. In a sense, it was a position that reinforced his own sense of isolation, a belief that he could spend 180 days a year with people and still not have them know or understand him. He was not invisible, but his persona was shaped in the papers and, to a lesser extent, in terms of his teammates solely in the field of play, beginning with his stride at the plate, ending when he made contact. In later years, as Henry grew more comfortable with himself and his heightened stature, he would admit he had not helped very much when it came to letting people know him.
Periodically, a precious nugget of information would appear—for example, that one of Henry’s sisters, eleven-year-old Alfredia, was living with Henry and Barbara and attended the Phipps School in Milwaukee. His contemporaries seemed fuller, more three-dimensional: Mathews brooded with hunger for drink and women, quick-tempered and protective of his turf, desperate to be known as a truly great player. Spahn was the single-minded, often distant intellectual on the mound. But both were quicker to reveal their emotions. Henry was not without opinions, but they remained in him, grounded. “Henry didn’t volunteer what he thought about you,” Felix Mantilla recalled. “But that didn’t mean he didn’t have thoughts about who you were.”
IN THE YANKEE scouting meetings, however, Henry was far from anonymous. He was central to every discussion about pitching to the Braves. The scouting reports were sparse, and at times they reflected the traditional condescending Yankee attitudes toward their opponents, but they were of questionable benefit anyway, because Henry was an unpredictable hitter. As pitchers would say in later years, a scouting report on Henry Aaron was of lesser value than the paper on which it was printed.
In the first game, in front of an overflow, sun-splashed crowd of 69,476, Ford was masterful, beating Spahn 3–1. While Spahn labored early and was finished in a sixth-inning flurry, Ford pitched a five-hit complete game. Henry knew at once that the Yankees did not regard him lightly. Though only twenty-eight, Whitey Ford was an October veteran of four World Series. Throughout the first game, Ford gathered information on Henry, testing his patience in his early at bats. Young players, especially run producers, liked to hit when they knew they were being challenged, so Ford took a different approach, waiting out Henry. Henry’s first three at bats were emblematic of the great duel taking place between two future Hall of Fame players. Henry led off the second by seeing the first of an afternoon’s worth of curveballs. Ford, the left-handed master of pace, stayed on the outside corner without challenging in the at bat. Henry waited for Ford to challenge him inside, a challenge that never came. Frustrated, he bounced weakly to second base.
In the fourth, after a one-out walk to Mathews, Ford started Henry with another curve on the outside corner, which Henry pasted to right for a single, and the scouting report went into the garbage. For the rest of the series, Ford would pitch to Henry according to the feel of his pitches. With runners on the corners and one out, Ford then jammed Adcock, forcing a double play.
In the sixth, Henry faced his first controversy of the series. Trailing 1–0, with two on and none out, Haney chose not to have Henry bunt, opting instead to give Henry a chance to break the game open. “No way,” Haney said fiercely to the writers afterward, “am I going to bunt with my best hitter up.”
Henry looked for the same slop on the outside corner, and Ford obliged, but Henry fouled the pitch. Ford’s next pitch was a beauty, a shoulder-high curve that sloped down and in over the middle of the plate, belt-high for strike two. The third pitch was a throwaway. Ford hadn’t challenged Henry inside all day and threw a nothing curve inside and down around Henry’s ankles.
Henry, who flailed and checked, was fooled that Ford had finally come in with a soft, hittable curve. Home plate umpire Jocko Conlan said Henry did not hold up, and called him out, a call that left Henry fuming in the clubhouse to Conley and anyone else who would listen afterward. “It isn’t often that Aaron squawks,” Ollie Kuechle wrote with local pride in the Journal. “But he squawked here, and he had a right.”
The Yankees had struck first. The skipper, Haney, was unbowed. “No complaints. We just didn’t get the hitting we needed and they whipped us in a good ball game,” Haney said afterward. In the opener, the Yankees won all the key points, plays that went their way by a sliver, plays that always seemed to go their way by a sliver in October. Hank Bauer hit a two-out, run-scoring double to center, which Henry could not reach and which the writers believed he should have been able to catch (“No way,” Haney said). In the sixth, with Spahn gone and Ernie Johnson pitching, with one out in a 2–0 game, Jerry Coleman dropped a squeeze bunt. The crowd gave a resigned roar, thinking that Coleman had tapped it too hard to the pitcher, leaving Berra doomed at the plate. But Johnson opted to retire Coleman at first, and another run scored, leaving Haney to defend not just Henry’s defense but Johnson’s decision not to throw home. And there was Henry’s check-swing strikeout. Ford had won the first round. “I’ve never seen so many curveballs in my life,” Henry said.
Game two, another perfect day in New York, the luster of the bunting having worn off. The Braves and Yankees traded runs early in the second game, which featured less pomp and more fight. Bobby Shantz, the five-foot-six lefthander who in 1952 had beaten out Mickey Mantle for AL MVP, was going against Burdette, the pitcher the Yankees did not trust because of his reputation for decking hitters and wetting the ball, not always in that order. For his part, Burdette still seethed at the Yankees for trading him from the organization in 1951. From the start, it was clear the second game would be more intense than the opener, when Ford had cast a spell on the Milwaukee hitters. Henry led off the second with a triple over Mantle’s head in center and scored on Adcock’s single. The Yankees tied in the bottom of the inning on consecutive two-out singles by Kubek and Coleman and nearly broke the game open when the Braves made their first decisive play of the series, with Shantz nailing a two-out fastball from Burdette into the left-field corner. Kubek and Coleman dashed for the plate. Wes Covington sprinted toward the left-field corner, where the low wall narrowed sharply. With his back to the infield, Covington stretched his glove in the direction of the fence and caught the ball, saving two runs.
Pushed back to even in the second, Shantz immediately gave the lead back, with Logan tagging him for a long, quick home run down the skinny left-field line. Bauer counterpunched, taking Burdette out of the park in the bottom of the inning. In the top of the fourth, Adcock and Pafko led off with singles. Covington followed with another hit, a run-scoring single that Kubek mangled in left for an error and another run, and it was 4–2, with nobody out.
Then, suddenly, the fireworks stopped, and game two turned tough and nasty. Stengel, bowlegged and annoyed, removed Shantz after just three innings. Art Ditmar entered the game and first decked Crandall with a fastball, then Aaron in the fifth, forcing a warning from home-plate umpire Jocko Conlan.
Burdette held on to his two-run lead. The Yankees got close in the sixth, putting runners on second and third, with one out, but Burdette, growing irascible and working faster as he neared victory, retired Kubek on a grounder. The Yankees put two more on in the ninth but did not score. After Ditmar dusted Henry, Burdette waited patiently for his chance, then sent Coleman into the dirt.
The Braves won 4–2 and headed home for three games. Afterward, Burdette and Haney were terse. Henry, who had been decked by Ditmar, said, “We don’t worry about such things.” If the Braves had seemed unable to match the Yankee toughness in the opener, Burdette had evened the scales, and the all-slug, no-field Covington—who spent the postgame interviews apologizing for the irony of a power hitter changing the day’s momentum with his glove—had provided the unexpected magic.
FRANK ZEIDLER munched on a sandwich from a box lunch as he waited for the team charter plane to arrive at General Mitchell Field. The mayor was not, by any account, a rabid baseball fan, but as a politician he understood how to connect with his constituency. When Zeidler arrived at the airstrip to greet the Braves, a policeman notified him that the team flight would be late. He used the extra time to eat, crushing a box lunch.
Zeidler noticed something of an oddity: The crowd of a few hundred diehards waiting to welcome the Braves home had swelled to more than a thousand. As the gathering increased, Zeidler told Emil Quandt, the Milwaukee police chief, to add additional officers. Instead of buses, Dan Fegert, a local auto representative, arranged for thirty convertibles to meet the team plane and carry the players and their wives from the airport. The team had not won the World Series. They did not even have a lead in the Series. They had played only two games, but the welcome for the Braves had turned into a full-on motorcade. When the American Airlines DC-7 touched down, airstrip officials rolled out a red carpet leading to the waiting fleet of convertibles. The Milwaukee police estimated the crowd had grown to as many as 7,500.
For eleven miles, out of the airstrip grounds and along the streets of the city’s south side to the Eighteenth Street viaduct, the sound of cowbells collided with that of banging pots and pans and yells and screams. The next day, city officials estimated the gathering at 200,000. Zeidler called the greeting “the biggest spontaneous celebration in the city’s history.”
BRAVES WELCOMED AT AIRPORT BY THOUSANDS OF WELL-WISHERS
The turnout, it should be remembered, was not for an elaborate parade, with bare-kneed majorettes and marching bands. It was for a bunch of tired baseball players who are still on the short end of the odds in an unfinished competition for the baseball championship of the world.
Over the years, after the Braves had long since left town, Henry would be known in Milwaukee for three major things: the home run off Billy Muffett, the way he carried himself, and his unwavering position that Milwaukee owned a greater piece of his heart than any place he’d ever visited.
At 11:25 a.m., the Yankees seventeen-car sleeper pulled into Milwaukee to a great and unwelcome surprise. A delegation of Milwaukee civic and political leaders greeted the Yankee officials with booklets titled Milwaukee USAand welcomed the Yankees and the World Series to the city. The players walked with no small degree of annoyance past the congregation and silently boarded a Greyhound bus, which would take them to County Stadium. Stengel had slipped onto the bus and refused to come out, despite the pleadings of Judge Robert Cannon and the civic group, who wanted Stengel to say a few words. The Yankees were here for a World Series, not a banquet. Cannon, the Milwaukee circuit court judge who would precede Marvin Miller as head of a fledgling players union, remained on the bus as it peeled off, and the welcoming gesture fell about as flat as Mantle’s crew cut. According to the Journal, “the Yankees hurried off. The fans and welcoming committee moved forward, smiling. A cheer was heard. The Yankees ignored the reception. Heads down, faces grim they walked rapidly to the three chartered Greyhound buses east of the station.”
“This,” a Yankees official was quoted as saying as he boarded the team bus, “is strictly bush league.”
FOR THE THREE games to be played at County Stadium, six thousand standing-room tickets were made available. Art (“Happy”) Felsch slept in a tent for ten days to guarantee he would be first in line. The ballpark, draped in bunting even along the outfield fences in front of the Perini pines, was sold out, with 45,804 there for the first World Series game ever played in Wisconsin. On a fifty-three-degree afternoon, Saturday, October 5, the Yankees responded to the pageantry by beating the tar out of Bob Buhl in the third game. For the first time in the Series, the Yankees showed off their vaunted power. Mantle, leveled by a bad back and ineffective for the first two games, ripped two hits, including a home run, and drove in a pair. Kubek, coming home, hit two homers, including one in the first inning as a nervous hum flitted through the stands. The Yankee first four in the order went seven for seventeen with three homers, eight runs scored, and eight more driven in. For a brief moment, it appeared that the Braves would have an easy time, as Bob Turley, the New York starter, gave up three hits and four walks and couldn’t get out of the second inning. The only problem was that Buhl couldn’t get out of the first. Don Larsen was staked to a 5–0 lead after two innings, on the way to a 12–3 final. Down 7–1 in the fifth, Henry laced a Larsen fastball for his first home run of the Series.
In the fourth game, when the blustery lake winds laced a chilly fifty-degree day, the Braves came face-to-face with the Yankee mythology. Spahn was brilliant, avenging the opener when he couldn’t escape the sixth. He gave up a run to start the game, then settled, retiring eleven straight Yankees at one point. His counterpart, the knuckleballer Tom Sturdivant, held a 1–0 lead until Logan led off the fourth with a walk and Mathews followed up with a double. Stengel walked to the mound. Not particularly interested in facing Aaron with two on, nobody out, and first base open, Sturdivant suggested walking Henry. Loading the bases wasn’t great baseball strategy, but perhaps putting Aaron on would solve two problems. The first was that Sturdivant wouldn’t have to face Henry; the second was that the on-deck hitter, Covington, might hit into a double play and minimize the damage.
Stengel listened, felt the wind whip past his ears, and rejected the suggestion.
“No, pitch to him,” Stengel told Sturdivant. “With this wind, Babe Ruth couldn’t get one out of here.”
Stengel retreated to the Yankee dugout. Sturdivant tried to drop a knuckler in on Henry, one that danced belt-high. Henry destroyed it for a three-run homer. The next batter, Covington, hit a one-hop grounder to second—a sure double-play ball, in other words—and Frank Torre homered later in the inning to make it 4–1.
When Sturdivant reached the top step of the dugout at the end of the inning, he said to Stengel, “I thought you said Babe Ruth couldn’t get one out of here.”
Shortly before his death in 1995, Mickey Mantle appeared in the documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, and recalled Stengel’s reply.
“Well,” the Perfesser told his pitcher, “that wasn’t Babe Ruth you were facing.”
By the ninth, Spahn had been masterful, holding a 4–1 lead and needing only three outs to tie the Series. Bauer lofted a soft fly to Henry in center. Mantle chopped to Logan at short. But McDougald and Berra singled to right. One strike away, Elston Howard hit a game-tying three-run homer. The Yankees took the lead in the tenth when Spahn retired the first two men of the inning, only to see Kubek single and Bauer triple him home.
And this is why these were the Yankees, why the mythology spread like honey to New Yorkers, like cholera to the rest.
Deflated, the Braves came to bat in the tenth. Tommy Byrne hit Nippy Jones on the foot with a pitch, the home-plate umpire awarding Jones first because of a faint mark of shoe polish on the ball. Mantilla ran for Jones, and took second when Schoendienst sacrificed off Bob Grim. With Mantilla on second, Stengel did about a year’s worth of managing. He called Mantle off the field, and moved Kubek to center. Mantle jogged off the field, replaced by the old pro Enos Slaughter, whose arm was better in left. After Casey’s shuffling, Logan sent a double into the gap in left to tie the game. The next batter was Mathews, who ended it with a two-run homer. The series was tied again.
THE SERIES WAS going back to New York after Burdette defeated Ford in a taut 1–0 masterpiece. The Yankees, masters of creating luck through intimidation, had put runners on in each of the first four innings but could not score, while consecutive singles by Mathews, Henry, and Adcock accounted for the only run of the game. The Braves would return to New York one win from taking the Series.
Bob Buhl started game six, a title on the line. He had won seventeen games during the season. For more than two seasons, he had been the Braves best pitcher in those blood wars with the Dodgers, and yet he collapsed in the World Series, folding at home in game three. Given a second chance, Buhl gave up four hits and four walks, which amounted to two important runs. Down 2–1, Henry tied the game at the top of the seventh with a home run to deep center, past the 402-foot sign and into the Braves bull pen, where reliever Taylor Phillips caught it. The Yankees retook the lead off Ernie Johnson in the bottom of the inning. In the ninth, Mathews walked to lead off the inning, but Henry struck out and Covington bounded into a double play to end the game. And so it came down to a seventh game, Burdette versus Larsen.
In two hours and thirty-four minutes, Milwaukee had its answer to Lou Perini’s boast that the city would be the baseball capital of the country.
It was over early—four runs in the third, and the pinstripes never recovered. The final score was 5–0. For the final out, Skowron bounced a short hop to Mathews, who raced to third and stepped on the bag, and the Braves were champions. Burdette was the hero, winning three games. In the crowd, frenzied Milwaukee fans unfurled signs that read BUSHVILLE WINS.
Henry hit .393, with three home runs in the World Series, eleven hits in the seven games, including a twelve-hop, RBI single up the middle during the winning third-inning rally. Three weeks later, in a close vote, he was named National League Most Valuable Player, beating out Ernie Banks, Stan Musial, and Willie Mays. It had been ten years since Herbert had taken him to see Jackie Robinson, ten years since he’d told Estella he would be a major-league baseball player. He was twenty-three years old, and though his journey was just beginning, in many ways it was already complete.
A MONTH LATER, on December 15, 1957, Barbara went into labor at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Milwaukee. She delivered premature twin boys, Gary and Lary, and the immediate hours after their birth were perilous. Neither child weighed four pounds. Lary would spend three weeks in the intensive care unit at St. Anthony’s, kept alive only by the protection of an incubator. Gary, who weighed three pounds, three ounces at birth, arrived ten minutes before Lary, but he would not survive a week, dying two days after he was born.
Suddenly, the afterglow of a world championship as well as the personal awards and baseball achievements were tempered by events beyond the reach of Henry’s baseball abilities. He began the year celebrating the birth of one son, spent an incandescent summer furiously chasing dual pursuits, both seeking vindication for 1956 and establishing himself as one of the truly great young players in his sport, neither quarry eluding him. And now, eight days before Christmas, he faced the coming year emotionally halved by his professional success and profound personal loss. He had seen death before, years earlier in Mobile, when his brother Alfred did not survive childhood, but the death of a son presented a different dynamic altogether. When he was a child, it was Stella and Herbert who provided the family support and stability in dealing with family tragedy. Now, though only twenty-three, Henry was the head of his own household, and the responsibility to maintain and support his family fell to him. This did not mean explaining death to little Gaile, who was three, or to Henry junior, nicknamed “Hankie,” who was nearly ten months old, but it did mean that he would have to confront the various and unpredictable emotional repercussions that always accompany death. Over the years, throughout six decades of public life, in thousands of interviews, numerous books, and even in his own autobiography, Henry would never discuss Gary’s death beyond acknowledging that the little boy did not survive long past birth, choosing instead to leave the wound buried deep under accumulated layers of scar tissue. During the months that followed, as 1957 moved into 1958, Henry moved forward stoically and privately, focusing publicly on the upcoming challenge of defending his World Series title and striving to be the first player in National League history to win consecutive Most Valuable Player trophies. And his was the appropriate course of action, for 1957 was not a time culturally when the press probed into the personal lives of professional athletes, or when the athletes themselves felt compelled for public-relations and image reasons to permit revealing and candid interviews about personal topics not directly related to their craft. The Sporting News and the Los Angeles Times ran only wire-story briefs about Gary’s death, and the local Milwaukee newspapers did not challenge the Aarons’ privacy.
But, as is so often the case, it was during this period of grief that important and lasting threads in Henry’s life would be formed, where the public life of Henry Aaron, the man who would seek not only acceptance as a potentially great baseball player but respect as a person of substance, would begin to take shape. Both professionally and personally, things would change after 1957—between Henry and Barbara, in the way Henry was viewed as a baseball player and the way the people of Milwaukee would view their baseball team, and, most importantly, in the way Henry would see the larger world around him, and his place within its uncertain, bittersweet confines.
*Greg Spahn also noted that short memories also exist in baseball. “My father and Casey became good friends later on.” (Spahn finished his career with the Mets, where, in 1965, Stengel was his manager.)