The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART ONE. ESCAPE
Chapter 3. STEPIN FETCHIT
ANTICIPATION of Henry’s arrival in the spring of 1954 was heightened by the fact that no one, apart from the Milwaukee scouts, minor-league personnel, and occasionally the owner, Lou Perini, or the general manager, John Quinn, had actually ever seen him play. He was famous, mostly, in the Braves anticipation of him, but his fame stemmed from the exotic, sumptuous ingredients that were critical to the baseball publicity machine: dewdrop reports from the bird-dog scouts, who, in turn, whetted the appetite of fans and management alike. “Any amount you ask for that kid Henry Aaron in right field wouldn’t be too much,” exuded Red Sox scout Ted McGrew. Word of mouth traveling from exuberant minor-league coaches and managers (HANK AARON IS FABULOUS FELLOW, SAYS FORMER PILOT BEN GERAGHTY read a March 1954 Milwaukee Journal headline) and sports writers (“If Aaron is 75 percent as good as the glowing reports about him, he will be worth keeping around for pinch hitting, if nothing else,” R. G. Lynch wrote in the Journal a full month before spring camp opened) only increased the anticipation. But so much of it was more talk about the latest next big thing, just word of mouth, just so many words on paper.
There was only one element, however, that provided the real fuel to the churning engine: the staggering offensive numbers Henry had produced over the past two seasons. His statistics leaped out of the morning box scores (best found in the weekly agate of The Sporting News), from Eau Claire to Jacksonville to Caguas. After Henry and Barbara were married, in October 1953, Henry kept his promise and the two went to Puerto Rico. Henry played for Caguas, and the manager was Mickey Owen, the old Brooklyn catcher and owner of the worst moment any ballplayer could ever endure: 1941 World Series, game four, Ebbets Field, the Yankees leading the series two games to one but down 4–3, with two out and two strikes in the top of the ninth. Tommy Henrich was the batter when Owen dropped a called third strike that would have ended the game and tied the series. Henrich reached first; the Yankees scored four runs on the melting Dodgers and won the game, 7–4, and the Series the next day. That was how it was in baseball. Mickey Owen played thirteen years in the big leagues, but he might as well have played one inning of one game one afternoon in October.
Henry would always say Ben Geraghty was the best and most influential manager he had ever had, but Mickey Owen qualified as a close second, for it was Owen who in Puerto Rico took a raw Henry Aaron, a kid who had taught himself everything he knew, and over a tropical winter molded him—made him a ready, big-league package. It wasn’t that Henry didn’t already have Olympian tools, but no one at the professional level ever did anything more than gawk at him and snicker about how unorthodox he was. Owen was different. It was Owen who taught him weight distribution and how to hold his hands steady. Owen received credit from Henry for all the things he did, and for one thing he did not do: change Henry’s peculiar front-footed approach to hitting the ball.
It all started somewhere between Central and Josephine Allen, when during a game Henry injured his right ankle, his plant foot. Rather than rest, he compensated for the pain in his right leg when he swung by shifting his weight to his front foot. Any hitting coach would have been tempted to tinker with Henry’s mechanical footwork, but instead of giving him instructions, Owen gave Henry confidence. During the first week of December, Henry was hitting .295. A week later, he was at .343. A week after Christmas, Henry had scored the batting title at .357.
Still, to the most hard-boiled of baseball men, even those numbers could be tempered. Swinging a bat in the thick breezes and among the uneven talent of the Caribbean was one thing, especially as the rum flowed. Hitting in Ebbets Field with the bags full was quite another.
Dugout chatter was the only advanced billing most of the world ever received about a player—even one considered as special as Henry—and that was one of the beautiful, enduring characteristics of baseball. Anticipation provided that magical component—the verbal mythmaking—that built the American game and set up the inherent challenge (whether or not the kid could make the big time) that resonated with millions of fans … that’s what brought them in. Until a player succeeded with the big club, in the big leagues, even great prospects like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, or Henry Aaron amounted to nothing more than a string of press clippings. Buzz was the special sauce that heightened anticipation about a prospect, a trait that neither time nor technology would ever change.
BOSTON GLOBE writer Harold Kaese was in town to take his first look at the Red Sox, but he somehow found himself talking about this kid Henry. Well, not exactly somehow. In Red Sox camp, trying to squeeze out another year behind the dish for the Red Sox was none other than Mickey Owen, still raving about Henry. A few days later, the Braves were in Tampa to play the White Sox, and Paul Richards—the Chicago manager who one day would become the Braves general manager—yelled out to a couple of Braves coaches, “Where’s Aaron? I’ve heard a lot of reports on him.” In baseball, words were a carelessly tossed match to dry grass, and Kaese—who two decades later would be awarded with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, induction into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame—had been around long enough to know a prairie fire had been sparked. Kaese, who was standing at the batting cage, sidled up to Richards and parroted what he’d heard from Mickey Owen. “Over in Sarasota,” Kaese told Richards, “Mickey Owen told me the other day that Aaron is good enough to run Bruton off the ball club.”
Baseball was so different, because with the other sports, all you had to do was follow the paper trail. A college basketball star left a roughly one-hundred-game outline, a skeleton for anticipating the body of work that would soon follow. A college football player left at least thirty games. Nobody who hadn’t been sleeping under a boulder wondered if Lew Alcindor or O. J. Simpson could play; no one was unsure of their physical characteristics as players. Certainly there was anticipation to watch a college player make the transition to the pro game, but it was eagerness based on information, eyewitnesses, and reams of newspaper exposure from actual game coverage. In later years, during the video age, film highlights on a player could be wound, rewound, dissected, and analyzed long before a player scored his first touchdown at Lambeau Field.
But no matter how talented, minor-league baseball players were nothing. They were not to be counted upon, except maybe to sweeten the allure of a trade. In those days, they were not treated charitably as young stars ready to lead. That’s why the entire universe of minor-league towns, from Louisville to Atlanta, Wichita to Jacksonville, Kenosha to Visalia, was called “the bushes.” Charlie Grimm, the Braves manager, had never laid eyes on Henry. No one knew what he looked like, how he moved, how he talked, how he swung, or what the ball sounded like off of his bat. It was the constancy of the numbers and the volume of the talk that had made him a prospect.
The words had been plentiful enough, the praise from baseball men who had spent their lives sharpening their antennae to pick up the slightest deficiencies certainly convincing, but no one quite knew for sure if the hundreds of column inches devoted to him should be framed for posterity or used as kindling, thereby designating him as another overhyped kid who couldn’t play. In later years, the arrival of a highly rated prospect would provide a certain degree of protection from management, but during Henry’s time, when salaries were low and security virtually nonexistent, veterans waited to see hotshot prospects, and not particularly enthusiastically, for if Henry was as good as advertised, someone, perhaps a friend or a roommate, was going to lose his job. The first person waiting to see Henry was third baseman Eddie Mathews, the young heart of the Braves lineup, who was just two and a half years older than Henry and was expected to be the face of the Milwaukee baseball club for years to come.
Over the first few days of March, the picture came into full focus. The match caught, and the impressions scorched each side of the Florida coast. They talked about how he looked—the vitals first: six feet even, about 175 pounds, slim in the shoulders, tapered at the waist. He was a skinny kid, especially when he stood with the burly, rugged Mathews and Joe Adcock, the hulking first baseman. Baseball was a physical business, and baseball men talked about players crudely, as if they were horses. Henry’s bottom half was bigger than his upper body, and his legs and ass, the scouts all said, formed a sturdy base of power.
Charlie Grimm watched Henry’s mechanics, and the old baseball men, from Duffy Lewis, the Red Sox outfielder who was teammates with Babe Ruth and who, along with Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper, was part of Boston’s “Million-Dollar Outfield” back in the teens, to Hall of Fame right fielder Paul “Big Poison” Waner, the Pirate great, in Bradenton as a special instructor, were writing the legend with their eyes.
There was plenty about his game that made them all wince, especially when they watched him around second base, allowing base runners dangerously close before firing off a relay throw with that sidewinding whip that had finished Chuck Wiles’s career. “As a second baseman,” Charlie Grimm said, cringing, “Aaron is a very good hitter. But we’ll find a place for that bat.”
AARON GIVEN DIVIDED VOTE BY PROPHETS
… whether he will make the big team … has nearly everybody out on a limb. His hitting is of slight worry—practically all insist he can club big-league curving right now—but there are many pros and cons as to whether he can cut the buck at second base.
In the cage, too, there were funky elements to his approach: that stomp on the front foot as he met the ball, which brought forth murmurs among the men that with his hitting style, Henry would never have substantial power (And why didn’t his coaches at the minor leagues break that habit? they asked). They noticed how Henry swung almost as quickly as the ball left the pitcher’s hand, leaving him to commit to pitches at eyebrow level or near his shoelaces.
And yet … and yet … when the baseball men took a snapshot of the moment the ball met the bat—the moment that mattered most—twenty-year-old Henry Aaron was pure gold. He would stand in the box, legs tight in a closed stance, leaning and crouched. And he would strike, catlike, hands back, then bring them forward with a thrusting motion, and at the last millisecond—everything about hitting in the big leagues was measured in milliseconds—the wrists that looked too skinny to produce power would snap through the zone, the hips would twist and uncoil, and the ball would just leap … to left … to center … and especially to right field. And the men behind the cage, the ones who would have killed to be able to cut at a baseball like that just once in their lives, to watch it sizzle upon impact, well, they just salivated. These were men who had spent their entire lives in the game, were collectively older than God, and all had seen Olympus in the form of Ruth, Gehrig, Greenberg, Cobb, all the very best. And it was Cobb, of all people, the old racist but inscrutable baseball mind, who seemed to like Henry the best. “Incidentally, Ty Cobb rates Henry Aaron, Braves’ Negro newcomer, one of the best young players he has seen in years,” reported Al Wolf in the Los Angeles Times. “Calls him a hitting natural.”
Henry was not on the Braves major-league roster, but Charlie Grimm wouldn’t let the kid out of his sight. One Saturday morning in early March, Henry was told to remain in Bradenton with the rest of the minor leaguers while the big club played four games on the east side of the state. Grimm would have none of it. Grimm told Henry—who had not yet even been issued a Braves uniform—that while he did not know what position Henry would be playing, he was to take orders only from him. “Pack a bag,” Grimm told Henry, “and stick with me.” That meant games against the Dodgers in Miami and the Philadelphia A’s in West Palm Beach and Pittsburgh in Fort Pierce.
Each day, Grimm would watch Henry hit, and the baseball men would look at each other slyly—grim-faced on the outside, because no matter how good a player might be, you couldn’t ever give away too much praise too early. That could ruin a kid. But inside, where it counted, Henry’s talent reduced them all to giddy schoolboys bubbling with a secret. And smile they would at their good fortune, because Henry belonged to them, and the general manager, John Quinn, always made it a point to remind the newsmen first of his shrewdness: He’d got Henry for the bargain price of ten thousand dollars, and he would reaffirm his belief that the Braves could fetch ten times that sum from other teams. “I understand now,” Paul Richards said, “why everyone raves about that kid. He’s got powerful wrists, the kind all great hitters have.”
The only man in the Braves organization who wasn’t smiling was George “Twinkletoes” Selkirk, the former Yankee outfielder, who through the thirties and forties had teamed with Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio during an all-star career and won five World Series championships. He was now the manager of the Toledo Sox, Milwaukee’s Class AA affiliate, and in January, Quinn told Selkirk he would have Henry for the entire 1954 season. Yet here it was, not even St. Patrick’s Day, and Selkirk was already groaning to Red Thisted of the Milwaukee Sentinel. “I don’t think,” Selkirk said, “that we’ll ever have him in a Toledo uniform.” And he hated himself even more because he knew he was right.
FOR ALL THE commotion, young Henry Aaron was not a particularly comfortable or secure baseball player. He received the most attention of any rookie in any spring camp in baseball, but he was still not a member of the Milwaukee Braves, still not a major leaguer. He did not have a position. He knew he wasn’t a major-league-caliber second baseman, and yet he didn’t feel comfortable in the outfield. Second base would not be an option anyway. The day after Christmas, 1953, the Braves had given $200,000 and traded seven players to Pittsburgh for the rugged Irishman, second baseman Danny O’Connell. A month later, Milwaukee traded the promising left-hander Johnny Antonelli to the New York Giants for Bobby Thomson, the man who never had to buy another drink in his life in New York City after winning the pennant for the Giants over the Dodgers in the famed 1951 play-off game, the man a seventeen-year-old Henry had dreamed about at Josephine Allen.
Henry figured there was no place on the big-club roster for him with Thomson in left field, Billy Bruton in center, and Andy Pafko in right. Pafko was the man who had played left field for Brooklyn when Thomson’s two-out, ninth-inning, pennant-winning three-run home run sailed over his head. Even the Milwaukee bench was crowded. Grimm was counting on Jim Pendleton, the former Negro League utility man who surprised the Braves in 1953 as a twenty-nine-year-old reserve with a .299 average and seven home runs. Moreover, Henry knew he was too talented to sit on the bench with the big club. Prized prospects needed to play every day, and that wouldn’t happen on a veteran team that believed, even without him, it would be contending for the pennant.
However realistic or pessimistic Henry was about making the big club in 1954, he still handled his daily chores by crushing the baseball every day in the spring. Henry’s hitting wove a tale that blended fact with the spurious. It was true that the best baseball minds wanted a piece of him, if for no other reason than to solidify their reputations as acute talent evaluators. Branch Rickey had been on the Grapefruit League scene less than a week before he declared Henry the “top prospect in the country.” Rickey said he’d offered the Braves $150,000 for Henry, a figure confirmed with no shortage of glee (even the great “Mahatma” wanted in on Henry, although it wasn’t as if Ed Scott hadn’t warned him) by John Quinn.
When Henry took his cuts in the batting cage in Sarasota, and later in that game mashed a 450-foot home run against the Red Sox, a story was born that grew sweeter with each retelling. As Henry whipped blistering line drives through the strike zone, the contact of ball and bat was so pure that one man could recognize its significance by pitch alone. That man was none other than Theodore Samuel Williams.
“In his first spring training, during a game against the Red Sox,” George F. Will wrote of Henry in 2007, “Ted Williams came running from the clubhouse to see whose bat was making that distinctive sound.” In the book Hammering Hank: How the Media Made Henry Aaron, the authors Mark Stewart and Mike Kennedy offered a slightly different version:
Aaron laid claim to a permanent roster spot with the Braves after slamming a long home run against the Red Sox. The blast even got the attention of Ted Williams. “Who the hell is that,” Williams demanded of some nearby sportswriters after hearing the crack of the ball off Aaron’s bat. When told it was a newcomer named Aaron, he responded, “Write it down and remember it. You’ll be hearing that name often.”
And still another version existed, the one that had Williams sitting in a lounge chair, his eyes closed, his back to the field, but aroused by the perfection of Henry’s swing cutting the Florida air. Even Williams himself, in a 1999 book about Henry by the writer Dick Schaap, recalled the moment with trademark Williams aplomb:
I was playing in Sarasota, and because I was an older, more experienced player I got to play the first three innings and then—Boom!—they take me out. I went in and showered because I wanted to watch the rest of the game. In Sarasota there was a nice little field and you had to go through a little dugout door and then sit on the bench. So I went out, and just as I dove through the door, I hear ‘WHACK!’ and then the roar of the crowd—it was a small crowd but it was a helluva roar anyhow—and one of my teammates said, “Did you see the guy hit that ball?”
It was a great story, with plenty of local detail—especially regarding the intimacy of Payne Park, the old Sarasota ballpark—except for one key point: It never happened, at least not the way the legend had it. Williams did not play against the Braves in March 1954. In fact, he did not play against anyone, because he wasn’t even in Red Sox camp that year. He was on the operating table twelve hundred miles away in Cambridge, Massachusetts, having a four-inch metal spike inserted into his left collarbone. On March 1, while Henry was making the old-timers drool, Williams broke his collarbone shagging fly balls and was then admitted to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge, where he remained from March 9 until his discharge from surgery a week later. He stayed in Boston following his discharge and didn’t play his first game until May 15.
For the record, only the Williams portion of the story was fiction. The rest was true: Henry had them talking.
RED SOX SHADE BRAVES, 3–2; AARON’S HOMER STEALS SHOW
SARASOTA, FLA.— … However, even the final result … could not detract from the stir created in the third inning by a tremendous home run by Hank Aaron, the 20-year-old Negro rookie outfielder. Veteran observers called the blow the longest ever hit at Payne Field here.
True or not, the hype machine had accomplished the desired effect, and Williams and Aaron were both well served by repeating the tale: Williams because it reinforced his considerable reputation, proof that the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived not only had the keenest eye but also the sharpest ear (it wouldn’t have done the Splinter any good if he’d told future generations of hungry listeners that the sweet sound that day was produced by the hitless bat of Jim Pendleton); and Henry because no greater authority than Williams had instantly elevated him into the honors class of power hitters—before he had ever played in a single big-league game that counted. He had been anointed, first by Cobb, and now by Williams. It was true that Williams had seen Henry swing a bat, for the Red Sox and Braves played numerous times that spring and, later, in All-Star Games (they appeared in seven All-Star Games together). He also might have seen Henry during subsequent spring-training seasons, as the Red Sox trained just a dozen or so miles away. It just didn’t happen in 1954, when everyone believed it had.
The Williams story was emblematic of how legend could feed upon itself and how, as the tale was repeated, the names grew bigger, everyone just a bit closer to the simple and titillating beginnings of the Henry Aaron story, making it easier for him to be adopted by the baseball people, who, because of their reputations, couldn’t allow anyone to think Henry had taken them by surprise.
The next day, March 2, Henry helped destroy the Yankees 11–3 by turning the baseball into a white blur that hit the base of the wall of the 433-foot marker in center field, over the head of outfielder Irv Noren. “It was not hit as hard as the tremendous home run at Sarasota Wednesday but went almost as far,” the Journal reported. “The young Negro now has a .417 batting mark (5 for 12) and looks more like a fixture every day.”
And it was at that precise moment when fate took over at the keyboard and tapped out a new narrative. When he arrived at Braves camp, Henry was not incorrect about his prospects. The club was set and he was headed to Toledo. He wouldn’t be part of the Braves until 1955. The Braves paid handsomely for Thomson, an established power player and veteran outfielder acquired to provide protection for Mathews and first baseman Joe Adcock. And it was true that at the end of the 1953 season, Charlie Grimm so liked what he saw from Pendleton that he began to rely on him as a reserve.
But what Henry did not anticipate was that at the end of 1953, Jim Pendleton was feeling so good about himself and his sudden contribution that by January, he had decided to hold out for a better contract. A week away from the opening of camp, Pendleton still wasn’t signed. When camp opened on February 28, and Henry was slashing line drives while the old-timers drooled over his potential, Pendleton was nowhere to be seen. Two days later, on March 2, Pendleton arrived in camp, a big, mushy tire around his waist. He and Henry would room together, but the challenge for a roster spot, for all intents and purposes, ceased the day Pendleton arrived, twenty pounds overweight, at 205.
Pendleton chomping away at the buffet table while Henry tore the cover off of the ball was fate just warming up. In the eighth inning of a spring game between the Braves and Yankees eleven days later, on March 13 at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Pafko bounced a one-hopper to the mound. The Yankee pitcher, Bob Wiesler, caught and fired to second baseman Woody Held, who threw to first for a routine double play. But when the play was over, Held looked down, to find the first out of the double play, Bobby Thomson, crumpled in a heap over second base, yowling in pain. Held yelled over to the Braves bench, fear in his eyes at the sight of Thomson’s twisted frame, and the world changed in an instant. Thomson had slid to avoid Held’s relay and suffered a triple fracture of the right ankle. He was taken off the field on a stretcher and was put in a temporary splint by the Yankees physician, Dr. Sidney Gaynor. When Thomson arrived at St. Anthony’s Hospital, he received the news that he would be out at least six to twelve weeks.
The next day, March 14, 1954, at a game against Cincinnati, Charlie Grimm wrote Henry’s name into the lineup. He would be starting in right field, batting fourth. Henry rapped out two hits.
WITH THOMSON GONE for three months, Pendleton wearing a rubber suit to, in the words of the Sentinel, “work off the extra blubber,” and Henry’s incessant pasting of the baseball (“Aaron Shows Power Again But Phils Down Braves, 12–10,” announced the Journal after Henry homered and tripled over the head of the center fielder Richie Ashburn), a job on the big-league club seemed all but certain. His new teammates, however, were not exactly sure what to make of him. Despite his wrists, his surprising power, and his obvious ability, there was still something about the kid that just didn’t quite compute. The scouting reports said Henry could run, and since he never was thrown out on close plays, it was clear that the scouts were not exaggerating his speed. But instead of blazing down the line in a thrust and flash, Henry would beat throws easily but somehow unconvincingly. Mickey Owen raved about Henry’s arm, and at second base, Henry made all the necessary plays. He would snap off a throw that would beat the runner, but the ball didn’t pop into the first baseman’s glove, the way a throw from a legitimate major-league arm should. He would release his throws sidearm, at a three o’clock angle, his arm never higher than his shoulder. In the outfield, the sidearm delivery was the same languid motion, producing the impression that he was not concentrating enough on improving his mechanics. In the outfield, Henry would catch the baseball the old-fashioned way, two hands directly in front of the chest, allowing the ball to travel as close to his body as possible, to cushion the sting of the ball. That was the way poor kids caught the ball, the ones who played baseball every day without gloves or with gloves whose pockets had been worn painfully thin.
He was reticent to engage. Henry did not often speak to many players on the team, preferring, in the eyes of some teammates and writers, to position himself at a distance, yet no one accused him of possessing a rude demeanor. When he did speak, it was largely to the other Negro players on the team, Bill Bruton, Jim Pendleton, and Charlie White. At no point was he considered by the coaching staff to be lazy, but nor did he move with the frothy enthusiasm and frightened eagerness of most rookies.
So what was the reason for the disconnection? Was it simply that Henry was a green twenty-year-old of blossoming expectation, unsure exactly how to navigate his vast and rapidly expanding universe? Upon his arrival in Bradenton, he knew only three members of the Braves: catcher Bill Casey and pitcher Ray Crone, both of whom were white teammates of Henry in Jacksonville, and Bob Buhl, the promising young right-hander with the serious face and distinctively dark brows, who had earned a slot in the starting rotation by winning thirteen games in 1953 and was quickly being viewed as a potential third starter behind the snarling Burdette and the great Spahn. Buhl hailed from Saginaw, Michigan, and as a teenager had been a paratrooper in World War II. Henry and Buhl were teammates under Mickey Owen in the winter of 1953 in Caguas, and, like Owen, Buhl had made it his personal crusade during the spring to talk up Henry as the next great player.
The opposite was more likely true. In Henry, the Braves had the kind of player who could reverse the fortunes of an entire franchise, but no one in the organization—or in the game, really—knew quite how to deal with what Henry truly represented: the first signature black player in Braves history. Henry’s invitation to the Braves training camp was a telegram with the address in Bradenton of Mrs. Lulu Mae Gibson.
Although Henry did not expect an invitation to stay at the Dixie Grande, the posh hotel in Bradenton where the white players lived during the spring, he was not comfortable with the accommodations provided him. The Gibson house was located in the colored section of Bradenton, and it had been the spring-training home for the Braves black players since 1950, when Sam Jethroe arrived as the first black member of the franchise.
In the spring of 1954, Barbara remained home in Alabama, pregnant for the first time. Henry and Barbara had already agreed that the spring-training conditions would not be conducive to living together as a family, as it was unlikely that apartment rentals would be available for colored players, and he was certain that the ball club would not pay for him and his pregnant new wife to be together. Henry would simply follow the other black players—Bruton, Charlie White, Jim Pendleton, and George Crowe—from Mrs. Gibson’s house to the ballpark.
The Gibson house was a brick five-bedroom duplex. The main house was connected to a smaller addition, “a little house on stilts,” as Henry recalled. During that first spring, he lived in the addition. “Mrs. Gibson was a schoolteacher, and I remember the house was right next to the J. D. Rogers funeral home. She would cook and clean for us and was happy to have us in her home. I remember living in the small house when I first came up.”
Henry and the black players were treated better in the private homes of black professionals than in the mainstream, but housing represented the first stage in confronting what it meant for a black prospect to be a full member of the organization. A common attitude regarding racial questions in baseball was that with the arrival of Jackie Robinson in 1947, long inequitable scales had now been balanced. Blacks had been allowed to play at the big-league level for seven years, and thus it was believed that nothing much was left to be discussed. It was a perspective that didn’t take into consideration the racial distinctions that existed despite the initial breakthrough. When Henry arrived at the clubhouse at Braves Field that first day, Joe Taylor, the Braves clubhouse man, showed him his locker, a wooden stall with a couple of diagonal nails inside for his jerseys, which would be clumped in with those of the other black players. The lockers of the white players were set apart. During the early weeks that spring, Henry noticed an unspoken practice that was common in baseball: The white players would shower first, then the black players.
And there were many discrepancies with regard to race: what could be said and what could not, who could speak and how, what types of people carried themselves in a given way and why, and what it all meant.
Most importantly, the presumption about who would be forced to sit and take it until the times were different remained. As Henry found during that first spring in 1954, Robinson was only the beginning. The real matters, the ones that made life normal, had not yet been addressed to any real degree, evidenced by his living in a rooming house while the white players (and their wives and kids) sat by the pool at the Dixie Grande. Henry tore into the baseball as the black leadership anxiously awaited a verdict in an important Supreme Court case that had been argued for the previous year and a half, Oliver L. Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. The case centered on equal facilities in public schools, but it spoke directly to the contradictions that defined Henry’s life: Was it possible for two parallel societies to exist? In Henry’s case, to play in the same outfield as white players, to use the same showers (perhaps one day at the same time, even), to hit in the same lineup, and yet be prohibited to sleep under the same roof? Henry received a six-dollar per diem for meals, the same as the white players, but in vivid ways he was being shown he was not on an equal basis with his teammates. Across the country, in Arizona, the New York Giants faced similar contradictions. Bill White played for the Giants minor-league system in 1954. He would play thirteen years in the major leagues, hit 202 home runs, and become the first black president of the National League, and to him, the absurdity of the situation was obvious. “I remembered thinking, If the accommodations were equal, why did they have to be separate in the first place?” he recalled. “Equal had nothing to do with it once you stepped off the field. They never thought we were equal. That’s why we couldn’t live where they were living.”
MOTHER GIBSON SERVES VERY TASTY TABLE TO THE NEGRO MEMBERS OF BRAVES SQUAD
BRADENTON, FLA.—“Come and get it, boys.”
Three of the Braves’ Negro players answered the breakfast call at Mrs. Gibson’s home where they live.
“This is really like home,” said outfielder Billy Bruton as he sat down to his platter of bacon, fried eggs and hot biscuits.
“It sure tastes like home cooking,” agreed outfielder Henry Aaron.…
“Wonderful boys, all of them,” said Mrs. Gibson, a broad smile lighting her face.
There were no complaints about the food. (“Mrs. Gibson must be the original home of southern fried chicken,” Braves assistant trainer and clubhouse man Joe Taylor said. “Hers is the best I’ve ever eaten.” But in a low and steady murmur, plenty of dissent was expressed regarding the system that forced Henry Aaron and Sam Jethroe to sit at Mrs. Gibson’s dinner table in the first place. When the time was right, it was Bruton (always beware of the quiet ones) who led the fight to eliminate segregated housing during spring training in the major leagues, thereby bringing to an end a valuable source of income and a sense of belonging for Mrs. Gibson and the other middle-class black families that took on the traveling famous—baseball players, jazz and bluesmen, all the blacks who were good enough to provide entertainment to whites but not good enough to occupy a hotel room. That spring, when integration existed in theory only, Lulu Gibson took pride in caring for her Braves, and she soon felt betrayed by the fact that Henry and “her boys” were angling to leave.
“Mrs. Gibson’s was the best choice at that time,” Henry recalled. “When integration came, she thought we were turning her down, and she was not happy about that. To her, it was a choice. To us, we wanted to have the same opportunity everyone else on the ball club had.”
During a meeting of player representatives during the 1961 All-Star Game in Boston, Bruton and Bill White canvassed support from the nascent players association and the white players, of whom Bill White said, “[They] only see us at the ballpark.” White by then was playing with St. Louis, Bruton with Detroit. It was White, focusing in the 1961 meeting on the new franchise awarded to Houston, who suggested that black players refuse to participate in cities that did not offer integrated housing. It was Bruton who said it was time for white players to support their black and Latino teammates off of the field.
“Behind the scenes, we made things happen. We integrated before the military, before the schools. We were the first ones,” Bill White recalled. “In a lot of places, we integrated hotels and housing in Florida before the civil rights movement. It started with Jackie, but Henry and Billy Bruton and Frank Robinson and me, too. When Atlanta came in the league, Willie Stargell said in a meeting that unless everyone could buy a ticket and sit wherever they wanted to, we shouldn’t play there. We all had to deal with it. People always talked about how we handled living while America was changing. Hell, we were the ones who changed America.”
In the spring, in between the long home runs that created myth and the nervousness of being a twenty-year-old trying to make a big-league roster, Henry represented the upsetting of another social layer. He was, along with Willie Mays, baseball’s first black super-prospect, touted as a teenager, groomed by a big-league organization through the traditional, integrated minor-league system. Henry played in the Negro Leagues, but as a teenager who hadn’t finished high school, and his future would be radically different from that of his Indianapolis Clowns teammates, the men for whom the times wouldn’t change fast enough. The Negro Leagues were never a destination for Henry, and that made him different from the rest. Even Robinson at first believed Branch Rickey had selected him to be part of a potential Negro League rival.
Evaluation of baseball talent was one thing—everybody in the Milwaukee system during spring training knew Henry had a special talent. Judging him as a man, however, was a completely different story. Two years earlier, in Buffalo, Henry had been questioned about how he conducted himself. Milwaukee scout Dewey Griggs, who signed Henry, asked him if he had another gear, which meant could he throw harder, put more snap on the ball, run harder, look like he was putting a full sweat into it. Griggs thought that Henry’s pace—languid to his coaches—might be problematic in a baseball environment where players were constantly and openly testing one another’s commitment level, and he asked Henry if he could run faster, if he could play more quickly than he was showing at that particular moment, and Henry said that he could. And Griggs asked him why he didn’t show maximum effort, each time, all the time, and Henry told him he was following old advice from Herbert Aaron: “Never move faster than you have to.”
If you came from Wilcox County, where the work was merciless and the future nonexistent, the maxim might have made more sense. Never move faster than you have to. In Herbert Aaron’s America, these were genius words, essential passages in his personal survival guide, the strategy employed by poor blacks to conserve the energy they would need for the backbreaking tasks they would face every day for rest of their lives, tasks that would weigh on Herbert Aaron, with no relief and no justice in sight. And the words represented something else: a subtle articulation of the black man’s revenge, the poor man’s only fighting weapon. For whether you moved quickly or leisurely, the day’s worth of work still awaited; the load never lightened. There was no reward of promotion or of prosperity, hope just a dream on a kind horizon. Working faster would not lead to more respect or more rest, a larger share of the profits, or a better life. It would not change your prospects in the eyes of the boss or create a reexamination of the system that profited from your sweat and crushed you in the process. If you asked for more, the southern system would rather kill you than make you an equal partner in the American dream. Working faster would not better your position in the company. The only thing fast work produced was more work. In Herbert Aaron’s America, appealing to the boss was the worst thing you could do. It was just a waste of energy, because the status of the black laborer in the South always remained the same.
On the ball field, Henry had not yet learned this key piece of survival, and on the sun-and-dust ball fields in Bradenton, Dewey Griggs attempted to clue Henry in on how baseball’s version of office politics really worked. In baseball, perceived effort was often as important as actually working hard, and the appearance of working hard carried a great deal of value. Players with less physical talent knew it the best, for they were the guys whose very survival in the game depended on a manager or a coach believing that his lack of talent gave him a greater desire than the more gifted players, thus making him more valuable. Baseball managers often connected best with these players, the ones whose arms pumped and teeth clenched when they chugged helplessly to first, out by a mile. Since the great majority of baseball managers at one time themselves had had marginal ability and had to compensate with toughness and maximum effort, the player who used tenacity to compensate for a lack of foot speed often reminded the skipper of himself when he was young. It was the guy who couldn’t run who had to run the hardest, to prove that he was willing to overcome his physical limitations with extra effort. And in the dugout, there was no shame in that—unless, that is, you were trying to score unearned points with the manager. Baseball linguistics provided terminology for the culprits who embodied each end of the scale. The term was jaking it for the player who did not hustle and lacked work ethic, and goldbricking was the special designation for the players who mastered the fine art of false hustle. And it was always surprising just how many people in the big-league hierarchy—players, managers, executives, coaches, and members of the press—fell for the act.
There was a difference between the player who played hard but could make it look easy and the guy who gave it his all, buttons popping, tumbling in the outfield, all to make a routine catch. The latter was a guy the shrewdest players in the dugout could sniff out faster than a bloodhound.
In the beginning, Henry paid a severe price for not exploiting these subtle, variable distinctions, which took on greater significance with black players. In later years, once his talent had secured his legend, he would be applauded for running and fielding so effortlessly. As a twenty-year-old in his first spring camp, the unscientific art of reading body language never seemed to work in his favor, even as he revealed the depth of his awesome potential to his teammates. The initial impressions of his teammates were often harsh, exposing less about who Henry Aaron was as a man and more about the racial attitudes that supported an order that was supposed to be crumbling.
“SLOW MOTION” AARON BECOMES COLORFUL FIGURE IN BRAVES’ CAMP
BRADENTON, FLA.—Henry Aaron is gradually becoming accustomed to major league surroundings. When he joined the Braves here three weeks ago, the 20-year-old Mobile (Ala.) Negro acted scared.… The bewildered rookie now acts like he is one of the gang. He smiles when Joe Adcock calls him “Slow Motion Henry” because he shuffles on and off the field.
OFTEN, the white boys would slip beyond the light joshing, and the true face behind the mask would reveal itself. Joshing with Henry was never easy anyway, because while he liked to laugh, he did not like to be teased. Sometimes his teammates would watch him in the field, walking easily, and it would reinforce not only stereotypes about how a black man moved but the widely held paternalist belief that blacks did not take work, whether baseball or otherwise, as seriously as whites. Sometimes the slights could feel like pinpricks, nagging and annoying, reminders to the black players that they were different. Whenever a black power hitter reached the majors, the adjective du jour was husky. “[Grimm’s] first sacker was George Crowe, husky Negro, a graduate of the Eastern League,” the Journal wrote in 1951.
Where matters became sticky was in the eye of the person doing the evaluating and whether he recognized his own prejudices, for the belief systems about what people were, in the case of black players in particular, of how hard they were willing to work, were capable of playing tricks on even the sharpest eyes. And that was why, if you were a white player watching Henry in those days, you had to ask yourself a question: Was he actually acting any differently from the thousands of inexperienced rookie ballplayers who had come before him?
Joe Adcock was the first player about whom Henry was wary. Adcock was a son of the South, the South Henry Aaron had escaped either by daydreaming as a boy or by leaving as a teenager. Adcock was born two years before the onset of the Depression in the unsparing poverty and rigid segregation of Coushatta, Louisiana. He would grow to six four and 220 pounds. He was a star athlete in football and basketball. He played college football at Louisiana State University in the mid-1940s and chose baseball over the National Football League because Cincinnati signed him first.
When southern resistance to Reconstruction reached its violent apex, Coushatta was the town best known for the Coushatta Massacre, when in August 1874 a mob of whites calling themselves the White League accosted members of the town’s political leadership, whites and their black followers, and threatened to murder each if they did not leave town. As the group of sixty blacks and six whites left the town limits, heading to Texas unarmed, they were followed and murdered by a gang of forty Coushatta whites, who chased them down and shot each one of them to death.
Once in the spring, Adcock noticed Henry’s running style, nearly motionless from the waist up. Because Henry compensated for an ankle injury suffered when he was young, his stride was not always fluid. Adcock decided that Henry ran stiff-legged, and he coined another new nickname for the rookie, one that the press occasionally repeated. “Slow Motion Henry” wasn’t enough. Adcock now called him “Snowshoes.” In these instances, Henry might smile or pretend he did not hear. Spahn, he of the extensive vocabulary and cutting wit, might call you out, yelling something clever across the diamond or the clubhouse, shredding his tormentor into verbal ribbons. Mathews, on a dark day, might just break your jaw if you pushed him the wrong way. Henry was not an emotionally confrontational man. He would not say anything, and that made him in those years easy to underestimate. If Jackie Robinson would spark and combust, Henry would collect information about the people around him, quietly sharpening his judgments while smoldering privately at the same time, like the day he sat in a bathroom stall and overheard Adcock talking about “niggers.” “He was talking about something,” Henry said. “I don’t remember the whole conversation, but he said to somebody, ‘You couldn’t see a nigger if they put you in the middle of Harlem.’ ” There was no confrontation with Adcock that day, or any other during the decade they would play as teammates, but Henry knew he would never let Joe Adcock take him by surprise. He knew where Adcock stood, and to Henry, that gave him an advantage.
To Chuck Tanner, Henry was a threat both to the order and to his new teammates. Like Henry, Tanner had been invited to the big-league camp and, like Henry, was not on the Milwaukee roster in the spring of 1954. Tanner was an outfielder who had first been signed by the Boston Braves in 1946 but had advanced slowly through the ranks. Tanner was born on Independence Day, 1929, in the tough mining town of New Castle, Pennsylvania, three and a half months before the stock market crash. Tanner immediately understood racial and ethnic divisions, divisions that were often muted because of the grinding poverty of the region. “We had so many different people from where we came from—Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and a few blacks—you couldn’t pronounce the last names of most of the people on my block,” Tanner recalled. “And believe me, when you had that many different people in one area, things could get heated. But none of us had anything, so it was hard for anyone to feel superior. When I was a kid, we all traded fruits and vegetables with one another instead of money, just so we could eat.”
By 1954, Tanner had been in the Braves minor-league system for seven years and was not exactly certain he would ever make the major leagues. Tanner’s experiences gave him special insight into how established players could view a player so extremely gifted as Henry. While it was not a surprise to him that those from the Deep South, like Adcock, would be difficult, Tanner believed that racism, or even simple insensitivity, was secondary to a certain kind of professional jealousy and a certain amount of fear both on the part of some of Henry’s peers as well as the writers.
“The bottom line is that they were jealous of him,” Tanner recalled. “In those days, nobody wanted to go back to the farm, and Henry Aaron was so good, they knew that. They knew he wasn’t going to be the one going back to the farm. He made everything look so easy that even the writers hated him for it at first. Henry didn’t run; he glided. He just had so much ability. He could make everything look so easy, and I think people resented him for that.”
The hazing was more a by-product of the players’ insecurities reaching the surface, Chuck Tanner believed. What increased the intensity was another layer of change white players were being forced to confront: There now would not only be black players in the game but the greater number of black players on a roster, the more white players who would be losing their jobs to blacks. It was bad enough to get sent out to the minors because a better player took your job, but it was even worse for a white player to lose out to a black. The thing the white players feared most, Tanner thought, was having to explain to all the guys back home that they weren’t as good as the black guys coming into the league.
And Henry left Bradenton leading his team in home runs, extra base hits, and runs batted in. On the final day of spring training, the Braves purchased his minor-league contract from Toledo. George Selkirk’s premonition had come true. Henry would never play a game in Toledo. His big-league contract paid the major-league minimum salary of six thousand dollars per year. Charlie Grimm told him he was the starting left fielder, with Bruton in center and Pafko in right. As the team headed north to begin the season, Joe Taylor, the Braves equipment manager, told Henry to keep the number he wore during the spring. He would wear number 5.