The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART TWO. MAGIC
Chapter 9. ALMOST
BY FOUR O’CLOCK on the afternoon of October 5, 1958, Warren Spahn knew exactly how a dynasty was supposed to feel. For seven innings he had sparred with Whitey Ford, just as the two had a year earlier in the opener of the 1957 World Series, again pitching in Yankee Stadium. Yet where Spahn had pitched bravely but labored and lost a year earlier, here he basked in the wonderfulness of being in total command, in complete control of every pitch, both in velocity and location, regardless of hitter or situation.
For any pitcher, especially one as fiercely competitive and driven as Spahn, walking off the mound that way represented a supreme moment. The fourth game of the 1958 World Series was over and Spahn soared, lifted by the importance of the victory and his part in it. In a World Series rematch with the Yankees, the Braves were not simply unafraid of the vaunted New Yorkers but were in the process of embarrassing them as no team had since before the end of the war, when in 1942 St. Louis smothered DiMaggio and Berra and the dynasty in five easy games to win it all.
The final score was 3–0, and the details of the game were to be savored and replayed. Spahn went the distance, besting Ford, who was gone after seven. He had given up but two hits and struck out seven. Only one batter, Mickey Mantle, even advanced past first base the entire game. Mantle hit a booming triple over Covington’s head in the fourth but was left stranded, unable to score. While the game had been close, with the valiant Ford equaling Spahn frame after frame early on, the delicious part was that it was the Yankees, those ice-cold, steel-nerved veterans of the fall who always relied on their opponent to commit that crucial psychological lapse, who were faltering.
Norm Siebern lost a ball in the sun in the sixth inning. Tony Kubek muffed a ground ball, which led to the first Milwaukee run. After years of making the opposition wilt, it was the Yankees who were now falling victim to the pressure.
The Braves were now winning in games three to one, with one more to go to defend their championship and become the first National League team to repeat as champions since the days before players had numbers on their jerseys, back when the New York Giants beat the Yankees in 1921 and 1922. That was before Yankee Stadium had been built, before the Yankees had won their first title, before the Yankee name really meant much of anything. The Braves monument was being erected, and Spahn stood at its center, for consecutive titles, both over the Yankees, no less, would cement their place in history, simultaneously erasing the bitter disappointments of 1956.
Lew Burdette, that Yankee killer, was scheduled to be on the mound for two of the final three games, if the Series even went that far. For the team, a win away from a championship, the victory represented something far larger than a win in a seven-game play-off series; it was as if the Braves had finally reached their collective apex, their formidable individual and team abilities coalescing at once in a shimmering display.
SPAHN AND COMPANY had done nothing that dusky afternoon at Yankee Stadium that they hadn’t done for virtually the entire 1958 season. For the first time, it was Milwaukee, and not Brooklyn or the Giants or the Yankees, that entered the baseball season not needing to explain away what had gone wrong—not only why they hadn’t won, but how they’d continued to lose. They entered 1958 as champions, and could soak in that perfectly decadent feeling of reaching the peak of their powers. That was the greatest spoil that came with winning. Nobody stood around second-guessing.
After defeating the Yankees three times, Burdette returned to his hometown of Nitro, West Virginia, the conquering hero, the MVP of the World Series, the recipient of beers on the house, literally, for the rest of his life. Instead of being haunted by the needling presence of Herman Wehmeier, Warren Spahn basked in a championship over the winter, the king of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, even though it was his wife who was actually the Oklahoma native. Instead of wanting to punch every wiseass fan in the chops after a bittersweet season, Eddie Mathews stood awash in the winner’s sunshine during the 1957 off-season. These days, there was no reason to want to rip a guy’s lungs out for asking the wrong question, at the wrong time, as he had after the bitter defeat of 1956. With Mathews, the bitterness of losing revealed itself most forcefully whenever he tried his best not to be bitter.
“When you come close to winning a championship and don’t win it, everybody wants to know why you didn’t win, or how it feels to come so close and lose. Nobody wants to hear about the 92 games you won or the great things you did; they only want to know about the one terrible game you lost,” Mathews wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime. “It gets old, though, talking over and over about the same moment of disappointment in your life. You want to say, ‘Hey, a month before that I beat the Cardinals with a three-run homer.’ But nobody cares about that.”
Those concerns were part of the old days, the old Braves. Even one of the most important pieces of the scary old days—the annual showdowns at Ebbets Field—would never return, for the Dodgers didn’t live in New York anymore. Having tormented and tortured the Braves for years, the Dodgers were gone from Brooklyn. Nobody was happier that the Dodgers had left than Spahn, who literally couldn’t win a game in Brooklyn. The Giants were gone, too, to San Francisco, and now train rides were replaced by DC-7 jets and five-game series on the West Coast. The National League would not host a regular-season game in New York for five years.
When the 1958 season commenced, the Braves danced around the quicksand that sinks most title teams, but only barely. In his own way, each player found himself let down by the painfully temporary nature of winning. Whether it was Spahn or Adcock or Aaron, each discovered that winning was not so unlike a good massage: It felt otherworldly, but too briefly. The feeling never lasted long enough.
As spring camp opened, the stars did not report there fat and they did not squabble among themselves over money or credit for their part in finally winning the title. Many of the players arrived in Bradenton as if they still had something to prove. For a time, they even continued to listen to Fred Haney.
That wasn’t to say that money was irrelevant. In baseball, money was still the best way to measure value, especially when it flowed at a trickle from the penurious wallet of John Quinn. And when it came time for the reward of finally being the best, the money spring was drier than Fred Haney’s scalp. During the first week of January, the week before the deadline when teams were required to mail out offers to the players, the Associated Press and the New York Times ran dueling stories about the two pennant winners, the Times placing the Yankee payroll unofficially at $500,000, led by Mantle at $65,000 per year and Berra at $58,000. “So far as is known, only the Braves and possibly the Dodgers can be regarded as being anywhere near the Bombers’ salary bracket,” the Times wrote on January 5, 1958. “The world champion Milwaukeeans have a few high-salaried performers such as Warren Spahn, Red Schoendienst and Eddie Mathews. Hank Aaron is moving up rapidly, but they haven’t quite the array of high financiers the Yankees have to satisfy.” The AP did not place a payroll figure on what the Braves would spend on player salaries in 1958, but it was assumed that after a world championship, the players would expect more.
In fact, everybody wanted more.
If winning the championship was a team effort and the greatest moment in Milwaukee baseball history, the city was more appreciative of the victory than management. Nineteen of the players, including Aaron, Burdette and Mathews, did not sign their original contracts. Billy Bruton, who missed the Series after the violent collision with Mantilla during the pennant run, made $14,500 in 1957 and exactly that the following year. When camp broke in Bradenton the first week of March, Burdette stayed home. Haney said the holdout had nothing to do with the money (Burdette was really earning $25,000 instead of $28,000, but in an age when player salaries were as well guarded a secret as any at the Pentagon, the press could hardly be faulted for guessing). Instead, it was because Burdette didn’t like Haney’s strict camp style, which required the pitchers to run for miles. In later years, the smothering degree of control ownership exerted over the players made them sympathetic figures; it paved the way for massive change. How management treated its champions in 1958 served as an undisputed example. Spahn, the twenty-game winner and defending Cy Young recipient, received a raise of three thousand dollars, bringing his salary to sixty thousand dollars. Mathews, who had hit the big home run in game four that saved Spahn and left the city delirious, received a five-thousand-dollar raise, for a salary of $55,000, and Burdette eventually received more money, if not fewer calisthenics. After the second spring-training exhibition, Quinn gave Burdette a $10,000 raise, for a total of $35,000.
Burdette got his money, but only one other player came close to receiving his salary demand, and that was Henry. He indeed had asked for forty thousand dollars, the second straight year he’d asked that Quinn virtually double his salary. In 1957, he’d asked for a $17,500 raise and received just a $5,000 increase, bringing his salary to $22,500. In 1958, he’d asked for another $17,500 and received $12,500, for a total of $35,000.
The Braves began the defense of their title on April 15, a breezy day at County Stadium, Spahn versus Pittsburgh’s Bob Friend. Vernon Thomson, the Wisconsin governor, threw out the first pitch, but not before Perini beamed his gap-toothed smile as the Braves fifteen-by-thirty-seven-foot pennant was raised before the game. Mathews hit a home run in the first, a towering drive into the center-field bull pen, and then another in the third. Spahn labored but persevered—except in facing a hungry Pirate outfielder named Roberto Clemente, who in four appearances against Spahn rapped three hits, including a double. Friend was better than Spahn on this day—Henry could attest, going hitless against him and one for six on the day—but the pennant magic still held a flicker. Trailing 3–2 in the bottom of the ninth, the Braves tied the score before Conley lost it with two out in the fourteenth. At three hours and forty minutes, the game was the longest opener in the National League in twenty-three years and was the first time Spahn or the Braves had lost a home opener since moving to Milwaukee.
There was first the money and then the business of defending the pennant, and the tough, militaristic Haney knew only one way: keeping his foot on the necks of his players. One result was inevitable clashes—both with the club’s free spirits, who always needed a short leash, and the sturdy veterans, who believed their performance the previous year had earned them the right not to have Haney turning another training camp into boot camp.
Another result was a certain loss of the innocence that surrounded the entire Milwaukee affair, and each player lamented the sober reality that chasing a goal is far more romantic than achieving it, and while the 1958 season would be a highly successful and efficient one, it felt to Henry, and especially to Mathews, a little less sparkly, a little less fun.
Take the case of Bob Hazle and the cool afternoon of May 7, 1958, a Wednesday afternoon, in St. Louis, when Herman Wehmeier took the mound against the Braves. This time, Burdette was on the mound and Wehmeier, for once against the Braves, looked exactly like the ham-and-egg pitcher he was to the rest of the league.
Schoendienst led off the game, Logan to follow. Both singled. Mathews flied to right. Henry doubled in both runs, and Frank Torre doubled him in. Then Covington stepped up and took a Wehmeier offering and sent it clear into Kansas. Wehmeier faced six batters, five of whom got hits, three of whom nailed extra base hits, all five of whom scored. Fred Hutchinson, the Cardinals manager, called for Larry Jackson out of the bull pen. Hazle stepped up, and Jackson chucked a fastball, hard and straight and deadly, slightly behind Hazle, who instinctively backed into the ball. Hazle was knocked unconscious.
Exactly seventeen days later, Quinn had two things to say to Hazle. The first was to ask him how he was doing. The second was to tell him he’d been sold to Detroit.
This was the way management always made sure to remind players that yesterday’s news was today’s liability, and the reminders could be as icy as the wind off Lake Michigan. As much as Spahn or Burdette or Henry Aaron, Hurricane Hazle had won the 1957 pennant. Sure, he had stopped hitting (he had actually stopped against the Yankees during the Series), but no matter how many years a player played in the big leagues, few could ever get used to the callousness of management. Mathews recalled the moment in Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime:
The other ballplayers were completely stunned and upset about it. We thought it sucked. Here was a guy who came out of nowhere and led us, not single-handedly, but led us to our first World Series. He was in a slump the first month of 1958, but he’d had some ankle trouble in the spring. We figured the ballclub owed him more than that. He was 27 years old and a super-nice kid. After he came up in 1957, he was just a part of us. Whenever we’d go out, he’d come with us, just a nice guy, what I would call a good old Southern boy, fun laughs, the whole bit. Of course, I never understood a lot of the stuff that went on in baseball, but we were pretty disappointed when Hazle was dumped. We all said, “What the hell did he do wrong, have an affair with the general manager’s wife?”
Gene Conley was next. Never a Haney favorite, Conley found himself banished to the bull pen. Then his arm started to hurt, and he spiraled; he would never be as promising as he once was. Conley would not look back on 1958 fondly, for it represented one of those curious phenomena in sport when the team did well, while the individual player struggled. For years, the two stalwarts of the pitching staff, Spahn and Burdette, would tease Conley about his mechanics. Neither had to deal with Conley’s height, but both men knew potentially dangerous mechanics when they saw them, and Conley’s motion tended to place a great deal of strain on his elbow and shoulder.
And in those days, there was no pitch count, no video, and no wet nurse catering to every need of the pitcher, as would be the case in the future, when teams poured so much money into pitchers that they actually took an interest in their investment. With the exception of the great former Brave Johnny Sain, the pitching coaches in 1958 were not much more than cronies.
“Those guys, all they did was carry the balls to BP,” Gene Conley recalled. “That was it. Whitlow Wyatt and all, come on. Their job was to drink with the manager, keep him company. I took the ball and threw. No one helped me with mechanics. I threw the ball until it hurt, and then I threw some more.”
Yet, the Braves were a better team than in 1957. Spahn won his first six decisions. Bob Rush, picked up from the Cubs in the off-season, won six of his first nine. The Braves didn’t mash the ball as they had in earlier years, but they pitched as never before. Nevertheless, the season hadn’t been a wire-to-wire finish, and in the early months there were small surprises, such as the sudden ascension of the Giants—the San Francisco Giants—as well as that of the emerging Pittsburgh Pirates and the resilient Cardinals. An equal surprise was that the Los Angeles Dodgers were nowhere to be seen. They would finish twenty-one games out of first and, for the first time since 1945, cease to be a threat during the season. (But finishing even more than twenty games out of the money didn’t stop the Dodgers from being hell on the Braves: Los Angeles beat the Braves fourteen out of twenty-two times.)
On June 5, the wind cutting hard and nasty across Seals Stadium in San Francisco, Willie Mays singled off Conley in the bottom of the twelfth inning of a 4–4 game. The next batter, Jim Finigan, drilled a double into the right-center gap. Mays took off, a determined low-flying missile on the base paths. In later years, even Henry, who rarely ceded advantage to another player, would marvel at how Willie ran, surgically slicing the bases, his arms pumping furiously through the air. As Mays hit third base, Bob Stevens, the veteran baseball writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, yelled “No!” from the press box. Mays had blown through the sign and rushed home to win the game. Henry dug the ball out from the wall, turned, and fired a low-flying missile of his own toward the plate. The ball skidded once in the dirt cutout and bounced directly into the glove of the catcher, Del Crandall. In one motion, Crandall caught Henry’s relay, wheeled to his left, and waited to tag Mays. When the home-plate umpire, Frank Secory, raised his right hand to call Mays out at home, Stevens let out a loud yell for all the scribes to hear. “Stupid!”
The next batter, Orlando Cepeda, singled home Finigan with the winning run. The loss left Conley at 0–4, and the Giants and Braves were tied for first place, with Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and even the Cubs within six games. They would lose the next four, fall out of first, while leaving all eight teams of the National League separated by only seven and a half games.
The Braves had finally reached the top levels of the sport and spent much of the year learning how to stay there, but their cleanup hitter, Henry Aaron, had already begun charting an entirely different course for himself.
It was in 1958 when the dual tracks of his personal life and his athletic life would begin to intersect.
IN THE WEEKS that Lary Aaron held on to life at St. Anthony’s, Henry grew friendly with Michael Sablica, a Catholic priest who introduced himself to Henry following little Gary’s death. Barbara’s nurse was a member of Sablica’s parish in Milwaukee, and when told of the Aarons’ ordeal, the young priest sought out Henry to express his condolences. Sablica was just thirty-three, ten years older than Henry, and was newly ordained. He, too, had been an athlete, a linebacker on the football team at Marquette during the war years.
In the months that followed, Father Sablica and Henry strengthened their bond, playing handball at Marquette University and occasional rounds of golf. With his considerable hand-eye coordination, Henry was drawn to handball and was a formidable player, but Sablica had been an accomplished player himself, and the two engaged in spirited matches. They talked about family and baseball and Milwaukee, for Henry had now been in the city for nearly four years and had begun to feel a fondness for Milwaukee he hadn’t anticipated. Henry’s affection for the city grew quickly, despite some uncomfortable moments, most obviously his sister Alfredia’s difficult school experience in 1957 and the foreseeable unease that would come with his next ambition: to buy a house in what were the virtually all-white suburbs.
Even though Henry was now a member of the beloved Milwaukee Braves, he understood that such a decision would test the limits of Milwaukee’s tolerance and would determine how he assessed the people of Milwaukee as a group. He also understood, however, that regardless of the result, his would not be a typical experience. Henry would often say that how he was treated in Milwaukee would always be enhanced by his own special status as a famous athlete, that he knew the daily life of the average black person in the city was not nearly as welcoming.
Henry and Father Mike, as he had come to be known, talked about many issues, but mostly, they talked about faith. More accurately, they talked about the intersection between faith and the growing question of civil rights. Henry told Sablica that while he had been raised in the traditions of the southern black church, he had been intrigued about other religions and denominations. Whether this interest was a direct by-product of Gary’s death or Lary’s struggle to survive—or merely because he saw an opportunity to increase his own religious knowledge—Henry seemed open to the teachings of Catholicism, certainly willing to expand his worldview beyond baseball and the safety and comforts of his own situation. One day, after a round of golf, Father Mike noticed a small book Henry kept in his glove compartment; it was titled The Life of Christ.
That the booklet surprised Father Mike said as much about his own presuppositions as it did about Henry’s religious curiosity. Sablica was, like most Milwaukeeans, a Braves fan, and he didn’t want to run afoul of management by approaching Henry without first going through the proper channels. At the time they met at St. Anthony’s, Father Mike didn’t know much more about Henry than what he’d read in the newspapers and sports periodicals. He later admitted he had been influenced by the depictions of Henry as something of a simpleton, the characterization of Furman Bisher in The Saturday Evening Post, uninterested in the larger questions of the world, lacking the articulateness to express whatever feelings he did have. It was an attitude confirmed by John Quinn, who told Sablica he believed Henry would have little interest in speaking to him. Quinn told Sablica that Henry was “uncomplicated” but that there was no harm in the priest approaching him.
More accurately, Quinn likely preferred that Henry be uncomplicated, for Sablica hadn’t approached Henry that day at St. Anthony’s only for friendship. For years, even before he had entered the seminary, Michael James Sablica had possessed a passion for activism. He would be one of the early members of that small and often courageous group of Catholic priests who would take a passionate interest in the fight for equal rights.
What particularly aroused Father Mike was the condition of Milwaukee’s black poor. The Sablicas had grown up in Milwaukee, and from an early age, Michael Sablica maintained an integrated lifestyle, one that revealed the disparities, both clear and subtle, existing between blacks and whites. There would be other American cities with more notorious reputations for segregation and the racial unrest that ensued—Birmingham, Boston, and later Detroit and Los Angeles, for example. But Milwaukee residents—despite the lack of national attention their city received—knew just how pronounced the lines of segregation truly were. They knew how staunchly the city’s banks and real estate agents protected those boundaries with sinister selling and mortgage practices that not only served to keep the races separate but made it increasingly difficult for blacks to purchase property even within their own circumscribed boundaries.
The south side of Milwaukee, where Johnny Logan lived, was overwhelmingly white. The neighborhood was made up of predominately Italian and Irish working-class families. Clergymen of the Catholic Church who felt passionate about civil rights understood that change could come only with an assault on the northern preference for de facto segregation, meaning no laws barring blacks from equal opportunity existed on the books, but because of the social conditions and business practices in Milwaukee, the end result was the same.
In a short time, the more activist members of the clergy would find themselves in the center of the civil rights movement. Sablica was a forerunner of James Groppi, the most famous of Milwaukee’s civil rights leaders. Groppi, born the eleventh of twelve children to Italian immigrants who settled on the south side of town, would be ordained in 1959, the year after Sablica. Like Sablica, Groppi was appalled by the living conditions in the black section of Milwaukee, and in the late 1950s he began a slow and relentless campaign against the city’s segregationist practices.
As Henry rose to prominence as a player, one of Groppi’s prime targets was Judge Robert Cannon, the same Judge Cannon who rode the team bus with Casey Stengel before game three of the 1957 World Series, the same Judge Cannon who preceded Marvin Miller as head of a toothless organization called the Major League Baseball Players Association. Cannon was a Milwaukee insider and was a prominent member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a Milwaukee club that did not admit blacks. Cannon denounced the membership practices of the Eagles but did not resign his membership. In turn, Groppi organized demonstrations in front of the good judge’s house.
For the priests committed to improving the conditions in the black slums, finding an appropriate place of entry into the social struggle represented a perilous journey, for convincing their blue-collar parishioners of the worthiness of the cause was often a difficult task. Sablica and Groppi faced resistance from clergy peers and elders, and clearly they did not advance as swiftly or as highly within the Church’s ranks as they might have had they not been so controversial. But the clergymen also understood that times were changing, and social forces were moving at a speed that required action from the Church.
Whites who had become more affluent in the postwar years sought the appeal of the suburbs, which, in turn, reduced the numbers of children who attended Catholic schools within the city. With enrollments potentially affected and the racial composition of the city changing, the Church began looking for potential converts. Sablica held to a singular conviction: The Catholic Church could be a powerful instrument in the advancement of the black cause. It was only through Catholicism, he told Henry, that blacks could achieve the dignity and rights that had long been outside of their collective reach. It was a point he stressed to Henry during the spring of 1958.
Henry was not unaware of the racial transitions taking place in Milwaukee. He and Barbara lived in Bronzeville, as did Felix Mantilla and Wes Covington. They represented the very demographic the Milwaukee Commission feared; affluent people who could afford the neighborhood of their choice but, because they were black, were forced to live in subpar conditions. Nor were the racial contradictions that came with being a famous baseball player lost on Henry. By being Hank Aaron, the rules could be bent and exceptions could always be made. Life could be easier, and it would be. Being awarded dispensation not afforded other blacks was an element of being famous that made Henry uncomfortable, especially given the dynamics of professional sports.
Given the perspective of time, Sablica’s approach with regard to Henry now appears paternalistic, and more than a bit naïve. In fact, Sablica would later refer to this early view as naïve, a reversal of opinion that stemmed from the deep resistance toward social activism he experienced from his parishioners and fellow clergymen. Sablica also learned the complexities of the race and religion nexus from Henry. Once, before Henry headed for Bradenton and spring training, Sablica wished him good luck and reminded him to “attend mass every Sunday.” According to the 1972 book Bad Henry, Henry “looked his friend in the eye and answered softly, ‘Down there, they won’t let me go to mass.’ ”
In the book, Sablica recalled the exchange. “I wouldn’t blame him personally if he never went to mass again for the rest of his life,” Sablica was quoted as saying.
JOHN QUINN believed drawing Henry into the nascent civil rights movement of Milwaukee would only be a distraction, and within a short time, he attempted to discourage Henry’s contact with Sablica. What Quinn underestimated was Henry’s attitude toward racial and social inequalities, which was shaped long before he had ever met Father Mike. Mobile had often provided the bitterest reminders of his place in the social order, and the fearlessness of Jackie Robinson had inspired him. The attitude Sablica projected reflected Henry’s own belief system, and perhaps for the first time in Aaron’s life, it was being amplified and articulated by a white man. Father Mike had been voicing a message in Milwaukee that was slowly being formulated across the country, led not by the Catholic Church but the black Baptist churches in the South: It would be the clergy who would fuse the dual purposes of religion and social justice. It was a message that immediately appealed to Henry. He had long been awaiting its arrival.
BILLY BRUTON’S knee did not heal as quickly or as well as the doctors had forecast in the off-season, turning those optimistic pieces that ran in The Sporting News (“Bruton to Report on Time: Knee Healing Satisfactorily”) into more kindling for the winter fire. That meant the team’s best defensive outfielder would not be available when spring 1958 began and could not be counted on for the regular season. The truth was that Bruton would never again be the same player he was before the injury. When Danny O’Connell suffered at second base, Haney asked John Quinn to make a trade. When Bobby Thomson struggled in left, Haney and Quinn used a platoon of players—Pafko and Covington, mostly—for production.
But when Haney was told that Bruton would not be back until mid-May at the earliest, and even then it was unclear what kind of player he would be, Haney’s solution was simple, and it wasn’t to look to the trade market for help: Put Henry Aaron in center, permanently.
At the major-league level, there would not be a manager who Henry Aaron ever believed helped him become a better player. He would credit only two men in the minor leagues with improving him as a player and as a hitter. The first was Ben Geraghty in Jacksonville and the second was Mickey Owen, his manager with the Caguas team in Puerto Rico. Geraghty was quite likely the first white man who took an interest in his success, an invaluable dynamic for a young player, especially given the task of integrating the notorious South Atlantic League that faced Henry, Felix Mantilla, and Horace Garner. Watching him play with Caguas, Owen saw that Henry possessed an uncommon ability as a hitter, and he took it upon himself to help refine that ability.
In the major leagues, Charlie Grimm was more a drinking buddy than a skipper, and Henry hardly drank. Henry didn’t wish any man to lose his job, but he wasn’t exactly distraught when Grimm got the guillotine in June 1956. Gregory Spahn recalled that as an adolescent roaming the Braves clubhouse, he never saw Henry drink anything heavier than a soda. “If he ever had one beer, I don’t ever remember him having two,” Spahn said. But at least Grimm left him alone. Once Henry became a fixture in the lineup, Charlie let him play, batting fourth, playing right field.
But Fred Haney just couldn’t leave Henry alone. He had put him in center in 1957, after Bruton was hurt. Henry could understand that at least. The team had been in a pennant race and was faced with an emergency situation. In the heat of July, Henry had been his only option.
But now, in the dead of winter, with a full six weeks of spring training before the season began, this was no emergency. The team had known for months that Bruton would not be available, and yet playing Henry out of position was the choice Haney decided was appropriate.
Henry was insulted by Fred Haney. In addition to being convinced that Haney was uninspiring as a leader, Henry believed that his manager was stunting his development as a player both at the plate and, quite obviously, in the field. It was Haney, after all, who had come up with the grand idea of batting Henry second. Haney had even stuck Henry at second base a few times.
Henry saw something else, and when he thought about it, the smoke would billow from his ears: Why was he always the lucky one who got screwed? He may have been quiet, but no player ever possessed a greater sense of his own ability than Henry Aaron. And it wasn’t just that Henry had an overly inflated opinion of himself. Willie Mays was the biggest attraction in the game and had won an MVP and a world title. Mantle had four titles, an MVP, and a triple crown to boot. But Henry was now an MVP, a world champion, a batting champion. He’d had one two-hundred-hit season, and on August 15, 1957, in the seventh inning of an 8–1 rout over the Reds at Crosley Field, Henry had bombed a two-run homer off Don Gross. The home run was the one hundredth of Henry’s career. Before his twenty-first birthday, Henry was averaging 180 hits a season.
Back in those days, before guaranteed contracts and performance incentives and a union that made the players more than hired hands, it was more common for managers to tinker with players and their positions, but in general, the great ones didn’t get messed with—at least not as easily as Haney seemed to be doing with Henry. Mays played center field and batted third. You could write his name in the lineup in pen. Duke Snider? Center field. Mantle? Ditto. Ted Williams? Left field. DiMaggio? Exactly. (Though, it was also true that Haney told Eddie Mathews, who would one day be elected to the Hall of Fame and be considered perhaps the greatest third baseman of all time, that he was thinking of playing him in left if Covington didn’t get it together.)
Haney was mucking with another subsection of the ballplayer code: Don’t send me out there to look foolish. Playing defense was hard. It required repetition, and time, and study. Henry didn’t want to stand in center field in the Polo Grounds, with its 485-feet straightaway to center, only to be embarrassed by balls coming at him from angles from which he’d never grown accustomed. By putting him in different positions each year, there was no way he would be recognized for his defensive ability.
In his previous four seasons, Henry might have voiced his displeasure with Haney’s moves, but only to intimates, a Mantilla or a Bruton, for example. In the spring of 1958, Haney would not tell Henry what position he would play, waiting to find out if a couple of kids, the former Duke star Al Spangler or Harry Hanebrink, would work out. Henry believed it should have been the other way around. Haney should have told Aaron what position he’d play, then filled in the gaps around him.
“That position in center is like no other in the outfield.” Henry told the New York Times before a spring game with the Dodgers. “You’re in on all the plays, either backing up the guys on your right and left or running in to back up throws to second, keeping your eyes out for the pickoff throw to second that might go wild and having to run all over the outfield, covering more than I’m used to.”
And there was something else: “I’ll be cut short in some things like the All-Star game if I play center. With guys like Willie Mays playing there what chance have I of making the team?”
Maybe it was a question of accumulation, of too much of everything: the tragedy of losing one child and praying for the survival of the second, combined with the whirlwind of publicity and demand for public time that came with being in the spotlight. During the off-season, Henry had appeared on The Steve Allen Show. He traveled to New York to be honored for “high principle and achievement” from the Sports Lodge of B’nai B’rith. Fred Miller gave him a job in the Miller publicity department, traveling the country to say nice things about beer, Milwaukee, and baseball. He went from Boston to Manchester, New Hampshire, to New York, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Before the tour, Henry joined Logan, Conley, Mathews, Torre, Covington, and a few other teammates in Chicago to play a benefit basketball game against the Harlem Globetrotters. In that game, the Trotters featured a new showman named Meadowlark Lemon.
When the 1958 season began, Henry couldn’t hit. There were a couple of flashes—a two-homer game April 24 in Cincinnati that capped a three-for-three day—but after going one for five in the first game of a doubleheader May 30 in Pittsburgh, Henry was hitting .232. Between the two-homer game against the Reds and a two-run shot off Ron Kline in Pittsburgh, Henry homered just once—a two-out shot off Robin Roberts in a 5–2 loss—for his only home run in a span of 121 at bats.
Henry slogged through the first half of the season. For the first time in his career, he would spend the entire first half of the baseball season unable to enjoy consecutive days with his batting average over .300.
THE BRAVES TOOK over first place two weeks before the all-star break and held on to it for a month. During that time, Henry began to experience that phenomenon special to baseball: of water somehow reaching its natural level. He had not hit for power for the first month and a half of the season, could not find the rhythm that made him the most dangerous man of the summer, and, like every ballplayer, did not offer much insight as to why he was not hitting. Nor did he explain how and why he came out of it so forcefully—thirteen hits in twenty-one at bats in one five-day stretch against the Dodgers and Reds, and all of them rockets. In a week, his average shot up thirty points.
Then the thunder came. July 21–22, against the Cardinals at County Stadium: Henry came to bat ten times, raked seven hits—three for six the first day, followed up with a four-for-four afternoon—but the Braves gained little daylight in the standings. The day before, at Forbes Field, Bob Friend recorded but one out, and the Giants bombed the Pirates, 7–3. San Francisco had caught and passed the Braves in the standings, taking a half-game lead. Nine days later, the two met for a critical four-game series at County Stadium, a game in Milwaukee’s favor separating the two.
Raw numbers never tell the complete story. Maybe the sense of ambivalence that seemed to wash over Milwaukee was nothing more than a natural leveling of things, what the economists call a “market correction.” The civic enthusiasm that welcomed the Braves when they arrived from Boston was so overwhelming, the passion so complete, that it was impossible to sustain. Perhaps, even, the growing attitude among the players, fans, and ownership that baseball had lost some of its magic was not quite accurate in the first place. The Braves were still leading the league in attendance. They had been in first place or near the top for the previous three years. What passed for concern in Milwaukee would have been welcome in cities that couldn’t pay their fans to come watch a ball game. And yet there was concern: concern that the magic of Milwaukee baseball was fading away, that perhaps the arrival of baseball after decades of being strictly minor-league had amounted to nothing more than temporary euphoria. Maybe Perini hadn’t discovered oil in the form of baseball prosperity and Milwaukee was not, after all, a lasting model of sport and community. Maybe the town was nothing but a boomtown in disguise.
What made them all nervous—Lou Perini especially—was the sudden feel of the place, especially in comparison to the time before the championship. If you weren’t careful, the numbers could be very deceiving, even the sellouts, for there was a big difference between a crowd of forty thousand, with twenty thousand more fans unable to get into the ballpark, and a sellout of forty thousand, with some fans at the park because they were unable to get rid of their tickets. The concern was real, and too many people—from Henry to Eddie Mathews to Perini—sensed an ominous, intangible difference for all of them to be wrong.
Still, on a warm Friday night, August 1, with Willie Mays in town, having designs on taking the pennant from the home team, more than 39,000 packed County Stadium for the first-place showdown between the Braves and Giants, Burdette versus McCormick. The game was thrilling, tense, the Giants playing desperately and inefficiently, a wheezing team clawing to save itself. Burdette was hit hard, eleven hits in eight and two-thirds innings, but he managed to escape each problem, striking out eight, forcing double plays, giving up harmless two-out hits. The game was 1–1 until both teams tallied in the late innings. In the top of the ninth, Burdette labored to hold a 4–2 lead. With one on and two out, Willie Kirkland ripped a double to put the tying runs at the corners and the go-ahead run—Mr. Mays himself—at the plate. Burdette wouldn’t get the chance to face him. Haney called on Don McMahon.
McMahon threw a fastball, and then another. And then he threw another. And then he threw four more fastballs. Mays wouldn’t budge, fouling off one, taking another close for a ball, pushing the count full. Del Crandall was behind the dish, playing sign language with McMahon. Now, this was war. Willie took McMahon’s best, one heater after another. And that was the way to pitch to Mays, because you didn’t throw him breaking balls.
But then Crandall called for a curve and McMahon agreed reluctantly. He wound and tossed a little spinner at Mays, who lunged and chipped it foul.
Now Crandall was calling for another curve … and that was like trying to pet an alligator. You could double up fastballs on Mays, but not curveballs, not if you were fond of living. But that’s what Crandall called, and that’s what McMahon threw, a little teardrop of a pitch that kissed the sky and spun easily into Crandall’s glove, just perfect enough for home-plate umpire Dusty Boggess to raise his right hand and call strike three and the game over, leaving Mays frozen as the Braves celebrated.
That night, in his suite at the Knickerbocker, Fred Haney poured himself a drink and chatted with one of his California chums, Los Angeles Times columnist Braven Dyer. “I have an idea,” the skipper said, “that that was the big one tonight.”
The next afternoon, Henry enjoyed the kind of day power hitters craved—four for four, with a home run, two doubles, and three driven in. The sun-drenched crowd of 34,770 watched the rout, prompting John Drebinger of the Times to remark, “Anyone of the opinion that baseball is waning in this sector had better recheck his figures. When a town produces a capacity crowd on a Saturday afternoon it can scarcely be said to be disinterested.”
The end of the Giants as pennant contenders came the next day, when Spahn completed the doubleheader sweep, 6–0. San Francisco had come in having lost three in a row and now had been bounced four straight by the division leaders. The Braves lead was now six. By the time the losing stopped, the Giants skid had reached ten out of eleven. They would not contend again, finishing twelve games out. Chiefly responsible for the San Francisco demise were the Braves—who beat them sixteen out of twenty-two times during the season—especially Henry, whose fire glowed with the sight of Mays in the other dugout. Henry hit .333 against the Giants, with nineteen runs driven in, his most against any team.
That left the Pirates, and the rising Roberto Clemente, who were now a half game out of second place, five games back.
If the Giants pennant hopes had been undone by their head-to-head meetings with the Braves, the Pirates knew the Braves couldn’t keep them from winning the pennant, for Pittsburgh gave Milwaukee trouble, on the mound and at the plate. That the Dodgers, Giants, and Pirates would come to County Stadium in succession was a gift from the schedulers to the fans, who enjoyed watching the most driven players play with added passion.
For years, Henry would downplay his rivalry with Mays. There was no advantage in it for him, he would say. Henry wanted to be a great player, regardless of the competition. Mays was cool and confident, the older brother to the young lions who were dominating the game. He was the first transcendent black superstar. Jackie was the first black player, admired, respected, but Willie was beloved, a player whose talents were undeniable and whose disposition, unlike Jackie’s, didn’t threaten whites. Mays would never betray any rivalry with Henry, or any player, for that matter. Willie even used his confidence to influence the debate. Whenever he was asked who was the greatest player he ever saw, Willie would reply, “I thought I was.” Still, despite each man’s protestations, there was never a great deal of warmth between the two. Henry wanted to be the best. Willie played as if he was always in the lead—and he was.
And then there was this new kid Clemente, who saved his fury for the Dodgers. Games with Los Angeles would always mean more to Clemente, for the Dodgers were his first team, and they had traded him. That was not to say that the Braves didn’t hold special value to Clemente. Henry was the all-star in right field—Clemente’s position—and the two staged a quiet but furious rivalry each year for the title of best right fielder in the National League. Only one could be the leading man, especially when it came time to start the All-Star Game.
In the opener, Juan Pizarro pitched brilliantly. Perhaps more than any other pitcher on the staff, Pizarro was weighted by expectations. All of twenty-one years old, he couldn’t go to the watercooler without hearing how he would one day be the next Spahn.
Through six innings, the score was tied at three—the big kids playing tit for tat. Clemente singled and scored in the first. Aaron drove in the Braves first run on an RBI grounder. For a moment, it appeared Pizarro would escape the ninth, after pinch hitter Roman Mejias led off the inning with a single to center and was called out for not touching first base. But after Bill Virdon flied to left, there was Clemente (three for four, three runs scored), who lofted a two-out, game-winning home run to center field.
Burdette beat the Pirates the next night, and Henry’s two-out home run in the first stood up in the third game. Spahn finished the Pirates in the finale, and the lead over Pittsburgh was eight. A week later, the Pirates went on a final tear, winning seven in a row, cutting the lead to four and a half on August 20 after thumping Milwaukee twice at Forbes Field, 6–4 and 10–zip. They would beat the Braves four more times down the stretch but couldn’t get closer than five games for that most quintessential of baseball reasons: They couldn’t beat last-place teams. The Phillies and Dodgers beat the Pirates seven times in the final thirty games of the season.
Meanwhile, an inch away from defending their pennant, it was Henry who made short work of Cincinnati Sunday afternoon, September 21, at Crosley Field.
Fifth inning, scoreless game: Henry hits a three-run double. Later, he hit a two-run homer, his thirtieth, to take away the suspense. The score was 6–0. Then in the seventh, Frank Robinson boomed a homer off Spahn, who later admitted he let up because he was “feeling cocky.” Then the lead shrank to 6–5 in that same inning. Only when McMahon got Ed Bailey to fly out to Bruton did the sweat ease. The final score was 6–5. Fourteen thousand fans awaited the team at the airport. The race was over, the pennant secured, and, once more, the Yankees were waiting.
AND NOW, game four over, Spahn had beaten Ford. The Braves were a game from repeating as champions. Burdette took the ball for game five of the World Series. Outside the Milwaukee clubhouse, two cases of champagne stacked on top of each other sat on a handcart in anticipation of the fact that by the end of the afternoon, the baseball season would end as it had a year before, with Burdette beating the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
As metaphors went, this catastrophe was no hurricane. With a hurricane, you can see it coming a hundred miles away, days before it hits, swirling in its menacing formation. You can anticipate its angry acceleration. Nor was it an earthquake, for though earthquakes strike without warning, their damage is quick and immediate. The fall of the Milwaukee Braves was more like buying the newest, nicest house on the block, the envy of all the neighbors, only to discover upon closer, belated inspection, the basement is damp with moisture, the pretty wood frame has rotted from underneath, the trusses bow, and the roof probably won’t survive the winter. Yet on the outside, everything looked fine.
October 6, 1958. Bob Turley was on the mound for the Yanks. Turley was no pushover. He was, in fact, a hard-throwing right-hander, a strikeout pitcher who had pitched well against the Braves in the previous World Series. But in game two, in the same pitching matchup at County Stadium, the Braves had clubbed Turley for seven runs in the first inning, when he retired exactly one batter. Bruton had led off the game with a home run and Burdette had poured bourbon in the open wound, ending the scoring that inning by ripping a three-run homer that not only made the score 7–1 but knocked Elston Howard—who careened into the chain-link fence in left while trying to keep the ball in the park—right out of the game.
Even before the legendary shadows could descend on the Yankee Stadium grass, Lou Perini, sitting in the box seats with his wife and Joe Cairnes, knew to send the champagne back to the icebox.
The final score was 7–0. Turley had struck out ten, fanning Henry twice. There would be no celebration, only a long flight to Milwaukee and two chances to win one game at County Stadium.
But you wouldn’t have known the Braves had blown a chance to win the World Series by the scene in the Milwaukee clubhouse. Haney was gray, Burdette embittered, but the rest of the Braves were as light as a Fourth of July barbecue.
BRAVES FROLIC IN CLUBHOUSE AFTER LOSS BUT HANEY AND BURDETTE ARE GLOOMY
Aaron imitates Covington lapse
Fred Haney … wasn’t happy after yesterday’s loss to the Yankees.…
But there was no evidence of unhappiness among the other Braves.…
Wes Covington, smiling as always, said “no comment” when asked whether he had lost McDougald’s long drive in the sun in the sixth inning.
At that moment, his team-mate, Henry Aaron, who had just emerged from his shower, put on a clowning act that he intended as an imitation of Covington staggering aimlessly as the ball dropped. Covington only grinned some more.
Haney decided to start Spahn on two days’ rest, and if need be for a deciding game seven, Burdette on two days’ rest.
Overconfidence comes in many forms. With the Braves, it revealed itself in a total lack of concentration, which undermined Spahn. Bauer hit a two-out homer in the first to make it 1–0 before the Braves chased the great Whitey Ford in just an inning and a third, taking a 2–1 lead. Spahn held the lead until the sixth, when Mantle and Howard singled to lead off the inning. Berra hit a game-tying sacrifice fly that scored Mantle, who had advanced on an error by Bruton in center. It was the second error of the afternoon and it cost Spahn the lead.
Haney, of whose managerial abilities Henry would always be critical, allowed Spahn to pitch into the tenth in a 2–2 game. McDougald led off the inning with a home run. Spahn responded by retiring Bauer and Mantle. One strike away from going into the bottom of the tenth down a run, Howard and Berra singled. Then Haney got the message and brought in Don McMahon, who gave up a run-scoring single to big Moose Skowron.
And so it was 4–2 in the bottom of the tenth, the Braves facing Ryne Duren, who had breezed fastball after fastball by them. Duren had entered the game in the sixth inning, had struck out the side twice, in the sixth and ninth innings. With two out and Logan on second, Henry rifled a run-scoring single to center to make it 4–3. Then Adcock singled to put the tying run on third, and the Series-winning run on first. Stengel replaced Duren with “Bullet Bob” Turley, who threw three pitches to Frank Torre. The third was a soft liner to second that floated over McDougald’s head. Henry raced toward home and the game-tying run, only to see McDougald’s legs churning, his arms outstretched, before he leaped and snared the ball into his glove to end the game.
New York won the World Series in Milwaukee, 6–2. And it was there Henry’s doubts about Fred Haney exposed themselves.
Nearly four months earlier, the Yankees and Braves had met for an exhibition game at Yankee Stadium to support the Jimmy Fund, the Boston charity created by Perini to fund cancer research. Before the game, Stengel and Haney shared a jocular moment, with Haney relishing the license to crow, since he had beaten Stengel in the World Series. Both had spent their lives in baseball. Stengel was seven years older than Haney, and at their ages, in other occupations, both would have been retired instead of standing at the center of the sports world.
But that was where similarities ended. Stengel’s ability to butcher the English language beyond recognition made him colorful to the newsmen. But like most theater, it was an act, and the true face behind the Stengel mask was that of a shark. The kindly old clown who picked up his knowledge not from books but the streets was nothing more than a routine. Stengel did not spare feelings for victory. There was no sentimentality for the moment. Take the Yankee starter for game seven, Don Larsen, who held a 2–1 lead. Billy Bruton led off the inning with a single. Frank Torre popped up, and Henry singled to put two on and one out. And what happened next? The old man tramped up the dugout steps, grim and crotchety. He wasn’t coming out for a pep talk. He took the ball from Larsen, in the third inning.
The game was 2–2 in the eighth. Burdette retired Bauer and struck out Mantle. Judging a pitcher by his pitch count, especially on two days’ rest, was still four decades away, but back in 1958, common sense was still available. Burdette had pitched forty-eight hours earlier, had given up just two runs. The entire Braves bull pen would not pitch again in a game that mattered for another six months. Blame it on the times, when men were men and pitchers were not removed from games, or blame it on Fred Haney, his five-foot-four-inch frame a motionless little package as Berra doubled to right.
Haney didn’t move. Then Howard singled Berra in to break the tie. Andy Carey hit a smash to third, which Mathews kept in the infield but couldn’t make a play on to put out runners at the corners, while Henry fumed in the outfield and the bull pen waited for the skipper to lead them into action and save the season. Haney let Burdette face the next batter, Skowron, who had already driven in the go-ahead run off Burdette way back in the second that put the Yankees ahead, 2–1. Skowron, naturally, homered, a big majestic drive that sent an entire city into grieving. Four runs with two out and the manager reduced to being a spectator: The score was now 6–2.
Just as he had been on the mound in game five, when the Braves were cavalier about losing, Turley was on the mound at the end, when Schoendienst lined to Mantle, thereby giving the Yankees the World Series. “Going into the eighth, when Burdette still had his tie game, the scent of victory was still strong among Milwaukee’s burghers,” wrote Shirley Povich in the Washington Post. “Coming out of the eighth, after those four Yankee runs, a sickly quiet reigned in the stands, and wooden men went to bat against Turley in the last two innings.”
Over the final three games, Turley had beaten Burdette twice and saved the game in between. The Braves committed six errors over the final two games and struck out twenty-five times over the final three. Henry was brilliant, with nine hits and a .333 average, while Eddie Mathews set a World Series record with eleven strikeouts and a .160 average for the Series.
There was bitterness to spare, and the Braves knew they had cost themselves greatly. They had become the one thing they detested the most. They had become a chapter in the Yankee legend, and Henry would lament often that instead of being a team that won consecutive championships and dominated an era, they had been reduced to, in his words, “just another team that won the World Series.”
Of course, they’d become more than that. They had also become one of the rare teams that gave away a championship with a 3–1 lead in games. You had to go back thirty-three years, to 1925, when the Pirates beat Washington and Walter Johnson lost game seven, to find another team that had a 3–1 lead in games and came away with nothing but dust. There were no pantomimes in the clubhouse after this one. The 1958 season was over, and nobody was laughing.
PERHAPS MORE THAN any other sport, baseball is a game of self-sufficiency, a team game that lives in the individual’s domain. Nobody can hit for you. By virtue of the strikeout, a pitcher can barely include his fielders in the flow of the game. Even defensively, where a team must work together on cutoffs and relays and backups, only one person can catch the ball. On certain days, an outfielder can play the entire game and not even have an opportunity to touch the ball. Sink or swim. If the shortstop is the best player on the field but a ball is hit to deep center, there is no defensive scheme that can be concocted to shield his team from the center fielder’s defensive weaknesses, no way to showcase the better players and hide the mediocre as in football and basketball. In basketball, the player who can’t shoot can always pass the ball to a more gifted offensive player. In baseball, you can’t give an at bat to a teammate. You catch the ball and hit it, or you fail.
Conversely, because of baseball’s individualist nature, it is also virtually impossible for a position player to dominate every moment of every game. A few basketball players can account for the majority of their team’s shot totals. In extreme cases, one player can score nearly half of his team’s points. In baseball, both halves of the batting order—the first five and the bottom four—each receive approximately the same number of at bats over a single game, regardless of a player’s abilities.
And that was the reason why the National League season of 1959 was so special. It combined the individual and the collective. It featured a supernova eclipsing the established star. And it spotlighted a three-team pennant chase deep into September—the Dodgers, the Giants, and the Braves vying for the prize—a chase that would have lasting consequences for each franchise, and the players involved.
The supernova was Henry Aaron, and for the first month of the season he began to chart his course toward a place more rarefied, more exclusive. He began the season with fury—extra base hits in each of the first seven games of the season, including three in an opening-day destruction of Bob Friend and Pittsburgh at Forbes Field, then three more for the home opener, including singling and scoring the winning run in beating Philly in front of 42,081 at County Stadium. At the end of April, Henry was hitting .508.
Henry did not necessarily need a reason to tear into the league at a more vigorous pace, but two spring-training incidents clearly would have motivated him. The sting of the World Series loss would never go away, and during the spring, Haney did not intend to let any of the players forget, especially the ones who didn’t produce. One day in Bradenton, Mathews, who had died at the plate during the Series, wanted to stay in the batting cage for a few extra swings. “You didn’t want to swing it last October,” Haney bellowed for all to hear. Throughout the length of spring training, Haney’s jabs contained just a bit more acid.
Of course, Haney did not seem to blame himself for nodding off at the wheel in game seven, but he gave the players the works. “We could use some more speed,” Haney told Shirley Povich of the Washington Post. “Pitching and hitting sound pretty good, but you can’t overlook other ways to win ball games. In a close game, the big play can beat you. Willie Mays can beat you four ways. He can beat you with a hit or a throw or a steal or a big catch in the outfield. We don’t have one like that on our club.”
For three years, Henry had listened to Fred Haney take his whacks at various players on the team, and now he had taken a shot at him, too. We don’t have one like that on our club. It was true that Henry did not have big stolen-base totals. It was bad enough that Haney had sat in the dugout while the World Series turned to ashes, and now the players had to wake up to the morning paper, with him cutting them off at the knees. And now there was this, Haney waxing nostalgic for Mays.
So Henry swung with purpose, setting the Phillies, the Pirates, the Cardinals, and the Reds aflame. When the Giants came to Milwaukee for three games to start May, Henry had to swallow Sam Jones walking away with a victory in the opener and Willie going four for five in the second game, a Saturday win for San Francisco.
In the finale, Burdette against Johnny Antonelli, the two stars put on a show in a sideways Milwaukee rain. With one on in the first, Mays took a sidearm fastball from Burdette and sent it four hundred feet to dead center, the ball landing softly in the Perini pines in right-center field. In the bottom of the inning, with two out, Henry pounded a home run of his own to make it 2–1. The next time up, Mays lashed a drive into the left-center gap and raced for second, only to be erased by a laser from Pafko. Leading off the fourth, Henry faced Antonelli and wafted another home run, this one close to where Mays’s ball had landed. An inning later, the Braves finished Antonelli with five runs and took the game, 9–4. When Mays and Aaron were finished sparring, Willie had gone two for four, with a home run and two runs driven in. Henry was three for four, with two home runs, three driven in, and two runs scored.
The Dodgers came to County Stadium the next night and Drysdale posted a classic line—eleven innings, ten hits, nine strikeouts—which meant nothing, because he was long gone by the time the matter was decided, at the end of the sixteenth inning, which happened to be three minutes before the National League curfew of 1:00 a.m.
BRAVES SHADE DODGERS, 3–2
Aaron’s long double breaks up thriller just before curfew
By Frank Finch/Times Staff Representative
MILWAUKEE—With first place at stake, the Dodgers and Braves battled for 4 hrs, 47 minutes … before Hank Aaron doubled Eddie Mathews home … to give Milwaukee a 3–2 victory.…
… Aaron, the greatest hitter in the game today, drove in the tying tally with an accidental bloop single … and then demonstrated his greatness with the clutch clout that ended hostilities at 12:47 a.m.
Even if Fred Haney didn’t believe he had a game breaker the caliber of Mays, Henry played with a certain type of ferocity. Most players played with purpose, but few could make their bodies do what the mind wanted. On May 10, Henry singled in the ninth inning off Joe Nuxhall to cap a doubleheader sweep of Cincinnati.
The Braves took over first place three days later. In the meantime, Henry maintained a scorching pace. In a particularly painful loss in Philadelphia on April 23, he doubled for his first hit of the game in the seventh inning and then homered in the ninth to give the Braves a 3–1 lead, only to see Pizarro give up two homers in the bottom of the ninth and lose 4–3. He would hit in every game for nearly the next month, a twenty-two-game hit streak. In the final game of the streak, a crisp afternoon at Seals Stadium, with the Giants and Braves slugging it out for first place, Sam Jones held on, trailing 2–1 in the fifth. Mays had already homered, and even though he was down in the game, Jones was pleased by his shackling of Henry, who bounced out weakly in his first at bat and struck out in his second.
Jones quickly retired the first two batters of the inning and, with the pitcher, Spahn, standing at the plate, was about to cruise into the dugout. But Spahn singled. So did Bruton. Then Mathews flipped a single to the opposite field in left to make it 3–1. Jones was breathing fire when Henry stepped to the plate. Henry took a Jones delivery and blasted it into the gap in center, over Mays’s head. Bruton scored from second and Bill Rigney made his quick trot across the infield with the hook. Jones left the mound, turning as he headed to the showers to stare down Henry, who was staring right back at second base.
SAM JONES GUNS FOR HANK AARON
MILWAUKEE (AP)—Sam Jones of the San Francisco Giants was quoted … as saying, “The next time Henry Aaron sees me on the mound, he is going flat. He’s going to get a face full of dirt.” …
“Don’t let ’em print what you said,” Willie Mays pleaded with … Jones.…
“Aw, go ahead and print it. I said it.”
And with a little self-satisfied twinkle in his eye, Henry responded, “Sam must have been a little upset at getting beat,” but he knew Jones was a little upset at getting beaten by him. Sam Jones would die of cancer in 1971, at forty-five years of age, and there would not be a moment of reconciliation. Sam Jones took his fight with Henry to the grave.
On June 16, at the cavernous L.A. Coliseum, the trio of Johnny Podres, Clem Labine, and Art Fowler held Henry to a hit in five at bats, dropping his pregame average from .402 to .398. He would not threaten .400 again, but he assaulted pitchers, especially in late innings. Once, it was easily Mays in the National League, Elston Howard and Berra in the American as holders of the clutch-hitting title, but now Henry had elbowed in on the discussion.
But the Braves could not escape their own drift. They had lost first place at the all-star break and would trade places in the standings with the Dodgers throughout the remainder of the summer. In the second week of September, the Giants still held the lead, but the Dodgers and Braves played two bitter games at the Coliseum. In the first, Bob Buhl beat Drysdale, 4–1. The next night was a game the Braves would not forget. Henry struck hard again, going four for six, singling and scoring in the tenth to break a 6–6 game. Up 7–6, with one out in the bottom of the tenth, Maury Wills singled off McMahon, then raced to third on another single by Chuck Essegian. Junior Gilliam wafted a sacrifice fly to tie the score at 7–7 and rejoiced when McMahon walked in the winning run. The Dodgers and Braves were now tied for second, both 79–65.
ON SEPTEMBER 15, the Giants led by two games. The next five games would likely decide the pennant, home games with Milwaukee and the Dodgers. San Francisco had held on to first place since July 10. Bad things always seem worse when they happen to you, and that was why the San Francisco Giants generally lacked sympathy for the Braves. The Giants proceeded to split the series with the Braves, lose all three to the Dodgers—which put Los Angeles in first place for the first time in consecutive days in May—and then lose two more to the Cubs and the Cardinals. The Giants lost eight of their final ten games, and by the final weekend, they were finished.
The Braves, meanwhile, entered the final two games of the season trailing by a game, thanks to Jack Meyer (now pitching for Philadelphia) beating Burdette 6–3 at County Stadium. Losing was one thing, but there were still two games left. But on that night when Mathews hit his forty-fifth home run, staring the Braves in the face should they find a way to take the pennant was not the perennial New York Yankees, but the Chicago White Sox, who had won the pennant for the first time in forty years, not having done so since the infamous year 1919. These Sox, the “Go-Go Sox,” as they were called, couldn’t break a pane of glass with their bats, but they ran all the way to the pennant, beating out Cleveland. The dreaded Yankees were thirteen back.
It wasn’t the losing that night that galled Perini and Burdette and the rest, but the sparse and uninspired crowd of 24,912 that showed up at County Stadium. Had winning become so old so quickly? Was the circus in town? Then came the chilling extrapolations of thought: If the fans weren’t showing up for a team that played for the pennant, the whole franchise would fall through the floorboards if they’d ever had a losing season.
On September 26, at Wrigley Field, the Cubs jumped all over Podres. It was 9–0 in the third, heading to a 12–2 Cub pounding of the Dodgers. Meanwhile, up Route I-94 in Milwaukee, Spahn and Robin Roberts wrestled to a 2–2 standstill against Philadelphia until the bottom of the eighth, when Mathews and Aaron started the inning with singles. Needing a run to tie for the pennant on the final day, putting their destiny in their own hands, Fred Haney decided to do some managing. Adcock put down a sacrifice, advancing Mathews, who scored on Bobby Avila’s force play. Spahn struck out the first two batters of the ninth and finished the job for his twenty-first win of the season in a tidy one hour and fifty-nine minutes. Both teams would win the next day, setting up a best-of-three play-off, the Dodgers versus the Braves again, to begin Monday, September 28, at County Stadium, the winner to take on the awaiting White Sox in the World Series.
Henry figured his team would go to the World Series a third straight time. This Dodger team simply didn’t scare anyone with its lineup. Snider was old, and so was Hodges. Pee Wee was at the end; Robinson was long gone. They played in the sun and not the tough corners of Brooklyn. They certainly could pitch, but the Braves had Burdette and Spahn, who had both won twenty-one games. Besides, both teams would have to hit to win the series, Henry believed, because the big pitchers on each side had already pitched just to make the play-off possible. The opener would be two middle-rotation guys, Danny McDevitt for L.A. and Carl Willey for Milwaukee.
But when he walked out to the field to take a quick look at the conditions, Henry could not believe his eyes. There was hardly a soul at the ballpark—County Stadium empty … for a play-off game, no less. It was bad enough that the Saturday-afternoon game, with a pennant on the line, had been witnessed by exactly 23,768 paying spectators. The weather had been gloomy that weekend, a slashing rain pelting the field, but that couldn’t stand as the reason for why the hungriest city for baseball in the league suddenly had better things to do.
“A disgracefully small crowd of 18,297 watched in apathy,” wrote Arthur Daley of the New York Times. “No one seemed to care much and the players responded with the routine job the uninspired surrounding seemed to demand.” Henry’s worst fears were realized.
The Braves knocked out McDevitt with one out in the second. They led 2–1, but like Bob Turley’s relief appearances in the World Series, the Braves couldn’t touch the new man, Larry Sherry. Sherry pitched the rest of the way, not giving up a run. In the sixth, the game tied 2–2, Willey gave up a long home run to Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro that wound up being the game winner.
He blasted a pitch over Henry Aaron’s head and into the right field bleachers.…
Once upon a time Milwaukee was rated as the most rabid town west of Flatbush.… Nothing deterred them. They braved rain, snow, discomfort and second-place finishes.…
… The support Milwaukeeans gave their Braves must have been moral. It certainly wasn’t physical. The bleachers were virtually empty.…
… Maybe the Braves shouldn’t have given their followers the bonus of two pennants and one world championship. They have nothing left for an encore.
—Arthur Daley, The New York Times, Sept. 29, 1959
Once in Los Angeles, the finale was emblematic. Aaron and Mathews, invisible in the opener, jumped on Drysdale in the first for two runs. The Braves led 2–0, and 3–1, and, in the bottom of the ninth, 5–2. Burdette was tough and ornery, ready to force a winner-take-all gambit in Milwaukee. Then Wally Moon led off the ninth with a single, and it was the old Dodgers, the ones who had roamed Brooklyn, made the name famous, trolled the archives for one last reminiscing. Snider, thirty-three and gray, singled. Two on, nobody out, and the tying run at the plate, and Fred Haney about as motionless as a cigar store Indian.
Only after Gil Hodges singled to load the bases did Haney finally call for McMahon, but putting a pitcher in a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation in the other team’s stadium is not a blueprint for success. Norm Larker hit a two-run single to make it 5–4, and still nobody out. Another Brooklyn legend, Furillo, tied it at 5–5 with a sacrifice and the game went into extra innings.
In the eleventh, Henry stood on third, with the bases loaded and two out, but Stan Williams stymied Adcock. Bob Rush entered the game in the bottom of the eleventh and did the same, escaping with the bases loaded. With two out and nobody on in the bottom of the twelfth, Hodges walked, and then took second when Joe Pignatano singled off Bob Rush.
That brought up Furillo, thirty-seven years old, leg-heavy, and out of place in Los Angeles, another member of the Brooklyn old guard soon to be phased out by progress. Furillo took a fastball from Rush and drilled it past short, or so it looked. Mantilla dived and stabbed the ball, keeping it in the infield, seemingly saving the season … but then he scrambled to his feet and fired wide to first. The ball screamed past Frank Torre, heading toward the dugout. Hodges, big number 14, skipped home deliriously, holding his head with both hands in disbelief before spreading them wide, anticipating the embrace.
Mantilla could not speak afterward, unashamed that he cried on his stool, unable to compose himself, unable to give interviews. The Braves had led in both games and yet lost each of them and the season.
Fifty years later, Frank Torre could still see the final play of the season, clear and in slow motion. “The Coliseum was a football field. Mantilla was in for Logan. Gil Hodges was a slow runner. Mantilla got the ball and he threw it in front of me, and what I was trying to do was put my body in front to block it. The infield was football sand, and football sand was a beachlike sand. It went into the sand and bounced over my head. It was impossible to block it—and the winning run scored. I’m six-foot-three, and you had to listen to the crap, ‘Gil Hodges woulda blocked that ball.’ … It was pathetic.”
THE NEXT DAY, in Los Angeles, Joe Reichler of the Associated Press ran a story saying that Fred Haney would be leaving the club as manager, the victim of another bitter defeat and the change of management. Birdie Tebbetts, the needling former catcher and manager of the Reds, was now in the Braves front office. Haney blew a small gasket when denying the rumors. “Absolutely untrue,” he said. “Anyone can write a story and ascribe it to a ‘trusted source.’ ”
Two days later, he quietly and solemnly resigned as manager of the Braves, and the Braves did not try to stop him.
AND SO FRED HANEY left, and with him the magic and allure of Milwaukee baseball during the 1950s. Haney was merely the symbol of the change, not the catalyst. He was sixty-one years old, and despite having won six of every ten games he managed with the Braves, he would never again manage at the big-league level. Haney had arrived in Milwaukee having never finished higher than sixth in the previous six years he’d managed, but he left with a World Series title, two pennants, and the bittersweet memories of a moment in baseball history that would not last long after he and his wife headed for California.
For all the disappointment about the way the season had ended, Henry saw the future as something to look forward to. He’d played hard, had played to win, and looked at his teammates with respect. Nevertheless, there would be the lasting pain of failure, of coming up so short. That part, Henry could handle. Losing when his teams should have won more, well, that would gnaw at him for fifty years.
In his autobiography I Had a Hammer, Henry commented on his disappointment:
Every team has its “ifs” and “buts,” but that doesn’t make it any easier. It still bothers me that we were only able to win two pennants and one World Series with the team we had. We should have won at least four pennants in a row. The fact is, we had them and we blew them. If we had done what was there for us to do, we would have been remembered as one of the best teams since World War II—right there with the Big Red Machine and the A’s of the seventies and the Dodgers and the Yankees of the fifties. But we didn’t do it, and in the record book we’re just another team that won a World Series. Damn it, we were better than that.
Though deep in his heart he felt the atmosphere of Milwaukee had changed, he was the most brilliant young star in the game, who, at least statistically, may have competed with more dynamic rivals, while looking up at no one, the great Mantle and Mays included. He had played in pennant races virtually every year since he’d entered the league. He had been disappointed before the first game of the play-off that so few Milwaukee fans had showed up, but he did not place the appropriate significance of the moment until years later.
Henry had fallen into the lethal baseball trap of believing in the endless summer. The pain of losing again to the Dodgers was considerable, but to Henry’s mind, a great team losing was nothing more than the awful price of competition. The year 1960 awaited, the players coming back would be the same, and as a group they had always played at or very near the top.
To Henry, they would simply win it all next year. He had no way of knowing that the day Spahn walked off the mound at Yankee Stadium after game four would be as close to winning the World Series as he would ever come again.