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In June of last year, with Aaron in a slump and batting well below .300, Fred Haney was still able to classify Henry as the least of his problems. "That boy is a .330 hitter," said Haney. "I'm not worried about him. He'll be up there." In another month, he was. This year, with Aaron steadily in the vicinity of .350, Haney doesn't know what kind of a hitter to call him. "Maybe he'll hit .360," says the Milwaukee manager. "Maybe he'll hit .400. I don't know. He's capable of anything."
Just why Aaron is capable of hitting .360 or .400 or anything, no one is exactly sure. The wrists, of course. Everyone knows about them. "Best wrists in baseball," says Haney. "Best wrists in baseball," says Tebbetts. "Best wrists in baseball," says the man in shirtsleeves up in Section 27, Row 13, Seat 5 to his friend in Seat 6, who only glares because he was going to say it himself as soon as he swallowed the rest of his hot dog.
The wrists are good. They are almost eight inches around, which is not only larger than they look but also more than an inch larger than the wrists of two other citizens named Patterson and Jackson who moved into the Polo Grounds last week not long after Aaron left. The forearms ripple with little knots of muscle whenever Henry curls his big, oversized hands around the handle of a bat. And despite the trim, 31-inch waist, it takes a size 42 uniform shirt to cover the sloping, powerful shoulders and muscular back and chest.
"He's like a rock," says Doc Feron, the Braves' trainer. "Smooth muscled but hard. And, you know, he's not really so little, either. He just looks like it in his uniform. Henry's a pretty big boy."
Anywhere but on an athletic field filled with 200-pounders, Aaron would be considered a pretty big boy. He is 5 feet 11½ inches tall and weighs 178 pounds. But there is more to it than wrists and forearms and muscles and size. He also has exceptional eyesight and a natural rhythm and sense of timing unsurpassed in all baseball. "It's fantastic," says Warren Spahn, "how long he can look at a pitch before he decides whether to swing. It's as good as giving him an extra strike." But perhaps most important of all, Aaron is a fine hitter because of one fundamental belief: a baseball is made to be hit.
At the moment of impact in Henry's swing, the weight is far forward on the front foot, more so than any other player in the game today. It is a position reached by intent rather than chance. An offensive hitter, as opposed to many ballplayers who are concerned only with protecting the plate or themselves, Aaron is always going out to meet the ball, to attack it. He considers the bunt a fine tactic so long as it is employed by someone else; a base on balls is absolutely no fun at all.
There are those who believe Aaron might hit .400 if he would take a few walks when he finds them, lay down a bunt now and then and lay off the bad pitches. He is a notorious bad ball hitter whose strike zone was once described by ex-Braves Manager Charlie Grimm as "a general area ranging from the top of his head to his toes." And when Aaron was playing in the Sally League an opposing pitcher once warned a teammate not to waste time dusting him off. "The last two I threw at his head," the pitcher said, "he hit out of the park."
But no one is absolutely convinced that he won't someday hit .400 anyway. And he never had a lesson in his life.
Born in Mobile on February 5, 1934, Henry grew up with his five brothers and three sisters in one of the better-class Negro residential sections, called Toulminville. He was a quiet boy who liked sports—football, basketball, softball—and books. This may come as a slight shock to some members of the National League, who swear they never saw Henry—even in those rare moments when he remained awake long enough to read—get any closer to the public library than the comic book rack at the corner newsstand. But his mother says it is true and that he was a good student. Besides, there are a lot of things the National League hasn't figured out yet about Henry Aaron.
He played baseball one summer in the city recreation league and must have been a pretty impressive rookie even then; upon graduation from Central High in 1952 Aaron signed a contract with the Indianapolis Clowns, a touring Negro professional team, and set out by bus to see the world. He got only far enough for organized baseball, in the person of a Braves scout named Dewey Griggs, to see him and like him.