The Milwaukee braves are sticking right in the middle of a riotous pennant race, in spite of multiple injuries and a subpar performance from their famed pitching staff. The man who has supplied most of the glue is Henry Louis Aaron, and if his contributions fail to do the job once again this year, perhaps the only hope remaining for Milwaukee would be to get Ty Cobb on waivers from the American League. Certainly no one else could do any more.
Aaron is the rather indolent-looking young man who showed up on the first day of spring training at Bradenton, Florida in 1956, sauntered casually to the plate in the gray road uniform of the Milwaukee Braves, swished a borrowed bat back and forth a couple of times, and then hit the first three pitches out of the park.
"Ol' Hank," he then pronounced, "is ready."
No one fell over in surprise. Ol' Hank, who wasn't really so old (having just turned 22 at the time), was always supposed to hit the baseball, and almost always seems to have been ready. From the day he first reported to the Braves in the spring of 1954, a scared 20-year-old with less than two seasons of experience in the lower minors behind him, the entire Milwaukee organization had been acting strangely like a family which discovered a uranium mine in its backyard. That first season Aaron hit .280 and was second only to Wally Moon of the Cardinals in the voting for Rookie of the Year. The next year he hit .314 and drove in 106 runs. Now—Ol' Hank having had time to look around a bit and get the feel of the big leagues—things were expected to pop.
That they haven't popped, at least not enough to bring Milwaukee its first pennant, is assuredly not the fault of Hank Aaron. In 1956, proving that he was indeed ready, he hit .328, won the National League batting championship and became the only player in baseball to make 200 hits. And this year—at week's end—Hank was hitting .337 with 31 home runs and 83 runs batted in, leading the league in all but RBIs and slashing his way toward the first triple crown since Joe Medwick accomplished the feat some 20 years before. He was also ahead in total hits (140), total bases (260) and runs scored (78). What would have been considered heresy a year ago, people were now prepared to accept as simple fact: this slender, 23-year-old Negro from Mobile, Alabama is the best right-hand hitter seen in the National League since the days of Rogers Hornsby.
Perhaps the most unusual part of the Aaron story is the fact that no one gets very excited about it. Sometimes it is even easy to forget that Henry Aaron is around. Without the physical proportions or explosive speed of a Mickey Mantle, without the breathtaking color of a Willie Mays, without the long and brilliant—and controversial—career of a Ted Williams, Aaron seems to be hardly a personality at all. He says practically nothing, stays out of nightclubs, never loses his cap running the bases, and spits only upon the ground. He has not even had time to become the quiet but lethal legend which is Musial. All he does is walk up to the plate four or five times a day to hit a baseball.
It is then, however, during those brief moments, that the thousands wake up and realize, almost too late, that here before them stands one of the divinely gifted few. He looks small down there in the batter's box and not very deadly at all. He stands well away from the plate, toward the rear of the box, languidly swinging the yellowish-white bat in a low arc. Then the pitcher stretches and throws, Aaron cocks his bat and the ball comes in. At the last moment he strides forward and leans toward the baseball; the bat comes whipping around in a blur almost too fast for the eye to follow and there is a sharp, loud report. A white streak flashes through the infield or into the outfield or over the fence, and Henry Aaron has another base hit. Sometimes he does this two or three times a day. Some days, because he is human, he doesn't do it at all. But, occasionally, because he is Hank Aaron, he does it four or five times. It is this which sets him apart.
This year, Aaron has been hitting everything within reach. He beat the Redlegs 1-0 with a home run on April 18. On May 2 at Pittsburgh he had five singles; the next day he drove in four runs with a double, a triple and home run. On May 5 against the Dodgers he hit two singles, a double and a home run. On May 18 he beat Pittsburgh 6-5 by driving in four runs with two homers and a single. He drove in both runs in a 2-1 victory over the Dodgers June 27. On June 29 he began a streak in which he hit seven home runs in eight games. And on July 16-17 he had six for seven.
One day Birdie Tebbetts was moaning about how Johnny Logan and Del Crandall of the Braves always murdered his Reds. "How about Aaron?" someone asked. "Aaron," said Birdie, "murders everybody."
The Dodgers agree. They say the big No. 44 on Aaron's back really means four for four. When informed during spring training of 1956 that Henry was hitting .552 against the Dodgers in exhibition games, Walter Alston shrugged in resignation. "I see no reason why he won't keep on hitting .552 against us all year." The fact that Aaron hit only .442 against Brooklyn in '56 undoubtedly pleased Walter very much.