Commentary

'The Last Hero:' Here comes Henry

Updated: May 12, 2010, 12:36 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

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.

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Courtesy of Pantheon BooksClick here to purchase a copy of the book on Amazon.com.

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.

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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."

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AP PhotoHenry Aaron hit .280 with 13 home runs as a 20-year-old rookie in 1954.

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."

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.