The Milwaukee braves are sticking right in the middle of a riotous pennant race, in spite of multiple injuries and a subpar performance from their famed pitching staff. The man who has supplied most of the glue is Henry Louis Aaron, and if his contributions fail to do the job once again this year, perhaps the only hope remaining for Milwaukee would be to get Ty Cobb on waivers from the American League. Certainly no one else could do any more.
Aaron is the rather indolent-looking young man who showed up on the first day of spring training at Bradenton, Florida in 1956, sauntered casually to the plate in the gray road uniform of the Milwaukee Braves, swished a borrowed bat back and forth a couple of times, and then hit the first three pitches out of the park.
"Ol' Hank," he then pronounced, "is ready."
No one fell over in surprise. Ol' Hank, who wasn't really so old (having just turned 22 at the time), was always supposed to hit the baseball, and almost always seems to have been ready. From the day he first reported to the Braves in the spring of 1954, a scared 20-year-old with less than two seasons of experience in the lower minors behind him, the entire Milwaukee organization had been acting strangely like a family which discovered a uranium mine in its backyard. That first season Aaron hit .280 and was second only to Wally Moon of the Cardinals in the voting for Rookie of the Year. The next year he hit .314 and drove in 106 runs. Now—Ol' Hank having had time to look around a bit and get the feel of the big leagues—things were expected to pop.
That they haven't popped, at least not enough to bring Milwaukee its first pennant, is assuredly not the fault of Hank Aaron. In 1956, proving that he was indeed ready, he hit .328, won the National League batting championship and became the only player in baseball to make 200 hits. And this year—at week's end—Hank was hitting .337 with 31 home runs and 83 runs batted in, leading the league in all but RBIs and slashing his way toward the first triple crown since Joe Medwick accomplished the feat some 20 years before. He was also ahead in total hits (140), total bases (260) and runs scored (78). What would have been considered heresy a year ago, people were now prepared to accept as simple fact: this slender, 23-year-old Negro from Mobile, Alabama is the best right-hand hitter seen in the National League since the days of Rogers Hornsby.
Perhaps the most unusual part of the Aaron story is the fact that no one gets very excited about it. Sometimes it is even easy to forget that Henry Aaron is around. Without the physical proportions or explosive speed of a Mickey Mantle, without the breathtaking color of a Willie Mays, without the long and brilliant—and controversial—career of a Ted Williams, Aaron seems to be hardly a personality at all. He says practically nothing, stays out of nightclubs, never loses his cap running the bases, and spits only upon the ground. He has not even had time to become the quiet but lethal legend which is Musial. All he does is walk up to the plate four or five times a day to hit a baseball.
It is then, however, during those brief moments, that the thousands wake up and realize, almost too late, that here before them stands one of the divinely gifted few. He looks small down there in the batter's box and not very deadly at all. He stands well away from the plate, toward the rear of the box, languidly swinging the yellowish-white bat in a low arc. Then the pitcher stretches and throws, Aaron cocks his bat and the ball comes in. At the last moment he strides forward and leans toward the baseball; the bat comes whipping around in a blur almost too fast for the eye to follow and there is a sharp, loud report. A white streak flashes through the infield or into the outfield or over the fence, and Henry Aaron has another base hit. Sometimes he does this two or three times a day. Some days, because he is human, he doesn't do it at all. But, occasionally, because he is Hank Aaron, he does it four or five times. It is this which sets him apart.
This year, Aaron has been hitting everything within reach. He beat the Redlegs 1-0 with a home run on April 18. On May 2 at Pittsburgh he had five singles; the next day he drove in four runs with a double, a triple and home run. On May 5 against the Dodgers he hit two singles, a double and a home run. On May 18 he beat Pittsburgh 6-5 by driving in four runs with two homers and a single. He drove in both runs in a 2-1 victory over the Dodgers June 27. On June 29 he began a streak in which he hit seven home runs in eight games. And on July 16-17 he had six for seven.
One day Birdie Tebbetts was moaning about how Johnny Logan and Del Crandall of the Braves always murdered his Reds. "How about Aaron?" someone asked. "Aaron," said Birdie, "murders everybody."
The Dodgers agree. They say the big No. 44 on Aaron's back really means four for four. When informed during spring training of 1956 that Henry was hitting .552 against the Dodgers in exhibition games, Walter Alston shrugged in resignation. "I see no reason why he won't keep on hitting .552 against us all year." The fact that Aaron hit only .442 against Brooklyn in '56 undoubtedly pleased Walter very much.
In June of last year, with Aaron in a slump and batting well below .300, Fred Haney was still able to classify Henry as the least of his problems. "That boy is a .330 hitter," said Haney. "I'm not worried about him. He'll be up there." In another month, he was. This year, with Aaron steadily in the vicinity of .350, Haney doesn't know what kind of a hitter to call him. "Maybe he'll hit .360," says the Milwaukee manager. "Maybe he'll hit .400. I don't know. He's capable of anything."
Just why Aaron is capable of hitting .360 or .400 or anything, no one is exactly sure. The wrists, of course. Everyone knows about them. "Best wrists in baseball," says Haney. "Best wrists in baseball," says Tebbetts. "Best wrists in baseball," says the man in shirtsleeves up in Section 27, Row 13, Seat 5 to his friend in Seat 6, who only glares because he was going to say it himself as soon as he swallowed the rest of his hot dog.
The wrists are good. They are almost eight inches around, which is not only larger than they look but also more than an inch larger than the wrists of two other citizens named Patterson and Jackson who moved into the Polo Grounds last week not long after Aaron left. The forearms ripple with little knots of muscle whenever Henry curls his big, oversized hands around the handle of a bat. And despite the trim, 31-inch waist, it takes a size 42 uniform shirt to cover the sloping, powerful shoulders and muscular back and chest.
"He's like a rock," says Doc Feron, the Braves' trainer. "Smooth muscled but hard. And, you know, he's not really so little, either. He just looks like it in his uniform. Henry's a pretty big boy."
Anywhere but on an athletic field filled with 200-pounders, Aaron would be considered a pretty big boy. He is 5 feet 11½ inches tall and weighs 178 pounds. But there is more to it than wrists and forearms and muscles and size. He also has exceptional eyesight and a natural rhythm and sense of timing unsurpassed in all baseball. "It's fantastic," says Warren Spahn, "how long he can look at a pitch before he decides whether to swing. It's as good as giving him an extra strike." But perhaps most important of all, Aaron is a fine hitter because of one fundamental belief: a baseball is made to be hit.
At the moment of impact in Henry's swing, the weight is far forward on the front foot, more so than any other player in the game today. It is a position reached by intent rather than chance. An offensive hitter, as opposed to many ballplayers who are concerned only with protecting the plate or themselves, Aaron is always going out to meet the ball, to attack it. He considers the bunt a fine tactic so long as it is employed by someone else; a base on balls is absolutely no fun at all.
There are those who believe Aaron might hit .400 if he would take a few walks when he finds them, lay down a bunt now and then and lay off the bad pitches. He is a notorious bad ball hitter whose strike zone was once described by ex-Braves Manager Charlie Grimm as "a general area ranging from the top of his head to his toes." And when Aaron was playing in the Sally League an opposing pitcher once warned a teammate not to waste time dusting him off. "The last two I threw at his head," the pitcher said, "he hit out of the park."
But no one is absolutely convinced that he won't someday hit .400 anyway. And he never had a lesson in his life.
Born in Mobile on February 5, 1934, Henry grew up with his five brothers and three sisters in one of the better-class Negro residential sections, called Toulminville. He was a quiet boy who liked sports—football, basketball, softball—and books. This may come as a slight shock to some members of the National League, who swear they never saw Henry—even in those rare moments when he remained awake long enough to read—get any closer to the public library than the comic book rack at the corner newsstand. But his mother says it is true and that he was a good student. Besides, there are a lot of things the National League hasn't figured out yet about Henry Aaron.
He played baseball one summer in the city recreation league and must have been a pretty impressive rookie even then; upon graduation from Central High in 1952 Aaron signed a contract with the Indianapolis Clowns, a touring Negro professional team, and set out by bus to see the world. He got only far enough for organized baseball, in the person of a Braves scout named Dewey Griggs, to see him and like him.
The Braves bought him for $10,000 on a 30-day look and sent him to Eau Claire in the Class C Northern League to play shortstop. By the time he had been there two days, Manager Bill Adair had seen far too much to send him back. After Henry had been there a week, he was named to the league all-star team. He finished the season hitting .336 and was named rookie of the year.
At Jacksonville the next year, Aaron led the Class A Sally League in everything but peanut sales: batting (.362), runs batted in (125), hits, runs, doubles and most hours slept for day, week and season.
"The most relaxed kid I ever saw," says Ben Geraghty, who now manages the Braves Triple-A farm club at Wichita but who was at Jacksonville that year. "From the time he got on the bus until we got to the next town, Hank was asleep. Nothing ever bothered him."
Henry also led the league in most errors for a second baseman, and it was then that the Braves decided he would become an outfielder. But no one ever attempted to alter his batting style. Paul Waner, the famed Milwaukee hitting coach, soon sent word up through the organization that everyone was to keep hands off when Aaron walked to the plate. "He's got a perfect swing now," warned Waner. "Don't anyone try to change him. Just let him alone."
"The most natural hitter I ever saw," says Geraghty. "He would go out to hit—you couldn't keep him out of the batting cage—and he would pick up the first bat he came to. Didn't seem to make any difference.
"He hit a home run off Gene Conley one day when we were playing Toledo in an exhibition game. 'What bat did you use, Henry?' the next hitter asked him. 'The Green-berg model,' Henry said. 'You couldn't,' the other fellow told him. 'I've got the Greenberg model.' 'Well,' Henry said, 'anyway, I was usin' a bat. It must have been the right one.'
"He hasn't really changed, I guess. This year in spring training, after he won the batting championship, I asked him what kind of bat he was using now. Figured he'd say 'a Babe Ruth handle with a Hornsby barrel' or something like that. He said 'I've got me two bats now. A long one and a short one. I use the long one when they're pitchin' me outside and the short one when they're pitchin' me inside.'
"And I'll never forget when we changed our signs in the middle of the season. Henry came up and I gave him the take sign. He hit a home run. 'Why didn't you take that pitch like I signaled, Henry?' I asked him. 'I thought that was the hit sign,' he said. I told him that was the old hit sign. 'Heck, Ben,' he said. 'I just learned it the other day.'
"The rest of the year I didn't give him any signs at all. He just went up there and hit away. It worked out all right. I guess if you had enough hitters like Henry, you wouldn't need any signs anyway."
Geraghty, like a lot of other people who have come in contact with Aaron, still isn't sure whether his leg was being pulled or not. It is fairly easy to find oneself completely beguiled by the soporific, almost indifferent exterior which cloaks Henry's rather highly developed sense of humor. He had everyone at Jacksonville convinced that he didn't know the names of the opposing players, of the opposing team, of the town he was in or, frequently, of even his own teammates. He once told a writer he had developed his wrists by delivering ice when he was a kid; the only job he really ever had in those days was helping a man care for people's lawns. Breaking out of a slump, he told teammates that in desperation he had called Stan Musial for advice and that Stan told him to "keep swinging, boy, just keep swinging." Later, Musial had to laugh. "The only time I ever saw Henry up until then," he said, "all I said was 'hello.' " He also told an interviewer his favorite pastime was hunting. Another, who knew him better and knew that Henry liked to listen to modern music and go to the movies but was unaware he had ever shot anything bigger than a game of pool, saw the story. "I didn't know you hunted, Henry," he said. "I don't," said Aaron. "It's too dangerous."
The best proof that Aaron was a pretty intelligent young man even at the age of 19 is the fact that he was smart enough that year at Jacksonville to stay relaxed. Along with Felix Mantilla, now a teammate with the Braves, and an outfielder named Horace Garner, he was the first Negro to play in the Deep South Sally League. He had to live with a Negro family in town and, on the road, room in Negro hotels. Frequently he had to remain on the bus while white teammates brought his meals out to him from roadside restaurants. And at season's end, having said almost nothing and done quite a lot, there were no complaints about Henry Aaron by either the ballplayers in the league or the fans who watched him play.
Even now Aaron makes no attempt to convince anyone that he is a mental giant. When asked why he liked the outfield better than the infield, Henry told a reporter: "There's less to do out there. Especially thinking."
He is generally regarded, however, as an above-average defensive ballplayer who could be even better if he wanted to badly enough. Even the Braves admit that he has a tendency to get a little lazy. But he has a good, strong arm—although not an exceptional one—and very good hands; he catches everything he gets to and gets to most baseballs that he should with a long, loping stride that covers more ground than it would appear. Once the Braves tried to get him up on his toes, to dig hard when he ran, but when his batting average began to tail off, they abandoned the project like a hot coal. When you ask Henry now why he doesn't run harder, he grins a little and says: "I'm pacin' myself."
Perhaps this is wise, for he has a long way to go. In National League history, only Pete Reiser ever won a batting championship at an earlier age—and that by only 1½ months—and while Reiser's career was ruined by running into too many outfield walls, that is an occupational hazard which presents no problem to Aaron. He stays away from the walls. It is with a bat, not a glove, that Henry has soared to a $30,000 salary in three short years, built one home for his wife and two children in Mobile and another in Milwaukee, helped his parents and invested in real estate. If he continues to stay healthy and to learn, he could become one of the greatest hitters that ever lived. Also one of the richest.
"Henry's dumb, all right," says Del Crandall. "Dumb like a fox. When he first came up, the pitchers used to fool him once in a while. Now he knows them. He has a tremendous faculty for remembering the pitch that got him out the last time. The next time the same pitcher tries it, Henry's liable to hit it out of the park."
They tell the story of the day in his rookie year when Aaron hit a home run off Robin Roberts. "Man," he said later, "was that really Mr. Roberts?" At the time, everyone believed him. Now the Braves will tell you he probably knew not only who Roberts was but what he had for breakfast and what size sweatshirt he wore.
In one respect, however, all pitchers are alike to Henry. "When my timin' is on," he says, "it don't make any difference who the pitcher is. I hit anybody then. When it's off, I don't."
Usually the timing is on (his lifetime average of .315 now ranks second only to Musial's among active players in the National League) and he has a great deal of quiet confidence that it is the pitcher who should be doing the worrying. "I've got a bat," he says, "and all the pitcher's got is a ball. I figure that gives me the edge."
Because he has never considered himself to be a particularly powerful hitter, Aaron has wisely refused to get involved in the home run craze. He simply tries to meet the ball, wherever it is pitched, and let those wrists take care of the rest. He hit only 27 home runs in 1955 and 26 last year and insists that he isn't trying to hit home runs this season. So it is as much a surprise to Aaron as to anyone else that with two months still to go he leads both major leagues with 31. More than Musial and Snider, more than Mantle and Williams, too.
"Whatever I'm doin'," he says, "I don't want to know what it is. I just want to keep on doin' it."
He does know that he is hitting the ball up in the air more this year and, trying to be helpful, once suggested it might be because he was standing up straighter at the plate. The real reasons are probably even simpler: he began the season using a 34-ounce bat instead of his usual 36-ounce one and can whip it around even faster; he weighs almost 10 pounds more than when he first came up to the big leagues, and he knows more about the pitchers—and about hitting—than he did one or two years ago.
Aaron still sends the ball ripping to all fields, and almost as many of his home runs have disappeared over the right-field fences this season as have been pulled to left. Because of this, no defense has been able to shift on him. And certainly no pitcher has yet found his weakness. When the Giants stopped him with only two singles in three games at the first of the season, Bill Rigney triumphantly announced: "I think we've found a way to pitch to Aaron." In his next 27 at bats against the Giants, Hank had 12 hits.
Outside of opposing pitchers, who may be excused, Aaron hasn't an enemy in the world. He gives Haney and the Milwaukee coaches no trouble, acts "like a big leaguer," according to Joe Taylor, the Braves equipment man and clubhouse manager, and is held in high regard both professionally and personally by his teammates, who rib him unmercifully, then praise him to the skies when his back is turned. Even the umpires love him. If a pitch is close enough to be questionable, Henry is going to hit it—or at least try to. "I don't give those umpires any call," says Henry, "to have words with me."
The Braves say Aaron is so relaxed at the plate that he catches catnaps between pitches. They know, however, that this is deceptive: once he goes up there to hit, his powers of concentration and singleness of purpose would almost put Ben Hogan to shame. One day a rookie, trying to get some pointers by watching Aaron in the batting cage, was startled at the careless way Henry was holding the bat. "You better turn the trademark up," he rashly suggested.
"Boy," said Aaron with a withering look, "I didn't come up here to read."
EIGHT-INCH WRISTS, BIGGER THAN THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMP'S
THREE TIMES OUT OF THE PARK, AND OL' HANK WAS READY
THE BAT COMES WHIPPING AROUND IN A BLUR...HE PUTS MORE WEIGHT ON THE FRONT FOOT THAN ANY HITTER IN THE GAME TODAY
AARON'S UNIFORM NUMBER MEANS FOUR FOR FOUR
The major obstacle in Henry Aaron's pursuit of the triple crown in 1957 is one Stan Musial, who won his first batting championship when Aaron was just 4 years old. The year was 1943, and Musial—like Aaron when he got his first batting title last year—was 22.
Now, 14 years and five batting crowns later, Musial is feeling the weight of the years, but at the same time is successfully fighting it. In the month since the All-Star Game, when the sweltering heat of midsummer normally has an enervating effect on 36-year-old ballplayers, Musial's 31 hits, 19 RBIs and four home runs have moved him ahead of Aaron as the National League's leading run producer.
Two months ago, after Musial broke the National League record for consecutive games played, he admitted, "I'm not anxious to keep it going now. I'll sit out a game or two this season, like the second game of a double-header. They tire me out now. My reflexes go and I feel and look tired. So I don't expect to keep it up."
When Musial said that, the Cardinals were in fifth place. Since then, they have moved into the middle of an unbelievable pennant merry-go-round. "This is the most exciting race I've known," now says Musial. "We had some good races with Brooklyn in past years, but nothing like this, where we play a contender every day."
Instead of resting, a visibly tired Musial has played in every game (he did sit out one, but since it was suspended and will be finished next month, he may still get a chance to play in it). "This St. Louis weather, on a long home stand like this one, takes something out of you. I've never liked to play here more than two weeks at a stretch."
National League pitchers may be forgiven for being skeptical about Musial's fatigue. With the temperature in the mid-90s one day last week in St. Louis, Stan hit two home runs and two singles in four at bats, driving in four runs to put the Cardinals in first place for the fourth time this season. Incidental to Musial at the time was the fact that his two home runs had vaulted him past the illustrious Ty Cobb into third place on the alltime list of extra-base hitters. Only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig have had more.
"It isn't that I've found a way to beat the sapping heat out here," Musial said after the game. "I simply got something straightened out. After 15 years in this park I still get anxious to pull the ball here. I take my eye off it, I guess, and begin pulling for that right-field fence. Del Ennis and some of the others watched me and told me what I was doing wrong."
By the end of the week, Musial was still playing every game and the Cardinals had won eight straight and 14 out of their last 17 games.