6/22/2010, 9:45 a.m.
Henry’s path to “The Show” was dotted with stints with the semi-pro Pritchett Athletics (for two dollars a game), and his celebrated apprenticeship with the Indianapolis Clowns.
When the prospect signed with the Boston Braves in June of 1952, he had never been farther from Mobile than his father’s hometown of Camden, Ala. — and that was a trip made on horseback.
Henry’s first minor league manager was Alabamian Bill Adair, whose scouting report on him read, “No one can guess his IQ because he gives you nothing to go on. He sleeps too much and looks lazy, but he isn’t … as a hitter he has everything in this world.”
Aaron married Jacksonville native Barbara Lucas in 1953, and by 1954, he was a starting outfielder for the Milwaukee Braves. Bryant excels at recounting the group dynamics of the Braves’ clubhouse, dominated by hard living Eddie Mathews, intellectual World War II veteran Warren Spahn and bitter Southerner Joe Adcock.
All were stars, none close to the younger Aaron. In contemporary articles, Aaron is generally portrayed as a quick-wristed, dim-witted Negro phenom — a slow moving, illiterate batter savant.
A 1956 “Saturday Evening Post” profile by Furman Bisher helped cement this image. Of a batting slump, Bisher quoted Aaron having said, “I coming out of it.” When asked about an alleged statement to teammate Joe Andrews, Bisher’s Henry responded, “I liable to tell Joe Andrews anything.”
As he matured, Aaron would fight the stereotype by reading James Baldwin and befriending Jim Brown.
He and his wife publicly balked at the Milwaukee franchise’s impending move to segregated Atlanta in the mid-1960s, and in October 1965, he was the subject of a “SPORT” magazine feature on the prospects of a Negro manager in the big leagues, titled “I Could Do The Job.”
Braves’ officials attributed their superstar’s outspokenness not to the changing times, but to his wife Barbara, whom they considered ill-tempered.
Bryant astutely sources national media, Milwaukee and Atlanta press, former teammates and even batboys, to present a three-dimensional Aaron. Unlike many biographers, he references “SPORT” magazine, which had a more investigative edge than “Sports Illustrated.”
The American and local racial backdrop is ever present. In addition, Bryant provides the color and tension of National League pennant races — and Aaron’s pursuit of the all-time home run record.
The narrative follows a thoughtful, misunderstood player, to his emergence as the team leader in whom the parents of young black Braves players would entrust their sons.
The author demonstrates that Mays always resented Aaron, taunting him in front of the press and supplying back-handed flattery when it became clear “The Hammer” would shatter Ruth’s standard.
For readers eager to know the man behind the numbers and the footage, Bryant hits one out of the park.
Bijan C. Bayne is a frequent contributor to The Bay State Banner.