The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART ONE. ESCAPE
Chapter 2. HENRY
HENRY AARON SET out to be a professional baseball player, having hardly been an amateur one. At Central High, he had dabbled in football, and once, either in 1947 or 1948, he played a regular-season game against Westfield High and its sensational running back, Willie Mays. Central, however, had no baseball team, and Henry would not play football with great enthusiasm, for fear an injury would ruin his baseball prospects. He was expelled from Central, and was uninterested in anything but baseball while at Josephine Allen, which only fielded a softball team anyway. Henry’s résumé consisted of hitting bottle caps with a broom handle.
As he grew older and more prominent, journalists would seek to know more about his early years, about his upbringing and his family, about how he could have been so sure he possessed the special ability it took to play baseball at the highest level. A lot of kids were the best in their neighborhoods, but it wasn’t exactly a given that Henry was even that. Henry would depend on a few of the old chestnuts that would be repeated for the next half century. The stories were odd and colorful, but none was particularly true or carried the kind of insight that would fill in the important pieces of his personal puzzle. At differing times, he told various tales about the origin of his legendary wrists. He told one writer that despite his wiry frame, his bulging forearms came from a job hauling ice in Mobile; he told another he benefited from mowing lawns; and he told people that for all of his right-handed greatness, he would have been an even better switch-hitter. That was because he batted cross-handed, which for a right-handed hitter was to say with his left hand on top, as a left-handed hitter would.
In 1959, the writer Roger Kahn would attempt to profile Henry for Sport magazine. He encountered the same frustration that sports editors of the Mobile newspapers had: Depending on the day, Henry would tell a different story about his origins, and, when placed side by side, no two stories ever exactly meshed.
Kahn was never quite sure if he found himself more frustrated by Henry’s early story or by Henry’s unwillingness to tell it. “I did not find him to be forthcoming,” Kahn recalled. “He wasn’t polished and really did not have the educational background at that time to deal with all of the things he was encountering in so short a time. If there was a word I would use to describe him then, it would be unsophisticated.”
Even as a teenager, Henry was expressing his lack of comfort with public life. On subjects both complex and innocuous, he would not easily divulge information, and he developed an early suspicion of anyone who took an interest in him. The reason, he would later say, was not the result of any personal trauma, but, rather, that of growing up in Mobile, where the black credo of survival was to focus on the work and let it speak for itself. It was a trait that was equal parts Herbert and Stella. Not only did Stella remind him never to be ostentatious but Herbert and all black males in Mobile knew what could happen to a black man who drew too much attention to himself. “My grandfather used to say all the time, ‘They don’t want you to get too high. Know your place,’ ” recalled Henry’s nephew, Tommie Aaron, Jr. “I think a lot of that rubbed off on all of us.”
In fact, Henry would employ the recipe for star power best articulated in the old Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That, too, was fitting, because as a movie fan, Henry fell in love with Westerns. He did not volunteer much truth, so the scribes printed the legend. There was more than one drawback to Henry’s approach, however: As difficult as it was to piece together his early years, writers—virtually all of them white, carrying the prejudices against blacks that were common at the time—filled in the blanks for him, defined him, creating a caricature, from which he would not easily escape.
There was no magic moment to his childhood, no secret formula or bolt of lightning that transformed the broomstick-swinging boy into a baseball-playing man. He was not a particularly charismatic teenager, but he was single-minded. When he was not playing baseball, he spent his time on Three Mile Creek or in the pool halls of the Avenue, smoking with the adults.
Henry would occasionally cut the postage stamp of grass in front of the house. He would gather wood as Herbert demanded and he did his chores dutifully. Sometimes the two would clash, as fathers and sons do, over the future. Herbert, who earned sixteen cents an hour on Pinto Island, would have three quarters in his pocket and give his son two. There was, Herbert would say, an opportunity for Henry to have more than three coins in his pocket, to have, perhaps, an easier go of life if he would care more about school.
Like the rest of the Aaron children, Henry attended Morning Star Baptist Church, a mandatory requirement in Stella Aaron’s house. For his part, Herbert didn’t care much for the fire-and-brimstone carrying-on that was part of the tradition of the southern black Baptist Church. He preferred the more sober Episcopal Church, and attended somewhat regularly. After church, Henry would rush over to Carver Park, and that was where part of the legend was actually true.
In another place, just being a good ballplayer, better than the rest, would have been enough to attract the attention of someone who mattered—an influential college coach or one of the big-league scouts who seemed to know someone in every corner of the baseball-playing world. But Henry Aaron came of age in Mobile at a time when baseball was the lifeblood of the city, and being a good ballplayer in Mobile had all the distinction of a sunny day in California. It had been that way—for the odd, unquantifiable reasons that certain regions seem to breed highly skilled professionals of any stripe—since the 1920s. On the black side of town, before Henry’s time, there was Satchel Paige, who had come from Down the Bay—he’d lived on Alba Street—and became the most celebrated pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues. There was the great Negro Leaguer Ted Radcliffe, who caught at one end of a doubleheader and pitched at the other so many times, they nicknamed him “Double Duty.” Radcliffe played for thirty-six years in the Negro Leagues. He and Paige were the big names of black baseball, but the culture of the sport was not rooted in the success of a couple of players. Across the tracks, on the white side of town, there were the Bolling brothers, Milt and Frank. Both would play in the big leagues, as would Henry and Billy Williams, but state law and local custom forbade interracial competition, and a generation of talented players lived in parallel universes.
Neighborhood kids would collide on the sandlots. On the black side of Mobile, the boys from Toulminville would play a group of kids from the other black areas, like Whistler or Plateau (which happened to be pronounced “Platt-toe”). Plateau was a depressed, historically rich, and significant part of Mobile. The town was nicknamed by the resident blacks “Africa Town,” because Plateau was the docking point for the Clothilda, the final slave ship to land in Alabama. During Henry’s childhood, Africa Town was also the part of Mobile where many former slaves had relocated following Emancipation. In Plateau, when the Mobile establishment grew more determined to enact Jim Crow statutes, blacks founded the Hickory Club in 1906, a local organization formed to police black neighborhoods from within (black policemen were not hired in Mobile until the mid-1950s) but also, if necessary, to protect them from the Ku Klux Klan.
There was a boy from Plateau who happened to be best in that neighborhood. He was just a little kid at the time Henry was on the field in Toulminville, so Tommy Agee just watched the big kids play.
The boys from Whistler would ride their bikes (the ones who had bikes) over to Toulminville for weekend epics that would last on the Carver Park dirt for hours and in memory forever. Another kid, five years younger than Henry, used to sit and watch unless the teams weren’t even and they needed another body. When he got the call to play, Billy Williams would follow his big brother and do whatever he was told. The boys used their imaginations, the way kids do. Billy Williams recalled calling the dusty little park Carver Stadium instead of Carver Park, to give the place its proper regality, lending dreams their proper setting.
Billy’s brother Clyde, a left-handed pitcher, often used to pitch to Henry. There was another younger kid in a different part of Mobile, Magazine Point, named McCovey, and people were already talking about keeping an eye on him, as well as another kid, Charley Pride, who wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a baseball player or a musician.
Mobile’s obsession with baseball was like something out of an old movie. Many of the factories in the city sponsored company teams, as did other industries. The men who played were grown and grizzled; they were welders and riveters and boilermakers in their mid-twenties and early thirties who ran down fly balls and threw in on the hands. Interspersed on these teams were some teenagers. Some of the kids could play, while others were bodies who filled out the rosters on days when numbers were short.
For a time, Henry played with the Pritchett Athletics, earning two dollars per game, and then he joined the Black Bears for three bucks a game. The traveling Negro League teams would come into town and play the industrial teams, and as a fifteen-year-old, Henry would play against Negro League competition. He played infield mostly, third base and shortstop, and as much as how he wielded the bat, players remembered the odd, slingshot style he used to throw the baseball, wide and to the side—“three o’clock,” Billy Williams said. Williams himself played against the adults, first on the Mobile Black Shippers as a teenager, and also on the Mobile Black Bears, the Negro equivalent of the minor-league Mobile Bears. Saturdays and Sundays would showcase doubleheaders. There was also another team, in a different part of the city, the Mobile Mohawks. The games were scheduled for 3:00 p.m., just after church. Willie McCovey played for the Mobile Buckeyes.
Periodically, Henry would have a chance to play in a game and dream a little bit bigger. Other times, he would have his ambitions temporarily broken, like the time he showed up at an open tryout held by the mighty Brooklyn Dodgers but couldn’t generate the nerve to stand up for himself and get in the batter’s box. The older kids intimidated him and he skulked off the field without ever holding the bat in his hands.
The story might have ended right there except for two important but underplayed factors: the confidence Henry possessed in himself to hit any pitch from any pitcher, and the sureness of a man named Ed Scott, who had been watching Henry since 1950, when Henry was sixteen. Henry was not a prodigy and had played in only a handful of organized games. Billy Williams remembered his demeanor as unchanged even then. “A lot of guys were playing a helluva baseball game. Every day, he didn’t stand out. He was just good.”
There were bigger kids and more confident ones who might have been further along in their development at the time, but there was something about the way the ball sounded when Henry hit it, a sound the untrained ear might have missed. Ed Scott was convinced that the raw talent Henry displayed on the dusty sandlots of Toulminville might just be sufficient to allow him to play baseball at the next level.
Ed Scott worked in one of Mobile’s factories, but on the side he provided the eyes and ears for a Negro League team, the Indianapolis Clowns. Their time was essentially over, and everybody knew it. Robinson had integrated the big leagues, and the unintended—or, depending on whom you talked to and how much money was being taken from their pockets, the intended—consequence of integration was the end of the black leagues. But in 1951, the Clowns could still attract young black ballplayers, and the major leagues still turned to the Negro Leagues as a source of talent. It was a relationship that would end before it began, for it would only be a matter of time before big-league clubs hired their own scouts to find black players.
Scott estimated he spent “every other day” with Henry. They would meet at Carver Park and Scott would shag flies for him. He believed Henry had a special ability, not simply because of Henry’s swing but also because he was able to make such consistent contact with crude equipment. “He could hit the ball with a broken piece of wood. That was hard to do,” Scott recalled. “Especially the black kids. You’d see them out there hitting and running and catching, with a tennis ball or broken pool stick. A broken pool stick was a Louisville Slugger to us.”
The more Scott talked to Henry about his ability, the more he understood that Henry was afraid of Stella. More to the point, he was afraid of telling his mother he wanted to find out if what Ed Scott was saying about him was true, that he truly did possess the ability to be a big-time baseball player. Scott recalled needing to summon all his courage to approach the Aaron household and confront the formidable Stella with his thoughts about her son’s future. On a few occasions, Scott would hide behind the side of the house. Stella Aaron sat on her porch. It was her favorite place at the house, her grandchildren thought.
In the fall of 1951, Scott made his case. Henry Aaron had the talent to go as far as he wanted as a baseball player. The Indianapolis Clowns were willing to give him a look. The Clowns were a legendary Negro League team, known for being the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. The team featured good ballplayers but also high circus-style entertainment. Toni Stone, a woman, played second base. King Tut, an enormous man with a round belly, served as a mascot, wearing nothing but a grass skirt. If Henry made the club, the Clowns would pay him two hundred dollars per month, which was twenty-five dollars a week less than what Herbert brought in at ADDSCO. At first, Stella said no. After more discussion, the reality that college was not going to be an option settled in. Henry’s gaining a college education had been, understandably, a mother’s fantasy. The harder truth was that Henry had no interest in school and no track record as a student.
In those days, children in Mobile were not obligated to attend school for their senior year. Students could enter the workforce after eleventh grade. That rule created an opening: If he did not make it, Henry promised his mother, he would return to the Josephine Allen Institute for his final year. Stella agreed. Henry Aaron would then report to Winston-Salem to meet the Clowns. Bunny Downs, the Indianapolis business manager, would be at the depot to meet him. Unlike Stella, Herbert tended to lean toward Henry’s way of thinking. Perhaps Henry’s leaving Wilcox as a teenager to discover his own destiny influenced Herbert’s viewpoint.
Ed Scott recalled the difficulty in convincing Stella to let her son go. As much as she wanted Henry to attend college, she was also largely unaware of just how talented her son was.
“I told her, if this kid was Satchel Paige, I wouldn’t be bothering you,” Scott said. “But you really don’t know what you have.”
ED SCOTT WAS born near Dade City, Florida, in 1917 but was raised in Hobe Sound, ten miles from Jupiter, a few miles west of Jupiter Island, on the eastern coastline. The town was split into two distinct sections. There was White Town and Colored Town. “Hobe Sound proper was what we called White Town,” Scott recalled. “There wasn’t nothing in Colored Town back then. Now, there’s a golf course owned by Greg Norman.”
Though he was born years before integration, baseball was the center of Scott’s life. Unlike Henry, who was always something of a homebody, Scott was convinced at an early age that he would be a creature of the road.
A product of the Depression, he had a harsh childhood. According to the 1945 Florida state census, Scott’s formal education ended in the sixth grade, just before his twelfth birthday. Baseball provided an escape from a life of few possessions, and even less freedom. As a boy, one childhood memory stood out from the rest: the patch of field right outside of Colored Town, where a large slanted oak tree sat. To both races, it was known as “the Hanging Tree.” The Hanging Tree was where, Scott recalled, “you went when they wanted to teach the colored a lesson.” This was no product of a child’s imagination. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, more blacks were lynched per capita in Florida than in Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia, the states with the most notorious reputations.
Baseball provided the diversion from such terrifying realities. It also provided Scott with an escape from his chores, especially the ones at which he was not particularly adept. Killing a chicken for supper was one such task. It was a chore that made him especially queasy, and he would never be particularly good at it. His mother, Anna May O’Neil, was unsympathetic.
“Back then, you didn’t tell your parents what you could and couldn’t do. She always used to tell me to take the chicken before the killing and put him in the pen. You’re supposed to hold and twist, in one motion. My mother came out and watched me. Instead of holding tight and twisting his neck, I was just twirling him. She’d just go out there and wring his neck like it was nothing. I never did kill one.”
When food supplies were low, the family subsisted on whatever was available. “We had a garden in the back. We ate gophers and sun turtle during the Depression. That, and biscuits and corn bread. No sliced bread,” he recalled. “That’s what you survived on.”
He set out for the road as a teenager, determined, not unlike Henry, to make baseball a part of his life. Unlike Henry, however, Ed Scott could not entertain the dream of playing in the major leagues. He caught on for a time with a Negro League team, the Norfolk Stars, where he considered himself an average player. He batted and threw right-handed, and had better than average speed and some power, but not enough to make a living playing baseball in the black leagues.
It was in reflecting on his own development as a player that Scott found the most kinship with Henry. In Henry, he saw a kid with raw ability who had not been taught the game of baseball. That made it easy for teams not to recognize his talent. It also made it easy for baseball scouts to make rash, inaccurate judgments about black kids who may have possessed the proper tools to play baseball but had never been taught how to play the game or told whycertain elements of the game required specific skills.
“In those days, especially with blacks, you taught yourself how to play. You weren’t judged on how you caught the ball. You were judged if you didn’t catch the ball,” Scott recalled. “Fundamentals? Hitting was the fundamentals. If you could hit, you could play. You didn’t have a guy show you how to go after a ball and how to catch. The only thing they would tell you was to put two hands on it. Two hands on the ball, but I didn’t like that, because you can’t reach as high with two hands and you can’t run as fast. You had to learn it all yourself.”
Scott lived along the Florida Panhandle and arrived in Mobile in 1940. For him, Mobile was a haven. In many ways, Scott best represented the example of Mobile as a destination for blacks, in that it was, by degree, a more tolerant place than other southern cities. “It was a seaport town, so everything was a little easier. People came and went about their business.”
Herbert Aaron dealt with segregation by focusing on becoming self-sufficient. Herbert owned his own house. Most of his food came from his own garden. He restricted his interaction with whites whenever possible and did not assume equality.
Ed Scott was different. He was, in his own way, openly political, and his tongue could be sharp. He did not seek to confront whites, but nor did he shy away from contact with them, either. Segregation in Florida was far more debilitating, he thought. Scott believed Mobile’s whites seemed less convinced of the necessity for segregation. If he was wrong, he said, he felt at the very least that in Mobile he had encountered more whites who seemed willing to treat black people with dignity, if not total equality. Scott referred to them as “the good ones,” whites who would treat him with a measure of humanity, people who may have been frustrated as much by the racial environment as he. Mobile, he said, was full of “the good ones,” and they made his life in the city far easier. “That was why I fell in love with the city,” Scott recalled. “I found out that Mobile was one of the better places as far as the South. Later on, we had problems.
“Once, I was working at a country club, and I said something like ‘Okay’ to a white lady,” Scott recalled. “She turned away and later came back at me and said if I couldn’t address her as miss or missus or ma’am, then I should not say anything. When she was finished, I looked at her and said, ‘Okay.’
“See, that’s what you needed to survive. You needed the good ones, the ones who understood you were a person just like them. They had to go along with it all, because that’s the way things were, but they didn’t put their knee in your back, either.”
He always remained attuned to black life around the country, even though in those days blacks who simply read the Negro papers—the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, especially—were often branded as “agitators” and threats to the social order. “I would always buy the Defender and the Courier at the newsstand because all the Negro baseball—Paige, Luke Easter, Mule Suttles, Buck Leonard—was in there. I could keep up with them.
“Then one day, a white man said to me that the Pittsburgh Courier just caused a lot of problems. I told him that I bought the paper to read about the hangings and all the other things going on, because the Courier was the only way I could get my news.”
When he met Henry, Scott worked as a porter at the Scott Paper Company. He played with the Mobile Black Shippers and began to settle into a good life in Mobile, working during the week, playing baseball one day a week and doubleheaders on the weekends. On the side, as a way to maintain a toehold in black professional baseball, he became a part-time scout for the Indianapolis Clowns. Word got around that Scott was a conduit to professional ball. The kids began calling him “Scotty,” and he quickly became the most connected black baseball insider in Mobile.
One day in 1940, when he was using the Black Shippers team bus to transport WPA workers back from Brookley Field, a woman, Rebecca Deal, came out of the gate. “It was funny. I just happened to go out that way and she was standing at the gate. Before you know it, we ended up married.”
He used his old contacts in the Negro Leagues for a special purpose. Though the idea of playing in the big leagues would be unavailable to him, Scott never found himself embittered that post-Robinson blacks would enjoy opportunities denied him. He had always been close to the generations of black ballplayers who arrived too early to play in the major leagues and took seriously their brotherhood as men who would pave the road for the next generation. Scott was particularly close to Buck O’Neil, who, when he signed with the Chicago Cubs, became the first black scout in the major leagues, and the two maintained a friendly scouting rivalry over the years. Scott had taught O’Neil how to play golf, and then he became known as the man who had discovered the great Henry Aaron. Scott had the inside track on Henry, but a few years later, O’Neil and Scott were jousting over Clyde Williams’s little brother Billy, who had scouts buzzing from Florida to Texas. Buck O’Neil told everyone that Scotty had no chance at signing Williams. Scott, for his part, figured he had Williams to himself, as they shared the same outfield with the Black Shippers. But there was another scout for the Chicago Cubs, Ivy Griffin, who had been watching Billy Williams all along. And it was Griffin, working for the Chicago National League Ball Club, not O’Neil, who delivered Billy Williams to the Cubs.
There would be no place for men like O’Neil and Scott as players in the big leagues, but both would end up working for major-league clubs, and their satisfaction would have to come through developing the next generation of black players. For both men, that would have to do.
On the platform of the L&N Railroad, the train station on the southeast side of Mobile, Ed Scott said good-bye to Henry. It was March 1952. Stella and Herbert were there, as was Henry’s eldest sister, Sarah. He wore a dark work shirt with large pockets on each breast. His pants were neatly creased and pleated, and he wore a dusty pair of wing-tip shoes. To his right was not a cardboard suitcase, as was part of the lore, but a duffel bag. The bag contained two sandwiches, a baseball, and a baseball glove. Henry stood on the tracks, a frown on his face, his eyes closed against the sun, while Ed Scott took his picture. He then headed for Winston-Salem to meet the Indianapolis Clowns.
The story was that Henry promised his mother that he would return to finish high school, but the Josephine Allen Institute closed in 1953, and there would be no surviving document of a high school diploma. Henry would never answer the question directly as to whether he finished high school with a diploma or finished high school simply by not going back.
There was one thing about Henry that never made sense to Ed Scott, and throughout the decades he would be the only person to confront this piece of bedrock that was central to the legend of Henry Aaron.
“I never once saw him hit cross-handed,” Scott said. “I know, because I’ve seen guys who hit cross-handed and he didn’t. But that was something I missed, something I know for a fact I would have noticed. I’m telling you, I never saw it, but that became part of the legend. No point arguing about it now.”
HENRY AARON WOULD have the distinction of being the last Negro League player to be promoted to the major leagues who was talented enough to reach the Hall of Fame. After him, the best of the black talent would be cultivated directly by big-league clubs. Jackie Robinson represented the beginning of the end of separate baseball leagues and separate societies in general. Henry represented the end itself. When Henry met Bunny Downs in North Carolina to begin his career with the Clowns, it marked the final time the Negro Leagues would factor into the story of a black player ascending into the integrated world of big-league baseball.
The Negro American League in 1952 consisted of only six teams—the Indianapolis Clowns, the kansas City Monarchs, the Philadelphia Stars, the Chicago American Giants, the Memphis Red Sox, and the Birmingham Black Barons—and the biggest name in the league, the legendary Oscar Charleston, was the Birmingham manager. The Clowns, and by extension the rest of the league, were ghosts-in-waiting. The team took Indianapolis as its name, but the Clowns were on the road every day of the year. They did not play in Indianapolis, nor did they have a home stadium there. Henry Aaron never played a game in Indianapolis.
The eighteen-year-old Henry would not enjoy the same experience as, say, Jackie Robinson on his way to the majors. When Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, he was twenty-six years old. His teammates were Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. Buck O’Neil was the manager. The Monarchs were the kings of black baseball and therefore on a par with the great black entertainers. The Negro Leagues were always financially challenged and record keeping was, at best, temperamental, but during Robinson’s time, the Negro Leagues were still a vital part of black entertainment life.
In 1952, the dominant baseball team in black America was not even a Negro League team, but the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Negro League had lost its place. Henry knew if he showed any ability at all, it would only be a matter of time before a major-league team discovered him. Before he left Mobile, he had already seen the pathway to the big leagues. Willie Mays, for example, had played just a few months with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1950, and by the time Henry joined the Clowns, Mays had already played in a World Series.
It was only a matter of time. Within a week of the Clowns season opener, May 11, 1952, in Nashville, against the Philadelphia Stars at a ballpark called Sulphur Dell, the wheels were already turning. From his home on 472 East Ridge Road in Mobile, Ed Scott had begun a letter-writing campaign, keeping big-league teams informed of Henry’s talent. Scott had written to Billy Southworth of the Braves, and Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh. By 1952, Branch Rickey had left Brooklyn and was now running the Pirates. Nearly as much as Jackie Robinson himself, Branch Rickey had a name that was of great currency to black players. To be associated with the man who had desegregated the major leagues was no small thing. It was the reason why so many black kids wanted to play for the Dodgers, and why so many black adults from all over the country had adopted Brooklyn as their team.
On May 23, Scott received a letter from George Sisler—“Gorgeous” George Sisler, who hit .400 twice in his fifteen years in the big leagues—confirming Rickey had received Scott’s letter, dated May 21, 1952, “regarding Henry Aaron, 17 years old, 170 lbs, 5′11″. We will send the contents of your letter to our scout in the area who will endeavor to see him play. Mr. Rickey wishes to thank you for having thought of him.” Scott had already contacted the Boston Braves, and Dewey Griggs, the club’s top scout, was watching Henry. Griggs, in fact, had been following Henry since he first joined the Clowns. The New York Giants were watching Henry, too, the luscious prospect of Mays and Henry in the same outfield tantalizingly close.
Henry joined the Clowns in Winston-Salem, but his Negro League career lasted all of fourteen games. He was skinny and poker-faced, quiet around older, calloused men who had grinded on the black baseball circuit for years. Teammates barely knew what to make of him—until he stepped into the batter’s box. There was the double header against the Memphis Red Sox, June 1, 1952, in Buffalo. Jim Cohen went the distance, winning 6–4. Henry went four for five with a home run. In the finale, an 11–0 washout, Henry went three for four, and Dewey Griggs was on the phone to Boston faster than Henry’s first home run left the park. John Mullen, the Boston Braves general manager, authorized Griggs to “do whatever it took” to wrest Henry from the grip of Clowns owner Syd Pollock. The secret was out.
MAJOR LEAGUE SCOUTS TAKE GANDER AT CLOWNS’ SHORTSTOP, HENRY AARON
KANSAS CITY, MO— … Rookie Henry Aaron, Clowns’ sensational shortstop, continued his blazing slugging, getting four of five in the opener including a long home run over the right field wall.
Major league scouts are swarming into parks where the Clowns are playing.… All seem to agree he stands at the plate like a young Ted Williams.
By June 7, four teams had scouts tracking Henry. Fay Young, the venerable Defender sports columnist, had already signaled to any fans interested in seeing Henry to head to the nearest ballpark to catch their “last glimpse of Henry Aaron, the league-leading Clowns shortstop.” With the first half of the Negro League season complete, Henry had run away with the league.
CLOWNS’ AARON LOCKS UP NAL SLUGGING HONORS
Rookie Henry Aaron will win slugging honors in the Negro American League, according to the latest figures of the How News bureau.
Aaron leads the league in batting with .483, in runs with 15, hits, 28, total bases, 51, doubles, 6, home runs, 5, and runs batted in, 24.
Henry was destined for greatness, but there was a certain melancholy to it all. A decade earlier, Henry would have been a major attraction for the league, a drawing card in the vein of Josh Gibson or a Satchel Paige or Oscar Charleston, or any of the old-time greats of the black leagues. But Henry was heading beyond the segregated life. He represented progress, and for as many avenues as the future opens, it closes just as many. Henry Aaron’s month in the Negro Leagues was nothing less than the final period on the obituary of the great black leagues.
Bunny Downs had promised Henry that the Clowns would pay him two hundred dollars per month. Henry lasted with the Clowns exactly one month. On June 11, 1952, the Boston Braves and the Clowns completed a deal for Henry Aaron. Henry’s last act as a Negro Leaguer, according to the Defender, was to rap two singles in the opener and play a “whale of a game” in splitting a doubleheader at Comiskey Park against the Chicago American Giants. The Braves sent Henry to its farm club in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and sent Syd Pollock and the Clowns a check for ten thousand dollars.
Six weeks earlier, Henry had never been outside of the Mobile city limits without his parents. The farthest from Mobile he had been was to visit Papa Henry and Mama Sis in Camden—on horseback. But now, during the second week of June 1952, Henry was boarding a North Central Airlines plane for the first time in his life, choking on his own panic from Charlotte to Eau Claire, close to retching on each turbulent bounce across the Appalachians to the broad expanse north. He was eighteen years old and had never had anything close to an extended conversation with a white person. He would now engage in activities that Alabama had drafted laws to prevent: He would live among whites, play ball with and against them on the same field, and talk to them—at least under the strict definitions of the law—as equals.
Henry had never played against white players—interracial competition had been prohibited by custom in Alabama since the late 1880s and would soon be enacted into law during the 1950s. Unlike Robinson, he did not have the advantage of social refinement afforded by education and experience. One would have had to look hard to find a kid less prepared to navigate this sudden new world. He was completely on his own.
Clell Buzzell, the sports editor of the local Eau Claire paper, picked Henry up from the airport and took him home so his wife, Joyce, could meet the newest member of the Eau Claire Bears. As author and Eau Claire native Jerry Poling wrote in his book A Summer Up North, “The introduction might have been a pleasure for Joyce but not for Aaron. Seeing the scared, skinny young man in her living room, she thought he was fourteen or fifteen years old and feeling out of place. She felt sorry for him.”
“He was shaking,” Poling quoted Joyce Buzzell as saying. “He had never been in a white person’s home before.”
The Eau Claire Bears had been integrated three seasons earlier by Sam Jethroe. Jethroe himself had played a small role in the early story of integration in April 1945, when he and Marvin Williams accompanied Jackie Robinson to Fenway Park for a notorious, humiliating tryout with the Boston Red Sox. Jethroe would never be contacted by the Red Sox, but in 1950 he became the first black player with the Boston Braves, and won Rookie of the Year. Another top black prospect, Bill Bruton, had played for Eau Claire in 1950.
The population of Eau Claire in 1952 was virtually 100 percent white—35,000 residents, seven blacks, twenty more nonwhites. Henry kept his distance, adopting the proper code of conduct for southern blacks: Do not approach whites unless directly addressed. He would walk the streets of Eau Claire and the young children would stare at him as though he were a foreign species. Sometimes their mothers would apologize with polite nods to him; the children had never seen a black person.
The adults weren’t much better. At least the children had the excuse of being young. It was as though he had entered an alternate universe in that Henry walked around town among whites but did not sense the inherent hostility that was an ingrained element of the Mobile social atmosphere.
Henry rented a room at the Eau Claire YMCA at 101 Farwell Street, which was located downtown, a mile and change from Carson Park, where the Bears played their home games. The two other blacks in the club—outfielder John Wesley Covington and the catcher, Julius “Julie” Bowers—also lived there, while the white players roomed with families.
Henry did not often socialize with Covington or Bowers, though the three men lived in the same YMCA building. In later years, Covington recalled the young Henry as distant, hard to read. Even in private settings, even around his black teammates, Henry wasn’t exactly the guy cracking jokes at the card table. He was guarded, mostly trying not to betray all that he did not know. “He just would not open up to you. Hank was as far away from me at times as he was from anybody else on the ball club,” Covington recalled in 1993. “I don’t think at that time we were trying to be close.”
For the prospects, Class C ball was just a stepping-stone to bigger things, a place to start an expected ascension. For the others, baseball might never be as good as it was in the Northern League, which made it the perfect place to travel and party and bond.
In June 1952, Henry was neither the can’t-miss phenom nor the teenager happy to stretch a baseball dream as far as his middling talent would take him. He knew he had the ability to play, but he also knew that he could be right back with the Clowns should anything go wrong in Eau Claire. He had, the contract said, thirty days to prove that he was worth the investment.
And so he kept his distance, adopting an immersion technique his family would have immediately recognized as belonging to Papa Henry: he kept to himself, studying others and forming opinions without volunteering much. While it was a protecive device, designed not to expose his limits in education and sophistication, it was within this total immersion into the white world where a damaging Aaron caricature first took root. Marion “Bill” Adair, the Eau Claire manager and a southerner from Alabama, began what would become a career-long commentary on the Aaron demeanor, and by extension, his intellect. “No one can guess his IQ because he gives you nothing to go on. He sleeps too much and looks lazy, but he isn’t. Not a major-league shortstop yet, but as a hitter he has everything in this world.”
Eau Claire was a lonely and distant place. From the hallway phone at the YMCA, Henry would call Stella not only to hear a familiar voice but to tell her he was coming home, he was quitting. Each day the conversation was similar: he wasn’t afraid he would fail. He just didn’t care for being so far away from home. Homesickness was especially acute for the first generation of black players integrating the game. Virtually all of them, before reaching greatness, told a story about wanting to quit. Some of them, like Billy Williams, actually jumped their clubs and went back home. More than half a century later, Williams remembered leaving his farm club in Amarillo, Texas, and returning to Mobile, not picking up the phone even when the big club, the Cubs, called personally to bring him back. And the stories always ended the same, too: Once a player arrived home, it was his family who sent him back out into the world, making sure a special opportunity to escape was not wasted.
The difference was that these kids weren’t just learning how to adjust to curveballs far from home, nor were they integrating the game. They were integrating society. Henry would answer for the next half century the question of what those days in Eau Claire were like, being the only black person sitting at the drugstore counter, but the inverse was also true: The overwhelming majority of his white teammates had never engaged in a meaningful conversation with a black person, either.
And the worst thing of all for an eighteen-year-old ballplayer was the lack of girls. Naturally, there were girls all over the place. Black girls, however … well, that was a different story. The Northern League consisted of teams in Eau Claire, Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead, Grand Forks, Aberdeen, Sioux Falls, and St. Cloud—not exactly the best advertisement to meet eligible black women.
Herbert junior would often be the one to tell him to forget about the idea of coming back to Mobile, that there was nothing in Mobile for him. He would do himself no good being just another southern black boy without prospects. Herbert had persuaded him, boosted him, revived him. Then came the moment that transformed two lives: June 20, Carson Park, Eau Claire versus the Superior Blues, the White Sox farm club. Henry is playing shortstop. In the top of the eighth, Gordie Roach hits Superior’s Gideon Applegate and then walks the next batter, Chuck Wiles, the Superior’s catcher. The next ball, a chopper to second, would play in slow motion to anyone who was at the park that day.
Bob McConnell fields the ball and flips to Henry for the first out, and Henry steps on the bag and winds to throw back to first for the double play.
Wiles is racing for second but has not yet gone into his slide. Henry fires sidearm to first. These were the days before batting helmets. Wiles took the full force of Henry’s throw in the flesh of his right ear. He stood for a moment before crumpling to the ground, unconscious, while Applegate rounded third for the tying run. Wiles was taken off the field on a stretcher and rushed by ambulance to Luther Hospital.
That might have been the end of the story, one of those fluky baseball accidents. Except that upon arriving at Luther Hospital, Wiles slipped into a coma, in which he remained for three days. His career was over. The doctors consoled the young catcher by telling him had his outer ear not borne the brunt of the impact, Henry’s throw would have killed him.
Wiles spent two more weeks in the hospital, his inner ear crushed. He lost his equilibrium. Periodically, he would entertain the thought of returning. The next year, Wiles and his family moved to Albemarle, North Carolina, where he signed on with a semipro club, the Cotton Mill Boys, but the experiment ended in a heartbreaking finale, Wiles losing his orientation while on the base paths, to the amusement of fans, who thought he was joking. “One time I got to second base. I was determined I was going to get home,” Wiles told Jerry Poling. “I don’t think I even knew where I was. I missed home plate by a lot. The fans thought I was clowning.” Chuck Wiles never played baseball again.
The Wiles incident rattled Henry, as would the vitriolic response from the Superior fans when Eau Claire next arrived. During moments of despair, he called home and told Stella he was returning to Mobile. Each time Henry called, Stella would hand the phone to his brother Herbert, who took the receiver and told him the same thing each time: “The future is ahead of you, not back here in Mobile.”
For years, Henry would recall how close he came to quitting the game, fearful that he could kill someone on the baseball diamond. Not an interview regarding his Eau Claire years would pass without a reference to Chuck Wiles. Henry would be betrayed by his lack of world experience, for while Wiles lay in a coma, Henry hit his first home run for the Bears, June 22, against Reuben Stohs. Wiles would never hold a grudge against Henry and he would say he believed Henry was remorseful about the accident. But he also would never forget that Henry did not apologize or console him in person.
Henry tore apart the Northern League. He played shortstop, wearing the number 6. He batted seventh in the order, consistent with the old-time custom of infielders batting low in the order. It was almost as if the isolation helped him. He had no distractions after the Wiles incident. On the field, he focused on his talent, developing an uncanny ability to compartmentalize, an attribute that would become a trademark. He played eighty-seven games for Eau Claire, hit .336, made the all-star team, and was named Most Valuable Player in the league. He was competing against players his own age, but they were just kids. In the Mobile industrial games and in the Negro Leagues, Henry had played against older competition for years.
His homesickness subsided, his batting average soared, and Henry began to shed his introverted personality. The moment that best illustrates Henry’s evolution from a shy and uncomfortable young man, hamstrung by his southern upbringing, to a more confident one was his relationship with Susan Hauck, a white teenager who frequented Bears games with her girlfriends and hung out with the players away from the ballpark.
The girls did not seem to care about how interracial friendships—or romances—were viewed by their friends or the community at large, but their nonchalance put Covington and Henry in a potentially dangerous situation. For example, there was the time Henry, Covington, and a group of Susan’s friends, all female, went to Elk Mound, Eau Claire’s stunning vista point—and designated make-out spot. As Hauck recalled for Jerry Poling, a group of white teens followed the group to the peak of the hill, only to find Susan and her friends—unaware that Henry and Covington were hiding in the bushes, petrified that they might be forced to duke it out with a gang of white boys.
“It was never a romance. It was a friendship. I suppose people thought we were dating. I liked him,” Poling quoted Hauck as saying in A Summer Up North. “I guess you could say I was infatuated with him. Back then, if you would talk with a black person you were awful. I used to think that was wrong. I was never raised that way.”
While Susan and Henry clearly shared a heightened level of intimacy, their relationship was not something Henry would ever again mention. Over the next fifty years, he would coauthor two books and write an autobiography, and never mention Susan Hauck and his relationship with her family. He ate dinner regularly with them, the guest of her parents, Arnold and Blanche Hauck. The two held hands often at her house. Two years earlier, in 1950, the Haucks had welcomed Billy Bruton into their home as warmly as they did Henry. The relationship between Susan and Henry, however, was more intense.
“When you think about who Henry Aaron is and where he came from, it was all pretty remarkable,” Jerry Poling recalled. “Never mind what may or may not have gone on between them. Here was a guy who came from the worst segregation in the country and here he is holding hands with a white girl. I thought that was pretty amazing.”
For the 1953 season, Henry was promoted a level, to the Braves Jacksonville club, but for a .336 hitter, it was not a major ascension. The club didn’t want to rush Henry, and thus it classified him at the A-ball level. Jacksonville was part of the notorious South Atlantic League, otherwise known as the “Sally League.” Jackie Robinson had just completed his sixth year in the majors, but the Sally League had not yet been integrated. Henry Aaron and a handful of others would be the first black players in what was widely considered to be the most hostile league for blacks in the minor-league system. Perhaps more than any minor league, the Sally represented the major challenge to integration. The Sporting News marked the moment:
JACKSONVILLE AND SAVANNAH SHATTER COLOR LINE IN SALLY
COLUMBUS, GA.—After Savannah broke the color line for the first time since the circuit was organized in 1904 … Jacksonville … followed suit by taking on three colored performers.…
The … Tars picked up three from Toledo … Shortstop Felix Mantilla, outfielder Horace Garner and Second Baseman Henry Aaron.
HENRY WOULD HAVE a more difficult time even than Robinson. Where Robinson would have the benefit of going to his home ballpark in Brooklyn half of the time, the Sally League would play all of its games in the Deep South. Even the home park, Jacksonville, would not always be a friendly place. Henry knew he might be able to win over the home fans with spirited play, but off the field, he found that Jacksonville was another southern town that was not ready to treat him with any degree of humanity.
Robinson played under the glare of the national press, which provided a certain degree of protection against the most virulent opposition. In the minor leagues, Henry would be isolated, and press coverage would be minimal. When Henry arrived in Jacksonville, another minor league, the Cotton States League, attempted to ban the Hot Springs franchise from competition for signing two black players—Henry’s old teammate with the Clowns, Jim Turgeson, and his brother Leander.
His nerves were on edge. “We were in spring training and it was way across Georgia, and it was an old army camp field and they still had the bunk houses and that’s where we stayed,” one teammate remembered. “They had a couple of fields there. And Hank was playing left field one day, and now keep in mind he was young just like I was. All of the sudden he takes off from left field right during the ball game and heads towards the barracks where we were staying and nobody knew what the hell was going on. We talked to Hank later and he said there was a big snake out there in left field.”
The small towns that comprised the league were notorious—societies with little sophistication that enforced Jim Crow laws ruthlessly. Jim Frey was a teammate of Henry in Jacksonville. Frey would be another one of those baseball men who was an average minor-league player, not quite good enough to reach the majors, but someone who possessed such an eye and enthusiasm for baseball that he would draw a paycheck from the game for his entire working life—as a manager, a general manager, a scout, and in numerous other capacities, as well.
Jim Frey had been raised in the southern part of Ohio, a northern state that often possessed a southern mentality. He grew up in Bridgetown, west of Cincinnati, which was known during that time as a “sundown town,” which meant no blacks after dark. When Frey was a kid, his father, John, worked with a black handyman who did carpentry and stonework for the family. Frey recalled how his father had had to rush to escort the man out of town before the sun went down. Violating such local customs could be fatal for blacks, but it also posed danger for any sympathetic whites.
“It was toward the country, just a little itty-bitty town. There weren’t many people there. In this particular town, at that time, and this was in the forties and fifties, the blacks had to get out of town, had to get to the next town in, which was Cheviot, Ohio. My dad had to get them to the car line by six o’clock. That was the rule.”
Jim Frey held Henry in high esteem. He loved his talent, but he also felt acute personal pain because of the abuse Henry endured in Jacksonville during that 1953 season. “It was just terrible what he was subjected to,” Frey said. “And he just took it all and hit. Baseball is a hard-enough game when everyone is rooting for you. You cannot believe what it must have been like to be Henry Aaron in 1953. It was a heartbreaking thing to watch.”
If Frey was aware of the treatment the black players faced, a certain reciprocity was also taking place. Henry and, to a lesser extent, Felix Mantilla were watching the white players, taking in how they responded to their teammates’ humiliations, who they were as men. If Frey was learning about the American South, Henry was learning about his white teammates and whether they would be friend or foe.
Frey recalled the segregated grandstands at Luther Williams Field, where the Macon Peaches played. Every park in the Sally League separated its black fans from its white ones. Frey remembered being taken by the different elements of America colliding on the field one day in Jacksonville as he stood in the outfield, surrounded by the black faces in the crowd while simultaneously watching Henry fielding his position at second base as the home crowd, the whites, screamed at Henry to “go back to the cotton fields.”
This was, both Mantilla and Frey agreed, how the 1953 season progressed, either in Jacksonville or on the road. “Which city was the worst?” Henry said. “You couldn’t say, because they were all bad.” Frey, who became great friends with Horace Garner, remembered being handed gifts by the black fans at the end of the season, thanking him for engaging with them all season. Previous white outfielders, Frey thought, must never have acknowledged the paying black fans, who sat in the corner sections.
“My exposure to blacks mostly came [from baseball], because in the minor leagues, starting in Evansville, Indiana, in ’51 and then ’52 and then later in Jacksonville in ’53 and ’54, they were some of the first blacks that were allowed to play in professional baseball at that time,” Jim Frey recalled. “We went to a high school, Western Hills High School, which had about two thousand students at that time, and we only had a handful of blacks in the school. I doubt if there was more than one [black] family or two. I don’t think there were more than three or four black students in our school, which was a pretty big school. We had to go into Cincinnati to go to high school. We didn’t have one out in the country. We never had a lot of exposure to the blacks at that time.
“It was first the Three-I League in the Midwest and the Sally League in the Southeast. I played with, I don’t know, several on each of those teams, and those players were the first or among the first who were allowed to play in the minor leagues at that time. A couple of them were Latins and the others were Americans and blacks, but they weren’t allowed to eat with us. In many areas, they weren’t even allowed to get off the bus at night, and they had to stay in different quarters. It was a different world then. It was tough on ’em. It was really tough on ’em.”
In Jacksonville, three important events took place in Henry’s life. The first was his friendship with Felix Mantilla. Mantilla was brought to Jacksonville from the Toledo club specifically to room with Henry. Clubs in those days always fielded an even number of black players to keep white players from having to room with a black teammate. Mantilla’s presence soothed Henry, even though Mantilla, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, did not speak much English. He relied on Henry while adjusting to the Deep South.
Mantilla recalled his time in the minor leagues as horribly oppressive, where race was consistently the determining factor in virtually every encounter, on or off the ball field. He remembered his difficulties in learning English and understanding the culture.
“When you’re seventeen or eighteen years old, you see things very differently. I was lost. I used to go to the movies to learn, but the movies didn’t have subtitles. I didn’t always pay attention to the segregation laws, and I found out when it was too late.
“When I joined the team in Evansville, I didn’t know the city was segregated, either,” Mantilla recalled. “One day, the team got tickets to go to the movies, and when I walked in, they said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ They looked at me like I had the plague.
“There was another theater that didn’t allow blacks, and Henry and I walked in. You had to know all the rules, all of the things you could do and couldn’t do. Believe it or not, Jacksonville was one of the better towns for us. It was Hank who always kept me away from the things that could have gotten me in trouble. Hank and I relied on each other. We tried not to let the other out of our sight.”
There were humilating moments, Mantilla recalled. “The whites used to yell from the stands and call us ‘alligator bait.’ Jacksonville wasn’t so bad. But places like Columbus and Macon, those places were wicked.”
There was the time Mantilla and Aaron combined to propel Jacksonville closer to the Sally League pennant. Jacksonville hadn’t finished first in the league since 1912. Mantilla and Henry had both been all-stars. By midseason, the crowds had warmed to their presence. They wore the right uniform. They were helping the club win. Once, after a particularly satisfying victory, a fan caught up to Henry and Felix Mantilla as they left the park. Mantilla remembered the game as being a considerably hard-fought contest and, having won, both he and Henry were smiling, their guards down after nine innings of concentration. The fan approached the two players easily.
“I just wanted to say,” the man said, “that you niggers played a hell of a game.”
Mantilla remembered the good white teammates who made his and Henry’s time a bit easier. Pete Whisenant, an outfielder with Jacksonville, often made sure the black players were not isolated. Whisenant, Mantilla remembered, would often go out to dinner with Henry and Mantilla after games, looking for an integrated place where the teammates could hang out together. Often, Mantilla recalled, such a small gesture could put them all at risk.
And then there was the time Mantilla put everyone at risk. Henry had always told him about southern culture, about how to interact gingerly with whites. At the start of the 1953 season, Sally League umpires warned Aaron, Mantilla, and Garner not to engage with hostile white fans or opponents. They were also warned not to argue calls with umpires, in order not to incite white fans. Montgomery had even held off integrating its club, because it wanted to see how Jacksonville and Savannah—the two integrated teams in the league—were received both at the ticket gate and inside the clubhouse.
One result of the umpire edict was open season on black players. Pitchers threw at Henry, constantly sending him into the dirt. Mantilla thought when he went to the plate that his ears were being used for target practice.
Then came the game in July when a career minor-leaguer named John Waselchuk threw at Mantilla’s head one time too many. Waselchuk was a pip-squeak from Peabody, Massachusetts—five eight, 150 pounds—but a hard-throwing one, with the best curveball in the Sally. Waselchuk was a tough kid, a veteran; he’d joined the navy directly after graduating from high school, then sailed the Mediterranean for three years before signing with the Cubs organization in 1949.
Mantilla had been hit before—they’d been throwing at him all year—but this time, instead of heading for first base, he stalked to the pitcher’s mound. The game was already tense. Henry recalled that not only were the fans on the black players that day but insults were being hurled between the segregated sections, and he was convinced he was about to be part of a race riot.
The benches had already cleared. The police, having been alerted, formed a circle around the field, sidearms at the ready. Additional officers kept the blacks and whites in the crowd from tearing one another apart. And then it was Horace Garner who intercepted Mantilla and dragged him to the ground, averting catastrophe.
“I never saw a black player who did anything but put his head down, play well, weather the storm. They had to,” Jim Frey said.
Perseverance remained a prerequisite for the black players. Mantilla possessed a temper quicker than either Henry’s or Garner’s but the possibility of humiliation remained a constant. Henry proceeded gingerly, not assuming that even his own teammates were sympathetic to his situation. The reverse was often true: on more than one occasion white players who reached out to their black teammates could find themselves outcasts as well.
“One of the first bus trips we took, we had Hank and Felix Mantilla, the shortstop, and Horace Garner, an outfielder,” said one member of the Jacksonville team. “Three colored guys, and we were going to Columbia, South Carolina, and Charleston. In those leagues back then you played at home for six games and then you went away for six games in two places. So we would stop and get a pop or a bag of chips or a chocolate bar or something.
“Hank and Felix and Horace didn’t get off the bus so I said, ‘Aren’t you guys going in?’ And they said, ‘Oh, we’ll never get in that place.’ So anyways, I said, ‘Well, do you want me to get you something?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that’d be nice if you did.’ They paid for it and everything, but I got them stuff, and so the rest of the guys, the white guys on the club, the southern guys especially, they hated me just as much as they did Hank and Felix and them because I would do that.
“He was real quiet in the clubhouse. Those guys, they knew they weren’t accepted by everybody, so they didn’t say and do a lot of things that we would do. It was just a lot of bullshit. It was the worst part. I was down there nine years and that was the worst thing in the nine years.”
Henry’s relationship with Jacksonville manager Ben Geraghty eased the tension. Geraghty was known for being strict but fair. He chided Henry constantly. The aspects of Henry’s game outside of his hitting were in need of improvement. Like most baseball men, Geraghty accepted physical errors—making a fielding or throwing error—far more quickly than he did mental ones. Some of Henry’s mental mistakes bordered on the apocryphal, like the time he stole four bases and—either due to oversliding or failing to ask for time—was picked off each base. Another time, Henry blew a sign and Geraghty asked him why. Henry responded, “I can’t remember all that.”
The difference was that Geraghty also seemed to understand Henry’s sense of humor, that his responses were not always referendums of his intelligence. He knew that Henry often answered questions with a dry wit to diffuse the embarrassment of missing a sign or not executing his responsibilities. Even in criticism, he talked to Henry like an adult.
But most important, Ben Geraghty recognized Henry’s potential almost immediately. He knew that even as a nineteen-year-old, Henry Aaron possessed the ability to be not just a major-league player but a great, possibly transcendent one. “If Henry has a strike zone, it is from the top of his head to his ankles,” Geraghty said. “In a year or so, he’ll make the fans forget Jackie Robinson, and I’m not exaggerating. He never pays attention to who’s pitching. He hits them all.”
The third event, and the most important, occurred just as the season started. Henry had met Barbara Lucas, a young student at the local business school. Barbara was from Jacksonville, and Henry was immediately taken. She was tall and thin, with sparkling green eyes. Her younger brother, Bill, was also a baseball player. Bill Lucas attended Florida A&M—ironically, the school Stella wanted Henry to attend—and was a strong infield prospect. Within two years, Ed Scott would sign Bill to the Braves farm system. In the meantime, Henry and Barbara dated throughout the summer, although, according to family legend, Barbara’s parents did not want her to become serious with a baseball player.
Yet on the field, Henry destroyed the opposition, such as on April 1, 1953, in Jacksonville, against a big-league club, the Boston Red Sox. The Braves were demolished, 14–1. Mel Parnell, the veteran Red Sox left-hander, gave up just five hits, but two were to Henry. Another pro, Ike Delock, gave up a long home run to Henry in the eighth inning.
The competition did not seem to matter all summer long: two doubles against Columbia. Later that season, in back-to-back doubleheaders against Columbia, Henry went twelve for thirteen. Jacksonville won the pennant and Henry was named the Most Valuable Player of the Sally League. The numbers, again, were staggering: .362 average, 22 home runs, 36 doubles, 14 triples, 115 runs scored, 125 runs batted in, and 208 total bases.
He was assigned to winter ball in Caguas, Puerto Rico, and before going, he asked Barbara to marry him and join him on the island.
In the span of eighteen months, Henry had gone from standing on the platform at the L&N Railroad station to playing in the Negro Leagues to being a married man. He spent the winter of 1953 preparing for his first major-league spring training. He was told from the start that no matter how he hit, he would spend the entire 1954 season in Toledo.
AND SO THE comet soared. Bill Slack, the longtime baseball man known as the pitching guru of North Carolina, worked with Henry in the 1980s. Slack never played in the big leagues, but he was one of those legendary baseball men who had given his life to the game, one dusty back road at a time. He and his brother, Stan, had played with Henry in Jacksonville, and one day in Richmond, Henry and Bill knocked back a beer after a day of meetings.
“I remember one day I asked Henry when he was his most afraid,” Slack recalled. “I was thinking he was going to tell me the stories about being chased by the Klan or something like that. But he didn’t. He told me the most scared he’d ever been was getting on the train for the first time, heading to Winston-Salem.”
Ed Scott never left Mobile. In 1961, he became a scout for the Boston Red Sox, a job he would hold for the next thirty-three years. Scott led a rich baseball life, one that was both raucous and sober. He had become the first black scout for the Red Sox, a team with a notorious history in terms of race relations. He was the man who first discovered Henry Aaron, but he recalled losing out on the kid from Whistler, Billy Williams, to Ivy Griffin. Scott later signed big leaguers Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd and George Scott for the Red Sox. The picture he took of Henry at the train station is the oldest surviving photograph of his journey as a professional baseball player.
“I’ll never forget that day at the depot,” Scott said. “I remember his mother putting him on the train. I still have a picture of that day. He wound up signing it for me. It really was something, an amazing day. I can tell you one thing: As that train was leaving the station, he sure didn’t look like he was headed to the Hall of Fame.”