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'The Last Hero:' Here comes Henry

Editor's note: This excerpt from "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," by Howard Bryant, details the hype surrounding the 20-year-old Aaron during spring training in 1954. Copyright © 2010 by Howard Bryant. Excerpted with permission by Pantheon Books.

Anticipation of Henry's arrival in the spring of 1954 was heightened
by the fact that no one, apart from the Milwaukee scouts,
minor-league personnel, and occasionally the owner, Lou Perini, or
the general manager, John Quinn, had actually ever seen him play.
He was famous, mostly, in the Braves anticipation of him, but his
fame stemmed from the exotic, sumptuous ingredients that were critical
to the baseball publicity machine: dewdrop reports from the
bird-dog scouts, who, in turn, whetted the appetite of fans and management
alike. "Any amount you ask for that kid Henry Aaron in right
field wouldn't be too much," exuded Red Sox scout Ted McGrew.
Word of mouth traveling from exuberant minor-league coaches and
managers (HANK AARON IS FABULOUS FELLOW, SAYS FORMER PILOT BEN GERAGHTY read a March 1954 Milwaukee Journal headline) and sports writers ("If Aaron is 75 percent as good as the glowing
reports about him, he will be worth keeping around for pinch
hitting, if nothing else," R. G. Lynch wrote in the Journal a full month
before spring camp opened) only increased the anticipation. But so
much of it was more talk about the latest next big thing, just word of
mouth, just so many words on paper.

There was only one element, however, that provided the real fuel
to the churning engine: the staggering offensive numbers Henry had
produced over the past two seasons. His statistics leaped out of the
morning box scores (best found in the weekly agate of The Sporting
News), from Eau Claire to Jacksonville to Caguas. After Henry and
Barbara were married, in October 1953, Henry kept his promise and
the two went to Puerto Rico. Henry played for Caguas, and the manager
was Mickey Owen, the old Brooklyn catcher and owner of the
worst moment any ballplayer could ever endure: 1941 World Series,
game four, Ebbets Field, the Yankees leading the series two games to
one but down 4-3, with two out and two strikes in the top of the
ninth. Tommy Henrich was the batter when Owen dropped a called
third strike that would have ended the game and tied the series. Henrich
reached first; the Yankees scored four runs on the melting
Dodgers and won the game, 7-4, and the Series the next day. That
was how it was in baseball. Mickey Owen played thirteen years in the
big leagues, but he might as well have played one inning of one game
one afternoon in October.

Henry would always say Ben Geraghty was the best and most
influential manager he had ever had, but Mickey Owen qualified as a
close second, for it was Owen who in Puerto Rico took a raw Henry
Aaron, a kid who had taught himself everything he knew, and over a
tropical winter molded him -- made him a ready, big-league package.
It wasn't that Henry didn't already have Olympian tools, but no one at
the professional level ever did anything more than gawk at him and
snicker about how unorthodox he was. Owen was different. It was
Owen who taught him weight distribution and how to hold his hands
steady. Owen received credit from Henry for all the things he did,
and for one thing he did not do: change Henry's peculiar front-footed
approach to hitting the ball.

It all started somewhere between Central [High School in Mobile, Ala.] and Josephine Allen [Institute in Toulminville, Ala.],
when during a game Henry injured his right ankle, his plant foot.
Rather than rest, he compensated for the pain in his right leg when
he swung by shifting his weight to his front foot. Any hitting coach
would have been tempted to tinker with Henry's mechanical footwork,
but instead of giving him instructions, Owen gave Henry confidence.
During the first week of December, Henry was hitting .295. A
week later, he was at .343. A week after Christmas, Henry had scored
the batting title at .357.

Still, to the most hard-boiled of baseball men, even those numbers
could be tempered. Swinging a bat in the thick breezes and among the
uneven talent of the Caribbean was one thing, especially as the rum
flowed. Hitting in Ebbets Field with the bags full was quite another.

Dugout chatter was the only advanced billing most of the world
ever received about a player -- even one considered as special as
Henry -- and that was one of the beautiful, enduring characteristics of
baseball. Anticipation provided that magical component -- the verbal
mythmaking -- that built the American game and set up the inherent
challenge (whether or not the kid could make the big time) that resonated
with millions of fans … that's what brought them in. Until a
player succeeded with the big club, in the big leagues, even great
prospects like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, or Henry
Aaron amounted to nothing more than a string of press clippings.
Buzz was the special sauce that heightened anticipation about a
prospect, a trait that neither time nor technology would ever change.

*****

BOSTON GLOBE writer Harold Kaese was in town to take his first
look at the Red Sox, but he somehow found himself talking about this
kid Henry. Well, not exactly somehow. In Red Sox camp, trying to
squeeze out another year behind the dish for the Red Sox was none
other than Mickey Owen, still raving about Henry. A few days later,
the Braves were in Tampa to play the White Sox, and Paul Richards --
the Chicago manager who one day would become the Braves general
manager -- yelled out to a couple of Braves coaches, "Where's Aaron?
I've heard a lot of reports on him." In baseball, words were a carelessly
tossed match to dry grass, and Kaese -- who two decades later
would be awarded with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, induction into
the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame -- had been around
long enough to know a prairie fire had been sparked. Kaese, who was
standing at the batting cage, sidled up to Richards and parroted what
he'd heard from Mickey Owen. "Over in Sarasota," Kaese told
Richards, "Mickey Owen told me the other day that Aaron is good
enough to run [outfielder Bill] Bruton off the ball club."

Baseball was so different, because with the other sports, all you
had to do was follow the paper trail. A college basketball star left a
roughly one-hundred-game outline, a skeleton for anticipating the
body of work that would soon follow. A college football player left at
least thirty games. Nobody who hadn't been sleeping under a boulder
wondered if Lew Alcindor or O.J. Simpson could play; no one was
unsure of their physical characteristics as players. Certainly there was
anticipation to watch a college player make the transition to the pro
game, but it was eagerness based on information, eyewitnesses, and
reams of newspaper exposure from actual game coverage. In later
years, during the video age, film highlights on a player could be
wound, rewound, dissected, and analyzed long before a player scored
his first touchdown at Lambeau Field.

But no matter how talented, minor-league baseball players were
nothing. They were not to be counted upon, except maybe to sweeten
the allure of a trade. In those days, they were not treated charitably as
young stars ready to lead. That's why the entire universe of minor-league
towns, from Louisville to Atlanta, Wichita to Jacksonville,
Kenosha to Visalia, was called "the bushes." Charlie Grimm, the
Braves manager, had never laid eyes on Henry. No one knew what he
looked like, how he moved, how he talked, how he swung, or what the
ball sounded like off of his bat. It was the constancy of the numbers
and the volume of the talk that had made him a prospect.

The words had been plentiful enough, the praise from baseball
men who had spent their lives sharpening their antennae to pick up
the slightest deficiencies certainly convincing, but no one quite knew
for sure if the hundreds of column inches devoted to him should be
framed for posterity or used as kindling, thereby designating him as
another overhyped kid who couldn't play. In later years, the arrival of
a highly rated prospect would provide a certain degree of protection
from management, but during Henry's time, when salaries were low
and security virtually nonexistent, veterans waited to see hotshot
prospects, and not particularly enthusiastically, for if Henry was as
good as advertised, someone, perhaps a friend or a roommate, was
going to lose his job. The first person waiting to see Henry was third
baseman Eddie Mathews, the young heart of the Braves lineup, who
was just two and a half years older than Henry and was expected to be
the face of the Milwaukee baseball club for years to come.

Over the first few days of March, the picture came into full focus.
The match caught, and the impressions scorched each side of the
Florida coast. They talked about how he looked --the vitals first: six
feet even, about 175 pounds, slim in the shoulders, tapered at the
waist. He was a skinny kid, especially when he stood with the burly,
rugged Mathews and Joe Adcock, the hulking first baseman. Baseball
was a physical business, and baseball men talked about players
crudely, as if they were horses. Henry's bottom half was bigger than
his upper body, and his legs and ass, the scouts all said, formed a
sturdy base of power.

Charlie Grimm watched Henry's mechanics, and the old baseball
men, from Duffy Lewis, the Red Sox outfielder who was teammates
with Babe Ruth and who, along with Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper,
was part of Boston's "Million-Dollar Outfield" back in the teens, to
Hall of Fame right fielder Paul "Big Poison" Waner, the Pirate great,
in Bradenton as a special instructor, were writing the legend with
their eyes.

There was plenty about his game that made them all wince, especially
when they watched him around second base, allowing base runners
dangerously close before firing off a relay throw with that
sidewinding whip that had finished Chuck Wiles's career. "As a second
baseman," Charlie Grimm said, cringing, "Aaron is a very good
hitter. But we'll find a place for that bat."

AARON GIVEN DIVIDED VOTE BY PROPHETS

… whether he will make the big team … has nearly everybody out
on a limb. His hitting is of slight worry -- practically all insist he can
club big-league curving right now -- but there are many pros and
cons as to whether he can cut the buck at second base.

In the cage, too, there were funky elements to his approach: that
stomp on the front foot as he met the ball, which brought forth murmurs
among the men that with his hitting style, Henry would never
have substantial power (And why didn't his coaches at the minor
leagues break that habit? they asked). They noticed how Henry
swung almost as quickly as the ball left the pitcher's hand, leaving him
to commit to pitches at eyebrow level or near his shoelaces.

And yet … and yet … when the baseball men took a snapshot of
the moment the ball met the bat -- the moment that mattered most --
twenty-year-old Henry Aaron was pure gold. He would stand in the
box, legs tight in a closed stance, leaning and crouched. And he would
strike, catlike, hands back, then bring them forward with a thrusting
motion, and at the last millisecond -- everything about hitting in the
big leagues was measured in milliseconds -- the wrists that looked too
skinny to produce power would snap through the zone, the hips
would twist and uncoil, and the ball would just leap … to left … to
center … and especially to right field. And the men behind the cage,
the ones who would have killed to be able to cut at a baseball like that
just once in their lives, to watch it sizzle upon impact, well, they just
salivated. These were men who had spent their entire lives in the
game, were collectively older than God, and all had seen Olympus in
the form of Ruth, Gehrig, Greenberg, Cobb, all the very best. And it
was Cobb, of all people, the old racist but inscrutable baseball mind,
who seemed to like Henry the best. "Incidentally, Ty Cobb rates
Henry Aaron, Braves' Negro newcomer, one of the best young players
he has seen in years," reported Al Wolf in the Los Angeles Times.
"Calls him a hitting natural."

Each day, [Braves manager Charlie] Grimm would watch Henry hit, and the baseball men
would look at each other slyly -- grim-faced on the outside, because
no matter how good a player might be, you couldn't ever give away
too much praise too early. That could ruin a kid. But inside, where it
counted, Henry's talent reduced them all to giddy schoolboys bubbling
with a secret.

Henry was not on the Braves major-league roster, but Charlie
Grimm wouldn't let the kid out of his sight. One Saturday morning in
early March, Henry was told to remain in Bradenton with the rest of
the minor leaguers while the big club played four games on the east
side of the state. Grimm would have none of it. Grimm told Henry --
who had not yet even been issued a Braves uniform -- that while he
did not know what position Henry would be playing, he was to take
orders only from him. "Pack a bag," Grimm told Henry, "and stick
with me." That meant games against the Dodgers in Miami and the
Philadelphia A's in West Palm Beach and Pittsburgh in Fort Pierce.

Each day, Grimm would watch Henry hit, and the baseball men
would look at each other slyly -- grim-faced on the outside, because
no matter how good a player might be, you couldn't ever give away
too much praise too early. That could ruin a kid. But inside, where it
counted, Henry's talent reduced them all to giddy schoolboys bubbling
with a secret. And smile they would at their good fortune,
because Henry belonged to them, and the general manager, John
Quinn, always made it a point to remind the newsmen first of his
shrewdness: He'd got Henry for the bargain price of ten thousand
dollars, and he would reaffirm his belief that the Braves could fetch
ten times that sum from other teams. "I understand now," Paul
Richards said, "why everyone raves about that kid. He's got powerful
wrists, the kind all great hitters have."

The only man in the Braves organization who wasn't smiling was
George "Twinkletoes" Selkirk, the former Yankee outfielder, who
through the thirties and forties had teamed with Ruth, Gehrig, and
DiMaggio during an all-star career and won five World Series championships.
He was now the manager of the Toledo Sox, Milwaukee's
Class AA affiliate, and in January, Quinn told Selkirk he would have
Henry for the entire 1954 season. Yet here it was, not even St.
Patrick's Day, and Selkirk was already groaning to Red Thisted of the
Milwaukee Sentinel. "I don't think," Selkirk said, "that we'll ever have
him in a Toledo uniform." And he hated himself even more because
he knew he was right.