|'The Sports Immortals' - From the Book complied by the Associated Press Sports Staff by George Vecsey - 1972 Edition - Published by Prentice-Hall, Inc. New Jersey |
'For sixteen years no one knew I was playing baseball. Then suddenly last year everybody began to wonder where I came from," Henry Aaron spoke these words in March 1970, while sitting in front of his cubicle in the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse at their spring training site in West Palm Beach, Florida. His candid assessment of the amount of publicity he had received up to that point was not far from the truth.
It was the slugging outfielder's misfortune to perform unobtrusively, even though brilliantly, during an era in which Roger Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth's one-season home run record, Sandy Koufax pitched a record four no-hit games, Mickey Mantle caught the fancy of baseball fans with scores of gigantic home runs and Willie Mays caught everything in sight with a flair in center field while maintaining a fair distance between himself and Aaron in career home runs.
It wasn't until Henry had moved past Mantle in career homers by hitting number 537 and advanced into third place behind Mays and Babe Ruth in 1969 that people began to sit up and take notice and stand up and cheer this steady, non-controversial player who had achieved unprecedented success with little fanfare. And the trumpets blared with increasing volume in 1970, 1971 and 1972 as Aaron became the eight player to reach 3,000 career hits, climbed past Mays in career homers and advanced enough to threaten Ruth's legendary 714.
Henry Aaron was born in Down the Bay, a Negro district of Mobile, Alabama. Neither Central High School, where Henry went for awhile, nor Josephine Allen, the private school where he finished, had a baseball team. The emphasis was on football, so he played halfback and end. He did play on the schools' softball teams, and by the time he was 15 years old, he was playing the infield and hitting cross-handed for the Mobile Bears, a sandlot team. "'ometimes on Sunday,' he recounted, 'I'd make five or six dollars.'
In 1951, at 17, Hank began playing for the Indianapolis Clowns. At the end of the season, he was purchased by the Braves for $10,000 on the recommendation of Dewey Griggs, a scout. In his first season of organized baseball, he was voted Rookie of the Year in the Northern League. In 1953, he came away with the Most Valuable Player honors in the South Atlantic League after pacing the circuit in batting average with .362, hitting 22 homers and accumulating 125 runs batted in for Jacksonville. He was at the time already a solid 6-footer weighing 175 pounds. He had heavy sloping shoulders and thick, powerful wrists. although a right handed batter, he could hit with almost equal power to all fields.
When he appeared in spring training for the first time in March, 1954, he impressed all who saw him hit. Joe Adcock, a first baseman who had been one of the few ever to hit four homers in one game, commented, "Everything the kid hits is a line drive. And he hits more drives through the box than anybody I ever saw."
When the regular campaign opened, he was in the starting outfield. Hank suffered a severe leg injury late in his rookie season, but even so, he played in 122 games, finishing with a .280 average, 13 homers and 69 runs batted in. By the end of his second year, he was already an established major leaguer. He walloped 27 home runs, drove in 106 runs and hit .314 in that 1955 campaign.
'Aaron's loping style is deceptive,' explained Fred Haney, who took over a Braves' manager from Charlie Grimm in 1956. 'You'd almost get the impression he wasn't hustling at times. But he's about the last player you'd accuse of that. He just runs as fast as he has to and he always seems to get the fly ball or to a base in time when there's any chance of making it.'
Henry continued to make it big as a batter. After the Milwaukee Braves' pennant-winning year in 1957, he hit .322 and .326 and then captured his second batting crown in 1959 with a .355 mark, collecting a resounding 223 hits. His career home run aggregate accumulated by leaps and bounds with 44, 30, 39, 40, 34, 45 and 44.
For at least his first decade and a half in the majors, however, the pitchers talked about him more than the sportswriters wrote about him. 'He not only knows what the pitch will be but where it will be,' said relief pitcher Ron Perranoski. 'He hit one home run off me and he went after that pitch as if he'd called for it.' Teammate Gene Oliver said, "Pitchers don't set Henry up. He sets them up. I honestly believe he intentionally looks bad on a certain pitch so that he'll get it again."
'I didn't dream as a boy in Mobile that I would be making so much money playing baseball and that thousands of people would stand and cheer me,' continued Aaron.
On May 17, 1970, in the second game of a doubleheader, he hit an inside fastball from pitcher Wayne Simpson of Cincinnati for career hit number 3000. More milestones followed. On April 27, 1971, he slammed his career home run number 600 off Gaylord Perry.
The advancing years threw him a few curves. He developed back trouble in 1970. In 1971, he developed fluid in a knee that had to be drained periodically. Still at the age of 37 in 1971, he complied a personal best one-season high of 47 homers, drove in 118 runs and batted .327. At that time, after 18 years with the Braves, he had played in 2,715 games; totaled 10,447 official at-bats; scored 1,901 runs; collected 3,272 hits, among which were 562 doubles, 95 triples and 639 homers; driven in 1,960 runs and stolen 234 bases. His lifetime batting average was .313.
Although his baseball statistics changed from year to year, his personality remained relatively unaltered. 'Actually,' Eddie Mathews, an all-time great slugger who had become a Braves' coach said in 1972, 'Hank really hasn't changed much from those early days. He looks about the same, maybe a couple of pounds heavier, and he still has that quick stroke. He just waits on the ball and whacks it. He's the same in the clubhouse as he always was. You can kid him and he can take a joke and he can needle you back. He just goes out every day and plays like hell. That's really what made him a great player - consistency.'
'My hitting style has changed since we moved to Atlanta,' Aaron pointed out. 'The park was built for home runs and now I look for a pitch I can pull. When I first started, I hit most of the balls hard to right center field. One year in Milwaukee, I had 44 homers and 22 of them went to right field.'
When he was a very young man, Henry gave little though to Babe Ruth. 'I really wasn't much of a fan.' However, as he drew closer to Ruth's 714, Aaron confessed, 'I'd be telling a lie if I didn't say I was thinking about it. It would mean something to the black race. It would mean something to every kid, black or white, but a little more to the black race. It was such a long time before we were accepted into the game. But I hope both blacks and whites were pulling for me. I realize that if I ever break Ruth's record, people may not accept me as being a better hitter than Ruth was. But records are made to be broken.'