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The Last Hero_ A Life Of Henry Aaron Part 6

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A staple of the segregated era: black players living in a boarding house in the Negro section of town. White players on the Braves resided at a resort hotel in Bradenton, Florida, during spring training, while Henry, Charlie White (center), and Bill Bruton (right) lived at the home of Lulu Mae Gibson.

During his early years, no player would have as much of an impact on Henry as Bill Bruton (second from right). Bruton taught a young Henry Aaron how to dress, how to tip, places to avoid on the road, and, most important, how to begin pressing Braves management to end the segregationist practices during spring training. From left: Jim Pendleton, Charlie White, Bruton, and Henry Aaron.

Few teams in history ever boasted as powerful a trio in the middle of the batting order as did the Milwaukee Braves, with Henry hitting fourth, between Eddie Mathews (center) and Joe Adc.o.c.k. Henry loved Mathews, but he and Joe Adc.o.c.k were never close. Henry believed Adc.o.c.k to be the most racist member of the Braves. It was Adc.o.c.k who was responsible for the saddling Henry with the unflattering nicknames "Stepin Fetchit," "Snowshoes," and "Slow Motion Henry."

While baseball focused on his rivalry with Willie Mays, it was Jackie Robinson after whom Henry patterned his career, and Robinson who inspired Aaron to be a person of import following his retirement. Aaron always remembered that Robinson was never offered a job by Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley (right) when he left the game, and he resolved to cultivate relationships with the game's power brokers.

Fresh off of winning his first batting t.i.tle, Henry arrived in Bradenton for spring training in 1957. By season's end, he would hit a pennant-winning home run, win the World Series, and secure the Most Valuable Player award for the only time in his career.



On Henry's first trip to Boston, in May 1957, he and Ted Williams posed before a charity exhibition game at Fenway Park between the Braves and the Red Sox. It was Williams, the curmudgeonly perfectionist, who was both taken by Henry's accomplishments and perplexed by his unorthodox hitting style. "You can't hit for power off your front foot," Williams often said. "You just can't do it."

The Wrist Hitter: Perhaps no player in the history of the game would be as celebrated for his lightning-quick wrists as Henry Aaron. "You might get him out once," Don Drysdale once said, "but don't think for a minute you're going make a living throwing the ball past by Henry Aaron."

Warren Spahn won 363 games and was the unquestioned leader of the Braves pitching staff. Spahn was a decorated World War II veteran, awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Along with Henry and Eddie Mathews, Spahn would be elected to the Hall of Fame, but while Henry and Spahn shared mutual respect, Spahn's irreverence and unprogressive racial att.i.tudes made for a professional but sometimes uneasy relationship.

Henry at home with Barbara, a young Gaile, and infant Lary. The Aarons lived on North 29th Street, in the segregated Bronzeville section of Milwaukee. As Henry's celebrity increased, the family became the first and only black family allowed to move to the suburb of Mequon, a source of pride and tension on both sides of the roiling civil rights movement in the city.

No set of teammates. .h.i.t more home runs than Eddie Mathews (left) and Henry Aaron, or better symbolized the glory days of baseball in Milwaukee. After the 1965 home finale, the two walk up the runway at County Stadium for the final time before the club moved to Atlanta.

Henry voiced his reluctance to return to the South, the scene of so many humiliations. Ironically, it was living in Atlanta, the center of the modern civil rights movement, that shaped his views and deepened his conviction to become more than a baseball player.

Perhaps the three most historically significant players of their era: Henry's consistency was often overshadowed by the charisma of Willie Mays (center), while Roberto Clemente (left) displaced Henry as the premier defensive right fielder in the National League. It was Clemente, however, who would be the most notoriously underpaid.

After Henry hit his 500th home run, on July 14, 1968, the baseball world realized it was Henry Aaron-and not Willie Mays-who represented the best chance to reach Babe Ruth's all-time record of 714. For the next seven seasons, as he became the focal point of a national obsession, the smiles would be scarce.

Except that Milwaukee did not fold. Erskine led 41 in the sixth when Henry followed a Mathews single with another, and Bruton, too, reached on a one-out error. Then Adc.o.c.k blasted a grand slam and gave the Braves a 54 lead. Four outs away from being swept in the doubleheader, Robinson again came up, sore groin and all, and tied the game with a two-out homer in the eighth, only to see Bruton win it 65, scoring on a sacrifice fly.

Afterward, it was Smokey Alston who blew his stack. They were the champs, and yet in each game it was the Dodgers who had folded in a critical moment. In three games, they'd committed six errors. Campanella was zero for eight with four whiffs. Adc.o.c.k had homered in every game. Gutless is what they were, Alston said. And in the next day's paper, in the genteel New York Times New York Times, no less, that was exactly the word attributed to Alston in describing his defending world champs: gutless gutless.

In the Sat.u.r.day finale, the Dodgers on the brink of being swept four straight, Robinson left after the first inning, his sore groin finishing him for the afternoon. Maglie put the Braves down, except for Henry Aaron and Adc.o.c.k. Still, up 20, with two out in the seventh, "the Barber" gave up a dribbler to Bruton and a game-tying homer to Adc.o.c.k. When Alston walked to the mound to relieve Maglie, the Barber didn't want to give him the ball. The game stayed that way until the tenth, when Henry stepped to the plate. He already had three hits, and now Logan was on second with the winning run. That wasn't all. Alston walked Mathews intentionally to get to Aaron. Don Bessent threw a one-strike fastball and Aaron crushed it four hundred feet against the base of the wall in left center, sending the 39,105 at County Stadium into a frenzy. The beer was on ice at Ray Jackson's.

The Dodgers were now four and a half back. Robinson was brilliant, but Milwaukee had its sweep. Since Grimm had been bounced, the Braves had beaten Brooklyn six straight. Adc.o.c.k now had sixteen homers, half of them coming against Brooklyn. With Charlie, Brooklyn had won eight of thirteen. The lead, though, was only two ahead of second-place Cincinnati, but those mashers weren't supposed to have the pitching to stay in it, lending a certain degree of inevitability to a Dodgers-Braves showdown.

For all the commotion-letting the Dodgers up off of the mat earlier in the summer, the home fans booing relentlessly, being embarra.s.sed like a bunch of Little Leaguers by a raving Quinn, and having to witness the public sacrifice of Charlie Grimm-the Braves were the best team in the league by the end of July, and had they hit like they were supposed to, they might have been even better than the Yankees.

As Grimm had predicted, Milwaukee had the best pitching in baseball. On July 26, the top four pitchers in ERA (earned run average) were the Braves starting rotation, Buhl and Spahn, followed by Burdette and Conley. The Braves had stretched out a five-game lead over Cincinnati and six games over the third-place Dodgers.

Henry was the catalyst. Mathews could still get behind one, but he couldn't get his average higher than .250, and Adc.o.c.k was devastating in stretches, but it was Henry who was there, delivering every day. Two days after the Brooklyn sweep, on July 15, Henry singled in a 41 win over Pittsburgh, and then the hits rushed downriver, with multiple-hit nights over the next seven games. By the end of the month, he was leading the league in hitting, just as he had set out to do while working on his swing in Carver Park. The hitting streak had reached sixteen games when the press started to take notice.

On August 8, at County Stadium, a doubleheader against the Cardinals, Henry singled in a 101 laugher to stretch the streak to twenty-five. In the second game, he stepped in against Herman Wehmeier. Henry was leading the league in hitting, and he remembered Wehmeier from his rookie season. Wehmeier was then with Philadelphia, but he was one of the few pitchers who had consistently tested Henry with knockdown pitches. In his first three at bats, Henry twice flied out to Bobby Del Greco, the center fielder, and once grounded to Ken Boyer. Meanwhile, Burdette and Wehmeier traded runs and outs. Tied 22, with one out in the eighth and O'Connell on second, Henry lashed a meaty fastball from Wehmeier, which Del Greco ran down.

In the tenth, Del Greco doubled, and with two out, Wehmeier rapped a single off Burdette's glove. By the time Burdette could locate the ball, Del Greco had scored from second with the go-ahead run. The Cardinals won 32, and the streak was over, personally extinguished by Wehmeier and Del Greco, two names Henry Aaron would never forget.

THE D DODGERS and Braves met for the final time for a two-game set September 11 and 12 at Ebbets Field. The Braves led the Dodgers by a single game and a stout Redlegs team by three. The Braves had held on to first place since taking that July doubleheader from Brooklyn, but as Henry's streak sent him toward the batting t.i.tle, the Braves lost half their lead. There was payback in Ebbets Field. After Henry destroyed the Dodgers in the opener (three for five, a double, a homer, and four RBIs) to run Haney's win streak against Brooklyn to seven straight, Brooklyn won the next three. In the first, a 32 victory, Robinson accounted for all three runs with a two-run homer and an opposite-field game winner in the bottom of the ninth, which a streaking Aaron snagged for an instant before the ball dropped out of his glove, ending the game. In the second, a 21 Brooklyn win, Robinson led off the eighth inning of a 11 game by singling to left, taking second on Bobby Thomson's error, and scoring what would be the winning run on an infield chop. In the finale, Newcombe needed only a run (a home run by Furillo) in a 30 win. The Dodgers would go 4019, shaving five games off the lead. and Braves met for the final time for a two-game set September 11 and 12 at Ebbets Field. The Braves led the Dodgers by a single game and a stout Redlegs team by three. The Braves had held on to first place since taking that July doubleheader from Brooklyn, but as Henry's streak sent him toward the batting t.i.tle, the Braves lost half their lead. There was payback in Ebbets Field. After Henry destroyed the Dodgers in the opener (three for five, a double, a homer, and four RBIs) to run Haney's win streak against Brooklyn to seven straight, Brooklyn won the next three. In the first, a 32 victory, Robinson accounted for all three runs with a two-run homer and an opposite-field game winner in the bottom of the ninth, which a streaking Aaron snagged for an instant before the ball dropped out of his glove, ending the game. In the second, a 21 Brooklyn win, Robinson led off the eighth inning of a 11 game by singling to left, taking second on Bobby Thomson's error, and scoring what would be the winning run on an infield chop. In the finale, Newcombe needed only a run (a home run by Furillo) in a 30 win. The Dodgers would go 4019, shaving five games off the lead.

Over the decades that followed, the Dodgers would be judged harshly for their inability to defeat the Yankees. But they also would be romanticized for that moment in time during the mid-1950s when Brooklyn and the Dodgers seemed to exemplify innocence and simplicity, virtues fast slipping away in modern society, virtues that disappeared with the Dodgers as they moved to the West Coast. Much of it was a myth, certainly, as were most notions of simpler times. The Dodgers leaving Brooklyn would serve for the next half century as a metaphor for virtues lost to progress. Brooklyn's failure at the hands of the Yankees would burnish the dynastic traits of the Yankees while obscuring another immutable truth: The Dodgers, as the Braves discovered during 1956, were one of the more resolute and determined baseball teams in history. For the length of the baseball season, the Dodgers and Braves believed in the symbols they ostensibly represented.

The Dodgers were the old guard, representatives of a standard in sharp decay. The daily dramas on the baseball field were rivaled only by the confrontations in the boardroom and at Borough Hall, when Walter O'Malley danced with politicians around the construction of a new ballpark for the Dodgers. One plan in 1956 called for a retractable dome, another for a park in Staten Island. The Dodgers were already playing games in Jersey City, the explanation for this being that O'Malley was exhausting all options to stay in New York. The truth was that the old days were dead, and, far ahead of his time, O'Malley knew it, even as the heart of the city still seemed to be beating strong.

The Dodgers, these Brooklyn Dodgers at least, represented the last vestige of a disappearing time, a fact complicated by their unwillingness to go away on the field. Change was what the Braves and Dodgers September showdown truly represented. Change was why Perini, the old Steam Shovel, took his team to the open s.p.a.ces of the Midwest-where parking was plentiful-rather than remain in the tight corners of Boston, fighting for s.p.a.ce with another team, feeling unwanted virtually the whole time. For years, Logan would lament Perini's decision to leave Boston. "We would have been the powerhouse,"78 he said. "Look at the guys we had coming up. But they made the decision to go." he said. "Look at the guys we had coming up. But they made the decision to go."

Maglie, one of the many signature faces of New York baseball, would say the same. Like Robinson, Maglie was not quite ready to give way to the Braves or O'Malley's grand vision, which did not include him. During the furious Dodger run in August, Maglie posted a 1.99 ERA. In September, a 1.77 ERA and a no-hitter September 25 served as proof that the Dodgers were breathing down the Braves neck. Winning the pennant now was, they all knew, their last best chance to win, to say good-bye to the old days in style. Furillo, Erskine, Labine, Hodges, Newcombe, and especially Jackie ... they were nowhere men, all of them, with no choice but for the uncertainties of the future to sweep them up, with each leaving the best of himself behind in Brooklyn.

O'Malley was playing games in Jersey City not because he wanted a retractable dome in Brooklyn, but because he knew Perini had it right: If the future was a place no one could yet imagine, it could only be realized by a man of vision who wanted to be remembered for something grand. Such a destiny could not be attained by staying in Boston, or, for that matter, in Brooklyn. Being remembered didn't mean acquiescing to a politician's compromise. It meant starting over.

The future was inevitable. Less certain was whether the Milwaukee Braves, set up to be the Next Big Thing, could take the pennant, the prize all season long Henry and Perini and Spahn all thought belonged to them. The old saying that water finds its own level was never truer than in baseball, because of the grueling length of the season. For much of the season, Mathews couldn't get himself straight, and yet with two weeks to go in the season, the slugger had pounded thirty-two home runs. Adc.o.c.k would finish with thirty-eight. Spahn was near twenty wins. There was the attrition of the season, as well. Chuck Tanner, the team rookie of 1955, would play only sixty games, bat .238, and spend time in the minors, looking more like a traveling salesman than a ballplayer.

Yet here they were, battered and alive, cradling a wafer-thin one-game lead for the pennant, with sixteen left to play.

PERINI AND THE brain trust flew to Brooklyn for the series. Before the game, John Quinn called Haney for a meeting and announced the manager would be returning in 1957. He had taken a 2422 team and gone 5931. Maglie and Buhl warmed in the dugout, and by happenstance, Robinson and Burdette met under the bleachers. Instead of payback for their July rhubarb, what resulted was an unexpected peace accord. Burdette, the West Virginian with a reputation for not only throwing at black players but brain trust flew to Brooklyn for the series. Before the game, John Quinn called Haney for a meeting and announced the manager would be returning in 1957. He had taken a 2422 team and gone 5931. Maglie and Buhl warmed in the dugout, and by happenstance, Robinson and Burdette met under the bleachers. Instead of payback for their July rhubarb, what resulted was an unexpected peace accord. Burdette, the West Virginian with a reputation for not only throwing at black players but enjoying enjoying it, told Robinson there was no place in the game for racial taunting and-in perhaps the most backhanded compliment of the century-said he hadn't called Robinson "watermelon" during their bitter confrontations following the all-star break out of racial animosity, but because he was commenting on Robinson's weight, his "watermelon stomach." it, told Robinson there was no place in the game for racial taunting and-in perhaps the most backhanded compliment of the century-said he hadn't called Robinson "watermelon" during their bitter confrontations following the all-star break out of racial animosity, but because he was commenting on Robinson's weight, his "watermelon stomach."

"Burdette told me that there is no place79 in baseball for racial references," Robinson told the in baseball for racial references," Robinson told the Times Times. "He said that he merely had been making a point that I am getting a bit thick in the middle. Lew's statement about how he felt is one of the most gratifying things that has ever happened to me."

Still, these were difficult words to accept, coming from Burdette, a man with a reputation for little love toward black players. Henry respected Burdette's professionalism, his toughness on the mound, and his commitment to protect his. .h.i.tters from headhunters like Maglie and Larry Jackson of the Cardinals, but he would never speak of Burdette warmly as a man. In 1955, Burdette knocked Campanella down twice during an at bat in a game at County Stadium, calling him a "black motherf.u.c.ker" in between dustings. With Campanella in the dirt, Burdette called out, "n.i.g.g.e.r, get up there and hit." After Campanella struck out, he rushed the mound, clearing the benches.

Brooklyn hadn't held sole possession of first place since April 28, and yet here they were, poised to steal the golden goose at the end. In the opener, a Tuesday night sellout at Ebbets, Maglie gave up a homer to Mathews in the second and another to Adc.o.c.k and stifled the Milwaukee lineup in between for nine innings. Buhl didn't even make it into the fifth, chucking the ball around the ballpark. Seven walks in three and two-thirds got him the quick hook from Haney, and the two teams were tied at 8355 apiece.

In terms of failure, Burdette topped Buhl in a quick turnaround the next afternoon, getting yanked after recording just two outs. But this game, with the fall air and cigar smoke intermingling around the old ballpark and Fred Haney chomping on his fingernails, turned into a September cla.s.sic. The Braves trailed 30 after the first, with Don Newcombe, leading both leagues in wins, on the mound for Brooklyn. But big-pressure games and Newcombe did not often mix well, and Newcombe lasted but an inning himself, and the score was tied 44 after two. Milwaukee led 64 when Mathews doubled and Adc.o.c.k (again) (again) bombed a two-run homer in the sixth. Del Crandall wafted one into the seats in the seventh to make it 74. bombed a two-run homer in the sixth. Del Crandall wafted one into the seats in the seventh to make it 74.

But the Dodgers chased Conley and Taylor Phillips in the seventh, the old hands not quite ready to relinquish their pennant. It started with two singles and a run-scoring twelve-hopper by Pee Wee Reese, and a walk to Duke Snider. In came Buhl, once the Dodger killer, who it Robinson in the elbow to load the bases. On the next pitch, Sandy Amoros tied it on a two-out, two-run error by Danny O'Connell.

Now tied at 77 and with Haney reaching a fever point, Bruton's single scored Adc.o.c.k in the eighth. A redeemed Buhl would get the win in relief, but not before Crone sweated out the ninth, with Robinson singling, with two out, before Amoros ended the game on a grounder.

The Braves led Brooklyn by a game. Henry had gone three for five. All season long, the personality of the Braves had been defined by Spahn, Mathews, Adc.o.c.k, and Logan. The frustrations of reaching the pennant had been ill.u.s.trated by Perini. Henry was only twenty-two, and while he had been the team's most consistent player, he had not yet affected the pennant race with a defining moment. The Braves left Brooklyn and took the train to Philadelphia, checking into the Warwick Hotel on Seventeenth Street between Walnut and Locust, a block from Rittenhouse Square. Henry and Felix Mantilla grabbed a cab to the ballpark, where Henry took over an epic doubleheader against the Phillies.

Jack Meyer, the twenty-four-year-old Phillies pitcher (who would die of a surprise heart attack in 1967), was throwing the game of his life, shutting out the Braves through six innings. With the Braves trailing 20 in the seventh, Henry doubled in O'Connell to cut the lead in half and then scored to tie it. In the twelfth, Thomson from left field erased a streaking Puddin' Head Jones at the plate to preserve the tie.

In the thirteenth, Meyer-still in the game-retired the first two batters before making the critical mistake of hitting O'Connell (career average: .260). Henry stepped to the plate. Up until that point, Meyer had pitched twelve and two-thirds innings, had given up only six hits (Henry had one) and two runs (Henry scored one and drove in the other). The Phillies manager, Mayo Smith, did not blink, nor did he offer even a token look to the bull pen, not during these tough-guy days, when starting pitchers (even in the thirteenth inning) finished the game they started. The bull pen was empty. Meyer worked Aaron gingerly, outside and low, until Henry laced a rocket down the right-field line. O'Connell raced home from first and Aaron stood on third with a lead-taking triple. All Bob Trowbridge-who himself had pitched eight innings of scoreless relief-had to do was finish off the bottom of the thirteenth, which he did easily.

The nightcap at Connie Mack Stadium went twelve innings, with Spahn pitching the whole dozen. The game stayed 22 until the eleventh inning, Spahn and Robin Roberts, two future Hall of Famers, trading ground b.a.l.l.s for pop flies, when Aaron led off the inning with a home run. Spahn couldn't close the deal, giving up a two-out, two-strike home run to Ted Kazanski (batting average at the time: .211; career average: .217). In the twelfth, Spahn reached third-he had been on base all five times-and Aaron rocked a game-winning sacrifice fly off of another old pro, old Aaron antagonist Curt Simmons.

Now the lead was two, with thirteen games remaining, but only Spahn could win a game. The Dodgers took a one-game lead after Burdette (three and two-thirds), Buhl (three), and Conley (one and one-third) all failed to get out of the fourth inning and the Braves lost all three, two to the Phillies and one to the Giants. On September 25, Spahn won his twentieth, eliminating the Redlegs with a complete-game six-hitter, 71. Still, the Braves led by a game-9160 to the Dodgers 9061-with two left to play.

The venue was St. Louis. The wobbling Buhl and Spahn were scheduled to pitch, with Burdette slated for the finale.

BRAVES OPEN WITH CARDINALS80.

TONIGHT WITH CHIPS DOWN.

IN TIGHT PENNANT RACEThree is magic number in closing series; Buhl to start against Tom PoholskyBy Bob Wolf of the Journal Staff Journal StaffST. LOUIS-Operation Pennant is at hand. Tonight, against the fourth-place Cardinals, the Braves will enter the final phase of their campaign.... Three is the magic number.The Braves lead the second-place Dodgers by one game with three to play. Any combination of Milwaukee victories and Brooklyn defeats adding up to three will now decide the race.

Perini and Quinn flew in for, as the New York Times New York Times put it, "the kill." Buhl, in complete free fall, didn't retire a single batter. After two hits and two walks, Haney wasn't taking any chances. The only batter who did make an out, Don Blasingame, did so by getting thrown out while trying to steal second. By the end of the first inning, St. Louis led 30. put it, "the kill." Buhl, in complete free fall, didn't retire a single batter. After two hits and two walks, Haney wasn't taking any chances. The only batter who did make an out, Don Blasingame, did so by getting thrown out while trying to steal second. By the end of the first inning, St. Louis led 30.

The Braves clawed back-home run number thirty-eight by Adc.o.c.k in the second, two doubles, a single, and a sacrifice in the fifth to tie it at 33-but Milwaukee was undone by a case of the shakes. In the first inning, Musial pushed a roller to no-man's-land between Adc.o.c.k at first and Dittmar at second. But when Jack Dittmar fielded the ball, he looked to first, to find it unoccupied. Buhl was late to the bag. Dittmar made a desperation flip-high and late-that went for an error.

In the sixth, Bobby Del Greco singled home a run to break the tie. With the bases loaded and one out in a one-run game, Blasingame bounced an inning ender to Adc.o.c.k, who threw home for the first out. But Crandall rushed his throw, wide of the bag and low past Adc.o.c.k. Del Greco scored to make it 53.

The Crandall error cut even deeper, when Bruton led off the eighth with a double and Aaron drove him in. The Braves went quietly in the ninth; the final score was 54, Cardinals.

Only Spahn remained. He took the mound at Sportsman's Park, determined to carry his team to the World Series. On the mound was Herm Wehmeier, 1111 on the season and going nowhere, but no insignificant figure in the drama. Six weeks earlier, it was Wehmeier who had beaten Burdette in ten innings, on the same day ending Henry's twenty-five-game hit streak.

A special train, dubbed the "Pennant Express," darted from Milwaukee to Union Station, carrying four hundred eager Braves fans.

Perini liked his chances after Bruton stepped in, with one out in the first, and homered to left, but the remaining two hours and forty minutes were nothing less than torture by baseball. Everything Wehmeier threw came in clear and flat. No suspense, no blinding fastball. The game went twelve innings. In nine of them, the Braves put a man on base, but only one, Henry, pa.s.sed second base. Aaron stood on third, with two out in the eleventh, but was left to watch the season disintegrate before him. He had singled in the sixth and was exterminated with another double play by Mathews.

Robert George Del Greco, born April 7, 1933, in Pittsburgh, grew up in the Hill District of the city. He was a playground star when he hit his one-in-a-million shot: a tryout with the Pirates. By 1952, he would be the youngest player in the major leagues, playing as a nineteen-year-old for his hometown team. He would play nine seasons for seven teams, including two stints with the Phillies. In no season would he come to bat more than one hundred times and hit better than .259. But Bobby Del Greco could catch the baseball.

He would hit .215 for his career, and that weekend in St. Louis, along with Herm Wehmeier, he became one of the most infamous characters in Milwaukee baseball history. His two hits in winning the opener broke the 33 tie and gave the Cardinals insurance. Playing behind Wehmeier, he made eight putouts in center, dousing every rally with his glove. He chased down a vicious drive by Aaron in the eighth. In the ninth, Mathews led off with a bomb to deep center. Del Greco turned to the wall, racing straight back 422 feet to center, the longest part of the old yard. At the very worst, even a plodder like Mathews would have wound up on third, giving the Braves two chances to play for the pennant without even needing a hit ... and yet Del Greco snared the ball. The pain multiplied when Adc.o.c.k followed with the single that-had it not been for Del Greco-would have sealed at least a play-off with the Dodgers. Next up was Dittmar, who screamed a liner into the right-center alley that might have scored a run ... but Del Greco ran it down.

With one out in the twelfth, Musial doubled. Rip Repulski hit a smash to Mathews, who was not sure he had a play anywhere but thought he could at least keep the ball in front of him. But, at the last instant, the ball caromed over his right shoulder and rolled fatally down the left-field line. Mathews gave a helpless half chase, feverishly at first and then with heartbroken steps as Musial careened around third to score the winning run, and wipe out the season.

The next day, the Dodgers swept the Pirates. For the next half century, the final weekend of the 1956 baseball season would haunt members of the Milwaukee Braves. Johnny Logan, the little tinder-box of a shortstop, would remember each sequence where they stared the pennant in the eye, cradled and caressed it, only to see the unlikely Del Greco s.n.a.t.c.h it away. Spahn, with his eaglelike confidence, would live for forty-seven more years, and would pitch nine more years, win 160 more games, pitch in the World Series twice, face fellow Hall of Famers Gibson, Koufax, Drysdale, Ford, and Marichal. And yet Herm Wehmeier, who would finish a thirteen-year career in 1958 with a career record of 92108, was the one name he would never forget. On the eve of the World Series, when the Yankees would defeat the Dodgers yet again in seven memorable games, the Journal Journal ran a story under Bob Wolf's byline, with a headline that pleaded for an explanation. ran a story under Bob Wolf's byline, with a headline that pleaded for an explanation.

WHAT HAPPENED TO BRAVES?81.

MANY ANSWERS POSSIBLEFade Out of Burdette, Buhl Placed Heavy Burden on Warren SpahnWhy didn't the Braves win? Wherever you go these days, the same questions are asked.And the answers? ... One explains the loss of the pennant.Failure to play even .500 ball after Labor Day is the first thing that meets the eye....Had the Braves gone just one game over .500 during that time, they would have tied for the flag.

The story went on to say, "With Adc.o.c.k and Mathews not hitting, Henry Aaron, the new batting champion, was the only member of the one-two-three-punch that hit consistently." For the first time in his career, Henry played a full season of pennant-tight baseball, and he did not disappoint. He did not flinch against the Dodgers, and proved the difference in two extra-inning games in Philadelphia, games without margin. There was not a moment during the pennant chase where Henry succ.u.mbed to the pressure. When the Braves soared to the lead in July, Aaron hit .424. When they were gasping in September, Henry hit .357. Against the top two teams in the league, Aaron hit the best: .350 against Cincinnati, .409 against Brooklyn, .450 at Ebbets Field. He had three hits in the epic between Spahn and Wehmeier.

The papers would devote many column inches and thousands of words to the bitter end of the season, to Burdette's fade and Buhl's September fizzle, but the totality of what was lost that season was best summarized by the man often ridiculed the most for saying the least.

"In 1956,"82 Henry Aaron said years later, "we choked." Henry Aaron said years later, "we choked."

* If anyone ever needed proof where Charlie left his heart, it was provided by the choice of his final resting place. Following his death in 1983, his widow received permission from the Cubs to spread his ashes over the Wrigley Field outfield. The Cubs heartily agreed and the widow Grimm did just that. If anyone ever needed proof where Charlie left his heart, it was provided by the choice of his final resting place. Following his death in 1983, his widow received permission from the Cubs to spread his ashes over the Wrigley Field outfield. The Cubs heartily agreed and the widow Grimm did just that.* And then Durocher signed on to manage the Cubs. In 1969, the Cubs appeared headed to their first World Series since 1945, holders of a nine-game lead over St. Louis and a nine-and-a-half-game lead over New York on August 15, only to lose the division to the Mets by eight games. Durocher would manage five more seasons and would never again come so close to a pennant. And then Durocher signed on to manage the Cubs. In 1969, the Cubs appeared headed to their first World Series since 1945, holders of a nine-game lead over St. Louis and a nine-and-a-half-game lead over New York on August 15, only to lose the division to the Mets by eight games. Durocher would manage five more seasons and would never again come so close to a pennant.

CHAPTER SIX.

JACKIE.

JACKIE R ROBINSON did not go away easily. The spindly fingers of time caressing his shoulders, Robinson willed a last immortal charge, leading the Dodgers past the Braves for the 1956 pennant. Periodically, the old fire could sustain him, tricking him into believing his compet.i.tiveness meshed with O'Malley's and Alston's view of the future. And it was a fact: Even though he'd hit only .275 (his career average would be .311), played in the second-fewest games of his career, and wouldn't even finish the season with one hundred hits, Jackie Robinson was brilliant in 1956, especially in those big games against Milwaukee, when it was clear that the difference between success and defeat would not be commodities as easily definable as simple talent or statistics. did not go away easily. The spindly fingers of time caressing his shoulders, Robinson willed a last immortal charge, leading the Dodgers past the Braves for the 1956 pennant. Periodically, the old fire could sustain him, tricking him into believing his compet.i.tiveness meshed with O'Malley's and Alston's view of the future. And it was a fact: Even though he'd hit only .275 (his career average would be .311), played in the second-fewest games of his career, and wouldn't even finish the season with one hundred hits, Jackie Robinson was brilliant in 1956, especially in those big games against Milwaukee, when it was clear that the difference between success and defeat would not be commodities as easily definable as simple talent or statistics.

Against the Braves, Robinson hit .347. In June, when the Brooks were struggling to stay afloat in a five-team race, he hit .321. In July, when most players and teams couldn't keep their tongues from dragging the infield, the old man of the Dodgers led the club by hitting .368. Finally, in September, when it was time to win the pennant, Robinson hit .290 but scored seventeen runs and drove in twelve, his highest and second-highest totals of any month of the season.

He was stubborn and driven and dangerous, an a.s.set to a team that lacked that furious thirst to compete, the critical difference to one that seemed oddly luckless, tougher than the Braves but insufficiently resilient against the Yankees. In a final World Series showdown with the Yankees, the last Subway Series for nearly half a century, Robinson was fierce and smoldering: a home run off Whitey Ford in the triumphant opener, two hits the next day as the Dodgers went up 20. As was the case during the season, he had a talent for discovering those lush patches of brilliance, as in the tenth inning of the sixth game, after the Dodgers had lost three straight and were facing the end, when Robinson singled home the only run of the game and pushed the Series to its winner-take-all conclusion. The finale, a 90 Yankee rubout at Ebbets Field, was explosive only in its confirmation of the Yankee mandate-over a ten-year period, the Yankees met the Dodgers in the World Series six times and lost but once, in 1955-and for being the final humiliation of Don Newcombe. Game seven ended Newcombe's run as one of the signature pitchers of his time and sealed his reputation as a pitcher who came up the smallest when there was so much to be gained. Naturally, it was never that simple. Newcombe won 27 games in 1956 (the rare daily double of the MVP and Cy Young, too) and 123 as a Dodger, but in his career he never won a single postseason game.

In the end, Newcombe finally broke under the weight, and he would never be the same. Over the course of the Series, he punched out a fan after being tagged by the Yankees for six runs over the first two innings in game two, finished the Series with a 21.21 earned-run average in two starts, and, after being demolished again in game seven, left not only the field but the ballpark before the game was complete, disappearing for days before reappearing just before the team plane took off for an exhibition series in j.a.pan. He would never win fourteen games again in a season and would never again pitch in the postseason.

Robinson, in the short term, did not fare much better. The two-out liner in game six (made all the sweeter because the Yankee pitcher, Bob Turley, intentionally walked Snider to get to Robinson) would be the last hurrah in a big-league contest. He went one for ten over the final three games, ending the Series when Johnny Kucks struck him out. On the j.a.pan trip, a goodwill exhibition designed to spread the gospel of baseball, Robinson's temper ignited in Hiroshima and made the lead of the United Press dispatch, "An outburst by Jackie Robinson83 highlighted the Dodgers' 106 victory over the All-Kansai Stars today in the city that suffered the first atom bomb attack." The story continued to state that Robinson's "run-in with the umpire occurred in the third inning. He protested a decision so long and so loud that he became the first Brooklyn player to be ejected since the start of the j.a.panese tour." highlighted the Dodgers' 106 victory over the All-Kansai Stars today in the city that suffered the first atom bomb attack." The story continued to state that Robinson's "run-in with the umpire occurred in the third inning. He protested a decision so long and so loud that he became the first Brooklyn player to be ejected since the start of the j.a.panese tour."

Robinson made two more pieces of news in j.a.pan. The first was that he was not planning to retire to become manager of the Montreal Royals, the Dodger minor-league affiliate with which he began his career (Robinson was never offered the job). The second was that he said he expected to return to the Dodgers for an eleventh season in 1957. Walter Alston also said he expected Robinson back.

And then, eleven days before Christmas, the Dodgers traded him to the New York Giants. "Dear Jackie and Rachel,84 I do know how you and the youngsters must have felt," Walter O'Malley wrote Robinson on December 14, 1956. "It was a sad day for us as well. You were courageous and fair and philosophical on radio and television and in the press. It was better that way. The roads of life have a habit of re-crossing. There could well be a future intersection. Until then, my best to you both, with a decade of memories. Au revoir, Walter O'Malley." I do know how you and the youngsters must have felt," Walter O'Malley wrote Robinson on December 14, 1956. "It was a sad day for us as well. You were courageous and fair and philosophical on radio and television and in the press. It was better that way. The roads of life have a habit of re-crossing. There could well be a future intersection. Until then, my best to you both, with a decade of memories. Au revoir, Walter O'Malley."

If he had been caught unawares by the trade-the word he often used for the press was shocked shocked-it was only because he forgot that first great rule of baseball, and maybe of life in the compet.i.tive world: There are going to be a lot of folks waiting for you on the way down. Baseball always had a way of reminding players that at the end of the day, they were just ballplayers, a reminder that the players always seemed to forget when they were at their weakest. Players had the shortest shelf life; they were, on balance, the easiest to replace, and would live on, if they were lucky and good, in the memory of the people who watched them and enjoyed their play. The real game took place far from the pitching mound, away from the batter's box. That game was invitation-only, and most players, especially the superstars, were not invited. Ruth had left the game a whimper of his bombastic self, a panhandler for a coaching job, who would come up empty until the day he died. DiMaggio, too, would cut an awkward figure when it was time for him to leave the game, and so it would be for Jackie Robinson.

LOOKING BACK, it required an impossible leap of imagination to think of the retirement of Jackie Robinson as anything other than a moment of statesmanship, but the truth was just the opposite. In the winter of 1956, while Henry was basking in the afterglow of his first batting t.i.tle, Robinson was at best remarkable, dynamic, polarizing. He was, for the first time, vulnerable: Age and sharply declining skills were unable to protect him from his controversies. On team letterhead that contained a photo of the 1955 t.i.tle team-the team that won Brooklyn's only World Series, with Robinson injured and on the bench in game seven-Alston wrote to Robinson on December 18, 1956.

Dear Jackie,85I appreciate your letter very much and I'm glad to know how you feel. As far as I'm concerned there was never any serious trouble between us, and what little we did have was greatly exaggerated by the press.I have always admired your fine compet.i.tive spirit and team play. The Dodgers will miss you, but that is baseball.Good luck to you and your family in the future.Sincerely, Walt Alston FEW TEARS INSIDE baseball were shed when Robinson made his retirement official in January 1957, but Robinson's walking away from the game had a tremendous effect on Henry. The two did not share many conversations and were not great friends, but Robinson was a nearly mythic figure for Henry, and his retirement seemed, in an indirect way, to close the first chapter of Henry's baseball life. It was Robinson who had hatched the dream of playing major-league baseball, against white compet.i.tion, succeeding in what had once been the foreign, prohibited land of white baseball. And here Henry was, twenty-two years old, winner of the batting t.i.tle, fast being considered in a league with Mays, Musial, and Mantle at a time when Robinson was closing the book on his career-one ending and the other just getting started. baseball were shed when Robinson made his retirement official in January 1957, but Robinson's walking away from the game had a tremendous effect on Henry. The two did not share many conversations and were not great friends, but Robinson was a nearly mythic figure for Henry, and his retirement seemed, in an indirect way, to close the first chapter of Henry's baseball life. It was Robinson who had hatched the dream of playing major-league baseball, against white compet.i.tion, succeeding in what had once been the foreign, prohibited land of white baseball. And here Henry was, twenty-two years old, winner of the batting t.i.tle, fast being considered in a league with Mays, Musial, and Mantle at a time when Robinson was closing the book on his career-one ending and the other just getting started.

O'Malley may have admired Robinson, but he never exactly enjoyed him. There was no money in it for Walter. Robinson was part of the old regime, a Rickey hand, and O'Malley had never received any residual benefit from Robinson's pioneering. History never credited O'Malley with any portion of the n.o.ble Experiment. Alston and Robinson were never exactly warm. Robinson was a Charlie Dressen man, and Alston kept trying to replace him by trotting out new candidates for his position, as he did when the Dodgers acquired third baseman Ransom Jackson from the Cubs in 1956. Robinson muscled and flexed and reduced Jackson from an all-star in 1955 to a part-time player. Randy Jackson would be out of the league after 1959. "And when Jackie wants to try extra hard,"86 wrote Arthur Daley in the wrote Arthur Daley in the Times Times, "he's a matchless performer, the best money player in the business."

Certainly the skill to defeat an opponent physically and psychologically could have helped a club. Henry W. Miller of 29 Lincrest Street in Hicksville, New York, thought so. After the Dodgers won the t.i.tle in 1955, Mr. Miller wrote a letter to Joe Brown, the Pirates general manager-the same Joe Brown to whom Ed Scott had written four years earlier about a younger Henry-suggesting the remedy for the sagging Pirates was Jackie Robinson ... as manager manager.

"Thank you for your letter87 of October 25 in which you recommend Jackie Robinson for consideration as manager of the Pittsburgh club," Brown wrote in response three days later. "You were most kind to offer your advice, and I can a.s.sure you that I have the same high regard for Jack Robinson as you do." In other words, Mr. Miller, leave the front office work to the professionals. of October 25 in which you recommend Jackie Robinson for consideration as manager of the Pittsburgh club," Brown wrote in response three days later. "You were most kind to offer your advice, and I can a.s.sure you that I have the same high regard for Jack Robinson as you do." In other words, Mr. Miller, leave the front office work to the professionals.

The Defender Defender promulgated the Montreal rumor, advocating that Robinson be given the opportunity to make history once again, this time by becoming the first black manager in professional sports. At the same time, Robinson was rumored to be in the running for the Vancouver managerial position in the Pacific Coast League. In this case, the rumors were off by nearly twenty years, for baseball would not hire a black manager until 1974. promulgated the Montreal rumor, advocating that Robinson be given the opportunity to make history once again, this time by becoming the first black manager in professional sports. At the same time, Robinson was rumored to be in the running for the Vancouver managerial position in the Pacific Coast League. In this case, the rumors were off by nearly twenty years, for baseball would not hire a black manager until 1974.

If anything, the first month of his retirement was far from tranquil. Warren Giles, the National League president, had no comment upon receiving Robinson's retirement filing, not even the slightest recognition that the game Robinson left was not the game he had entered. Robinson gave an interview later in the month, saying the Dodgers were justified in their concern about the hand injury that reduced Campanella to a .219 hitter in 1956. Jackie and Campanella, two men who saw race in starkly contrasting terms, were never particularly close. Campanella's nonconfrontational style appealed to writers in general and to one in particular, d.i.c.k Young. Young found Campanella and told him Robinson had said he was washed up. When Campanella struck back ("A lot of people are happy to see Jackie gone," the catcher said), Robinson found himself at the airport in Chicago, preparing a statement in between connections from New York to San Francisco.

"Campy is quoted as saying88 that our relationship had 'cooled off' over the past few years," the statement read. "Absolutely no good would be served by my saying why it 'cooled.' I have no argument with Campy and I don't want one. In addition, I'm too busy as chairman of the NAACP Fight for Freedom campaign to concern myself with arguments of this type." that our relationship had 'cooled off' over the past few years," the statement read. "Absolutely no good would be served by my saying why it 'cooled.' I have no argument with Campy and I don't want one. In addition, I'm too busy as chairman of the NAACP Fight for Freedom campaign to concern myself with arguments of this type."

Robinson had taken a swat at his vanquished foes, the Braves, telling one captive audience that the Braves lost the pennant because "one or two of the key Braves players were out 'nightclubbing' with the pennant on the line." It was bad enough that the Braves had lost the pennant on the second-to-last day of the season, and now on his way out, Jackie was pouring a fifth of bourbon into the open wound. That sent Johnny Logan into a lather. Logan chafed at Jackie Robinson for publicly flogging the Braves. If Robinson was going to suggest the Braves partied their way out of the money, Robinson, Logan believed, should at least name the players he knew to be carousing. Otherwise, Logan thought, Robinson was being a coward for covering the entire team under one blanket accusation, for there were players like the catcher Del Crandall-whom Grimm used to call without admiration "the milk shake drinker"-who almost certainly were not burning the midnight oil.

Spahn said Robinson had developed a real hate for Milwaukee, ever since a couple from that city sued him for forty thousand dollars when he accidentally flipped his bat into the stands. Still, Robinson's greatest crime was his candor. Days after being traded to the Giants, he received a letter from his favorite manager, Charlie Dressen, who by that time had begun what would be a short managing stay in Washington. Dressen wrote the letter in his squat, loopy longhand on Washington Senators stationery ("Office of the Manager") and thanked Robinson sweetly for never failing to mention Dressen's considerable influence on him ("Players rarely give their managers any credit," he wrote). The letter was written with a sense of warmth, which underscored the fact that the relationship between the two men went beyond the professional, proof that during the tumultuous period of integration, a legitimate friendship had formed. Dressen had always believed that Robinson was the best baseball player he'd ever managed, and it was clear that Robinson was never more comfortable than when he played under Charlie Dressen. Dressen invited Robinson to Yankee Stadium when the Senators traveled to New York, and said he understood if it was too early yet for Robinson to step into a big-league ballpark, having quit the game so recently. Dressen then asked Robinson to remember, even in retirement, a key portion of the ballplayer code: Had something in mind,89 of course it would not help you now. Just want to give you a tip but I think you are well aware of the same. Anyhow, Jack, don't let anyone trick you into nameing of course it would not help you now. Just want to give you a tip but I think you are well aware of the same. Anyhow, Jack, don't let anyone trick you into nameing [sic] [sic] players in regards to night life. You will have to be careful because you will be asked many times about the Milwaukee club. Off the record, or on, don't name anyone. players in regards to night life. You will have to be careful because you will be asked many times about the Milwaukee club. Off the record, or on, don't name anyone.

Then, there was the small matter of Jackie Robinson versus Florence and Peter Wolinsky, the Milwaukee couple who had sued Robinson for forty thousand dollars two and a half years earlier on the grounds of "severe nervous shock" when Robinson conked the couple on the head with a bat he inadvertently tossed into the stands after being ejected by home plate umpire Lee Ballanfant. On February 5, Henry Aaron's twenty-third birthday, Robinson paid each of them three hundred dollars.

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