The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)
PART TWO. MAGIC
Chapter 5. WEHMEIER
ON THE FRIGID, festive evening of January 22, 1956, in the middle of Milwaukee’s most prestigious banquet room, the Grand Ballroom of the Wisconsin Club, Charlie Grimm took out his banjo and strummed “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” When Charlie followed up with “When You Wore a Tulip”—a capella, in German, no less—the place went wild.
That was the night the Milwaukee chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America descended upon the Wisconsin Club and honored Charlie as the inaugural recipient of the Sam Levy Memorial Plaque, for meritorious service to baseball. Not a whiff of negativity interrupted the bonhomie. Jolly Cholly was in his element, awash in the moment, whooping it up with the scribes, sharing the dais with two of his best kids, Chuck Tanner, the outfielder whom the writers had chosen as the 1955 team’s top rookie, and Henry Aaron, who in his second year had been chosen—over the forty-one-homer Mathews—as the team’s Most Valuable Player.
Pretty heady stuff, all of it was—a harbinger. The season itself had been anticlimactic: the Braves had spent all of 1955 looking up at the Dodgers—who not only dusted the rest of the National League but finally beat the Yankees in the World Series after five losses—but individually, Henry had turned in a star performance: .314 average, 27 home runs, 106 runs driven in. In keeping with their unflattering portraits of Henry the person, the writers would have been remiss had they not reminded the world that Henry that night was about as animated as a three-toed sloth: “Aaron, who rarely shows emotion of any kind, admitted he was ‘thrilled’ by the honor,” The Sporting News reported. The truth was that Henry was quite proud of his 1955 season. He was upset that the year before, in 1954, Wally Moon had hit .300, while he had not, and it likely had cost him the Rookie of the Year award. In later years, he would remark that he was “disappointed at not winning. Not because Moon didn’t deserve it … he did. I just thought I could have done better. I figured if he could hit .300, I could, too.” He had better than doubled his home run total and by crossing the 100-RBI mark had initiated an enduring history as a devastating run producer.
The banquet was held ten days before his twenty-second birthday, and Henry was already enjoying a healthy sampling of the big-league caviar: single-breasted tuxedo with notched lapels, white carnation and winged collar, rubbing elbows with Frank Zeidler, the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, National League president Warren Giles, and the commissioner himself, Ford Frick. The Grand Ballroom packed in over six hundred that night. But the club, as a general rule since opening its doors in 1891 with a goal of “promoting and providing a venue for German-American understanding and fellowship,” did not yet routinely admit blacks. For Henry, the rules were waived for one evening.
The night belonged to Grimm. No less an authority than The Sporting News reported that even sharing the stage with an obvious comer like Aaron and the kid Tanner, shining brightly as a future star of the Braves, it still was Grimm who “stole the show,” strumming “Shanty Town” on his left-handed banjo. While Grimm gushed about his excitement over the coming year, Henry reached the podium with characteristic deference. “We’ll be striving,” he said, “to bring all you fine Milwaukee people a pennant in 1956.” Tanner, green as the outfield grass, did not veer off of the reservation: “I’m sure we have the men who can do it.”
In only three years, Grimm had placed twice and showed, finishing third in 1954. In public, the Braves tipped their cap to the Dodgers, who rushed out of the blocks so quickly that nobody was going to catch them. There was no shame in losing the pennant to a team that had started the season 18–2 and went wire-to-wire. It was a boat race, Charlie said, just one of those fluky years when everything went right for a club; it just happened not to be his. The Dodgers were hungry—starving, in fact—for that first World Series and nobody, not even the Yankees this time, was going to stand in the way. Brooklyn had been schlepping for that first title since 1884, and with that group—Robinson and Reese, Duke Snider, the hard-hat Furillo, all soon to be Roger Kahn’s famed “Boys of Summer”—well, you had to figure they were going to make a last stand.
That was one way to look at it. Another way was to say that something was terribly wrong with a franchise that had Spahn, Burdette, Mathews, Adcock, and a rising Aaron and yet could only look at the Dodgers backside for six months. Tipping the cap was for the public. Internally Perini and his brain trust believed that, the Dodgers aside, maybe the problem existed from within. The Braves lost the 1955 pennant by thirteen and a half games and the closest they got to the Dodgers for the whole year was a distant ten and a half. It was indeed a boat race, and the Braves, supposedly a powerhouse, were left drifting harmlessly in the East River wake.
Showdowns between the two clubs further convinced Perini. Twenty-two times Milwaukee took the field with Brooklyn in 1955, and fifteen times the Brooks came out on top. And it didn’t matter if the games were held in narrow, boxy Ebbets Field or in the wide-open spaces of County Stadium, because while the Braves dropped eight of eleven games in Flatbush, they did only one better at home, losing seven of eleven at County Stadium. If Milwaukee couldn’t beat Brooklyn straight up, there would be no pennant. As the winter progressed, Perini began asking himself the question with a bit more frequency. Maybe the problem wasn’t Don Newcombe and Jackie and Pee Wee, as the conventional wisdom suggested. Maybe the problem was Charlie Grimm.
AT THE END of 1955, Grimm realized that the question of his survival was a fire he had to contain. While the Dodgers were about to taste the champagne, the word was that Grimm was out in Milwaukee, heading back to his beloved Cubs for a front-office position. No matter how much sand he applied, it was a rumor he could not extinguish. “I shouldn’t dignify either question with an answer,” he told the Associated Press. “I can’t deny anything which has no basis to it. I have not been contacted by the Cubs. I have another year on my contract here, and as far as I know, I will be back. And I am definitely not throwing in the towel here.” The Cubs rumor wasn’t exactly hearsay; Grimm was at his baseball best on the North Side, both as a player and a manager, and he didn’t hide just how much he loved that franchise.*
Perini was no coffee shop owner, oblivious to the day-to-day operation while Quinn made him money. He read the papers, kept his radar tuned, listened to what was being said around town. In 1956, Perini toured England to explore an expansion of a different type: He wanted baseball owners to consider buying financial stakes in English cricket and soccer teams, a foreign exchange of sorts, a cross-marketing endeavor that would be consummated in full nearly a half century later, when George Steinbrenner entered his New York Yankees into a partnership with the English soccer dynasty Manchester United.
Perini was aware of the knocks about his club: Milwaukee wasn’t tough enough in the clutch. They liked chasing the girls as much as chasing the pennant, and maybe a whole lot more. Even Adcock, their man-mountain first baseman, might have been a little more Jane than Tarzan. Adcock was a beast. He could rip a phone book in half with his bare hands. But Joe would never charge the mound. Pitchers could throw at him. Newcombe had put him in the hospital not once, but twice. Mathews used to try to fire him up—“Kick his ass, Joe. We’re right behind you”—but it did no good.
They had good players, and the boys weren’t afraid to mix it up, either. Henry used to say that Johnny Logan was the best at starting a fight, and Mathews the best at finishing it. But leadership, the kind that won pennants and not split decisions during a rhubarb, was another matter.
Perini knew his team’s weakness because everybody else did, too. Put all the clichés in a hat and pick one—“Baseball is a funny game”; “Sometimes a team just has your number”; “Those guys in the other uniforms are getting paid, too”—but none of the old saws could beat the trump-card edict of all winning ball clubs: “Beat the teams you’re supposed to beat.”
The two bottom-feeders of the National League—eighty-four-loss St. Louis and ninety-four-loss Pittsburgh—beat Milwaukee a combined twenty-two times in 1955. Getting beaten by the patsies of the league, more than anything that was happening at Ebbets Field, was what cost the Braves the pennant. Within the organization, the Braves knew too many games were being lost to the previous night’s hangover. Perini knew it, Quinn knew it, and the Braves coaches knew it. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Brooklyn Dodgers knew it, too. And it was, of all people, the furious Robinson, who would always tell his mates, and sometimes the press, too, that when the Braves were good enough to get to the table, Milwaukee just didn’t have the fire to close the deal.
To make it official, The Sporting News put the Braves business in the street for all to see, summarizing with a simple, deadly sentence: “What the Braves need, more than anything else,” read a paragraph on September 28, 1955, “is that intangible thing called spark.”
Grimm was in the final year of his contract, but instead of providing security, not having a guaranteed future in Milwaukee beyond 1956 only made him look like a lame duck should the Braves struggle early. Add to that a little extra kindling: the persistent rumor that Perini and Quinn didn’t just want to ax Cholly; they wanted to replace him with the ferocious, canny Leo Durocher, who had just been bounced by the Giants. Everybody knew “the Lip” could wear out his welcome in places faster than he could drop an F bomb on the home plate umpire, but the man could manage. Charlie never got to the Series as a player, and as a manager, he saw his Cubs lose to the Yankees in 1932 and to the Tigers in 1935 and 1945. Durocher, meanwhile, won it all as a player with Ruth and won it all again with Dizzy Dean, and he would go down as the guy who inspired the nickname “the Gashouse Gang” for the 1934 Cardinals. He was hated, especially by the umps and the commissioner’s office, and maybe by some of his players, but in those days, Leo’s teams didn’t get worse when the leaves started to change. They didn’t miss when they sniffed a pennant, like they did in 1941 with the Dodgers—also in 1947, though Durocher had been suspended for a year for associating with gamblers—and in the miraculous 1951 season and the title year of 1954 with the Giants. No Durocher team would get shut out by the Pirates three times in a season when there was money to be had.*
Durocher didn’t just know how to manage; he lived the game, turned it inside out, studied the seams, felt baseball the way a pianist fingered his keys. “Baseball is a lot like church,” Durocher used to say. “Many attend, but few understand.”
Putting Durocher in charge of the Braves held special portent for a young Henry Aaron. It was Durocher who was Jackie Robinson’s manager when Robinson reached the majors in 1947. It was Durocher who took Willie Mays under his wing when Mays was called up in 1951 and the Giants won the pennant. The day after Aaron was honored in Milwaukee, Mays was in Minneapolis, attending a banquet in honor of Bill Rigney, the Giants new manager for 1956. That “the Franchise” flew to Minneapolis in January to welcome his new manager was significant, especially because Mays still walked on water for hitting .477 for the Minneapolis Millers before being called up to the big club for good in 1951. But instead of concentrating on Rigney, Willie talked nearly as much about how much he would miss Durocher.
“He was more than just a manager to me. I can’t explain it, but I know what Leo did for me,” Mays said, adding, “but certainly I’ll give Rigney 100 percent.”
Mays would be professional for Rigney, but he was no Durocher. Durocher knew how to talk to Willie, how to motivate him, coax the best performances out of him. Durocher was caustic, but knew how to chastise Willie without breaking his confidence. While Willie would have run through a brick wall for Durocher, Henry had Charlie Grimm calling him “Stepin Fetchit.” It was Grimm who repeated the old stories about how Henry didn’t know who Ford Frick was, even though the commissioner was seated next to him while Cholly sang like it was Saturday night at the hofbrau. And while it was Durocher who clashed with Robinson in the way that intense, driven men do, each stoking their similar, smoldering fires, Robinson would always respect Durocher for extracting from him the competitive elements that would make him great. But Durocher, who came from the bare-knuckle town of West Springfield, Massachusetts, didn’t care about skin color, not if you had the goods to be a ballplayer.
“I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black or has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra,” Durocher said in early 1947 when white Dodgers resisted the idea of being Robinson’s teammate. “I’m the manager and I say he plays.”
Durocher, Perini also knew, provided instant credibility, the big New York name that would trumpet to the baseball universe that Milwaukee wasn’t the bushes. By drawing two million fans twice, Perini was already the financial envy of the baron class, especially the owners who chafed at being second in those two-team cities—the Philadelphia A’s and St. Louis Browns had skipped town to Kansas City and Baltimore, respectively, within a year after Perini left Boston—and he knew he was close to fielding a dominant team, as well.
All of which added up to one nagging, significant thing: expectations, the kind that defined hungry baseball cities like New York and Boston, the kind that were just descending on Milwaukee and threatening to upset the idyllic equilibrium, free eggs and free cheese and free gas for a smile and an honest effort. Big-league baseball may have existed in Milwaukee for less than five years, but the attitude shift from just “happy to have a team” to “We deserve a pennant” was happening faster than Henry’s wrists whipped through the strike zone.
And there was the pressure of time. Financially, Perini recognized a window of opportunity when he saw one. There was already talk of more franchise moves. Philadelphia had left for Kansas City and St. Louis left for Baltimore in 1954, and it was only a matter of time before baseball expanded to the West Coast and the South. The night at the Wisconsin Club was good hot stove fun, but the truth of the matter was that in little unassuming Milwaukee, Perini was outdrawing the big boys of New York. On the field, with Spahn and Burdette on the hill, plus Mathews, Adcock, and Aaron, the Braves owned a front line that was better than that of the Giants, and rivaled that of the Yankees and the Dodgers. Yet all three had titles, while Milwaukee had a manager who proved he could play the banjo and come in in second place. In the weeks leading up to spring training, before the Braves reported to Bradenton, Perini hit the Milwaukee dinner circuit, where he often said publicly, “We should win the pennant.” The simmering message in Milwaukee for 1956 was an obvious one, and it was being sent to Charlie Grimm, by his own bosses, special delivery: Win it now. Win the pennant … now … or else.
HENRY DID NOT live in Milwaukee during the winter. He, Barbara, and their daughter, Gaile, now almost two years old, went back to Toulminville, living in the house on Edwards Street. Unlike the year before, when he’d hopped around on crutches and wondered how his ankle would respond, Henry had been healthy when preparing for 1956. At the end of the 1955 season, he had accepted an invitation to join an all-black barnstorming team assembled by Willie Mays and Don Newcombe. The touring team, originally formed by Jackie Robinson following the 1947 season, was inherited by Mays from Roy Campanella, and it might have been the best barnstorming team ever assembled, even rivaling the Satchel Paige teams in the 1930s. For Henry, the invitation served as another indication that if he was not yet being discussed as one of the game’s elite players, his potential was obvious. He belonged.
The most telling element of the team wasn’t who played—in addition to Mays, the club featured Henry and the whiz shortstop Ernie Banks, who banged forty-four homers in 1955—but who didn’t play. Most specifically, it was how little of the American League was represented. Aside from the Cleveland Indians, American League team owners would fight being on the wrong side of history for decades, but the proof lay in their rosters: Integration was virtually nonexistent in the American League. Of the powerful men who ran the league—Boston’s Yawkey and Cronin, George Weiss of the Yankees, Calvin Griffith of the Washington Senators, Campbell and Briggs of the Tigers—none could boast an even discussable record in regard to racial progressiveness. The great migration of black players to the major leagues was almost entirely a National League phenomenon.
Crowe and Charlie White joined Aaron from the Braves. Newcombe, fresh from beating out the Braves in the regular season, joined the team after the Dodgers finished the Yankees in the World Series. Banks and Gene Baker of the Cubs made up the double-play combination, while the great Negro League and White Sox pitcher Connie Johnson teamed with Joe Black and Brooks Lawrence of the Cardinals on the mound.
The first downside of the tour for Henry was that Sam Jones was also on the squad. Jones, he of the big curveball and famous temper and love of the bottle, was the rare black player who publicly fought with other blacks. Aaron would recall that Jones would even fight with Mays, who had invited him to join the squad in the first place. There really were two Sams: the one who was drunk and the one who had been drinking. Neither was pleasant to Aaron, who saw no advantage in an extended quarrel with Sam Jones. Since Robinson, the unwritten rule among black players was ironclad: Whatever grievances that existed, blacks did not fight other blacks on the field or throw at them. The reasoning was simple: When it came to integration, the real game being played was not taking place on the field. Everyone knew the stereotypes about blacks—how they were short-tempered, quick to fight. Each black knew what he had left before being promoted to the majors, and no one wanted to go back. The first wave of integration was too important to have progress halted by petty gripes between players.
Sam Jones would be his greatest antagonist. Each of Henry’s first few seasons would contain at least one new chapter of his twelve-round battle with Jones. For one month in 1955, they were teammates.
The team played thirty-two games. It played against white teams and against Negro League all-star teams. And it was on that barnstorming trip that Henry witnessed the sheer incandescence of Mays. The dates were full, sellouts all. The big stars all had their homecomings: Banks in Dallas, Aaron in Mobile, Mays in Birmingham. The players earned, for the month, between three thousand and four thousand dollars, a big number, considering that in his rookie year of 1954, Henry earned just six thousand dollars for the whole season. Willie played at a thousand watts. In Longview, Texas, the game was delayed twenty-five minutes because even at game time, the line of fans still waiting to enter the ballpark snaked around the block. Mays treated the crowd to a single, a triple, and a home run, and, of course, a signature defensive play that would leave the crowd buzzing. The Defender was there, and the main subhead of the story put Mays in lights: “Willie Puts on Power Show.”
“The Giants’ outfielder also made a tremendous throw from the four-hundred-foot wall in deep center to third base to nail a runner attempting to stretch a double,” the paper reported.
They would win every game, laughers mostly—13–3 in Longview, led by Willie; 9–2 in Austin; 12–2 in Waco, with Willie homering and doubling; 10–1 in Corpus Christi, when Willie homered twice; and a 20–1 rout in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, when Willie cleared the fences against an overmatched ragtag band of Negro American League All-Stars.
When the tour concluded with three games at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, Willie was a supernova; all eyes were trained on him that noted day Americans tuned in to baseball, November 6. The barnstormers had won all thirty-one games, but in the finale against the Southern California All-Stars, the music was all but stopped when Willie stepped up to the plate to offer a proper demonstration of how to do the hero thing. Down 4–3, with two on and two out, Mays sliced a three-run job that curved the left-field foul pole, winning it, 6–4.
WILLIE’S WALLOP WINS WINDUP ON BARNSTORMING TRIP
LOS ANGELES, CALIF.—The Willie Mays–Don Newcombe All Stars concluded their 32-game tour in practically the same way they started the junket.…
The team won every game.… In the finale at Wrigley Field, 12,012 turned out to see Mays apply a spine-tingling finish to the contest.
• • •
HENRY WASN’T EXACTLY invisible, and in another time, under a different sun, maybe he would have been the headliner. As it was, he was difficult to miss. The Defender ran his photo with the story of the Longview game, and when it had finally finished tripping over itself in praise of Mays, the story did eventually note that, yes, Henry had gone four for four with two home runs. Henry homered in the 20–1 destruction at Hazelhurst, again in El Paso, and in the opener in Los Angeles. If Henry had already been convinced of his abilities, the barnstorming trip proved that he could hit with anyone, Willie Mays included. But in building a legend that would live in the mind as well as on the stat sheet, Mays emitted his own unique pheromones—the sweet aroma of stardom—which could not be duplicated.
In small ways, Mays could even transcend Jim Crow. Henry recalled that once, in Birmingham, he and Mays walked into a department store. Mays, eyeing a few suits, pulled out a healthy roll of hundred-dollar bills, more money than a black man was supposed to carry in the Deep South. The store clerk began dialing the telephone, when Mays told him he wasn’t just any Negro, but the Willie Mays. That changed everything.
“It was okay to be black in the South,” Henry would say years later, “but only if you happened to be Willie Mays.”
After the trip, Henry returned to Mobile. He worked at Carver Park, the old playground a few blocks from his house, as a recreation supervisor for the city, busy working, with a goal in mind: the batting title. During the early years of his time, before the home run became the definitive measure of a hitter, batting for average was a far more important barometer of a hitter’s true ability than hitting for power. It was a combination of hits and power in the tradition of Musial and DiMaggio that was the mark of a true hitter. Anybody could run into one and yank it over the fence, but it took an accomplished batsman to back it all up with a consistently high level of hitting. That’s why Musial was so great. Musial would win the batting title seven times, and six times would lead the National League in hits. And he was no Punch-and-Judy hitter. Musial led the league in doubles eight times, triples five times, and though he would never hit 40 home runs in a single season, he would wind up with 475 home runs.
For the bulk of his career, more than Mays, more than Williams, Clemente, or even Ruth, Musial would be Henry’s standard of success. When he dreamed about records during the first half of his career, it was not with Ruth in mind, but Musial’s National League record for hits.
In early January, Quinn sent Henry his contract for 1956, which called for a salary of twelve thousand dollars. Aaron sent the contract back in the mail, he said, with a note to Quinn that read, “You must have sent me O’Connell’s contract by mistake.” He would sign for seventeen thousand dollars that season. At home, he enjoyed something of the celebrity life, but the humiliating reminders of Mobile were always close. Six days after sporting the tux at the Wisconsin Club, he was named “Negro mayor” of Mobile for Mardi Gras, the signature event of New Orleans, but whose American roots dated back to 1702, when Mobile was the first capital of the Louisiana Territory. Henry was the guest of honor for dinner at the Elks Club. But Mobile’s withering segregation rules immediately reduced Henry, and an incident ensued that he would carry with him for the next half century.
The Elks Club invitation came with a condition: He would be a welcome guest of the club for one night only and could bring no guests. When he arrived with Herbert, his father was not allowed entry to see his son’s big night. When the evening was complete, Henry would not be allowed to leave the building through the front door with the white guests. Herbert was not just turned away at the door; he was instructed to meet Henry at the back entrance. Henry never forgot this slight. It was America at its most contradictory—saluting excellence while demeaning the individual.
The hype for 1956 started in January at the Wisconsin Club and continued when the trucks rolled out of County Stadium for Bradenton. Lou Perini may have been unsure about Charlie Grimm, and the rest of the league had its doubts that the Braves were capable of staring down the Dodgers, but apart from complaints about his charisma level, no one in baseball took a dissenting view of Henry.
Barbara did not join Henry in Bradenton. She was aware of the local customs, and the routine of having to walk around the outside of the park to the colored entrance (which was hardly an entrance as much as it was a wooden fence slat that had been removed to allow blacks to enter—at full price, of course) would have been too humiliating. She did not want to listen to the jeers and the jibes from the adjacent white sections of Ninth Street Park. She remained in Mobile until the regular season started and the team headed up north.
FOR MOST OF his postcareer life, Henry—and even more passionately his supporters and teammates—would bristle at the lack of star power that accompanied his accomplishments. They would call him the most underrated superstar of all time, a man who never received proper respect for everything he had done in the game. Johnny Logan would tell anyone who would listen that Aaron, day in and out, was a better player than Mays.
“All Mays had over Henry was flash,” Logan would say, as if star power was valueless.
Yet, in later years, Henry would reflect on those years and conclude that he was something of a hotshot, after all, the rising star in the same class as Mantle and Mays. He really was the can’t-miss. The personal awards were piling up—MVP in Jacksonville in 1953, team Rookie of the Year in 1954 (Henry’s first invitation to the Wisconsin Club), all-star and team MVP in 1955, before he was twenty-two—and he may not have known the details, but he knew he had value. Had he been unaware that he was being projected as an all-time great, he likely would never have sent Quinn’s contracts back with sarcastic notes attached.
Branch Rickey, the bushy-eyed Mahatma who was running the Pirates, had tried during the 1955 season to buy Henry from the Braves, offering Perini $150,000. Had he accepted, the Pirate outfield would have featured Aaron and the newest Rickey prospect, a gifted Puerto Rican outfielder who went by the name of Clemente. The careers of Clemente and Aaron would always circle each other. When Clemente was a teenager and Aaron was tearing up the Sally League, it was the Braves that offered Clemente three times what the Dodgers put forth. But Clemente desired to play in New York more than he wanted money.
The problem of perception had nothing to do with Henry’s skills, which were universally admired. The problem was that there was always a new boy on the street—someone with a prettier swing or a better press agent, somebody with more panache, a stronger arm, or that special intangible you built magic around.
This time, in the spring of 1956, when Henry came to Bradenton, lashing line drives and fully healthy, it was another Robinson from California he encountered, this one in the Cincinnati system. His name was Frank and he was from Oakland, where, like Mobile, ballplayers seemed to grow out of the ground. Robinson had been a two-sport star at McClymonds High, on Oakland’s west side, the alma mater of Bill Russell, the star basketball player. Oakland would always be fertile baseball territory, and Cincinnati had hit the trifecta. In addition to Robinson, the Reds had just signed a young black center fielder from Oakland Technical High named Curtis Flood, and they had the inside track on another McClymonds kid everyone was talking about: Vada Pinson.
Frank Robinson was listed as being six one and weighing 190 pounds, just an inch and ten pounds bigger than Aaron, but he was built like a football player and possessed an intimidating presence. Where Henry was slender in the arms and calves and thicker in the waist, Frank Robinson carried his muscle in his chest and shoulders. Virtually overnight, Henry’s stage grew crowded even before the curtain went up. Mays was omnipresent, Banks hit for more power than any National League shortstop, and now the word was this kid Robinson might be so good that the down-and-out Reds could even make a little noise. The hype machine was always looking for fresh material, especially during spring training, when for every legend born, thirty never produced a thing.
ERNIE WHITE, the old pitcher who won seventeen games for the Cardinals in 1941 and was a teammate of Warren Spahn in Boston, was the first to feed the machine enthusiastically, this time in an INS news wire item on March 17, 1956. After watching big Frank tattoo a couple of balls, White gushed, and in the process, he started a trend that would hound Henry Aaron for his entire career.
ROBBY HAS REDS BUZZING
Ernie White, former hurler for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Bees who managed Robinson last year at Columbia, added:
“I was managing Columbia when Hank Aaron tore the Sally League apart for Jacksonville. Robinson can outdo Aaron in everything. He’ll outrun him and he’ll outhit him. He has great power to all fields.”
During spring training, Henry seemed especially focused on the Dodgers, perhaps just to show that at least one member of the Braves wasn’t intimidated by Newcombe or Drysdale, Robinson or the moment. Henry dominated the champs all spring, hitting .552 against them, including four home runs. Walt Alston, the Dodger manager and Aaron admirer, said, “What’s more, he’s likely to hit .552 all season.”
Even Robinson, ferocious competitor that he was, understood Henry possessed the ability to be feared, and he was forced to give a tip of the cap. Roger Kahn recalled a story about Henry stealing second base during spring training that year. When he swiped second a second time, Robinson landed on Henry, pinned him hard to the dirt, and began filling Henry’s spikes with handfuls of dirt.
“Jackie, what are you doing?” Henry cried.
“I’m making sure you don’t steal on me again.”
CERTAINLY, there were chances for populism, magical opportunities for the words and deeds to meld, chances to be beautiful. Look magazine loved Aaron, naming him “a lock” to win the batting title. “Hank is a ‘3-L hitter’: lean, loose and lethal,” the magazine said. “His batting secret is his supple, powerful wrists.” The Chicago Defender, the influential black newspaper, ran an AP story, following Look’s lead, predicting Henry would win the batting crown.
AARON PICKED TO WIN
NATIONAL BATTING TITLE
Some of the keenest baseball observers are convinced that the leading hitter … will be a 22-year-old … outfielder for the Milwaukee Braves. This unobtrusive athlete is Hank Aaron.
Aaron does not have the dramatic flair of Willie Mays or the oversized press buildup of Mickey Mantle.
The AP continued the drumbeat, comparing him to white stars like Hall of Famers Paul Waner and Joe Medwick (so what if the comparison to Ducky was a tad backhanded, ripping Henry for his Medwick-like ability to stretch the strike zone from his ankles to his forehead and points north). Best of all, there was the bus ride back north to Milwaukee and the start of the campaign, when Bob Wolf, the Journal beat man who was moonlighting for The Sporting News, sat with Grimm for what must have been hours. Grimm believed the Braves were going to win the pennant, and he told Wolf just how they were going to do it, how despite Conley’s fragile arm, the pitching would be better than ever and that pitching was how championships were won. Grimm chewed Wolf’s ear about how the Braves young guns were going to be a threat for years, well into the 1960s, sizzling past the Dodgers, the Reds, the Cardinals, all of them. But his most melodic tones were saved for his twenty-two-year-old right fielder.
“Aaron,” Charlie Grimm said. “Aaron, of course, is the prize.”
GRIMM BELIEVED and the Braves believed, but when opening day neared, the scribes weren’t sold. Maybe they didn’t want to get burned again (the year before, the writers had said the Braves had arrived, only to eat crow after the first week of the season). The New York hold on the World Series, at least in the minds of the writers, wasn’t going to be broken in 1956, with the fierce-swinging Henry or without him.
DODGERS, YANKS PICKED TO WIN FLAGS BY FOUR OF EVERY FIVE WRITERS IN POLL
The vote of 109 writers who “experted” the pennant races for The Associated Press was so lopsided it was almost no contest.… The Yanks had eighty-eight firsts and Brooklyn had eighty-six. A similar poll of 110 writers a year ago predicted pennants for the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Braves.
THE 1956 CURTAIN went up on a drizzly afternoon, April 17, and Henry immediately set about his business. The first victim was Bob Rush of the Chicago Cubs. Aaron drove in the game’s first run in the fourth and then broke Rush in the sixth. Rush had appeared to be breezing toward the seventh: two quick outs and a 1–0 lead. Aaron took a strike and then roped a long homer to make it 2–0. Shaken, Rush fell apart. Thomson singled. Adcock hit another homer to make it 3–0, and Bruton tripled. Rush headed to the showers and the Braves cruised to a 6–0 win.
The Braves swept the Cubs three straight, and it seemed that maybe Charlie had a better handle on his team than Perini thought. Grimm’s charges won nine out of twelve, but everything seemed just a bit off. Rain wiped out a week of games, and every hot start was followed by a sputter. The Braves were 13–7 after twenty games, in first place, during which time the Dodgers couldn’t get out of their own way. But instead of building on the lead, the Braves fell back, getting demolished in a doubleheader by the Pirates (Pittsburgh again) 5–0 and 13–8.
In the opener of a Memorial Day weekend doubleheader at Wrigley, the Braves tied a big-league record by hitting three consecutive home runs in the first inning. Mathews hit a two-out homer off the short-fused former Dodger Russ Meyer. Henry followed with another and Bobby Thomson yanked yet another over the left-field fence. Meyer, now breathing fire, guaranteed his next pitch would stay in the park by throwing a strike off Bruton’s right cheekbone. Bruton crumpled. After a moment, he steadied himself with his bat, took a few wobbly steps toward first base, then raced toward Meyer. Bruton dropped the bat and caught Meyer with a left to the body. Grimm raced from the third-base coaching box and corralled Meyer by the neck. As the benches cleared, Meyer and Bruton kicked each other at the bottom of the pile. The Chicago Defender would call the brawl a “near riot.” Aaron, years later, would call it the worst fight he’d ever seen. The Sporting News said Meyer and Bruton fought to a “split decision” but that the big loser was battered and bruised Charlie Grimm, who paid the price for trying to make the peace.
Nothing could awaken the Braves like a good fight. They hit five homers that night but lost the game 10–9. The next night, Thomson hit two more and Henry exploded with a homer, a double, three RBIs, and three runs scored in an 11–9 demolition of the Cubs.
In the finale, a 15–8 win the next afternoon, the Braves led 14–0 after four innings and, in a ten-inning span over the two-game onslaught, hit seven homers off one guy, sad-sack Cubs hurler Warren Hacker. In the three games, the Braves hit fourteen home runs, incited the Cubs to fisticuffs, and had their best record of the season at 19–10. They were in first place, with six fewer losses than the Dodgers. A power display, plus wins, and punching out the other team added up to the sort of weekend that provided the best kind of energy boost for a club. Plus, the Braves were coming home for fifteen games against lowly Pittsburgh, the Dodgers (a chance for an early knockout, perhaps?), Mays and the Giants, and the hard-luck Phillies.
But in the opener, Spahn took a 1–0 lead into the eighth against the Pirates and gave up four runs in a 4–1 loss. Something was wrong with the meal ticket. He had started the season 3–0 and was now 3–4. “You didn’t even worry about Spahn,” recalled Gene Conley. “Even before spring training began, you penciled him in for his twenty wins, because he was doing the same thing. To see him not win, you had to wonder a little bit.” Pittsburgh beat Conley the following day and then split a doubleheader the next to take three of four.
Then came the Dodgers, who were 20–19, the defending champs standing in place. These were the games where great teams both revealed themselves and could use the emotional currency of winning to deflate their opponents in future meetings. In the opener, in front of a buzzing, nervous 27,788 souls, Sal Maglie led Burdette 1–0 in the eighth before Lew gave up homers to Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges, while Maglie walked away with a complete-game, three-hit shutout. Perini stood and smoldered as the home folks who were good for complimentary dry cleaning booed his team. The catcalls increased the next day, when Roger Craig beat Spahn 6–1 on a two-hitter. Spahn had collected just one out in the second inning and was gone. He was now 3–5, but the guy whom fans wanted to see with an apple in his mouth was Grimm. When Newcombe beat Conley 5–2, the Braves were 1–6 on the home stand and suddenly in fourth place.
Expectations had swallowed them whole, and under the weight of having to perform, the Braves were disintegrating. Spahn told writers that the team was under “terrible tension.” Charlie Root, the Braves pitching coach, who had played for Grimm’s pennant winners with the Cubs in 1932 and 1935, the man who went back decades with Grimm, said the skipper was “jittery” and that he had been able to feel the tension on the club since joining the team before spring training. Following a 7–2 loss against the Giants—when Adcock and Logan made errors in a four-run third—John Quinn told Grimm he wanted to talk to the team. Like a dad scolding his little kid, Quinn made Grimm sit in the clubhouse and listen while he let the Braves have it. They weren’t hustling, Quinn said. Quinn looked around the room—at Aaron and Mathews, Burdette and Spahn and the rest—frothing that they were “letting down the fans” and “letting down the club as well.”
When Quinn finished setting fire to their tail feathers, a somber Grimm closed the door and told his boys, “I may not be here much longer, but as long as I am, nobody is going to tell you fellas anything like that. You are hustling. You’re hustling so much that you’re pressing. I know darn well that you want to win as much as anybody.”
Against the Giants, Spahn lost again, 3–1 to Johnny Antonelli, the man traded for the plummeting Thomson. Playing left, Henry committed an error and, representing the tying run, flied out to left to end the game. Before the final game of the home stand, Grimm composed himself, confronted Quinn, and told him he’d had no right to dress down his team. That was Charlie’s way. Quinn and Perini had never played the game at the big-league level and, as far as he was concerned, they didn’t know how hard it was. He was the manager, but the player in Charlie Grimm always ruled. In the meeting, Grimm was fired up, and he decided he wanted answers. He wanted to know where he stood as the manager, not just on that day but in the future. He wanted an assurance that Quinn would leave his team alone and let him manage. What he got instead was a phone call from Perini, who said coldly, “We’re going to discuss your case when you get to New York.”
Spahn finished the home stand by striking out ten in a 5–2 win over the Giants to snap the losing streak and save face. Willie went three for three with a homer, but the Braves had finally won a game. Even so, the Milwaukee fans didn’t bring milk and cheese to the yard, but more boos. In losing ten of the fifteen games of the home stand, Milwaukee scored forty-one runs. In those three games against the Cubs alone, the Braves had scored thirty-five. They may have been only two games out after the carnage, but the Braves had come home in first place and now left for the longest road trip of the year in fifth, officially in the second division behind Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and the Dodgers. The Braves hit the road with a record of 24–20. The first stop—and the last for Charlie Grimm—was Brooklyn.
Once in Brooklyn, the end came quickly. In the opener, Friday night, June 15, Perini watched from the Ebbets Field press box during the game and was pelted with questions by the blood-smelling reporters.
“Are you prepared to say that Grimm is your manager for the rest of the year?”
“I am prepared to say nothing.”
“Are you thinking about making a change?”
“I’m not prepared to say anything about that, either.”
BURDETTE STONED THE Dodgers for seven innings, up 4–2 in the eighth. But with one out, Rocky Nelson (batting average, .208) homered and Hodges walked. Grimm sent for Dave Jolly, who walked Campanella and gave up the game-tying single to Furillo. In the bottom of the ninth, Lou Sleater got Pee Wee Reese, but Duke Snider doubled. Randy Jackson was walked intentionally and Nelson grounded out.
If Perini was still unsure what to do with his manager, what happened next sealed the fate of Charlie Grimm. With Snider on third and Jackson on second and two out in a tie game, Grimm ordered Charlie Root out to the mound to replace Sleater with Ernie Johnson. With forty-one years in the game, Grimm’s logic was sound: Campanella followed Hodges, and the left-handed Sleater would not face the right-handed Campanella.
Except that Rube Walker, the lefty, had already replaced Campanella in the top of the inning. Now, with the losing run on third, Grimm had put himself in the disadvantageous position, his right-handed pitcher facing the lefty Walker. Root was halfway to the pitching mound and Johnson had left the bull pen when Grimm pulled the fire alarm, yelling frantically for Root to get back to the dugout. But the switch had already been signaled to home plate umpire Artie Gore. Grimm caught a lucky break when Gore allowed him to rescind the switch, leaving the lefty Sleater to face the lefty Walker. The Dodger manager, Walter Alston, went ballistic, telling Gore he was playing the game under protest. But it didn’t matter. Lefty or righty, protest or not, brain cramp forgiven, fate still had other plans for Charlie Grimm. Sleater threw a first-pitch fastball, which Walker ripped for the game-winning base hit. The Braves lost anyway, 5–4.
After the game, Perini left the press box, muttering, “We’re not getting as much out of this club as we should.”
The denouement came the next afternoon, with Roger Craig shutting Milwaukee down again, 2–0 in the eighth. Adcock banged a pinch homer to make it 2–1 and Mathews singled to tie it. The Dodgers did it again in the bottom of the inning when Snider homered off Ernie Johnson. The Braves put two on in the top of the ninth, but Bruton grounded out to second to end it. In the span of two weeks, the Braves had lost twelve out of seventeen, and against their rivals, the Dodgers, the team they knew they had to beat in order to be considered big-league, championship-level, Milwaukee was 1–5.
When the game ended, Perini invited the Milwaukee writers to his suite at the Commodore Hotel for a drink. Shortly after they arrived, Grimm walked in and told the group he was finished. “I’ve decided to give someone else a crack at this job.”
He was out. It wasn’t Durocher, however, who walked through the clubhouse door the next night, but one of his old disciples, white-haired, five-foot-five-inch Fred Haney. Haney had joined the Braves as a coach to start the season, after having managed the Pirates the previous three years, the same Pirate team whose success against the Braves in 1955 had cost them the pennant. Haney was now the boss.
As for Perini, he lamented how his little mom-and-pop baseball operation had succumbed to the sudden hunger of the fans and a flash flood of expectations.
“I can’t understand the people,” he said. “We get two or three games behind and they want Charlie to be fired or they want him to resign. I think it’s a terrible thing.”
The truth, as always, was quite different. The fans wanted Grimm’s scalp, in no small part because it was Perini who had whipped up the expectations in the first place. It was Perini who had told anyone who would listen that these Braves were nothing less than pennant winners.
Bob Wolf pecked out his column for The Sporting News, and concluded that Grimm had never been able to overcome his banjo-playing, roll ’em out and let’s drink image. He was too close to his players. They wanted to laugh with Charlie and drink with him, feel safe with him, win or lose. But camaraderie was one thing. Not being able to beat the Dodgers had proven something else: With a pot of gold in the middle of the table, the Braves didn’t know how to collect. The Dodgers had been dizzy, reeling, and instead of a kayo, six games against the Braves were what had gotten them straight. The Braves had Burdette and Spahn and Mathews and Adcock and Aaron, Wolf wrote, and still didn’t know how to reach across the table and bring the money home.
Why did Grimm fail to produce the pennant winner Perini and the fans of Milwaukee thought they should have had? The consensus is that his easy-going manner got the best of him, just as it apparently had in his two terms with the Cubs. The club appeared to lack the competitive spark.
For the papers, Charlie gave Milwaukee one last smile. Sporting a polka-dot shirt and cream-colored blazer, a cigarette in his left hand, Charlie mugged for the cameras, shaking Fred Haney’s hand with his right.
ALTHOUGH FRED HANEY knew a Cadillac when he saw one, he knew he wouldn’t have it for long if he didn’t learn how to drive, and fast. Haney had been around the Braves enough to know his wasn’t a 24–22 team. His first act as commandant was to crush the element on the Braves that preferred barmaids to first place. Over the first weeks of his tenure, Haney would manage quite differently from the way Grimm had. Haney called frequent meetings, if for no reason other than to give the drinkers on the club something to think about. He promised to deal with the “two or three playboys” on the club. One, of course, was Mathews, but he wasn’t going anywhere. Mathews had trouble even when he wasn’t exactly involved. Take the night of May 12, when he hit his fourth homer of the year in a 10–6 loss at Cincinnati. Mathews showed up at the ballpark for a doubleheader the next day sporting cuts on each side of his face. It turned out that a woman had thrown a glass in his direction and shards of glass were now deeply lodged into his face. No matter, Mathews went four for eight in sweeping two from the Redlegs, but too many times the edge the Braves needed was being left in the bar.
Jim Pendleton, the versatile utility man who was also Henry’s roommate, was another story. Pendleton, who possessed a big appetite for long legs and drink but couldn’t hit his weight, was sent out to Wichita the day Haney was hired. Felix Mantilla, the infielder from Puerto Rico who had been Henry’s teammate in Jacksonville, was called up. The two would room together.
There was something else about Haney that differed dramatically from Grimm. Haney had no problem pointing out a player’s mistakes in front of the whole team. He was, after all, a Durocher man, and he knew the value of peer pressure, of being embarrassed in front of the club. Mental mistakes would not be tolerated. A ball getting by or a throw coming in low was one thing, but not knowing how many outs there were or not taking the extra base was quite another. Under Fred Haney these types of errors would definitely cost players money. The difference was that Durocher was a better psychologist than Haney. Durocher knew that he needed Willie Mays to win and never embarrassed Willie. To do so would have sent Mays retreating into his shell. On the Braves, Henry was the rising star. Even at this juncture in his career it was clear he possessed the most all-around talent.
Yet Haney had no problem criticizing Henry. Or anybody.
In the Braves first test under Haney, a doubleheader at Ebbets, Adcock won it in the ninth with a home run that went over the roof. The New York Times photo caption said it was the first time anyone had hit a ball out of Ebbets. In the nightcap, Adcock hit another, this time off Don Newcombe, and the Braves had not only swept the day, 3–1, but done something they hadn’t done all season. They’d beaten the Dodgers in consecutive games.
And so it went for Fred Haney, two months of rolling sevens. As they headed into Forbes Field for four games, it wasn’t lost on any of the Braves that no team gave them more trouble than the Pirates, but Haney handled his former club. Spahn and Burdette won the first two games, and the Braves broke the Pirates for a five-run fifth in winning the third, and Henry’s first-inning triple started a rout in the finale for a four-game sweep. The Braves went back to New York for four with the Giants in Harlem, and it was more of the same. Mathews bombed a home run to win the opener. The Braves rallied for two in the ninth to win the second and swept a doubleheader for their tenth win in a row. In Philadelphia the next night, Pakfo started a three-run eighth with a bunt single and the Braves won 8–5.
The streak ended the next day in Philadelphia, but after Grimm was fired, the Braves had catapulted four teams in the standings, suddenly playing .600 ball and leading the league over an upstart Cincinnati club as well as the Dodgers.
ON MAY 8, the Milwaukee cleanup hitter, Henry Aaron, went zero for four, struck out twice, and made an error in a 5–0 win against Pittsburgh. His average dropped to .167. He’d started the season with three hits in his first seven at bats, including demoralizing the Cubs with a home run on opening day, but over the next nine games, Henry could do next to nothing. The average wasn’t there, and neither was the power. He went thirteen games before hitting his first double of the season. He had three home runs up to that point. The consolation was that Milwaukee was in first place without its cleanup hitter doing anything at all.
The trouble with Henry was that there were few signals his teammates could point to that suggested his problems were over. Some slumping hitters got themselves out of the dumps by taking more pitches, by walking more and cutting down on their strike-outs. Not Henry. A low number of strike-outs would always be a central source of pride for him, and even when he was cranking, he didn’t walk. On May 15, he went one for four in Philadelphia, raising his average to .208, but he had struck out five times and walked five times all season. Others would try to take the ball the other way, to shoot the ball into the right-center gap. That meant the hitter wasn’t overanxious to pull the ball, which meant he wasn’t trying to meet the ball too quickly and thus was missing good pitches.
The hitting coaches would all tell Henry the same thing: to stay back, wait on the ball, and then stride toward it. Henry hit differently. Since the ankle injury in high school, his hitting approach was to balance and drive off of his front foot, to use the combination of his quickness and power to drive the ball. Despite the results, few of his coaches knew exactly what to do with him, because they’d never seen anyone hit like that and be successful over the long term. Committing to the front foot should have left him vulnerable to late-moving pitches, made him susceptible to strike-outs, but he was just different.
Henry’s gifts at the plate were unpredictable except in their roots. He thought along with the pitcher and tried to beat him to the spot. It had been that way in Mobile, when Ed Scott first saw him. Henry had always banked on his ability to make contact with any pitch, in any location.
When he did catch—a three-hit game with a triple in a 2–1 loss in Philly—it was without warning, an innocent spark turned wildfire. The next day, in the Polo Grounds against the Giants, Henry rapped two more hits, a double and a two-run triple, to put on a show with Mays, who would also double and triple, just to keep the universe in balance. Then it was time to break out the adding machine: three straight multihit games against Pittsburgh and Brooklyn. By the end of the month, Aaron was suddenly hitting .352.
If Charlie Grimm knew Aaron had the potential to be a transcendent talent, it was Haney who worked unsentimentally to refine him. When Grimm resigned, Aaron was hitting .313. Indeed, in Haney’s first game, Henry went three for four, and Haney presented him with a reward: early batting practice when the team arrived in Pittsburgh. Henry responded that night with two more hits.
Meanwhile, the hype machine had found its man, and it was true: twenty-year-old Frank Robinson was indeed the real deal. At the allstar break, he was running away with the Rookie of the Year award, and for all of his blustery spring-training oratory, maybe Robinson’s old minor-league manager Ernie White had underestimated his former protégé. Robinson wasn’t just killing the ball; he was second in the league in hitting. He wasn’t just hitting the ball over the fence; he led the league in runs scored, even though he was not a base stealer. Like Aaron and Mays and Banks, he was a complete hitter, and that other rumor about Robinson was also true: You couldn’t intimidate the kid. It wasn’t yet August, but Robinson had already been hit twelve times. He stood there snarling, right on top of the plate. He ignored the customary batter-pitcher compact of giving up one half of the plate, and for it, Robinson would be hit twenty times in 1956 alone. It would be a hallmark of his long career. By the time he retired, in 1975, he would be hit a total of 198 times. By contrast, Henry was hit by pitches thirty-times over twenty-three seasons.
Robinson was not a beneficiary of the kingmakers in the East Coast media machine. He played in dowdy Cincinnati, which by all accounts was a city hostile toward blacks. Cincinnati was so fearful of offending the conservative middle-American attitude that in 1956, in the age of McCarthyism, the Reds changed their name to the Redlegs, lest anyone think the baseball team had sided with the Communists. It was only a matter of time before Robinson chafed in Cincinnati, but in the summer of 1956, Frank Robinson was the most exciting player in the National League.
Then, for Henry Aaron, came the unkindest cut: Robinson was named to start in right field in the All-Star Game. Robinson, in fact, would be the only black starter in the game, with Mays, Aaron, and Ernie Banks on the bench.
FOLLOWING THE ALL-STAR Game, the Dodgers traveled to Milwaukee for four games. The standings showed Cincinnati in first place, up on Milwaukee by a game and a half and by two on Brooklyn, but no one really believed the Redlegs would be around for the whole 154 games. The Braves knew beating Brooklyn would be the only measure by which they were judged. For the doubleheader opener on July 12, 41,000 burghers packed County Stadium, Bob Buhl versus Roger Craig. Adcock boomed a long homer in the fifth to make it 1–0, and Buhl led 2–0 into the ninth. Jackie Robinson grounded to third for the first out. Hodges fouled out to third. Buhl, too close to victory, grew nervous, pitching as though he were defusing a bomb. Nelson rapped a single to center; Furillo followed with one to left. The groans in the crowd grew more unsettled. Against the Dodgers, this was the kind of game Charlie Grimm always found a way to lose. Haney didn’t move. Roy Campanella stepped to the plate, salty on about a hundred different levels. The first was that he was having the worst hitting year of his career. Campy, who’d won three MVP awards, couldn’t crack .240. The second was that on this day, he was already zero for three with a strike-out. Buhl threw two quick fastballs by him, and then pitched to him carefully, so carefully, in fact, that Campanella walked to load the bases. That brought up Rube Walker, the same Rube Walker who had singled in the ninth inning in Grimm’s penultimate game as manager, the game in which Grimm had forgotten who was on deck. Walker stepped in on Buhl and broke the Braves hearts again, lashing an apparent game-winning drive down the first-base line.
Except that Frank Torre, who had just entered the game as a defensive replacement for Adcock, leaped and stabbed the ball out of the air, saving the game for Buhl. He was now 10–4 on the season and had beaten the Dodgers five times.
The rest of the weekend was pure magic. The second game was rained out and in the rescheduled doubleheader—Friday night, July 13—the Braves gave Milwaukee something to remember and the Dodgers something to fear. In the first game, in front of 40,169, Newcombe lasted but one inning, blasted out of existence by Adcock’s two-run homer, which led a six-run first.
The Dodgers pieced together two runs in the second as wheels within wheels turned. It was only mid-July, but a referendum on the Braves toughness was taking place. The score was 6–2 and it should have been more. Don Drysdale, all six feet, six inches of him, with his nasty slider and nastier disposition, didn’t really have it. They should have punched him out in the second, his first inning of work, but Henry bounced into the rally-killing double play with two on and one out. Milwaukee had Drysdale again in the third and the Dodgers looked rattled. Covington singled and Campy dropped a foul pop. Two more on and one out again, but Drysdale walked into the dugout, untouched, when Rice grounded into another double play. The Braves held a four-run lead, but they were leaving ducks on the bases every inning.
In the fourth, Drysdale gave up a double to Danny O’Connell and Campy let the next pitch roll through his legs. With O’Connell dancing off third, needing just a grounder or fly ball to bring him home, Logan bounced a chopper to Robinson at third, forcing O’Connell to scamper back. Drysdale, the magician, escaped again when Mathews, ever dangerous, ended the inning by lining to Robinson.
More than any other member of the Dodgers, it was Robinson, thirty-seven years old and rancorous, who was convinced that Milwaukee couldn’t play in the thin air of a pennant chase. And here, again, when the details of the game seemed to be showing that the Braves were the more talented team, it was being proved. Drysdale should have been toast, putting men on in every inning, and yet he hadn’t broken, hadn’t even given up another run. The score may have looked like a blowout at 6–2, but that was the thing about baseball—one swing of the bat could tie it. The Braves hadn’t shown Robinson anything. The Dodgers should have been dead and yet they were one rally away from recovery.
Drysdale received his cosmic reward in the top of the fifth, bouncing a liner off Ray Crone that caromed from the pitcher to Logan for an infield single. Then the flood came: a single by Gilliam, a double by Reese, which made it 6–3. Bat held high above his head, Robinson stepped up on Crone, with runners on second and third and with one out, and ripped a two-run single to center, and it was 6–5. It was Durocher who famously said Robinson “didn’t come to beat ya. He come to stick the bat up your ass.”
And so here was Jackie, having snared the final two outs the previous inning, driving in two runs in the middle of this rally, taking the game into his hands. The next exchange would detail why no single statistic could properly summarize his impact as a winning ballplayer. With Crone shaking, the Milwaukeeans sitting on their hands as they watched their big lead melt like a July snow cone, Robinson went for the jugular, faking twice before finally stealing second. Crone was so rattled, he walked Hodges, and Haney came out with the hook.
Dave Jolly entered and chucked a wild pitch that sent Robinson to third. Without the benefit of a hit, Robinson tied the game at 6–6 on a fielder’s choice.
In later years, these games would be deliciously remembered for differing reasons. Johnny Logan believed what transpired over those next days as the moment the Braves transformed themselves into a championship personality, finally discarding a reputation as carousers who spit the bit when the pressure rose. The writer Roger Kahn would remember the Robinson performance as another example of the Einstein adage “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”
Robinson was largely finished as an everyday player, as his diminished skills could no longer support his furious activism. But in short bursts, during big games, he could still be a devastating impact player. From the vantage point of the score book, Robinson had done nothing remarkable that Friday—a couple of putouts, an RBI base hit, and a stolen base—but placed in the context of the game and the season and the intensifying relationship between the two teams, he had once again made the difference.
For spending the afternoon in the pressure cooker, Henry had not done much. He’d struck out. He started a Brooklyn rally with his tenth error of the season and killed a rally by hitting into a double play.
But when he doubled off Clem Labine to lead off the seventh in a tie game, it was the seasoned Dodgers who crumbled. Labine’s error allowed Aaron to advance to third and score the go-ahead run on a Bruton sacrifice fly. In the eighth, it was Labine again, giving up a leadoff double to O’Connell and committing another error on the very next batter. With O’Connell on third, Mathews walked to keep the double play intact.
That brought up Henry, with a duck sitting on third and Mathews at first. Labine wanted to pitch Aaron inside, hard at first, and then soft enough to force a double-play grounder. Henry took a pitch. On the next, O’Connell broke for home, and Henry, the power hitter, pulled a Robinson, dropping a perfect bunt in front of Labine as O’Connell raced home with an insurance run in a sweaty 8–6 Milwaukee victory.
Burdette took the mound in the second game and immediately gave up four in the first. Naturally, Robinson was at the center of the fray. Winning the game was important, but beating Burdette came with an even bigger payoff, for it meant there was no one the Braves could run out to the mound with a psychological advantage. Three batters into the game, Burdette was already down 2–0, with Snider on first. Robinson followed with a single. Nelson reached on a bunt single to third, loading the bases. That’s when Robinson sensed a chance to break Burdette’s will.
Furillo bounced a double-play ball to O’Connell at second. No harm there, because with Snider on third, Haney was conceding Snider’s run to get two outs. Being down 3–0 in the first inning wasn’t ideal, but he had twenty-seven outs to make up the difference.
But Robinson raced to third, as he was supposed to do, and then kept on running. Surprised, Adcock took Logan’s relay and spun toward the plate, a flying Robinson careening for the plate, Burdette screaming, “Home! Home!” Adcock hit Del Rice in the glove with the throw, but Robinson was already dusting himself off, trotting gingerly toward the Dodgers dugout, and it was 4–0.
It was the kind of play few players would ever dare to attempt, the kind of play even fewer had the skills to consider, and the kind an even smaller percentage thought could work. Even though he was now on one knee in the dugout, gingerly holding his crotch, while Burdette spewed venom at him, he had scored from second on a double play. If he had to do it alone, Jackie Robinson would make the Braves crack.
Except that Milwaukee did not fold. Erskine led 4–1 in the sixth when Henry followed a Mathews single with another, and Bruton, too, reached on a one-out error. Then Adcock blasted a grand slam and gave the Braves a 5–4 lead. Four outs away from being swept in the doubleheader, Robinson again came up, sore groin and all, and tied the game with a two-out homer in the eighth, only to see Bruton win it 6–5, scoring on a sacrifice fly.
Afterward, it was Smokey Alston who blew his stack. They were the champs, and yet in each game it was the Dodgers who had folded in a critical moment. In three games, they’d committed six errors. Campanella was zero for eight with four whiffs. Adcock had homered in every game. Gutless is what they were, Alston said. And in the next day’s paper, in the genteel New York Times, no less, that was exactly the word attributed to Alston in describing his defending world champs: gutless.
In the Saturday finale, the Dodgers on the brink of being swept four straight, Robinson left after the first inning, his sore groin finishing him for the afternoon. Maglie put the Braves down, except for Henry Aaron and Adcock. Still, up 2–0, with two out in the seventh, “the Barber” gave up a dribbler to Bruton and a game-tying homer to Adcock. When Alston walked to the mound to relieve Maglie, the Barber didn’t want to give him the ball. The game stayed that way until the tenth, when Henry stepped to the plate. He already had three hits, and now Logan was on second with the winning run. That wasn’t all. Alston walked Mathews intentionally to get to Aaron. Don Bessent threw a one-strike fastball and Aaron crushed it four hundred feet against the base of the wall in left center, sending the 39,105 at County Stadium into a frenzy. The beer was on ice at Ray Jackson’s.
The Dodgers were now four and a half back. Robinson was brilliant, but Milwaukee had its sweep. Since Grimm had been bounced, the Braves had beaten Brooklyn six straight. Adcock now had sixteen homers, half of them coming against Brooklyn. With Charlie, Brooklyn had won eight of thirteen. The lead, though, was only two ahead of second-place Cincinnati, but those mashers weren’t supposed to have the pitching to stay in it, lending a certain degree of inevitability to a Dodgers-Braves showdown.
For all the commotion—letting the Dodgers up off of the mat earlier in the summer, the home fans booing relentlessly, being embarrassed like a bunch of Little Leaguers by a raving Quinn, and having to witness the public sacrifice of Charlie Grimm—the Braves were the best team in the league by the end of July, and had they hit like they were supposed to, they might have been even better than the Yankees.
As Grimm had predicted, Milwaukee had the best pitching in baseball. On July 26, the top four pitchers in ERA (earned run average) were the Braves starting rotation, Buhl and Spahn, followed by Burdette and Conley. The Braves had stretched out a five-game lead over Cincinnati and six games over the third-place Dodgers.
Henry was the catalyst. Mathews could still get behind one, but he couldn’t get his average higher than .250, and Adcock was devastating in stretches, but it was Henry who was there, delivering every day. Two days after the Brooklyn sweep, on July 15, Henry singled in a 4–1 win over Pittsburgh, and then the hits rushed downriver, with multiple-hit nights over the next seven games. By the end of the month, he was leading the league in hitting, just as he had set out to do while working on his swing in Carver Park. The hitting streak had reached sixteen games when the press started to take notice.
On August 8, at County Stadium, a doubleheader against the Cardinals, Henry singled in a 10–1 laugher to stretch the streak to twenty-five. In the second game, he stepped in against Herman Wehmeier. Henry was leading the league in hitting, and he remembered Wehmeier from his rookie season. Wehmeier was then with Philadelphia, but he was one of the few pitchers who had consistently tested Henry with knockdown pitches. In his first three at bats, Henry twice flied out to Bobby Del Greco, the center fielder, and once grounded to Ken Boyer. Meanwhile, Burdette and Wehmeier traded runs and outs. Tied 2–2, with one out in the eighth and O’Connell on second, Henry lashed a meaty fastball from Wehmeier, which Del Greco ran down.
In the tenth, Del Greco doubled, and with two out, Wehmeier rapped a single off Burdette’s glove. By the time Burdette could locate the ball, Del Greco had scored from second with the go-ahead run. The Cardinals won 3–2, and the streak was over, personally extinguished by Wehmeier and Del Greco, two names Henry Aaron would never forget.
THE DODGERS and Braves met for the final time for a two-game set September 11 and 12 at Ebbets Field. The Braves led the Dodgers by a single game and a stout Redlegs team by three. The Braves had held on to first place since taking that July doubleheader from Brooklyn, but as Henry’s streak sent him toward the batting title, the Braves lost half their lead. There was payback in Ebbets Field. After Henry destroyed the Dodgers in the opener (three for five, a double, a homer, and four RBIs) to run Haney’s win streak against Brooklyn to seven straight, Brooklyn won the next three. In the first, a 3–2 victory, Robinson accounted for all three runs with a two-run homer and an opposite-field game winner in the bottom of the ninth, which a streaking Aaron snagged for an instant before the ball dropped out of his glove, ending the game. In the second, a 2–1 Brooklyn win, Robinson led off the eighth inning of a 1–1 game by singling to left, taking second on Bobby Thomson’s error, and scoring what would be the winning run on an infield chop. In the finale, Newcombe needed only a run (a home run by Furillo) in a 3–0 win. The Dodgers would go 40–19, shaving five games off the lead.
Over the decades that followed, the Dodgers would be judged harshly for their inability to defeat the Yankees. But they also would be romanticized for that moment in time during the mid-1950s when Brooklyn and the Dodgers seemed to exemplify innocence and simplicity, virtues fast slipping away in modern society, virtues that disappeared with the Dodgers as they moved to the West Coast. Much of it was a myth, certainly, as were most notions of simpler times. The Dodgers leaving Brooklyn would serve for the next half century as a metaphor for virtues lost to progress. Brooklyn’s failure at the hands of the Yankees would burnish the dynastic traits of the Yankees while obscuring another immutable truth: The Dodgers, as the Braves discovered during 1956, were one of the more resolute and determined baseball teams in history. For the length of the baseball season, the Dodgers and Braves believed in the symbols they ostensibly represented.
The Dodgers were the old guard, representatives of a standard in sharp decay. The daily dramas on the baseball field were rivaled only by the confrontations in the boardroom and at Borough Hall, when Walter O’Malley danced with politicians around the construction of a new ballpark for the Dodgers. One plan in 1956 called for a retractable dome, another for a park in Staten Island. The Dodgers were already playing games in Jersey City, the explanation for this being that O’Malley was exhausting all options to stay in New York. The truth was that the old days were dead, and, far ahead of his time, O’Malley knew it, even as the heart of the city still seemed to be beating strong.
The Dodgers, these Brooklyn Dodgers at least, represented the last vestige of a disappearing time, a fact complicated by their unwillingness to go away on the field. Change was what the Braves and Dodgers September showdown truly represented. Change was why Perini, the old Steam Shovel, took his team to the open spaces of the Midwest—where parking was plentiful—rather than remain in the tight corners of Boston, fighting for space with another team, feeling unwanted virtually the whole time. For years, Logan would lament Perini’s decision to leave Boston. “We would have been the powerhouse,” he said. “Look at the guys we had coming up. But they made the decision to go.”
Maglie, one of the many signature faces of New York baseball, would say the same. Like Robinson, Maglie was not quite ready to give way to the Braves or O’Malley’s grand vision, which did not include him. During the furious Dodger run in August, Maglie posted a 1.99 ERA. In September, a 1.77 ERA and a no-hitter September 25 served as proof that the Dodgers were breathing down the Braves neck. Winning the pennant now was, they all knew, their last best chance to win, to say good-bye to the old days in style. Furillo, Erskine, Labine, Hodges, Newcombe, and especially Jackie … they were nowhere men, all of them, with no choice but for the uncertainties of the future to sweep them up, with each leaving the best of himself behind in Brooklyn.
O’Malley was playing games in Jersey City not because he wanted a retractable dome in Brooklyn, but because he knew Perini had it right: If the future was a place no one could yet imagine, it could only be realized by a man of vision who wanted to be remembered for something grand. Such a destiny could not be attained by staying in Boston, or, for that matter, in Brooklyn. Being remembered didn’t mean acquiescing to a politician’s compromise. It meant starting over.
The future was inevitable. Less certain was whether the Milwaukee Braves, set up to be the Next Big Thing, could take the pennant, the prize all season long Henry and Perini and Spahn all thought belonged to them. The old saying that water finds its own level was never truer than in baseball, because of the grueling length of the season. For much of the season, Mathews couldn’t get himself straight, and yet with two weeks to go in the season, the slugger had pounded thirty-two home runs. Adcock would finish with thirty-eight. Spahn was near twenty wins. There was the attrition of the season, as well. Chuck Tanner, the team rookie of 1955, would play only sixty games, bat .238, and spend time in the minors, looking more like a traveling salesman than a ballplayer.
Yet here they were, battered and alive, cradling a wafer-thin one-game lead for the pennant, with sixteen left to play.
PERINI AND THE brain trust flew to Brooklyn for the series. Before the game, John Quinn called Haney for a meeting and announced the manager would be returning in 1957. He had taken a 24–22 team and gone 59–31. Maglie and Buhl warmed in the dugout, and by happenstance, Robinson and Burdette met under the bleachers. Instead of payback for their July rhubarb, what resulted was an unexpected peace accord. Burdette, the West Virginian with a reputation for not only throwing at black players but enjoying it, told Robinson there was no place in the game for racial taunting and—in perhaps the most backhanded compliment of the century—said he hadn’t called Robinson “watermelon” during their bitter confrontations following the all-star break out of racial animosity, but because he was commenting on Robinson’s weight, his “watermelon stomach.”
“Burdette told me that there is no place in baseball for racial references,” Robinson told the Times. “He said that he merely had been making a point that I am getting a bit thick in the middle. Lew’s statement about how he felt is one of the most gratifying things that has ever happened to me.”
Still, these were difficult words to accept, coming from Burdette, a man with a reputation for little love toward black players. Henry respected Burdette’s professionalism, his toughness on the mound, and his commitment to protect his hitters from headhunters like Maglie and Larry Jackson of the Cardinals, but he would never speak of Burdette warmly as a man. In 1955, Burdette knocked Campanella down twice during an at bat in a game at County Stadium, calling him a “black motherfucker” in between dustings. With Campanella in the dirt, Burdette called out, “Nigger, get up there and hit.” After Campanella struck out, he rushed the mound, clearing the benches.
Brooklyn hadn’t held sole possession of first place since April 28, and yet here they were, poised to steal the golden goose at the end. In the opener, a Tuesday night sellout at Ebbets, Maglie gave up a homer to Mathews in the second and another to Adcock and stifled the Milwaukee lineup in between for nine innings. Buhl didn’t even make it into the fifth, chucking the ball around the ballpark. Seven walks in three and two-thirds got him the quick hook from Haney, and the two teams were tied at 83–55 apiece.
In terms of failure, Burdette topped Buhl in a quick turnaround the next afternoon, getting yanked after recording just two outs. But this game, with the fall air and cigar smoke intermingling around the old ballpark and Fred Haney chomping on his fingernails, turned into a September classic. The Braves trailed 3–0 after the first, with Don Newcombe, leading both leagues in wins, on the mound for Brooklyn. But big-pressure games and Newcombe did not often mix well, and Newcombe lasted but an inning himself, and the score was tied 4–4 after two. Milwaukee led 6–4 when Mathews doubled and Adcock (again) bombed a two-run homer in the sixth. Del Crandall wafted one into the seats in the seventh to make it 7–4.
But the Dodgers chased Conley and Taylor Phillips in the seventh, the old hands not quite ready to relinquish their pennant. It started with two singles and a run-scoring twelve-hopper by Pee Wee Reese, and a walk to Duke Snider. In came Buhl, once the Dodger killer, who hit Robinson in the elbow to load the bases. On the next pitch, Sandy Amoros tied it on a two-out, two-run error by Danny O’Connell.
Now tied at 7–7 and with Haney reaching a fever point, Bruton’s single scored Adcock in the eighth. A redeemed Buhl would get the win in relief, but not before Crone sweated out the ninth, with Robinson singling, with two out, before Amoros ended the game on a grounder.
The Braves led Brooklyn by a game. Henry had gone three for five. All season long, the personality of the Braves had been defined by Spahn, Mathews, Adcock, and Logan. The frustrations of reaching the pennant had been illustrated by Perini. Henry was only twenty-two, and while he had been the team’s most consistent player, he had not yet affected the pennant race with a defining moment. The Braves left Brooklyn and took the train to Philadelphia, checking into the Warwick Hotel on Seventeenth Street between Walnut and Locust, a block from Rittenhouse Square. Henry and Felix Mantilla grabbed a cab to the ballpark, where Henry took over an epic doubleheader against the Phillies.
Jack Meyer, the twenty-four-year-old Phillies pitcher (who would die of a surprise heart attack in 1967), was throwing the game of his life, shutting out the Braves through six innings. With the Braves trailing 2–0 in the seventh, Henry doubled in O’Connell to cut the lead in half and then scored to tie it. In the twelfth, Thomson from left field erased a streaking Puddin’ Head Jones at the plate to preserve the tie.
In the thirteenth, Meyer—still in the game—retired the first two batters before making the critical mistake of hitting O’Connell (career average: .260). Henry stepped to the plate. Up until that point, Meyer had pitched twelve and two-thirds innings, had given up only six hits (Henry had one) and two runs (Henry scored one and drove in the other). The Phillies manager, Mayo Smith, did not blink, nor did he offer even a token look to the bull pen, not during these tough-guy days, when starting pitchers (even in the thirteenth inning) finished the game they started. The bull pen was empty. Meyer worked Aaron gingerly, outside and low, until Henry laced a rocket down the right-field line. O’Connell raced home from first and Aaron stood on third with a lead-taking triple. All Bob Trowbridge—who himself had pitched eight innings of scoreless relief—had to do was finish off the bottom of the thirteenth, which he did easily.
The nightcap at Connie Mack Stadium went twelve innings, with Spahn pitching the whole dozen. The game stayed 2–2 until the eleventh inning, Spahn and Robin Roberts, two future Hall of Famers, trading ground balls for pop flies, when Aaron led off the inning with a home run. Spahn couldn’t close the deal, giving up a two-out, two-strike home run to Ted Kazanski (batting average at the time: .211; career average: .217). In the twelfth, Spahn reached third—he had been on base all five times—and Aaron rocked a game-winning sacrifice fly off of another old pro, old Aaron antagonist Curt Simmons.
Now the lead was two, with thirteen games remaining, but only Spahn could win a game. The Dodgers took a one-game lead after Burdette (three and two-thirds), Buhl (three), and Conley (one and one-third) all failed to get out of the fourth inning and the Braves lost all three, two to the Phillies and one to the Giants. On September 25, Spahn won his twentieth, eliminating the Redlegs with a complete-game six-hitter, 7–1. Still, the Braves led by a game—91–60 to the Dodgers 90–61—with two left to play.
The venue was St. Louis. The wobbling Buhl and Spahn were scheduled to pitch, with Burdette slated for the finale.
BRAVES OPEN WITH CARDINALS TONIGHT WITH CHIPS DOWN IN TIGHT PENNANT RACE
Three is magic number in closing series; Buhl to start against Tom Poholsky
By Bob Wolf of the Journal Staff
ST. LOUIS—Operation Pennant is at hand. Tonight, against the fourth-place Cardinals, the Braves will enter the final phase of their campaign.… Three is the magic number.
The Braves lead the second-place Dodgers by one game with three to play. Any combination of Milwaukee victories and Brooklyn defeats adding up to three will now decide the race.
Perini and Quinn flew in for, as the New York Times put it, “the kill.” Buhl, in complete free fall, didn’t retire a single batter. After two hits and two walks, Haney wasn’t taking any chances. The only batter who did make an out, Don Blasingame, did so by getting thrown out while trying to steal second. By the end of the first inning, St. Louis led 3–0.
The Braves clawed back—home run number thirty-eight by Adcock in the second, two doubles, a single, and a sacrifice in the fifth to tie it at 3–3—but Milwaukee was undone by a case of the shakes. In the first inning, Musial pushed a roller to no-man’s-land between Adcock at first and Dittmar at second. But when Jack Dittmar fielded the ball, he looked to first, to find it unoccupied. Buhl was late to the bag. Dittmar made a desperation flip—high and late—that went for an error.
In the sixth, Bobby Del Greco singled home a run to break the tie. With the bases loaded and one out in a one-run game, Blasingame bounced an inning ender to Adcock, who threw home for the first out. But Crandall rushed his throw, wide of the bag and low past Adcock. Del Greco scored to make it 5–3.
The Crandall error cut even deeper, when Bruton led off the eighth with a double and Aaron drove him in. The Braves went quietly in the ninth; the final score was 5–4, Cardinals.
Only Spahn remained. He took the mound at Sportsman’s Park, determined to carry his team to the World Series. On the mound was Herm Wehmeier, 11–11 on the season and going nowhere, but no insignificant figure in the drama. Six weeks earlier, it was Wehmeier who had beaten Burdette in ten innings, on the same day ending Henry’s twenty-five-game hit streak.
A special train, dubbed the “Pennant Express,” darted from Milwaukee to Union Station, carrying four hundred eager Braves fans.
Perini liked his chances after Bruton stepped in, with one out in the first, and homered to left, but the remaining two hours and forty minutes were nothing less than torture by baseball. Everything Wehmeier threw came in clear and flat. No suspense, no blinding fastball. The game went twelve innings. In nine of them, the Braves put a man on base, but only one, Henry, passed second base. Aaron stood on third, with two out in the eleventh, but was left to watch the season disintegrate before him. He had singled in the sixth and was exterminated with another double play by Mathews.
Robert George Del Greco, born April 7, 1933, in Pittsburgh, grew up in the Hill District of the city. He was a playground star when he hit his one-in-a-million shot: a tryout with the Pirates. By 1952, he would be the youngest player in the major leagues, playing as a nineteen-year-old for his hometown team. He would play nine seasons for seven teams, including two stints with the Phillies. In no season would he come to bat more than one hundred times and hit better than .259. But Bobby Del Greco could catch the baseball.
He would hit .215 for his career, and that weekend in St. Louis, along with Herm Wehmeier, he became one of the most infamous characters in Milwaukee baseball history. His two hits in winning the opener broke the 3–3 tie and gave the Cardinals insurance. Playing behind Wehmeier, he made eight putouts in center, dousing every rally with his glove. He chased down a vicious drive by Aaron in the eighth. In the ninth, Mathews led off with a bomb to deep center. Del Greco turned to the wall, racing straight back 422 feet to center, the longest part of the old yard. At the very worst, even a plodder like Mathews would have wound up on third, giving the Braves two chances to play for the pennant without even needing a hit … and yet Del Greco snared the ball. The pain multiplied when Adcock followed with the single that—had it not been for Del Greco—would have sealed at least a play-off with the Dodgers. Next up was Dittmar, who screamed a liner into the right-center alley that might have scored a run … but Del Greco ran it down.
With one out in the twelfth, Musial doubled. Rip Repulski hit a smash to Mathews, who was not sure he had a play anywhere but thought he could at least keep the ball in front of him. But, at the last instant, the ball caromed over his right shoulder and rolled fatally down the left-field line. Mathews gave a helpless half chase, feverishly at first and then with heartbroken steps as Musial careened around third to score the winning run, and wipe out the season.
The next day, the Dodgers swept the Pirates. For the next half century, the final weekend of the 1956 baseball season would haunt members of the Milwaukee Braves. Johnny Logan, the little tinder-box of a shortstop, would remember each sequence where they stared the pennant in the eye, cradled and caressed it, only to see the unlikely Del Greco snatch it away. Spahn, with his eaglelike confidence, would live for forty-seven more years, and would pitch nine more years, win 160 more games, pitch in the World Series twice, face fellow Hall of Famers Gibson, Koufax, Drysdale, Ford, and Marichal. And yet Herm Wehmeier, who would finish a thirteen-year career in 1958 with a career record of 92–108, was the one name he would never forget. On the eve of the World Series, when the Yankees would defeat the Dodgers yet again in seven memorable games, the Journal ran a story under Bob Wolf’s byline, with a headline that pleaded for an explanation.
WHAT HAPPENED TO BRAVES? MANY ANSWERS POSSIBLE
Fade Out of Burdette, Buhl Placed Heavy Burden on Warren Spahn
Why didn’t the Braves win? Wherever you go these days, the same questions are asked.
And the answers? … One explains the loss of the pennant.
Failure to play even .500 ball after Labor Day is the first thing that meets the eye.…
Had the Braves gone just one game over .500 during that time, they would have tied for the flag.
The story went on to say, “With Adcock and Mathews not hitting, Henry Aaron, the new batting champion, was the only member of the one-two-three-punch that hit consistently.” For the first time in his career, Henry played a full season of pennant-tight baseball, and he did not disappoint. He did not flinch against the Dodgers, and proved the difference in two extra-inning games in Philadelphia, games without margin. There was not a moment during the pennant chase where Henry succumbed to the pressure. When the Braves soared to the lead in July, Aaron hit .424. When they were gasping in September, Henry hit .357. Against the top two teams in the league, Aaron hit the best: .350 against Cincinnati, .409 against Brooklyn, .450 at Ebbets Field. He had three hits in the epic between Spahn and Wehmeier.
The papers would devote many column inches and thousands of words to the bitter end of the season, to Burdette’s fade and Buhl’s September fizzle, but the totality of what was lost that season was best summarized by the man often ridiculed the most for saying the least.
“In 1956,” Henry Aaron said years later, “we choked.”
*If anyone ever needed proof where Charlie left his heart, it was provided by the choice of his final resting place. Following his death in 1983, his widow received permission from the Cubs to spread his ashes over the Wrigley Field outfield. The Cubs heartily agreed and the widow Grimm did just that.
*And then Durocher signed on to manage the Cubs. In 1969, the Cubs appeared headed to their first World Series since 1945, holders of a nine-game lead over St. Louis and a nine-and-a-half-game lead over New York on August 15, only to lose the division to the Mets by eight games. Durocher would manage five more seasons and would never again come so close to a pennant.
The great educator Booker T. Washington (fourth from right) vacationed in Mobile and spent much political capital fighting unsuccessfully to prevent the implementation of Jim Crow policies there. It was into a strict culture of segregation that three generations of Aaron men were born. (illustration credit i1.1)
Almost as if preordained, the specter of Babe Ruth would never be far from Henry Aaron. Ruth was born February 6, Henry a day earlier. Ruth finished his career with the Braves, the team that would one day draft Henry. In the same year Herbert and Stella Aaron moved to Mobile, Ruth poses before an exhibition at Hartwell Field. (illustration credit i1.2)
The pool halls of Davis Avenue appealed to a young Henry Aaron far more than education, leading to his expulsion from high school. He attended the Josephine Allen Institute, but Henry bet his entire future on baseball. (illustration credit i1.3)
When Herbert Aaron finally found steady work, it was as a riveter with the Alabama Dry Dock & Shipbuilding Company on Pinto Island. Until a 1942 riot, white and black employees worked alongside one another, though they would still suffer the humiliation of segregated entrances at the main plant. (illustration credit i1.4)
Henry joined Jacksonville, part of the notorious South Atlantic League, as a second baseman in 1953. Along with Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner, he would integrate the league while winning MVP honors. (illustration credit i1.5)
A staple of the segregated era: black players living in a boarding house in the Negro section of town. White players on the Braves resided at a resort hotel in Bradenton, Florida, during spring training, while Henry, Charlie White (center), and Bill Bruton (right) lived at the home of Lulu Mae Gibson. (illustration credit i1.6)
During his early years, no player would have as much of an impact on Henry as Bill Bruton (second from right). Bruton taught a young Henry Aaron how to dress, how to tip, places to avoid on the road, and, most important, how to begin pressing Braves management to end the segregationist practices during spring training. From left: Jim Pendleton, Charlie White, Bruton, and Henry Aaron. (illustration credit i1.7)
Few teams in history ever boasted as powerful a trio in the middle of the batting order as did the Milwaukee Braves, with Henry hitting fourth, between Eddie Mathews (center) and Joe Adcock. Henry loved Mathews, but he and Joe Adcock were never close. Henry believed Adcock to be the most racist member of the Braves. It was Adcock who was responsible for the saddling Henry with the unflattering nicknames “Stepin Fetchit,” “Snowshoes,” and “Slow Motion Henry.” (illustration credit i1.8)
While baseball focused on his rivalry with Willie Mays, it was Jackie Robinson after whom Henry patterned his career, and Robinson who inspired Aaron to be a person of import following his retirement. Aaron always remembered that Robinson was never offered a job by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley (right) when he left the game, and he resolved to cultivate relationships with the game’s power brokers. (illustration credit i1.9)
Fresh off of winning his first batting title, Henry arrived in Bradenton for spring training in 1957. By season’s end, he would hit a pennant-winning home run, win the World Series, and secure the Most Valuable Player award for the only time in his career. (illustration credit i1.10)
On Henry’s first trip to Boston, in May 1957, he and Ted Williams posed before a charity exhibition game at Fenway Park between the Braves and the Red Sox. It was Williams, the curmudgeonly perfectionist, who was both taken by Henry’s accomplishments and perplexed by his unorthodox hitting style. “You can’t hit for power off your front foot,” Williams often said. “You just can’t do it.” (illustration credit i1.11)
The Wrist Hitter: Perhaps no player in the history of the game would be as celebrated for his lightning-quick wrists as Henry Aaron. “You might get him out once,” Don Drysdale once said, “but don’t think for a minute you’re going make a living throwing the ball past by Henry Aaron.” (illustration credit i1.12)
Warren Spahn won 363 games and was the unquestioned leader of the Braves pitching staff. Spahn was a decorated World War II veteran, awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Along with Henry and Eddie Mathews, Spahn would be elected to the Hall of Fame, but while Henry and Spahn shared mutual respect, Spahn’s irreverence and unprogressive racial attitudes made for a professional but sometimes uneasy relationship. (illustration credit i1.13)
Henry at home with Barbara, a young Gaile, and infant Lary. The Aarons lived on North 29th Street, in the segregated Bronzeville section of Milwaukee. As Henry’s celebrity increased, the family became the first and only black family allowed to move to the suburb of Mequon, a source of pride and tension on both sides of the roiling civil rights movement in the city. (illustration credit i1.14)
No set of teammates hit more home runs than Eddie Mathews (left) and Henry Aaron, or better symbolized the glory days of baseball in Milwaukee. After the 1965 home finale, the two walk up the runway at County Stadium for the final time before the club moved to Atlanta. (illustration credit i1.15)
Henry voiced his reluctance to return to the South, the scene of so many humiliations. Ironically, it was living in Atlanta, the center of the modern civil rights movement, that shaped his views and deepened his conviction to become more than a baseball player. (illustration credit i1.16)
Perhaps the three most historically significant players of their era: Henry’s consistency was often overshadowed by the charisma of Willie Mays (center), while Roberto Clemente (left) displaced Henry as the premier defensive right fielder in the National League. It was Clemente, however, who would be the most notoriously underpaid. (illustration credit i1.17)
After Henry hit his 500th home run, on July 14, 1968, the baseball world realized it was Henry Aaron—and not Willie Mays—who represented the best chance to reach Babe Ruth’s all-time record of 714. For the next seven seasons, as he became the focal point of a national obsession, the smiles would be scarce. (illustration credit i1.18)