The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART ONE. ESCAPE
Chapter 4. MILWAUKEE
IT WAS A strange way to start a renaissance, by leaving a big town full of history and power and influence for a medium-sized midwestern town with an inferiority complex, virtually anonymous, both in terms of national prominence and importance on the baseball map.
Since the end of the Spanish-American War, the Braves had been looking for love, and they never quite found it in Boston. The team was formed in 1871, thirty years before the Red Sox, first as the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association and then, in 1876, as the Boston Red Caps, one of the inaugural eight franchises of the newly formed National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The Red Caps finished fourth that year, but they were fortified by an admirable stamina—they didn’t finish in the money, but they remained in business. Neither the New York Mutuals nor the Philadelphia Athletics (both of which were expelled after one season) could say that. The Hartford Dark Blues, the St. Louis Brown Stockings, and the Louisville Grays all folded after the league’s second season. The Cincinnati Red Stockings were expelled by the league following the 1880 season, in part for the high offense of selling beer to fans. Of the original eight franchises that comprised the National Association, only the Chicago White Stockings (later to become the Cubs) and the Red Caps would survive the years.
For a time, life in Boston was beautiful. The franchise played in Roxbury, at the South End Grounds and later at Braves Field, both parks within throwing distance of Fenway Park, later the home of the newly formed Red Sox in the upstart American League. The Braves were an immediate dynasty, winning four pennants in the five-year existence of the National Association, and in their first twenty-two years after joining the National League, they won eight more. The team was managed by accomplished baseball men Harry Wright and Frank Selee, men who would wind up in Cooperstown, and it would forever live in memory for the magical year of 1914, the year the Braves were in last place, sporting a record of 33–43, eleven and a half games back of John McGraw’s New York Giants on July 15, and yet the Braves were popping corks by October, finishing the season winning sixty-one of their final seventy-seven games, to end up with the pennant, ten and a half games in first. The “Miracle Braves,” as they would be known forever more, completed the conquest a week later, sweeping Connie Mack’s legendary Philadelphia A’s in four straight in the 1914 World Series.
Over the years, the name changed, from the Red Caps to the Beaneaters to the Doves to the Rustlers to the Braves to the Bees and, finally and permanently, in 1941, back to the Braves. Yet three truths remained constant: The first was that despite the changing nickname, the team always remained a bedrock constant in Boston. The second was that once the twentieth century began, the Braves were patently awful. It didn’t matter if the manager was Rogers Hornsby (50–103 in 1928) or Casey Stengel (373–491, for a .432 winning percentage over six seasons), or the players were Walter “Rabbit” Maranville or a forty-year-old fat and finished Babe Ruth (.181 batting average in twenty-three games for a team that would finish 38–115 in 1935). In the seasons between the Miracle Braves and the 1948 club that surprised everyone by winning the pennant (and were one agonizing one-game play-off away from playing the Red Sox in what would have been the only all-Boston World Series), the Braves finished in the second division. That was the kind way of saying fifth place, or worse—twenty-six times in the thirty-two seasons between pennants.
The third truth was that almost from the start, the American League Red Sox possessed an uncanny ability to attract attention in a way their august, stiffer National League counterparts certainly could not. The Red Sox arrived in 1901, and they were champions by 1903 after winning the first-ever World Series between the rival leagues, dousing Pittsburgh in a raucous affair. While the Braves puttered around in the muddy old confines of the South End Grounds in Roxbury, the Red Sox built their grand ballpark, Fenway Park, in the Fenway section of town in 1912. The Red Sox were interesting in victory and defeat during the teen years, building a following with championship teams in 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918. The Braves were established, but the Red Sox were exciting, with big names and bigger personalities—among them Cy Young, “Smokey Joe” Wood, Tris Speaker, and, of course, one George Herman Ruth—names so big that, despite the unquestioned dominance of the Braves before the Red Sox ever existed, future generations would accept as fact that Boston always had been an American League town.
It was a momentum that never slowed. Thomas A. Yawkey purchased the Red Sox in 1933, and the Braves had no one to compete with the headline-generating bombast of Ted Williams or Yawkey’s fruitless opulence. Winning the pennant in 1948 did not change the Braves second-place status, and Frank Lane, the general manager of the Chicago White Sox, began to articulate a prediction about the future that seemed too scary, too foreign to accept as anything but radical.
“Two-club cities, with the exception of New York and Chicago,” Lane said, “are doomed.”
MILWAUKEE WAS ONCE a big-league town. The year was 1901, the first year of the American League, and the team, the Milwaukee Brewers, was ironically an early incarnation of the St. Louis Browns/Baltimore Orioles. The Brewers that year won forty-eight games (out of 137, a winning percentage of .350, good for last place) in their only season in Milwaukee before moving to St. Louis. It wasn’t that the good people of Milwaukee (“Good Burghers,” the press called them) didn’t love their baseball, but more that the barons, who ran the game, didn’t exactly love them back. Another edition of the Milwaukee Brewers arrived in 1902 and played in the minor-league American Association for the next fifty years, and that’s what Milwaukee would be, minor-league, through two world wars and the Depression. For a time, being called “minor-league” did not sting, for the city took pride in its baseball team and Borchert Field, its rickety old home, adopting the position that it, like much of the rest of the custom and personality of Milwaukee, may not have translated easily to the outside world but, inside, was representative of how the community viewed itself.
Milwaukee was a city founded by French fur traders and speculators. Nestled on the western edge of Lake Michigan, it united originally by conflict. Two independent, rival communities—Juneautown on the east banks of the Milwaukee River, founded by Solomon Juneau, and Kilbourntown, on the west, founded by Byron Kilbourn—lived in relative hostility during the early 1840s. When the Kilbourntown supporters dumped a whole section of a proposed drawbridge into the river, ostensibly to hamper and isolate the economic prospects of Juneautown, the famous Milwaukee Bridge War ensued. The weeks of fighting resulted in the unification of the two factions into one city in 1845.
The French arrived first, but the enduring fabric of the city was shaped by the heavy influx of German immigrants in the mid-1800s and the social and political customs they brought to their new world. There would be lasting examples of the city’s uniqueness. Milwaukee would be the only major American city to elect three Socialist mayors, and even as late as World War I, no city outside of New York City would house as many different immigrant groups as would Milwaukee. And in line with its German-Austrian immigrant roots, there would be agriculture and education and social progressiveness and beer, not always in that order.
The population surged, and the powerful German heritage mixed with that of the fast-rising pockets of Poles, Jews, Hungarians and Austrians, and some Western European immigrants (the first Milwaukee City Hall, built in 1891, was designed in the Flemish Renaissance style). During the first fifty years of incorporation, Milwaukee grew from roughly 20,000 residents to nearly 300,000. Between 1880 and 1890 alone, the population grew by 76 percent. World War I threatened the social fabric of the city as the allegiance of German immigrants was tested, prompting the Milwaukee Journal to inflame tensions by accusing the Germania-Herold, the German newspaper, of disloyalty. The sensibilities of Milwaukee Germans were so frayed that by the end of the war, many believed Prohibition became a reality in part as a reaction to a disturbing backlash of anti-German sentiment. Still, the city grew. By the late 1940s, the population exceeded 600,000 (times were so good that even the Milwaukee Journal, on the flag of the paper, right next to the weather and the date, listed its circulation, proof of its muscle, its upward mobility). In the years following World War II, with the population booming, Milwaukee wanted more. It wanted baseball, big-league baseball, and there was no longer anything quaint or endearing about the term minor-league.
The layers of change that enveloped baseball in the early 1950s were not limited to white players growing accustomed to having black teammates. The changes also presented a challenge to the barons of the game to see more clearly beyond the confining borders of the past and determine which of them possessed the vision to navigate a fluid future.
No team had relocated since 1903, when the Baltimore Orioles moved to become the New York Highlanders, or its better-known nom de voyage, the Yankees, but the larger forces of postwar expansion and advances in technology and travel could not be suppressed. Frank Lane had predicted that the two-team city structure that had been a fixture since the turn of the century was dead, and only the most stubborn owners could disagree with him. There was a new baseball phrase for the growing number of cities in an expanding America that hungered for baseball. The term—big-league ready—was one that only a few members of the old guard were ready to adopt, but Braves owner Lou Perini and Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley were baseball’s two biggest evangelists for expansion. “The entire map of Organized Baseball should be reorganized so that baseball can keep pace with the growth of the nation,” Wrigley said in 1951. It was a sentiment that spoke directly to Lou Perini.
Louis Perini was a New Englander, born and raised in the rural town of Ashland, Massachusetts, about twenty miles west of Boston. Yet Perini was never limited in his worldview. As a boy, he worked for his father’s construction company, and according to the family legend, six-year-old Louis would fetch pails of water for his father’s crew of hungry workers. In 1924, when Louis was twenty-one, his father died and left the family construction business to his sons. Louis became president of the new company, and even through the Depression years, he was able to amass and maintain a hefty fortune. Nearing the end of World War II, in January 1944, Lou Perini partnered with Joseph Maney and Guido Rugo, along with a consortium of minority partners, to purchase a controlling interest in the Braves from Bob Quinn. The three construction men turned baseball owners were known as “the Three Little Steam Shovels,” and their first order of business was to bounce Stengel as manager and revive the moribund franchise. Within three years, the Braves were contenders. In the fourth, in 1948, the Braves drew 1.3 million fans and won the pennant, although they lost to Cleveland in the World Series.
Lou Perini saw himself as a visionary, and compared to the owners whose idea of progress was to view the coming of television as the death of baseball, he was. Perini believed in expansion. In the 1940s, he wanted baseball scouts to begin searching in Europe—both to in his words, “spread the gospel of the game” and to develop new talent markets outside of the United States. Perini believed Los Angeles deserved a baseball team, and he saw California as the great growth area of the country. “And let’s interpolate this opinion: in 25 years California will have more people than any state in the U.S.A.,” he said in 1951. “Can the major leagues afford to stand still?” He thought Milwaukee and Houston were “big-league ready,” which was where one of his key visions entered the picture in 1951: a twelve-team league with franchises in California, Montreal, Mexico City, and even Havana, Cuba.
For a time, Perini did not believe his own club a candidate for relocation, and he had his reasons. One was his commitment to Boston. In the years 1947 through 1949, both the Braves and Red Sox drew over one million fans, suggesting that if both clubs fielded competitive teams, the city possessed the resources and will to support both. But the Braves never outdrew the Red Sox during those years, and at least some of the attendance figures on both sides were boosted by American euphoria over the end of the war years. Cleveland, for example, drew 2.6 million fans when it won the World Series in 1948, but the next season, when pennant-winning clubs usually enjoyed a significant spike in attendance, the team drew 400,000 fewer fans.
Another of Perini’s convictions in 1951 was that within five years the Braves would be the powerhouse in baseball, on a par with—if not better than—the Dodgers and the Yankees. One key piece—the pitcher Warren Spahn—was already in place, and in 1950, the Braves had traded for another, moving an aging Johnny Sain to the Yankees for a young right-hander named Selva Lewis Burdette. There were third baseman Eddie Mathews, the young shortstop Johnny Logan, and two black prospects, the lightning-fast outfielder Bill Bruton and George Crowe, a hard-hitting first baseman. Even more promising for Perini was that at each level the Braves farm system had been tearing up the minor leagues.
In 1950, Perini invited two friends to attend the All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the legendary Notre Dame football coach Frank Leahy and Fred C. Miller, the president of the Miller Brewing Company. During the game, Miller asked Perini if he was interested in selling the Braves to him and expressed his intention of moving them to Milwaukee. Perini declined, but he agreed to Miller’s request that Perini not move or sell the Braves without first speaking with him. The following year, on July 1, 1951, the Boston Traveler published an item about a group of Milwaukee businessmen interested in purchasing equity in the Braves, with the intention of relocating the team to Milwaukee. Perini, not willing to accept the old Hollywood adage that the rumors are always true, laughed the story off as ridiculous. “The whole thing is utterly fantastic. The Braves will remain in Boston, which is where they belong,” Perini said. “I believe that some day Milwaukee will have a major-league franchise, but that will not come to pass until the entire structure of baseball is changed. I can assure everyone that the franchise that Milwaukee may obtain eventually will not be the Braves franchise.”
Less funny was the massive financial hit the Three Little Steam Shovels were taking with the Braves in Boston. In 1950, Perini lost a quarter of a million dollars. The following year, the attendance at Braves Field dropped by nearly half, to 6,250 fans per game.
Future retellings of the Braves demise would always contain a delicious element of the unknown—of what might have been had the Braves remained in Boston another few years and the flowering of the club had taken place there instead of in Milwaukee. Perini had alienated fans, in part by selling off key members of the 1948 pennant team, such as Alvin Dark, Johnny Sain, and Eddie Stanky, but a powerful young nucleus was forming on the club, just at the time when the Red Sox were about to begin a deep and precipitous slide into irrelevancy.
Bill Veeck, the iconoclastic owner of the St. Louis Browns, had realized that St. Louis was not big enough for two teams, and Veeck began searching for relocation possibilities. Suddenly, the gold rush was on, and the teams that never had a prime market to call their own were racing to find the promised land. Milwaukee was first, or a booming equivalent. Veeck wanted to move to Milwaukee, to return the Browns to their original home of fifty years earlier. A group of businessmen from Houston took an interest in purchasing the Cardinals when the owner, Fred Saigh, under federal investigation for tax irregularities, put the team up for sale. Veeck disclosed that a year before Fred Miller’s discussion with Perini at the All-Star Game in 1950, Fred Miller had contacted him and spoken of the possibility of moving the Browns to Milwaukee, and the two would speak again for the next two years, even though Veeck’s real dream was to move the Browns to Los Angeles. He’d tried in 1944, but wartime travel restrictions made it impossible for one team to be located two thousand miles from the next closest club. Plus, Veeck was never popular enough with his fellow owners to be allowed so audacious and potentially lucrative a move.
Perini held the advantage in Milwaukee. His relationship with Miller was strong and he also owned the minor-league club, the Brewers, and held an existing lease on Milwaukee County Stadium. He promised five million dollars in stadium renovations, ostensibly for the Brewers, who had outgrown Borchert Field. The true motive for County Stadium, naturally, was to attract a big-league team. When Perini denied he would ever sell the Braves to any consortium of Milwaukee businessmen, he was being accurate, albeit in a convoluted way. Parse the words, peel off the layers of the onion, and in many ways Perini had shown his hand back in 1951. Milwaukee wouldn’t land a team “until the entire structure of baseball is changed.” It was true: He was not going to sell, but he was going to change the entire structure in one stroke. He was going to move the Braves to Milwaukee himself.
In January 1952, Perini wagered his greatest and last gamble in Boston, spending thirty thousand dollars to charter a Pan American Airways jet to publicize the star players of the Braves farm system. Perini invited five Boston writers, plus a radio commentator and his publicity man, to fly to the hometowns of eighteen of the club’s top prospects, as well as five more who were playing in Puerto Rico and Cuba. The final stop of the 10,361-mile journey was Santa Barbara, California, home of Eddie Mathews, the twenty-year-old slugging third baseman. The jet was dubbed the “Rookie Rocket,” and had it departed six months later, an eighteen-year-old Henry Aaron, playing shortstop in Eau Claire, likely would have merited a stop on the tour.
In the end, the 1952 season broke Lou Perini. On April 15, Spahn lost to the Dodgers 3–2 in front of an opening-day crowd of 4,694. On May 14, 1,105 showed up for the Braves-Pirates game. In the final home game of the season against the Dodgers, 8,822 watched Joe Black beat the home team. The final attendance for the season at Braves Field was 281,278, or an average of 3,563 fans per game, an 80 percent drop in attendance from the 1948 World Series team just four seasons earlier.
The Braves arrived in Bradenton as vagabonds. Perini knew the club would not likely return to Boston for the 1953 season, and he began planning his escape. The cover of the 1953 spring press guide had been redone, removing the name Boston. The new guide did not specify a city, reading simply “The Braves.” During the winter of 1952, Perini engaged in a little behind-the-scenes horse trading. He cajoled his fellow owners to relax the tight restrictions on franchise moves by allowing a major-league team to move into the same territory of a minor-league team without permission from the team or its league. The rule allowed Perini to move into Milwaukee, since he already owned the Brewers. Perini then consolidated his power base, buying out all of his minority partners—including two of the original Steam Shovels, Guido Rugo and Joseph Maney—and replacing them with his two brothers, thus eliminating any potential objection within ownership to a move to Wisconsin. Of the owners, Perini was particularly focused on canvassing Phil Wrigley of the Cubs, Ruly Carpenter of the Phillies, and Connie Mack of the Athletics for support, the owners who shared their cities with another club. He was also keeping a watchful eye on St. Louis, where the Cardinals were for sale, knowing a group of Texas businessmen were hot to move the venerable Redbirds to Houston. Perini told his old friend Wrigley that he needed to support the proposal to make it easier to one day have the city of Chicago to himself. When the sale of the Cardinals to beer magnate August Busch was approved, Perini knew he could count on the support of Bill Veeck, who realized the Cardinals were not going to Houston and now had the resources to become a St. Louis institution once again. That confirmed what Veeck long knew: His St. Louis Browns would again be on the move and would need support.
On March 19, 1953, at a meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, the league owners approved Perini’s request to transfer the Boston National League franchise to Milwaukee, while rejecting Veeck, who had accepted the second-place prize of Baltimore. At the time of the approval, the Braves were in the fifth inning, playing in a spring-training game. On the scoreboard in Bradenton, the name for the home team read BOS. By the end, the home team was MIL.
The Braves now belonged to Milwaukee.
The sale was complete, but not without a touch of irony. Five years after Perini had successfully lobbied the owners to ease the relocation process, Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, engineered the most famous and polarizing relocation in the history of American professional sports. He had voted for the rules and the relocation, while lamenting that the changes would create a “shifting carnival.”
Still, it galled Perini that he, a native son of Boston, was being forced to move, while that Michigan–South Carolina carpetbagger Yawkey, who would never even purchase a permanent residence in the forty-three years he owned the Red Sox, positioned himself as the guardian of Boston baseball. Yawkey and Boston never warmed to each other until 1967, the single most important year in the baseball history of the city (the Red Sox went to the World Series, losing to St. Louis), when more than a decade of losing was wiped clean by the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox. Before then, Yawkey had been disillusioned with baseball and, more to the point, the city politicians who refused to build him a new stadium with public money. To Johnny Logan, it was just another reason why he felt the gods rained on the Boston Braves. If Mathews, Bruton, and Aaron could have reached the majors together as a unit, it might have been the Red Sox who left town. “With the team we had, we would have turned Boston upside down,” Logan said. “If we had stayed, we would have owned that city. I was hoping we could stick just a little longer. But we left.”
Even Perini’s successes were somehow either obscured by or co-opted by the Red Sox. In a city always unable to escape its racial contradictions and confrontations, Perini was never part of Boston’s racially unattractive narrative. The Braves were one of the first teams in baseball to integrate, with center fielder Sam Jethroe winning the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1950, and had the Braves remained, the Boston sports scene would have showcased Henry Aaron and Bill Russell (not to mention a fading but always compelling Ted Williams), both at the height of their powers. It was Perini and his ownership group and not Tom Yawkey or the Red Sox that founded the Jimmy Fund, and yet over the decades the famous charity would become synonymous with the Boston Red Sox.
And it galled him equally that he truly was a man of vision, a person who embraced the future as a place of wide opportunity—indeed, the leagues would expand to California, expand internationally, and embrace television, ideas that Perini supported years before his contemporaries. By comparison, Yawkey would be one of the least dynamic owners in the history of the sport, one who viewed change as something to be suppressed. Following the first transcontinental broadcast of a baseball game in 1951, the common attitude toward television was that televising home games would not be a great advertising tool to attract fans or build a greater following for teams whose fans could not attend a game. Instead, it would negatively affect the home gate. Yawkey refused to broadcast even a third of Boston’s home games at Fenway Park. Perini, meanwhile, broadcast sixty-three of the seventy-seven Braves home games. Yawkey would be the name synonymous with baseball ownership in Boston, while Perini was left ashen and melancholy. “Ever since I got into baseball I have given considerable thought to making it more attractive to the fans and the idea of attracting new fans,” Perini said. “Perhaps several of my ideas were too extreme for some, but they were always motivated in the best interests of the game.” Yet, Perini’s hometown simply would not respond to his baseball team, and it was that curious and fatal apathy that created the momentum toward Milwaukee. Perini saw himself as a man of vision, and men of vision did not fight momentum.
THE BRAVES WERE welcomed to Milwaukee as saviors. In most towns, the bars and restaurants jockeyed to curry favor with the local ball club, everyone wanting to be the official establishment of the home team. Milwaukee was no different.
After home games, Duffy Lewis, the Braves traveling secretary, would call Ray Jackson’s Barbecue and tell the bartender to put some bottles on ice—the players were coming over. Wisconsin Avenue was full of hot spots willing to cater to the team. There was Ray Jackson’s, but there were also Fazio’s and Frenchy’s and the authentic German restaurants Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s. There was Mick Lewin’s, and for the best steak in town, there was the Hotel Schroeder.
In most towns, the gratuity stopped there—a steak and a beer and a handshake. In Milwaukee, grateful to finally be big league, the red carpet extended to gasoline (Wisco 99 filled the players’ tanks for free), dry cleaning, and furnishings for the wet bar, courtesy of Fred Miller.
“We got automobiles to drive. We got dairy products. We got free gasoline. We got free dry cleaning,” Frank Torre recalled. “A case of beer a week, and a case of whiskey a month, I remember. They just fell in love with the team. I was one of the luckiest players in the world. What a unique era it was.”
The ballpark, County Stadium, was supposed to be a minor-league park, and except for the two-tiered grandstand that made a half-moon behind home plate, this was obvious. Down the lines, the grandstands stopped, replaced by odd single-level bleachers that would have looked more at home at a high-school football field. The light stanchions stood 115 feet in the air beyond the outfield fences, tall and alone, except for a row of fir and spruce trees in left center field planted in 1954, called, oddly enough, “Perini pines.”
The best feature of County Stadium was outside of the park’s grounds. On Mockingbird Hill, beyond the right-field fence, sat the National Soldiers VA Hospital. On game days, the vets could sit outside their rooms and watch the games for free.
The park offered glimpses of the future. It was big and roomy, unencumbered by the funky city blocks and angles that defined the old crackerjacks in Boston and Brooklyn. Hugging the outfield in a crescent beginning at third base and stretching to first was enough parking to satisfy an airport.
The 1953 team responded with immediate success—and magic. On opening day at County Stadium, Billy Bruton beat the Cardinals 3–2, with a tenth-inning home run. Mathews, all of twenty-one years old, hit 47 home runs, scored 110 runs, and drove in 135 to go with a .302 average and a second-place finish for the MVP, behind Roy Campanella. Spahn won twenty-three games, losing only seven. Primarily out of the bull pen, Burdette won fifteen games and saved eight more, while the new acquisition from Cincinnati, twenty-five-year-old Joe Adcock, drove in eighty runs. The club finished a distant second, thirteen games behind the 105-win Dodgers, but a 92-win team was something to embrace. At the gate, Perini led the league in attendance at 1.8 million fans, and the $600,000 loss he took in Boston was turned into a profit of nearly three-quarters of a million. The Boston experience did, however, erode some of Perini’s vision. Once in Milwaukee, Perini retreated from his position that television promoted the game and retrenched, refusing to broadcast a significant number of games to his new and excited fan base.
He had been the first owner to move a franchise in half a century, and it worked. Every sad-sack owner in baseball, either saddled behind a more profitable club in the same city or pessimistic about the lump of mud they called home, suddenly wanted to be just like Lou Perini. That was what men of action did with momentum. They found a way to make it work for them, to cultivate it, to give the world the impression that the happenstance of the day was exactly the lucky break for which they had been searching all along.
THE MILWAUKEE IN which Henry Aaron arrived in 1954 was still growing, though not at the rapid pace it had at the turn of the century. It was adjusting to another transition, one that occurred in the years immediately approaching and following World War II: the arrival of thousands of southern blacks during the great migration north. The postwar increase in the black population would produce for Milwaukee one of its great contradictions, for despite its reputation for tolerance, high-quality-of-life Milwaukee earned a reputation as one of the most severely segregated cities in the country.
Blacks were marginalized in a tight quarter of the city, nicknamed “Bronzeville,” which was roughly the rectangle bordered by State Street to the south, North Avenue to the north, and Third and Twelfth streets to the east and west, respectively. The name Bronzeville was most likely a descendant of the black section of Chicago, the destination city for so many southern blacks during the great migration. Bronzeville was managed so tightly by the restrictive housing patterns and lending practices of area banks that a study undertaken by the Milwaukee Commission on Human Rights—titled The Housing of Negroes in Milwaukee, 1955—concluded:
The free choice of residence in the open housing market which ecologically stratifies most of our population in terms of income, education and occupation is not operative in the case of Negroes. All those restricted within the arbitrary confines of the racial ghetto must find shelter as best they can within its circumscribed bounds. The Negro middle and upper classes, regardless of their education, skills, professional accomplishments—if their skin is dark—must reside in the slum. The fact that they dislike the disorganizing and predatory features as greatly as do their white social status counterparts avails them naught.
Henry and Barbara, who was now pregnant, rented an apartment on Twenty-ninth Street, close to Bill Bruton and Jim Pendleton. Henry was eager to breathe the air of the big leagues—to measure his ability against the top competition in the sport, to absorb the fullness of the dream of being a major-league ballplayer—but navigating his new city outside of the ballpark was a far less attractive challenge. He had always been the boy who wanted to escape, the one most comfortable in his own private space or on the baseball diamond, not easily gregarious by nature. Thus, it wasn’t with great enthusiasm that Henry went about the inevitable but important chore of wading through the idiosyncrasies of his new city, even though he was immediately taken by the nightlife there. Milwaukee was not Chicago, but when it came to hoisting a glass, it was on par with any city. “The first thing I noticed about Milwaukee,” Henry would say, “was the number of bars. Milwaukee was definitely a drinking town.”
More than any other player on the Braves, it was Billy Bruton who eased Henry’s transition. “If it weren’t for Bill Bruton,” Henry would say, “I don’t know if I would have made it those early years. He was like a big brother and a father to me, all at the same time. He showed me the way.”
Eight years older than Henry, William Haron Bruton was born November 9, 1925, in Panola, Alabama, on the outskirts of Birmingham. Unlike most of his teammates, including Henry, for whom baseball was the only destination, Bruton saw baseball as a vehicle that could provide greater opportunities and acceptance for him off of the field, opportunities not yet existing for blacks. As an adolescent, he moved to Wilmington, Delaware, with the childhood dream of becoming a chemist, but he would later say that he chose baseball because he believed that chemistry was not yet a field in which a person of color could succeed. He had not even begun to think of baseball as a career, because during his youth, the game had still been closed to black players. By the time he had been discovered playing center field for the San Francisco Cubs, a barnstorming club that toured the Midwest, Bruton was twenty-four years old, talented enough to play in the major leagues but too old to be taken seriously as a prospect by a major-league club. After the legendary scout Bill Yancey instructed Bruton to shave four years off of his age to make him more attractive to big-league clubs, the Boston Braves signed Bruton to a minor-league contract to play at Eau Claire. He was a tall and lean left-handed hitter, six feet tall but weighing barely 170 pounds, possessor of blazing speed and sharp defensive instinct. When Bruton was promoted to Denver before joining the Braves, he had been nicknamed “the Ebony Comet” by the local fans.
It was Jackie Robinson who received the attention, but Billy Bruton was one of the many unsung black players who had a special role in the integration of the game. Along with Roy White, he had integrated the Northern League two years before Henry arrived, and, like Henry, he had been welcomed into the home of Susan Hauck. Few players were as committed to challenging the conditions for black players in the game as Bill Bruton. He was as frustrated and impatient for equal opportunity as Robinson, yet he possessed interpersonal skills that made him popular with the overwhelmingly white Milwaukee fans—but not at the price of his dignity—without having to play the caricature of the disarming Negro. He did not raise his voice, or often show flashes of temper, but almost immediately after reaching the big leagues, Billy Bruton had become the de facto ambassador to Braves management for the black players of the team. He would be the first black player on the Braves to live year-round in Milwaukee, and being an older player—he was a twenty-seven-year-old rookie when he made his big-league debut in 1953—he was more mature than the younger players.
Bruton was serious and religious, and he immediately commanded the respect of his peers, even during a humiliating time. His wife, Loretta, did not attend spring-training games, because she refused to sit in segregated seating, apart from the wives of the white players. “There were beaches everywhere in Florida, but none where she could go with the other wives,” Bruton once said. “I had to eat in the kitchens of roadside restaurants … or wait for a Negro cab driver to come along and tell me where I could get a meal. All I could ask myself was, ‘How long would I have to suffer such humiliation?’ ”
Bruton was the black elder of the Braves, and he had immediately taken Henry under his wing. He taught Henry important aspects of the big-league life: how to tip, which cities were particularly difficult for black players, which parts of Milwaukee were friendly and which were not. Duffy Lewis had, in effect, made Bruton his deputy when it came to dealing with the logistics of the separate life black players were required to live. Lewis made Bruton his proxy. It was Bruton who handed out meal money and, most important in spring training, learned the transportation schedules of black cabdrivers and buses, as well as restaurants, barbershops, all of the details black players needed to know, being apart from the rest of the team.
INSIDE THE CLUBHOUSE, the youth of the team served as a major benefit. It meant there would be less sifting through an established, rigid culture. Unlike most clubs that contended for a championship, the 1954 Milwaukee Braves possessed an optimism that stemmed more from talent than experience. The Braves were in gestation, a talented club high on potential but low on actual checks on their big-league résumés. The Rookie Rocket may not have been able to keep the club in Boston, but Perini was correct in his belief that his club was on the verge of becoming a force. Henry was now another addition to the Braves stockpile.
The lone exception was Warren Spahn, who represented the dominant personality of the clubhouse. In 1954, Spahn was thirty-three, eleven years older than Mathews, thirteen years older than Henry. He had been with the organization since before Pearl Harbor, having signed as an amateur free agent with the Boston Bees in 1940. When the Braves were poised to rise to prominence in their new home, Spahn was already the most gifted and prolific left-hander in the game.
He came from Buffalo and was from the outset a star athlete. His father, Edward, pitched in the semipro leagues and city teams in Buffalo and played on and managed traveling teams in Canada. The city teams had no age limits, and Edward Spahn and young Warren played on the same team.
He was, like most superior athletes, always competitive, on and off the field, but perhaps not exactly by choice.
“My grandfather was a shortstop, played third base on occasion when the team needed him to,” Warren Spahn’s son, Greg, recalled of his grandfather Edward Spahn. “He was a little, wiry guy. He absolutely loved baseball. He drove my father so much, he always told me he wasn’t going to do to me what his father had done to him. My father was given no other option but to play baseball. Looking back on it, I wish he would have driven me more. It was just an overreaction to what his father had done to him.”
There were qualities in his personality and background that set Warren Spahn apart from his contemporaries. The writers consistently made note of his extensive vocabulary, erudition, and wide interests, taking great effort to paint him as the pitcher as intellectual. His arrival in the big leagues in 1942 as a twenty-one-year-old was nearly his downfall. Casey Stengel, salty and unsentimental, was the Braves manager. Stengel banished Spahn to the minor leagues one day after he refused to throw at Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese during a spring-training game. “He told my father he did not have enough guts to be a major-league pitcher, and that became a big point of contention for my family over the next couple of years,” Greg Spahn said.
Spahn was drafted in 1942 and served three full years with the U.S. Army Combat Engineers. Unlike that of many higher-profile players, his military service was not a country club existence, putting on baseball exhibitions stateside for starry-eyed superiors. He saw combat in Europe, was wounded in Germany, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the monthlong battle along the Rhine, where 19,000 Americans were killed and another 47,000 wounded. He received a battlefield commendation in France. During the European campaign, Spahn suffered a shrapnel wound to the leg. For his wartime service, he would be awarded two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
“At the Bridge at Remagen his foot was hit by shrapnel from the bridge being bombed. At the Battle of the Bulge he suffered a laceration across the back of his neck,” Greg Spahn recalled. “He had a six-inch scar across the back of his neck. After he came back from the war, he would always say, ‘Pressure? This isn’t pressure. No one’s going to shoot at me if I don’t pitch well.’ ”
During the war, Warren met his wife, LoRene, a native Oklahoman, and the family settled in Broken Arrow, near her hometown. When he returned to the major leagues in 1946, Stengel was gone and Spahn, at twenty-five, won his first big-league game. He posted an 8–5 record in 1946 and then began one of the great pitching streaks in baseball history. In 1947, Spahn won twenty-one games and lost ten. The next year, the Braves won the pennant for the first time since 1914, with Spahn immortalized in baseball history by Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern.
First we’ll use Spahn
then we’ll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
by two days of rain
The poem survived the years as a two-verse rhyme, “Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain.” For his part, Spahn went just 15–12 in 1948, producing the second-lowest win total of his career between 1948 and 1963. Johnny Sain, who won twenty-four that year, was the legitimate ace of the staff, but legend never worries about such details.
Like Johnny Logan, the shortstop, Spahn was hesitant about the move to Milwaukee. Months before Perini petitioned the National League to relocate, Spahn opened a restaurant in Boston, Warren Spahn’s Tavern on Commonwealth Avenue, just across from Braves Field.
Spahn was simply different, distant in age and experiences from the younger players. He was a practical joker but could possess a cruel sense of humor, one that could make other players uncomfortable. Over the years, the relationship between Warren Spahn and Henry Aaron would fluctuate. Henry thought Spahn took pleasure in being a merry antagonist, the kind of person who would locate someone’s most sensitive spot and use it as fertile ground for humor. Spahn’s personality was exactly the kind Henry disliked the most—the guy who needled others for fun. “Spahn and I,” Henry would say fifty years later, “we had our problems.”
While always respectful of each other’s considerable ability, the two were not always friendly. “Hank didn’t always get Dad, but they definitely had great respect for one another,” Greg Spahn recalled.
If Spahn was the established veteran on the young team, Eddie Mathews was symbolic of its youth and vitality. If Spahn was the old pro, Logan the gritty street fighter, Lew Burdette the wily and guileless old pro, and Henry the prodigy, Eddie Mathews was the instant star, the matinee idol who immediately gave a face to the Braves. From the start, though he played his first season in Boston, Mathews captured the imagination of the Milwaukee baseball fan in a way no other member of the Braves would.
Edwin Lee Mathews, Jr., was born October 13, 1931, in Texarkana, Texas, but was raised in Santa Barbara. His father, Edwin senior, moved the family in 1935, in search of work during the Depression. He eventually landed a job as a wire chief, transmitting, among other news, baseball games for Western Union. As a boy, young Edwin was not close to his father. While the elder Mathews made a great effort to play catch with his son, Eddie’s earliest memories of his father were the odd hours Edwin senior worked, which prevented him from being home during the hours most fathers were, and the small bottles of alcohol Eddie would find hidden around the house.
Eddie was a two-sport athlete while growing up, excelling both in football and basketball. It was clear even in middle school that he had a special talent. In other, less forgiving cities, a player would have to be homegrown to truly reach the soul of the hometown. When the New York Giants relocated to San Francisco in 1958, Willie Mays was clearly the signature player of the franchise, but the city would not warm to the team until it produced Willie McCovey, its first star without ties to New York. Mathews was different. He was a hero almost from the beginning and would grow as a baseball player as the city became one of the new capitals of the sport. It was a glossy photograph of Mathews swinging away one night in 1954 at County Stadium that served as the initial cover for a new, sports-only magazine, Sports Illustrated.
He played baseball with a rugged intensity, wore his emotions nakedly, and was, on the surface, an uncomplicated competitor. What drew Milwaukee to Mathews was his grinding drive, often bordering on a rage, which, because of his passion, seemed glamorous. His youth and power made him something of a heartthrob to female fans. He connected to Milwaukee, Chuck Tanner thought, because of his almost pathological drive to succeed. That, plus Mathews’s rages, gave Milwaukee a player who reflected the city’s idealized vision of itself as a blue-collar, hardworking city.
He did not back down, ever. Mathews once engaged in a fistfight at third base with Frank Robinson after a hard slide, and brawled with six-foot-six-inch Don Drysdale for making a habit of throwing at Johnny Logan. Mathews, it was said, intimidated even fellow players with a look.
He was so gifted an offensive player, blessed with a smooth, slashing left-handed swing, that players and coaches alike underestimated his defense. In turn, Mathews played with a persistent self-consciousness regarding his abilities as a defensive player. Spahn was considered a sophisticate around the press, while Mathews was prone to fits of silence. He was wary of the writers in general and especially of the ones who did not cover the team on a daily basis. Mathews, even as a young player, was combative with the press. It was Mathews who fit the role of the prototypically tough third baseman, short on words, long on home runs, quick in temperament. He was not a vocal leader, the kind of player the press referred to in those days as a “holler guy.” Mathews could be dark and moody, prone to fits of anger and, some of his teammates thought, depression. He was to be feared when he drank, which was often. Mathews was the enforcer in the clubhouse and in the lineup. Almost immediately, Eddie Mathews earned a reputation as a player not to be crossed.
He would be anointed as a superstar not long after he was legally able to drink. Mathews possessed an uncanny level of star power, which attracted immediate attention. Within months of his arrival in the big leagues, he had been forecast to become among the greatest of players. In 1954, it was Mathews whom Charlie Grimm predicted had the best chance to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record of sixty home runs, even though County Stadium, with its symmetrical dimensions, did not favor left-handed hitters. The connection to Ruth had begun a year earlier, when before the all-star break, Mathews was ahead of Ruth’s 1927 pace, the year he hit sixty home runs. Mathews did not sustain his level of home-run hitting, but he had given everyone a taste.
The Milwaukee hierarchy was so taken with Mathews that one day during the spring, as Henry put on another batting exhibition, Red Thisted of the Sentinel asked Mickey Owen if he thought Henry would ever hit for power on a par with Mathews. “No way,” Owen said.
Mathews, dark and distrusting, took time to warm up, but once he did, he could be the fiercest, most loyal of friends. It would be Mathews who would attempt to lessen the pressure on Henry by shielding him from the press when he played well and especially when he did not. “He knew Henry was going to have it rough,” Chuck Tanner recalled. “Not that the writers meant anything by it, but Henry was so quiet, so soft-spoken at first that he wasn’t going to defend himself when some of the writers got out of line. Eddie used to tell them, ‘Get out of here. Leave that kid alone.’ And here he was, just a kid himself.”
Spahn, Mathews, Burdette, and Bob Buhl formed the core of the most influential clique on the Braves. Burdette and Spahn were roommates in spring training and on the road, as were Buhl and Mathews. They were the best players and the closest friends. Henry was not part of that group, partly because as a black player there were simply too many uncomfortable moments to navigate socially. The other part, however, was because Henry did not drink much, if at all. Growing up as a clubhouse kid in Milwaukee, Henry, Greg Spahn would recall, occasionally sipped a beer after a game, but most times, Greg Spahn would take a bottle of Coca-Cola over to Henry.
The rest of the Braves lived in orbit around the Spahn clique. The pitchers Gene Conley and Carl Sawatski roomed together. Conley was a six-foot-eight-inch right-hander, and after the Antonelli trade for Bobby Thomson, he was expected to be the fourth starter in the rotation behind Spahn, Burdette, and Bob Buhl. Conley, like Spahn, grew up in Oklahoma and was a natural athlete. He played football, baseball, and basketball. He accepted a scholarship to Washington State and found himself in the fortunate position of being in the middle of a bidding war between John Quinn and Red Auerbach, the coach of the Boston Celtics.
Gene Conley was the athlete as individual. He cut his own figure in an industry where a certain unchallenged conformity was expected. He was not apolitical, nor, despite coming of age during a time of political and social upheaval, did he share strong views on race. He often spoke of himself as somewhat naïve about the pressures of racial separation. Once as a ten-year-old living in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Conley took a black friend to the municipal pool. The two swam and enjoyed themselves without incident. When young Gene walked home, the director of the pool stopped him and told him never to bring his friend to the public pool again or both would face serious consequences.
In later years, when playing for the Boston Celtics, Gene Conley was drawn to the complexities and talents of Bill Russell, but at the time he was not attuned to the different, harsher road for black baseball players. Conley remembers the early black ballplayers on the Braves—George Crowe, Bill Bruton, Jim Pendleton, and Henry Aaron—dressing in the same corner of the clubhouse. The clubhouse man, Joe Taylor, gave the black players lockers in the same corner, away from the whites. Henry and his black teammates were unofficially segregated from the rest of the team, often showering together and dressing together when the white players had finished, unsure about crossing in the clubhouse the racial divide that had not yet been erased in society at large. Conley recalled the dynamic being appalling, but he also did not remember knowing quite how to confront an obvious wrong.
Henry’s inaugural season in the major leagues would be more a challenge of maddening perseverance than Broadway triumph. The pennant forecast for 1954 never materialized. He was quite good, proving that the spring hype surrounding him was no mirage, but the dream of duplicating the grand entrance to the big leagues of his two childhood idols—both Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial won the World Series in their first full seasons—was a fantasy best left to the silver screen.
The Braves jerked around in the standings, wobbly at sea all season long, at times fearsome, only to then nose-dive into the mud. No team in baseball—not the perennials, the mighty Yankees and Dodgers, nor the two teams that actually won the pennant, the Giants and 111-win Cleveland—would beat other teams as manically as Milwaukee, only to follow such wins with fatal stretches of mediocrity. Three times over the course of the campaign, the Braves would catch fire, winning at least ten games. On a fourth occasion, they were nearly as good, winning nine in a row. But while those torrid streaks represented nearly half of the Braves eighty-nine wins, the rest of the season wasn’t nearly so glamorous. Spahn won his requisite twenty-one games, but Burdette was a languid 15–14. One of the Rookie Rockets, Buhl, lost his first seven starts and lost his spot in the rotation, while another, Conley, won fourteen and kept an uneven team interesting.
HENRY WOULD EXPERIENCE much of the same, his rookie season resembling a volatile stock. There was opening day, April 13, at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, facing Joe Nuxhall, and Henry Louis Aaron, twenty years old, starting left fielder, batting fifth between Andy Pafko and Joe Adcock, bounced into an inning-ending double play in his first big-league at bat, debuting with the goose egg, zero for five. Two days later, at home against the Cardinals in the bottom of the first, he doubled in the right-center gap off Vic Raschi for his first big-league hit. Eight days later, in St. Louis, it was Raschi again, the ill-tempered ex-Yankee, who served up home run number one. It came in the sixth inning of a fourteen-inning, 7–5 win. And two days after that came the first breakout game, when Henry went five for six.
And then there would be games like the epic one on the afternoon of June 10, against Willie Mays and the first-place Giants. The Braves were home, playing the twelfth game of what would be a disastrous seventeen-game home stand, in which they had already lost nine games and were falling out of the pennant race before the solstice. Henry endured a day to remember. He went two for four that day, and while in the box score that was all that mattered, Henry just might have played the worst game of his life. Twice he came to bat with runners on. First, he bounced into a double play, only to follow up by hitting into a force play while each pitcher tossed zeroes at the other.
NONE OF THIS would have mattered much under normal circumstances, but on this day, Gene Conley and Rubén Gómez weren’t pitching; they were fighting for the last scrap of beef on the table. Plus, Willie was in center, and the rookie Henry would always feel a special twinge when playing against Mays. Neither pitcher had given up a run, nor had either one of them any intention of giving in. Henry singled in his other two at bats, but once he got on base, that was when the trouble started. Standing on third, with one out, Bruton lofted a fly to center. Mays camped under the ball, squaring himself to throw. Henry tagged and broke for the plate, the rookie challenging the great Mays in a 0–0 game. Mays uncorked a good one, a hard one-hopper that skidded off the dirt cutout at home plate and into the mitt of the Giants catcher, Wes Westrum. The throw was true, and the home plate umpire, Jocko Conlan, waded into the choking cloud of dust, looked at Westrum and Aaron tangled on top of home plate, threw up the right hand, and signaled Henry out. It didn’t matter that Johnny Logan dressed Conlan down for blowing the call (Logan got tossed, and so did Burdette, who seconded Logan’s argument); Mays had won the battle, and Henry skulked to the dugout.
It was still scoreless in the ninth, and Henry singled again to start the winning rally. Danny O’Connell sacrificed him to second, and the managerial wheels started turning. Leo Durocher, the Giants manager, walked Catfish Metkovich to get to Conley, who even in the ninth inning was hitting for himself against Gómez. Conley looped a short fly to right. Don Mueller, the right fielder, snared the ball and, to his surprise, saw Henry off the bag between second and third. Mueller fired to second, and for the third time in one game, Henry ended an inning with a double play.
Only the finale made it worse. Conley started the tenth by striking out Mays and then gave up a pinch home run to Bill Taylor, losing the game, 1–0.
THROUGH IT ALL, Charlie Grimm, the skipper, took on the persona of a double agent. On the good days, he would talk about Aaron as they all did in the spring, the can’t-miss, a member of the millionth percentile club, the guy with talent to spare.
But during the bad times, when Henry struggled through a slump in May and Grimm benched him, replacing him with a trimmer, slimmer Pendleton (it lasted one day; Pendleton went zero for three), it was “Jolly Cholly” (as the papers called him), who so very much enjoyed being one of the guys, who would join in with the razzing of Henry. Grimm told the writers that Henry had seemed tired from playing baseball year-round, and that he was probably a little stressed that the draft board had contacted him and it wasn’t quite clear if he would be wearing a different type of uniform in 1955. But Grimm still borrowed Adcock’s line and referred to Henry as “Snowshoes,” yukking it up with the boys at the rookie’s expense. It was Charlie Grimm who would remark to the writers that Henry looked as though he were sleepwalking, except when he was hitting. Occasionally, even Grimm, the manager, would call Henry “Stepin Fetchit,” a nickname the press—since it came with the imprimatur of the skipper—was all too willing to pick up and print.
AARON GOOD NOW, MAY TURN GREAT
Young Braves Fielder Has Won Respect of Pitchers over League as Dangerous Hitter
NEW YORK, N.Y.—He throws sidearm from the outfield and runs the bases like Stepin Fetchit with a hopped up motor. But … Henry Aaron is one of the most promising hitters in the major leagues.…
… the 20-year-old Negro is deceptively fast, and at least an ordinary hand at getting his outfield chores done, even if he has his own way of going about them.
On the Braves, the prevailing view of Charlie Grimm was one of benevolence. Johnny Logan loved Grimm, as did Conley and Mathews. Mathews believed Grimm to be one of the better baseball men he’d encountered, but he knew Charlie was too close to his players. Henry, however, did not care much for Grimm. Aaron believed it was Grimm who was responsible for much of the hazing he took from his teammates and the press during the season.
If nothing else, Henry believed that Grimm should not have encouraged the creation of a minstrel character. It was Grimm’s responsibility, Henry believed, to shield him from some of the harsher layers as fans adjusted to seeing blacks on the same field as whites. Robinson had such protectors, Branch Rickey and Charlie Dressen, as did Mays with Durocher. Henry had a guy calling him “Snowshoes” to the press.
The Sporting News would devote an item on April 15, 1954, a full seven years after Robinson reached the majors, to the moment in the Braves-Cardinals game when, in the eighth inning, Milwaukee became the first team to field an all-black outfield during a regular-season game.
But he kept hitting, not to the .300 mark, which was the gold standard for good hitters, but not under .270, either. In late May, Grimm moved Henry to the cleanup position and Henry struggled with the responsibility of hitting fourth, at one point posting a dreadful mark of just five hits in forty-one at bats. He was fourth in the all-star balloting, but making the all-star team as a rookie was, in those days, a long shot (though it wasn’t lost on Henry that DiMaggio was the first to ever accomplish the feat). At one point during the season, Henry admitted that there were a couple of pitchers who were intent on giving him the business. One was Larry Jackson, the hard-throwing lefty with the Cardinals, and the second was a journeyman with the Philadelphia Phillies named Herm Wehmeier. “I don’t know what I did to those fellows,” Henry said. “But they both worked me over pretty good.”
At the all-star break, the Braves were fifteen and a half out. By August 1, the Braves had shaved six games off the lead. Being a mile away from first place wasn’t part of the plan, but the Braves were especially galling, considering they were in fourth place, with the best pitching staff in the league. But they won twenty of twenty-two games in August to make it interesting. By the fifteenth, the lead was three and a half.
In the second game of a doubleheader at Crosley Field, where Henry had made his big-league debut, fate reappeared. The Braves won the first game 11–8, their sixth in a row. The lead was still six and a half games, with twenty-three to play, but they were alive and still had three games left with the league-leading Giants.
In the nightcap, the Reds had leaped all over them. First it was Jim Wilson, then Joey Jay, the bonus baby, and, finally, Spahn in relief. Down 7–1 in the top of the seventh, Pendleton singled for Spahn and the dam burst. The Braves batted around. Henry singled and scored a run and a poor sucker named Corky Valentine walked off the mound at the end of the inning, down 8–7.
The next inning, Henry faced a big left-hander named Harry Perkowski and boomed a cannon shot into the deepest part of the old park. Adcock raced around with an insurance run and Henry dashed to third, sliding hard. His body carried past the bag. His left ankle did not. The bone snapped cleanly. The stretcher came next. Bobby Thomson, the man whose broken ankle in spring training had put Henry in the big leagues in the first place, ironically ran for him at third.
Once Henry went down, the end came quickly. On September 10, down four games to the Giants and two ahead of the Dodgers, with seventeen to play and riding another ten-game win streak, the Braves arrived in Brooklyn for a two-game showdown and lost both. Adcock, who made a habit of wearing out the Dodgers (Clem Labine had already beaned him earlier in the season), followed Henry to the hospital, after Newcombe fired a fastball headed for Adcock’s cheek in the opener. Big Joe threw up his right hand in defense and the ball cracked the bone. Then they lost another in Philly, and all three at the Polo Grounds to the Giants. They finished in third place, eight games behind the Giants and four behind the Dodgers. Henry underwent surgery, had pins set into his ankle, and thought about 1955.
After the World Series, Henry found the price of losing wasn’t just the pennant. He’d lost the final month of the season and, with that, a chance at the Rookie of the Year award. He finished fourth, behind his teammate Conley, a young shortstop with the Chicago Cubs named Ernie Banks, and the winner, Wally Moon of the Cardinals.
IN LATER YEARS, Henry would reveal modest disappointment at not having won the award, and even a bit more at having finished fourth. By the time the season was over, however, Henry Aaron had learned something far more valuable than a trophy. He had seen them all up close—Willie Mays, the rookie Ernie Banks, the great Stan Musial, and, as a player, even the great Jackie Robinson—and none had intimidated him. He would later say he had learned how deeply his pride ran, and how that pride, comparing his abilities with those of his contemporaries, was the ingredient that truly fueled his motivation.
In the off-season, after the pins were taken out of his ankle and he could walk without crutches, Henry did not think about the 1955 season or about fitting in with his new team. He thought of the big picture, about his legacy. He had been in the big leagues for all of five months, and he had resolved to pursue one goal: He wanted three thousand hits. It was a goal that seemed far outside what he had accomplished in just one injury-shortened season, the place of immortals. At the end of the 1954 season, only seven players in the history of the sport had crossed the three thousand mark, but after only one season in the big leagues, Henry had reached a seminal conclusion: There was nothing on a baseball diamond that he could not do.