The best proof that Aaron was a pretty intelligent young man even at the age of 19 is the fact that he was smart enough that year at Jacksonville to stay relaxed. Along with Felix Mantilla, now a teammate with the Braves, and an outfielder named Horace Garner, he was the first Negro to play in the Deep South Sally League. He had to live with a Negro family in town and, on the road, room in Negro hotels. Frequently he had to remain on the bus while white teammates brought his meals out to him from roadside restaurants. And at season's end, having said almost nothing and done quite a lot, there were no complaints about Henry Aaron by either the ballplayers in the league or the fans who watched him play.
Even now Aaron makes no attempt to convince anyone that he is a mental giant. When asked why he liked the outfield better than the infield, Henry told a reporter: "There's less to do out there. Especially thinking."
He is generally regarded, however, as an above-average defensive ballplayer who could be even better if he wanted to badly enough. Even the Braves admit that he has a tendency to get a little lazy. But he has a good, strong arm—although not an exceptional one—and very good hands; he catches everything he gets to and gets to most baseballs that he should with a long, loping stride that covers more ground than it would appear. Once the Braves tried to get him up on his toes, to dig hard when he ran, but when his batting average began to tail off, they abandoned the project like a hot coal. When you ask Henry now why he doesn't run harder, he grins a little and says: "I'm pacin' myself."
Perhaps this is wise, for he has a long way to go. In National League history, only Pete Reiser ever won a batting championship at an earlier age—and that by only 1½ months—and while Reiser's career was ruined by running into too many outfield walls, that is an occupational hazard which presents no problem to Aaron. He stays away from the walls. It is with a bat, not a glove, that Henry has soared to a $30,000 salary in three short years, built one home for his wife and two children in Mobile and another in Milwaukee, helped his parents and invested in real estate. If he continues to stay healthy and to learn, he could become one of the greatest hitters that ever lived. Also one of the richest.
"Henry's dumb, all right," says Del Crandall. "Dumb like a fox. When he first came up, the pitchers used to fool him once in a while. Now he knows them. He has a tremendous faculty for remembering the pitch that got him out the last time. The next time the same pitcher tries it, Henry's liable to hit it out of the park."
They tell the story of the day in his rookie year when Aaron hit a home run off Robin Roberts. "Man," he said later, "was that really Mr. Roberts?" At the time, everyone believed him. Now the Braves will tell you he probably knew not only who Roberts was but what he had for breakfast and what size sweatshirt he wore.
In one respect, however, all pitchers are alike to Henry. "When my timin' is on," he says, "it don't make any difference who the pitcher is. I hit anybody then. When it's off, I don't."
Usually the timing is on (his lifetime average of .315 now ranks second only to Musial's among active players in the National League) and he has a great deal of quiet confidence that it is the pitcher who should be doing the worrying. "I've got a bat," he says, "and all the pitcher's got is a ball. I figure that gives me the edge."
Because he has never considered himself to be a particularly powerful hitter, Aaron has wisely refused to get involved in the home run craze. He simply tries to meet the ball, wherever it is pitched, and let those wrists take care of the rest. He hit only 27 home runs in 1955 and 26 last year and insists that he isn't trying to hit home runs this season. So it is as much a surprise to Aaron as to anyone else that with two months still to go he leads both major leagues with 31. More than Musial and Snider, more than Mantle and Williams, too.