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Six weeks earlier, Henry had never been outside of the Mobile city limits without his parents. The farthest from Mobile he had been was to visit Papa Henry and Mama Sis in Camden-on horseback. But now, during the second week of June 1952, Henry was boarding a North Central Airlines plane for the first time in his life, choking on his own panic from Charlotte to Eau Claire, close to retching on each turbulent bounce across the Appalachians to the broad expanse north. He was eighteen years old and had never had anything close to an extended conversation with a white person. He would now engage in activities that Alabama had drafted laws to prevent: He would live among whites, play ball with and against them on the same field, and talk to them-at least under the strict definitions of the law-as equals.
Henry had never played against white players-interracial competition had been prohibited by custom in Alabama since the late 1880s and would soon be enacted into law during the 1950s. Unlike Robinson, he did not have the advantage of social refinement afforded by education and experience. One would have had to look hard to find a kid less prepared to navigate this sudden new world. He was completely on his own.
Clell Buzzell, the sports editor of the local Eau Claire paper, picked Henry up from the airport and took him home so his wife, Joyce, could meet the newest member of the Eau Claire Bears. As author and Eau Claire native Jerry Poling wrote in his book A Summer Up North A Summer Up North, "The introduction might have been a pleasure27 for Joyce but not for Aaron. Seeing the scared, skinny young man in her living room, she thought he was fourteen or fifteen years old and feeling out of place. She felt sorry for him." for Joyce but not for Aaron. Seeing the scared, skinny young man in her living room, she thought he was fourteen or fifteen years old and feeling out of place. She felt sorry for him."
"He was shaking," Poling quoted Joyce Buzzell as saying. "He had never been in a white person's home before."
The Eau Claire Bears had been integrated three seasons earlier by Sam Jethroe. Jethroe himself had played a small role in the early story of integration in April 1945, when he and Marvin Williams accompanied Jackie Robinson to Fenway Park for a notorious, humiliating tryout with the Boston Red Sox. Jethroe would never be contacted by the Red Sox, but in 1950 he became the first black player with the Boston Braves, and won Rookie of the Year. Another top black prospect, Bill Bruton, had played for Eau Claire in 1950.
The population of Eau Claire in 1952 was virtually 100 percent white-35,000 residents, seven blacks, twenty more nonwhites. Henry kept his distance, adopting the proper code of conduct for southern blacks: Do not approach whites unless directly addressed. He would walk the streets of Eau Claire and the young children would stare at him as though he were a foreign species. Sometimes their mothers would apologize with polite nods to him; the children had never seen a black person.
The adults weren't much better. At least the children had the excuse of being young. It was as though he had entered an alternate universe in that Henry walked around town among whites but did not sense the inherent hostility that was an ingrained element of the Mobile social atmosphere.
Henry rented a room at the Eau Claire YMCA at 101 Farwell Street, which was located downtown, a mile and change from Carson Park, where the Bears played their home games. The two other blacks in the club-outfielder John Wesley Covington and the catcher, Julius "Julie" Bowers-also lived there, while the white players roomed with families.
Henry did not often socialize with Covington or Bowers, though the three men lived in the same YMCA building. In later years, Covington recalled the young Henry as distant, hard to read. Even in private settings, even around his black teammates, Henry wasn't exactly the guy cracking jokes at the card table. He was guarded, mostly trying not to betray all that he did not know. "He just would not open up to you.28 Hank was as far away from me at times as he was from anybody else on the ball club," Covington recalled in 1993. "I don't think at that time we were trying to be close." Hank was as far away from me at times as he was from anybody else on the ball club," Covington recalled in 1993. "I don't think at that time we were trying to be close."
For the prospects, Class C ball was just a stepping-stone to bigger things, a place to start an expected ascension. For the others, baseball might never be as good as it was in the Northern League, which made it the perfect place to travel and party and bond.
In June 1952, Henry was neither the can't-miss phenom nor the teenager happy to stretch a baseball dream as far as his middling talent would take him. He knew he had the ability to play, but he also knew that he could be right back with the Clowns should anything go wrong in Eau Claire. He had, the contract said, thirty days to prove that he was worth the investment.
And so he kept his distance, adopting an immersion technique his family would have immediately recognized as belonging to Papa Henry: he kept to himself, studying others and forming opinions without volunteering much. While it was a protective device, designed not to expose his limits in education and sophistication, it was within this total immersion into the white world where a damaging Aaron caricature first took root. Marion "Bill" Adair, the Eau Claire manager and a southerner from Alabama, began what would become a career-long commentary on the Aaron demeanor, and by extension, his intellect. "No one can guess his IQ29 because he gives you nothing to go on. He sleeps too much and looks lazy, but he isn't. Not a major-league shortstop yet, but as a hitter he has everything in this world." because he gives you nothing to go on. He sleeps too much and looks lazy, but he isn't. Not a major-league shortstop yet, but as a hitter he has everything in this world."
Eau Claire was a lonely and distant place. From the hallway phone at the YMCA, Henry would call Stella not only to hear a familiar voice but to tell her he was coming home, he was quitting. Each day the conversation was similar: he wasn't afraid he would fail. He just didn't care for being so far away from home. Homesickness was especially acute for the first generation of black players integrating the game. Virtually all of them, before reaching greatness, told a story about wanting to quit. Some of them, like Billy Williams, actually jumped their clubs and went back home. More than half a century later, Williams remembered leaving his farm club in Amarillo, Texas, and returning to Mobile, not picking up the phone even when the big club, the Cubs, called personally to bring him back. And the stories always ended the same, too: Once a player arrived home, it was his family who sent him back out into the world, making sure a special opportunity to escape was not wasted.
The difference was that these kids weren't just learning how to adjust to curveballs far from home, nor were they integrating the game. They were integrating society. Henry would answer for the next half century the question of what those days in Eau Claire were like, being the only black person sitting at the drugstore counter, but the inverse was also true: The overwhelming majority of his white teammates had never engaged in a meaningful conversation with a black person, either.
And the worst thing of all for an eighteen-year-old ballplayer was the lack of girls. Naturally, there were girls all over the place. Black girls, however ... well, that was a different story. The Northern League consisted of teams in Eau Claire, Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead, Grand Forks, Aberdeen, Sioux Falls, and St. Cloud-not exactly the best advertisement to meet eligible black women.
Herbert junior would often be the one to tell him to forget about the idea of coming back to Mobile, that there was nothing in Mobile for him. He would do himself no good being just another southern black boy without prospects. Herbert had persuaded him, boosted him, revived him. Then came the moment that transformed two lives: June 20, Carson Park, Eau Claire versus the Superior Blues, the White Sox farm club. Henry is playing shortstop. In the top of the eighth, Gordie Roach hits Superior's Gideon Applegate and then walks the next batter, Chuck Wiles, the Superior's catcher. The next ball, a chopper to second, would play in slow motion to anyone who was at the park that day.
Bob McConnell fields the ball and flips to Henry for the first out, and Henry steps on the bag and winds to throw back to first for the double play.
Wiles is racing for second but has not yet gone into his slide. Henry fires sidearm to first. These were the days before batting helmets. Wiles took the full force of Henry's throw in the flesh of his right ear. He stood for a moment before crumpling to the ground, unconscious, while Applegate rounded third for the tying run. Wiles was taken off the field on a stretcher and rushed by ambulance to Luther Hospital.
That might have been the end of the story, one of those fluky baseball accidents. Except that upon arriving at Luther Hospital, Wiles slipped into a coma, in which he remained for three days. His career was over. The doctors consoled the young catcher by telling him had his outer ear not borne the brunt of the impact, Henry's throw would have killed him.
Wiles spent two more weeks in the hospital, his inner ear crushed. He lost his equilibrium. Periodically, he would entertain the thought of returning. The next year, Wiles and his family moved to Albemarle, North Carolina, where he signed on with a semipro club, the Cotton Mill Boys, but the experiment ended in a heartbreaking finale, Wiles losing his orientation while on the base paths, to the amusement of fans, who thought he was joking. "One time I got to second base.30 I was determined I was going to get home," Wiles told Jerry Poling. "I don't think I even knew where I was. I missed home plate by a lot. The fans thought I was clowning." Chuck Wiles never played baseball again. I was determined I was going to get home," Wiles told Jerry Poling. "I don't think I even knew where I was. I missed home plate by a lot. The fans thought I was clowning." Chuck Wiles never played baseball again.
The Wiles incident rattled Henry, as would the vitriolic response from the Superior fans when Eau Claire next arrived. During moments of despair, he called home and told Stella he was returning to Mobile. Each time Henry called, Stella would hand the phone to his brother Herbert, who took the receiver and told him the same thing each time: "The future is ahead of you, not back here in Mobile."
For years, Henry would recall how close he came to quitting the game, fearful that he could kill someone on the baseball diamond. Not an interview regarding his Eau Claire years would pass without a reference to Chuck Wiles. Henry would be betrayed by his lack of world experience, for while Wiles lay in a coma, Henry hit his first home run for the Bears, June 22, against Reuben Stohs. Wiles would never hold a grudge against Henry and he would say he believed Henry was remorseful about the accident. But he also would never forget that Henry did not apologize or console him in person.
Henry tore apart the Northern League. He played shortstop, wearing the number 6. He batted seventh in the order, consistent with the old-time custom of infielders batting low in the order. It was almost as if the isolation helped him. He had no distractions after the Wiles incident. On the field, he focused on his talent, developing an uncanny ability to compartmentalize, an attribute that would become a trademark. He played eighty-seven games for Eau Claire, hit .336, made the all-star team, and was named Most Valuable Player in the league. He was competing against players his own age, but they were just kids. In the Mobile industrial games and in the Negro Leagues, Henry had played against older competition for years.
His homesickness subsided, his batting average soared, and Henry began to shed his introverted personality. The moment that best illustrates Henry's evolution from a shy and uncomfortable young man, hamstrung by his southern upbringing, to a more confident one was his relationship with Susan Hauck, a white teenager who frequented Bears games with her girlfriends and hung out with the players away from the ballpark.
The girls did not seem to care about how interracial friendships-or romances-were viewed by their friends or the community at large, but their nonchalance put Covington and Henry in a potentially dangerous situation. For example, there was the time Henry, Covington, and a group of Susan's friends, all female, went to Elk Mound, Eau Claire's stunning vista point-and designated make-out spot. As Hauck recalled for Jerry Poling, a group of white teens followed the group to the peak of the hill, only to find Susan and her friends-unaware that Henry and Covington were hiding in the bushes, petrified that they might be forced to duke it out with a gang of white boys.
"It was never a romance.31 It was a friendship. I suppose people thought we were dating. I liked him," Poling quoted Hauck as saying in It was a friendship. I suppose people thought we were dating. I liked him," Poling quoted Hauck as saying in A Summer Up North A Summer Up North. "I guess you could say I was infatuated with him. Back then, if you would talk with a black person you were awful. I used to think that was wrong. I was never raised that way."
While Susan and Henry clearly shared a heightened level of intimacy, their relationship was not something Henry would ever again mention. Over the next fifty years, he would coauthor two books and write an autobiography, and never mention Susan Hauck and his relationship with her family. He ate dinner regularly with them, the guest of her parents, Arnold and Blanche Hauck. The two held hands often at her house. Two years earlier, in 1950, the Haucks had welcomed Billy Bruton into their home as warmly as they did Henry. The relationship between Susan and Henry, however, was more intense.
"When you think about who Henry Aaron is32 and where he came from, it was all pretty remarkable," Jerry Poling recalled. "Never mind what may or may not have gone on between them. Here was a guy who came from the worst segregation in the country and here he is holding hands with a white girl. I thought that was pretty amazing." and where he came from, it was all pretty remarkable," Jerry Poling recalled. "Never mind what may or may not have gone on between them. Here was a guy who came from the worst segregation in the country and here he is holding hands with a white girl. I thought that was pretty amazing."
For the 1953 season, Henry was promoted a level, to the Braves Jacksonville club, but for a .336 hitter, it was not a major ascension. The club didn't want to rush Henry, and thus it classified him at the A-ball level. Jacksonville was part of the notorious South Atlantic League, otherwise known as the "Sally League." Jackie Robinson had just completed his sixth year in the majors, but the Sally League had not yet been integrated. Henry Aaron and a handful of others would be the first black players in what was widely considered to be the most hostile league for blacks in the minor-league system. Perhaps more than any minor league, the Sally represented the major challenge to integration. The Sporting News The Sporting News marked the moment: marked the moment: JACKSONVILLE AND SAVANNAH33.
SHATTER COLOR LINE IN SALLYCOLUMBUS, GA.-After Savannah broke the color line for the first time since the circuit was organized in 1904... Jacksonville ... followed suit by taking on three colored performers....The ... Tars picked up three from Toledo ... Shortstop Felix Mantilla, outfielder Horace Garner and Second Baseman Henry Aaron.
HENRY WOULD HAVE a more difficult time even than Robinson. Where Robinson would have the benefit of going to his home ballpark in Brooklyn half of the time, the Sally League would play all of its games in the Deep South. Even the home park, Jacksonville, would not always be a friendly place. Henry knew he might be able to win over the home fans with spirited play, but off the field, he found that Jacksonville was another southern town that was not ready to treat him with any degree of humanity. a more difficult time even than Robinson. Where Robinson would have the benefit of going to his home ballpark in Brooklyn half of the time, the Sally League would play all of its games in the Deep South. Even the home park, Jacksonville, would not always be a friendly place. Henry knew he might be able to win over the home fans with spirited play, but off the field, he found that Jacksonville was another southern town that was not ready to treat him with any degree of humanity.
Robinson played under the glare of the national press, which provided a certain degree of protection against the most virulent opposition. In the minor leagues, Henry would be isolated, and press coverage would be minimal. When Henry arrived in Jacksonville, another minor league, the Cotton States League, attempted to ban the Hot Springs franchise from competition for signing two black players-Henry's old teammate with the Clowns, Jim Turgeson, and his brother Leander.
His nerves were on edge. "We were in spring training and it was way across Georgia, and it was an old army camp field and they still had the bunk houses and that's where we stayed," one teammate remembered. "They had a couple of fields there. And Hank was playing left field one day, and now keep in mind he was young just like I was. All of the sudden he takes off from left field right during the ball game and heads towards the barracks where we were staying and nobody knew what the hell was going on. We talked to Hank later and he said there was a big snake out there in left field."
The small towns that comprised the league were notorious-societies with little sophistication that enforced Jim Crow laws ruthlessly. Jim Frey was a teammate of Henry in Jacksonville. Frey would be another one of those baseball men who was an average minor-league player, not quite good enough to reach the majors, but someone who possessed such an eye and enthusiasm for baseball that he would draw a paycheck from the game for his entire working life-as a manager, a general manager, a scout, and in numerous other capacities, as well.
Jim Frey had been raised in the southern part of Ohio, a northern state that often possessed a southern mentality. He grew up in Bridgetown, west of Cincinnati, which was known during that time as a "sundown town," which meant no blacks after dark. When Frey was a kid, his father, John, worked with a black handyman who did carpentry and stonework for the family. Frey recalled how his father had had to rush to escort the man out of town before the sun went down. Violating such local customs could be fatal for blacks, but it also posed danger for any sympathetic whites.
"It was toward the country,34 just a little itty-bitty town. There weren't many people there. In this particular town, at that time, and this was in the forties and fifties, the blacks had to get out of town, had to get to the next town in, which was Cheviot, Ohio. My dad had to get them to the car line by six o'clock. That was the rule." just a little itty-bitty town. There weren't many people there. In this particular town, at that time, and this was in the forties and fifties, the blacks had to get out of town, had to get to the next town in, which was Cheviot, Ohio. My dad had to get them to the car line by six o'clock. That was the rule."
Jim Frey held Henry in high esteem. He loved his talent, but he also felt acute personal pain because of the abuse Henry endured in Jacksonville during that 1953 season. "It was just terrible what he was subjected to," Frey said. "And he just took it all and hit. Baseball is a hard-enough game when everyone is rooting for you. You cannot believe what it must have been like to be Henry Aaron in 1953. It was a heartbreaking thing to watch."
If Frey was aware of the treatment the black players faced, a certain reciprocity was also taking place. Henry and, to a lesser extent, Felix Mantilla were watching the white players, taking in how they responded to their teammates' humiliations, who they were as men. If Frey was learning about the American South, Henry was learning about his white teammates and whether they would be friend or foe.
Frey recalled the segregated grandstands at Luther Williams Field, where the Macon Peaches played. Every park in the Sally League separated its black fans from its white ones. Frey remembered being taken by the different elements of America colliding on the field one day in Jacksonville as he stood in the outfield, surrounded by the black faces in the crowd while simultaneously watching Henry fielding his position at second base as the home crowd, the whites, screamed at Henry to "go back to the cotton fields."
This was, both Mantilla and Frey agreed, how the 1953 season progressed, either in Jacksonville or on the road. "Which city was the worst?" Henry said. "You couldn't say, because they were all bad." Frey, who became great friends with Horace Garner, remembered being handed gifts by the black fans at the end of the season, thanking him for engaging with them all season. Previous white outfielders, Frey thought, must never have acknowledged the paying black fans, who sat in the corner sections.
"My exposure to blacks mostly came [from baseball], because in the minor leagues, starting in Evansville, Indiana, in '51 and then '52 and then later in Jacksonville in '53 and '54, they were some of the first blacks that were allowed to play in professional baseball at that time," Jim Frey recalled. "We went to a high school, Western Hills High School, which had about two thousand students at that time, and we only had a handful of blacks in the school. I doubt if there was more than one [black] family or two. I don't think there were more than three or four black students in our school, which was a pretty big school. We had to go into Cincinnati to go to high school. We didn't have one out in the country. We never had a lot of exposure to the blacks at that time.
"It was first the Three-I League in the Midwest and the Sally League in the Southeast. I played with, I don't know, several on each of those teams, and those players were the first or among the first who were allowed to play in the minor leagues at that time. A couple of them were Latins and the others were Americans and blacks, but they weren't allowed to eat with us. In many areas, they weren't even allowed to get off the bus at night, and they had to stay in different quarters. It was a different world then. It was tough on 'em. It was really tough on 'em."
In Jacksonville, three important events took place in Henry's life. The first was his friendship with Felix Mantilla. Mantilla was brought to Jacksonville from the Toledo club specifically to room with Henry. Clubs in those days always fielded an even number of black players to keep white players from having to room with a black teammate. Mantilla's presence soothed Henry, even though Mantilla, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, did not speak much English. He relied on Henry while adjusting to the Deep South.
Mantilla recalled his time in the minor leagues as horribly oppressive, where race was consistently the determining factor in virtually every encounter, on or off the ball field. He remembered his difficulties in learning English and understanding the culture.
"When you're seventeen or eighteen years old,35 you see things very differently. I was lost. I used to go to the movies to learn, but the movies didn't have subtitles. I didn't always pay attention to the segregation laws, and I found out when it was too late. you see things very differently. I was lost. I used to go to the movies to learn, but the movies didn't have subtitles. I didn't always pay attention to the segregation laws, and I found out when it was too late.
"When I joined the team in Evansville, I didn't know the city was segregated, either," Mantilla recalled. "One day, the team got tickets to go to the movies, and when I walked in, they said, 'What the hell are you doing here?' They looked at me like I had the plague.
"There was another theater that didn't allow blacks, and Henry and I walked in. You had to know all the rules, all of the things you could do and couldn't do. Believe it or not, Jacksonville was one of the better towns for us. It was Hank who always kept me away from the things that could have gotten me in trouble. Hank and I relied on each other. We tried not to let the other out of our sight."
There were humilating moments, Mantilla recalled. "The whites used to yell from the stands and call us 'alligator bait.' Jacksonville wasn't so bad. But places like Columbus and Macon, those places were wicked."
There was the time Mantilla and Aaron combined to propel Jacksonville closer to the Sally League pennant. Jacksonville hadn't finished first in the league since 1912. Mantilla and Henry had both been all-stars. By midseason, the crowds had warmed to their presence. They wore the right uniform. They were helping the club win. Once, after a particularly satisfying victory, a fan caught up to Henry and Felix Mantilla as they left the park. Mantilla remembered the game as being a considerably hard-fought contest and, having won, both he and Henry were smiling, their guards down after nine innings of concentration. The fan approached the two players easily.
"I just wanted to say," the man said, "that you niggers played a hell of a game."
Mantilla remembered the good white teammates who made his and Henry's time a bit easier. Pete Whisenant, an outfielder with Jacksonville, often made sure the black players were not isolated. Whisenant, Mantilla remembered, would often go out to dinner with Henry and Mantilla after games, looking for an integrated place where the teammates could hang out together. Often, Mantilla recalled, such a small gesture could put them all at risk.
And then there was the time Mantilla put everyone at risk. Henry had always told him about southern culture, about how to interact gingerly with whites. At the start of the 1953 season, Sally League umpires warned Aaron, Mantilla, and Garner not to engage with hostile white fans or opponents. They were also warned not to argue calls with umpires, in order not to incite white fans. Montgomery had even held off integrating its club, because it wanted to see how Jacksonville and Savannah-the two integrated teams in the league-were received both at the ticket gate and inside the clubhouse.
One result of the umpire edict was open season on black players. Pitchers threw at Henry, constantly sending him into the dirt. Mantilla thought when he went to the plate that his ears were being used for target practice.
Then came the game in July when a career minor-leaguer named John Waselchuk threw at Mantilla's head one time too many. Waselchuk was a pip-squeak from Peabody, Massachusetts-five eight, 150 pounds-but a hard-throwing one, with the best curveball in the Sally. Waselchuk was a tough kid, a veteran; he'd joined the navy directly after graduating from high school, then sailed the Mediterranean for three years before signing with the Cubs organization in 1949.
Mantilla had been hit before-they'd been throwing at him all year-but this time, instead of heading for first base, he stalked to the pitcher's mound. The game was already tense. Henry recalled that not only were the fans on the black players that day but insults were being hurled between the segregated sections, and he was convinced he was about to be part of a race riot.
The benches had already cleared. The police, having been alerted, formed a circle around the field, sidearms at the ready. Additional officers kept the blacks and whites in the crowd from tearing one another apart. And then it was Horace Garner who intercepted Mantilla and dragged him to the ground, averting catastrophe.
"I never saw a black player who did anything but put his head down, play well, weather the storm. They had to," Jim Frey said.
Perseverance remained a prerequisite for the black players. Mantilla possessed a temper quicker than either Henry's or Garner's but the possibility of humiliation remained a constant. Henry proceeded gingerly, not assuming that even his own teammates were sympathetic to his situation. The reverse was often true: on more than one occasion white players who reached out to their black teammates could find themselves outcasts as well.
"One of the first bus trips we took, we had Hank and Felix Mantilla, the shortstop, and Horace Garner, an outfielder," said one member of the Jacksonville team. "Three colored guys, and we were going to Columbia, South Carolina, and Charleston. In those leagues back then you played at home for six games and then you went away for six games in two places. So we would stop and get a pop or a bag of chips or a chocolate bar or something.
"Hank and Felix and Horace didn't get off the bus so I said, 'Aren't you guys going in?' And they said, 'Oh, we'll never get in that place.' So anyways, I said, 'Well, do you want me to get you something?' And they said, 'Yeah, that'd be nice if you did.' They paid for it and everything, but I got them stuff, and so the rest of the guys, the white guys on the club, the southern guys especially, they hated me just as much as they did Hank and Felix and them because I would do that.
"He was real quiet in the clubhouse. Those guys, they knew they weren't accepted by everybody, so they didn't say and do a lot of things that we would do. It was just a lot of bullshit. It was the worst part. I was down there nine years and that was the worst thing in the nine years."
Henry's relationship with Jacksonville manager Ben Geraghty eased the tension. Geraghty was known for being strict but fair. He chided Henry constantly. The aspects of Henry's game outside of his hitting were in need of improvement. Like most baseball men, Geraghty accepted physical errors-making a fielding or throwing error-far more quickly than he did mental ones. Some of Henry's mental mistakes bordered on the apocryphal, like the time he stole four bases and-either due to oversliding or failing to ask for time-was picked off each base. Another time, Henry blew a sign and Geraghty asked him why. Henry responded, "I can't remember all that."
The difference was that Geraghty also seemed to understand Henry's sense of humor, that his responses were not always referendums of his intelligence. He knew that Henry often answered questions with a dry wit to diffuse the embarrassment of missing a sign or not executing his responsibilities. Even in criticism, he talked to Henry like an adult.
But most important, Ben Geraghty recognized Henry's potential almost immediately. He knew that even as a nineteen-year-old, Henry Aaron possessed the ability to be not just a major-league player but a great, possibly transcendent one. "If Henry has a strike zone, it is from the top of his head to his ankles," Geraghty said. "In a year or so, he'll make the fans forget Jackie Robinson, and I'm not exaggerating. He never pays attention to who's pitching. He hits them all."
The third event, and the most important, occurred just as the season started. Henry had met Barbara Lucas, a young student at the local business school. Barbara was from Jacksonville, and Henry was immediately taken. She was tall and thin, with sparkling green eyes. Her younger brother, Bill, was also a baseball player. Bill Lucas attended Florida A&M-ironically, the school Stella wanted Henry to attend-and was a strong infield prospect. Within two years, Ed Scott would sign Bill to the Braves farm system. In the meantime, Henry and Barbara dated throughout the summer, although, according to family legend, Barbara's parents did not want her to become serious with a baseball player.
Yet on the field, Henry destroyed the opposition, such as on April 1, 1953, in Jacksonville, against a big-league club, the Boston Red Sox. The Braves were demolished, 141. Mel Parnell, the veteran Red Sox left-hander, gave up just five hits, but two were to Henry. Another pro, Ike Delock, gave up a long home run to Henry in the eighth inning.
The competition did not seem to matter all summer long: two doubles against Columbia. Later that season, in back-to-back doubleheaders against Columbia, Henry went twelve for thirteen. Jacksonville won the pennant and Henry was named the Most Valuable Player of the Sally League. The numbers, again, were staggering: .362 average, 22 home runs, 36 doubles, 14 triples, 115 runs scored, 125 runs batted in, and 208 total bases.
He was assigned to winter ball in Caguas, Puerto Rico, and before going, he asked Barbara to marry him and join him on the island.
In the span of eighteen months, Henry had gone from standing on the platform at the L&N Railroad station to playing in the Negro Leagues to being a married man. He spent the winter of 1953 preparing for his first major-league spring training. He was told from the start that no matter how he hit, he would spend the entire 1954 season in Toledo.
AND SO THE comet soared. Bill Slack, the longtime baseball man known as the pitching guru of North Carolina, worked with Henry in the 1980s. Slack never played in the big leagues, but he was one of those legendary baseball men who had given his life to the game, one dusty back road at a time. He and his brother, Stan, had played with Henry in Jacksonville, and one day in Richmond, Henry and Bill knocked back a beer after a day of meetings. comet soared. Bill Slack, the longtime baseball man known as the pitching guru of North Carolina, worked with Henry in the 1980s. Slack never played in the big leagues, but he was one of those legendary baseball men who had given his life to the game, one dusty back road at a time. He and his brother, Stan, had played with Henry in Jacksonville, and one day in Richmond, Henry and Bill knocked back a beer after a day of meetings.
"I remember one day I asked Henry36 when he was his most afraid," Slack recalled. "I was thinking he was going to tell me the stories about being chased by the Klan or something like that. But he didn't. He told me the most scared he'd ever been was getting on the train for the first time, heading to Winston-Salem." when he was his most afraid," Slack recalled. "I was thinking he was going to tell me the stories about being chased by the Klan or something like that. But he didn't. He told me the most scared he'd ever been was getting on the train for the first time, heading to Winston-Salem."
Ed Scott never left Mobile. In 1961, he became a scout for the Boston Red Sox, a job he would hold for the next thirty-three years. Scott led a rich baseball life, one that was both raucous and sober. He had become the first black scout for the Red Sox, a team with a notorious history in terms of race relations. He was the man who first discovered Henry Aaron, but he recalled losing out on the kid from Whistler, Billy Williams, to Ivy Griffin. Scott later signed big leaguers Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd and George Scott for the Red Sox. The picture he took of Henry at the train station is the oldest surviving photograph of his journey as a professional baseball player.
"I'll never forget that day at the depot,"37 Scott said. "I remember his mother putting him on the train. I still have a picture of that day. He wound up signing it for me. It really was something, an amazing day. I can tell you one thing: As that train was leaving the station, he sure didn't look like he was headed to the Hall of Fame." Scott said. "I remember his mother putting him on the train. I still have a picture of that day. He wound up signing it for me. It really was something, an amazing day. I can tell you one thing: As that train was leaving the station, he sure didn't look like he was headed to the Hall of Fame."
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 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 Aaron38 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 ( 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 read a March 1954 Milwaukee Journal 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 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 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. 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) 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 43, 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, 74, and the Series the next day. That was how it was in baseball. Mickey Owen played thirteen years in the big leagues, but he might as well have played one inning of one game one afternoon in October.
Henry would always say Ben Geraghty was the best and most influential manager he had ever had, but Mickey Owen qualified as a close second, for it was Owen who in Puerto Rico took a raw Henry Aaron, a kid who had taught himself everything he knew, and over a tropical winter molded him-made him a ready, big-league package. It wasn't that Henry didn't already have Olympian tools, but no one at the professional level ever did anything more than gawk at him and snicker about how unorthodox he was. Owen was different. It was Owen who taught him weight distribution and how to hold his hands steady. Owen received credit from Henry for all the things he did, and for one thing he did not do: change Henry's peculiar front-footed approach to hitting the ball.
It all started somewhere between Central and Josephine Allen, when during a game Henry injured his right ankle, his plant foot. Rather than rest, he compensated for the pain in his right leg when he swung by shifting his weight to his front foot. Any hitting coach would have been tempted to tinker with Henry's mechanical footwork, but instead of giving him instructions, Owen gave Henry confidence. During the first week of December, Henry was hitting .295. A week later, he was at .343. A week after Christmas, Henry had scored the batting title at .357.
Still, to the most hard-boiled of baseball men, even those numbers could be tempered. Swinging a bat in the thick breezes and among the uneven talent of the Caribbean was one thing, especially as the rum flowed. Hitting in Ebbets Field with the bags full was quite another.
Dugout chatter was the only advanced billing most of the world ever received about a player-even one considered as special as Henry-and that was one of the beautiful, enduring characteristics of baseball. Anticipation provided that magical component-the verbal mythmaking-that built the American game and set up the inherent challenge (whether or not the kid could make the big time) that resonated with millions of fans ... that's what brought them in. Until a player succeeded with the big club, in the big leagues, even great prospects like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, or Henry Aaron amounted to nothing more than a string of press clippings. Buzz was the special sauce that heightened anticipation about a prospect, a trait that neither time nor technology would ever change.
BOSTON G 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 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 somehow. In Red Sox camp, trying to squeeze out another year behind the dish for the Red Sox was none other than Mickey Owen, still raving about Henry. A few days later, the Braves were in Tampa to play the White Sox, and Paul Richards-the Chicago manager who one day would become the Braves general manager-yelled out to a couple of Braves coaches, "Where's Aaron? I've heard a lot of reports on him." In baseball, words were a carelessly tossed match to dry grass, and Kaese-who two decades later would be awarded with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, induction into the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame-had been around long enough to know a prairie fire had been sparked. Kaese, who was standing at the batting cage, sidled up to Richards and parroted what he'd heard from Mickey Owen. "Over in Sarasota," Kaese told Richards, "Mickey Owen told me the other day that Aaron is good enough to run Bruton off the ball club."
Baseball was so different, because with the other sports, all you had to do was follow the paper trail. A college basketball star left a roughly one-hundred-game outline, a skeleton for anticipating the body of work that would soon follow. A college football player left at least thirty games. Nobody who hadn't been sleeping under a boulder wondered if Lew Alcindor or O. J. Simpson could play; no one was unsure of their physical characteristics as players. Certainly there was anticipation to watch a college player make the transition to the pro game, but it was eagerness based on information, eyewitnesses, and reams of newspaper exposure from actual game coverage. In later years, during the video age, film highlights on a player could be wound, rewound, dissected, and analyzed long before a player scored his first touchdown at Lambeau Field.
But no matter how talented, minor-league baseball players were nothing. They were not to be counted upon, except maybe to sweeten the allure of a trade. In those days, they were not treated charitably as young stars ready to lead. That's why the entire universe of minor-league towns, from Louisville to Atlanta, Wichita to Jacksonville, Kenosha to Visalia, was called "the bushes." Charlie Grimm, the Braves manager, had never laid eyes on Henry. No one knew what he looked like, how he moved, how he talked, how he swung, or what the ball sounded like off of his bat. It was the constancy of the numbers and the volume of the talk that had made him a prospect.
The words had been plentiful enough, the praise from baseball men who had spent their lives sharpening their antennae to pick up the slightest deficiencies certainly convincing, but no one quite knew for sure if the hundreds of column inches devoted to him should be framed for posterity or used as kindling, thereby designating him as another overhyped kid who couldn't play. In later years, the arrival of a highly rated prospect would provide a certain degree of protection from management, but during Henry's time, when salaries were low and security virtually nonexistent, veterans waited to see hotshot prospects, and not particularly enthusiastically, for if Henry was as good as advertised, someone, perhaps a friend or a roommate, was going to lose his job. The first person waiting to see Henry was third baseman Eddie Mathews, the young heart of the Braves lineup, who was just two and a half years older than Henry and was expected to be the face of the Milwaukee baseball club for years to come.
Over the first few days of March, the picture came into full focus. The match caught, and the impressions scorched each side of the Florida coast. They talked about how he looked-the vitals first: six feet even, about 175 pounds, slim in the shoulders, tapered at the waist. He was a skinny kid, especially when he stood with the burly, rugged Mathews and Joe Adcock, the hulking first baseman. Baseball was a physical business, and baseball men talked about players crudely, as if they were horses. Henry's bottom half was bigger than his upper body, and his legs and ass, the scouts all said, formed a sturdy base of power.
Charlie Grimm watched Henry's mechanics, and the old baseball men, from Duffy Lewis, the Red Sox outfielder who was teammates with Babe Ruth and who, along with Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper, was part of Boston's "Million-Dollar Outfield" back in the teens, to Hall of Fame right fielder Paul "Big Poison" Waner, the Pirate great, in Bradenton as a special instructor, were writing the legend with their eyes.
There was plenty about his game that made them all wince, especially when they watched him around second base, allowing base runners dangerously close before firing off a relay throw with that sidewinding whip that had finished Chuck Wiles's career. "As a second baseman," Charlie Grimm said, cringing, "Aaron is a very good hitter. But we'll find a place for that bat."
AARON GIVEN DIVIDED VOTE BY PROPHETS39... 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 ... 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 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 Los Angeles Times. "Calls him a hitting natural."
Henry was not on the Braves major-league roster, but Charlie Grimm wouldn't let the kid out of his sight. One Saturday morning in early March, Henry was told to remain in Bradenton with the rest of the minor leaguers while the big club played four games on the east side of the state. Grimm would have none of it. Grimm told Henry-who had not yet even been issued a Braves uniform-that while he did not know what position Henry would be playing, he was to take orders only from him. "Pack a bag," Grimm told Henry, "and stick with me." That meant games against the Dodgers in Miami and the Philadelphia A's in West Palm Beach and Pittsburgh in Fort Pierce.
Each day, Grimm would watch Henry hit, and the baseball men would look at each other slyly-grim-faced on the outside, because no matter how good a player might be, you couldn't ever give away too much praise too early. That could ruin a kid. But inside, where it counted, Henry's talent reduced them all to giddy schoolboys bubbling with a secret. And smile they would at their good fortune, because Henry belonged to them, and the general manager, John Quinn, always made it a point to remind the newsmen first of his shrewdness: He'd got Henry for the bargain price of ten thousand dollars, and he would reaffirm his belief that the Braves could fetch ten times that sum from other teams. "I understand now," Paul Richards said, "why everyone raves about that kid. He's got powerful wrists, the kind all great hitters have."
The only man in the Braves organization who wasn't smiling was George "Twinkletoes" Selkirk, the former Yankee outfielder, who through the thirties and forties had teamed with Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio during an all-star career and won five World Series championships. He was now the manager of the Toledo Sox, Milwaukee's Class AA affiliate, and in January, Quinn told Selkirk he would have Henry for the entire 1954 season. Yet here it was, not even St. Patrick's Day, and Selkirk was already groaning to Red Thisted of the Milwaukee Sentinel Milwaukee Sentinel. "I don't think," Selkirk said, "that we'll ever have him in a Toledo uniform." And he hated himself even more because he knew he was right.
FOR ALL THE commotion, young Henry Aaron was not a particularly comfortable or secure baseball player. He received the most attention of any rookie in any spring camp in baseball, but he was still not a member of the Milwaukee Braves, still not a major leaguer. He did not have a position. He knew he wasn't a major-league-caliber second baseman, and yet he didn't feel comfortable in the outfield. Second base would not be an option anyway. The day after Christmas, 1953, the Braves had given $200,000 and traded seven players to Pittsburgh for the rugged Irishman, second baseman Danny O'Connell. A month later, Milwaukee traded the promising left-hander Johnny Antonelli to the New York Giants for Bobby Thomson, the man who never had to buy another drink in his life in New York City after winning the pennant for the Giants over the Dodgers in the famed 1951 play-off game, the man a seventeen-year-old Henry had dreamed about at Josephine Allen. commotion, young Henry Aaron was not a particularly comfortable or secure baseball player. He received the most attention of any rookie in any spring camp in baseball, but he was still not a member of the Milwaukee Braves, still not a major leaguer. He did not have a position. He knew he wasn't a major-league-caliber second baseman, and yet he didn't feel comfortable in the outfield. Second base would not be an option anyway. The day after Christmas, 1953, the Braves had given $200,000 and traded seven players to Pittsburgh for the rugged Irishman, second baseman Danny O'Connell. A month later, Milwaukee traded the promising left-hander Johnny Antonelli to the New York Giants for Bobby Thomson, the man who never had to buy another drink in his life in New York City after winning the pennant for the Giants over the Dodgers in the famed 1951 play-off game, the man a seventeen-year-old Henry had dreamed about at Josephine Allen.
Henry figured there was no place on the big-club roster for him with Thomson in left field, Billy Bruton in center, and Andy Pafko in right. Pafko was the man who had played left field for Brooklyn when Thomson's two-out, ninth-inning, pennant-winning three-run home run sailed over his head. Even the Milwaukee bench was crowded. Grimm was counting on Jim Pendleton, the former Negro League utility man who surprised the Braves in 1953 as a twenty-nine-year-old reserve with a .299 average and seven home runs. Moreover, Henry knew he was too talented to sit on the bench with the big club. Prized prospects needed to play every day, and that wouldn't happen on a veteran team that believed, even without him, it would be contending for the pennant.
However realistic or pessimistic Henry was about making the big club in 1954, he still handled his daily chores by crushing the baseball every day in the spring. Henry's hitting wove a tale that blended fact with the spurious. It was true that the best baseball minds wanted a piece of him, if for no other reason than to solidify their reputations as acute talent evaluators. Branch Rickey had been on the Grapefruit League scene less than a week before he declared Henry the "top prospect in the country." Rickey said he'd offered the Braves $150,000 for Henry, a figure confirmed with no shortage of glee (even the great "Mahatma" wanted in on Henry, although it wasn't as if Ed Scott hadn't warned him) by John Quinn.