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Home Run King by Dan Schlossberg (2nd Excerpt)


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By Dan Schlossberg, 10 Ballard Place, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410-3601 


[The following article, reprinted with permission of the author, is the introduction to the new biography Home Run King: the Remarkable Record of Hank Aaron, published by Skyhorse this spring. Dusty Baker wrote the foreword.] 


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Winning a Ring


[The following is excerpted from Home Run King: the Remarkable Record of Hank Aaron, published this spring by Skyhorse. It is reprinted with permission of the author.]


By Dan Schlossberg


The Milwaukee Braves were the only team in baseball history that never had a losing season.


Overshadowed by the Red Sox in Boston, the Braves arrived in Milwaukee with high expectations during spring training in 1953. A mix of veterans and rising young stars, their future got an enormous boost from the energy and enthusiasm of their new fan base plus the energy and enthusiasm of their first home-grown fan favorite, Henry Louis Aaron.


Although Aaron was a minor-league infielder in 1953 while the Braves were getting their feet wet in Wisconsin, he found his way to the front lines a year later.


In a real rags-to-riches story, the Braves rebounded from a 64-89 final season in Boston to a 92-62 Milwaukee debut that left them second in the standings, 13 games behind the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers, but first in attendance, with a new National League record (1.82 million) after drawing only 282,000 to Braves Field the year before.


Suddenly, the erstwhile ragamuffins had blossomed into bona fide contenders. After adding Aaron as the result of a spring training mishap that sidelined newly-acquired Bobby Thomson, the Braves got 40 home runs from Eddie Mathews, a four-homer game from Joe Adcock, and 21 wins from Warren Spahn en route to a solid third-place showing, eight games behind the New York Giants and three behind second-place Brooklyn with an 89-65 mark.


Speaking of Aaron, Mathews said, “We knew he had a tremendous amount of talent, we knew he could play, we knew he could hit, but that’s about all we knew.”


A year later, with Aaron healed from his own sliding fracture, the Braves bounced back to second, finishing 85-69 but 13½ games behind the Dodgers. In his second season, the wiry Aaron became a sudden slugger – more than doubling his rookie year production from 13 homers to 27 – while leading the National League with 37 doubles and a .314 batting average.


It was in 1956, however, that the Braves finally showed they were more than also-rans. Sluggish at the start with a 24-22 mark on June 16, the Braves dumped manager Charlie Grimm for Fred Haney, who coaxed his charges to a 68-40 record. But it was one game too short, even though the Braves had taken a one-game lead into the final weekend.


The Braves lost two of three in St. Louis, finishing 14-13 in September, while the Dodgers were sweeping Pittsburgh.


Aaron couldn’t be blamed: en route to his first batting title, also led the league in hits, doubles, and total bases. Mathews and Adcock also added considerable power, while Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl were just as potent as pitchers, with Buhl posting an 8-1 record against Brooklyn alone (he won 10 more against the other six teams in the league).


The Braves could smell the festive meal but the taste would have to wait another year.


In 1957, when the world was otherwise preoccupied with Elvis Presley, Sputnik, and the never-ending push to de-segregate Southern schools, the Milwaukee Braves enjoyed their best year.


It was also the only year that Hank Aaron either earned a World Series ring, symbolic of team excellence, or a Most Valuable Player trophy, awarded by vote of the baseball writers. He won both that fall.


Aaron’s statistics spoke for themselves: 44 home runs, a career-peak 132 runs batted in, 118 runs scored, and 369 total bases, all league highs. His batting average was a cool .322, though Aaron claimed his average – down six points from the previous year – would have been better if he hadn’t stepped on a bottle thrown onto the field. Only Musial and Mays, with better batting averages, deprived him of a Triple Crown.


The 6-0, 180-pound right-handed hitter didn’t have the size of other sluggers but considered himself an RBI man who would be cheated if he didn’t bat third or fourth.


Haney eventually concurred, dropping Aaron from second to fourth on May 25, but the switch proved no instant panacea. Aaron went 0-for-4 in his first game as cleanup man as Dick Drott of the Cubs fanned 15 Braves, helping Chicago to sweep a doubleheader.


Such off-days were few and far between for Aaron, a rare slugger who also made good contact. En route to a .600 slugging percentage in 1957, he fanned only 58 times.


Eddie Mathews, the left-handed slugger who often batted behind Aaron, collected his 200th home run on June 12, eventually finishing second on the team in hits (167), runs (109), runs batted in (94), and home runs (32).


The Braves overcame injuries to powerful first baseman Joe Adcock, who played in 65 games before he was lost with a fractured fibula, and leadoff man Bill Bruton, who got into 79 contests before hurting his knee in a July 11 collision with Felix Mantilla and missing the rest of the season. Even Mantilla, a jack-of-all-trades, missed a month after the mishap.


Frank Torre, whose brother Joe would later win a batting title and MVP award in the majors, replaced Adcock, improving the defense but not the offense, while fellow veteran Andy Pafko and youngsters Wes Covington and Bob (Hurricane) Hazle bolstered the outfield. But it was Aaron’s willingness to shift to Bruton’s vacated station in center that allowed Haney to rebuild the corners around him. He had never played the position before.


Covington contributed 21 homers in 96 games, while Hazle picked up his nickname – based on a devastating hurricane of the previous fall – with a .403 average, seven homers, and 27 RBIs in 41 games after arriving from Double-A Wichita.


The Braves probably saved their season with a deadline day trade June 15 that sent Bobby Thomson, Danny O’Connell, and Ray Crone to the New York Giants for second baseman Red Schoendienst. Thomson, whose ninth-inning home run ended the 1951 National League playoffs, was returning to familiar turf but neither he nor O’Connell was hitting at the time the deal was made. Their averages were .236 and .235, respectively.


When Bruton was hurt, Haney had to improvise. He had the perfect replacement for the top of the lineup in Schoendienst, who had been the leadoff man for the l946 Cardinals team that won the World Series. The spray-hitting second baseman batted .309 in 93 games for the Braves, supplied stalwart leadership, and wound up third in the MVP voting, trailing only Aaron and St. Louis superstar Stan Musial.


“Without Red Schoendienst, we don’t win,” Aaron said afterward.


Aaron hit 11 home runs in June, the most prolific one-month power production of his career, and sparked talk about Babe Ruth for the first time.


Not that he might reach 714 in his career – no one was looking that far ahead – but that he might break the single-season record. With 27 home runs in the first 76 games, about half the season, his pace matched Ruth’s 60-homer onslaught from 1927.


“With a natural hitter like Hank Aaron, anything is possible,” Bill Bruton offered. “It’s about time somebody started comparing Henry’s homer record with Babe Ruth’s.”


For reasons unknown, Aaron had turned into a sudden slugger – after failing to reach 30 home runs in any of his first three seasons.


“I think Henry made up his mind he was going to hit more home runs,” said catcher Del Crandall, one of six Braves who went to the All-Star Game in 1957. “I have no idea where he projected himself as far as how many home runs he was going to hit. But I think he decided he was going to be a home run hitter.


“To me, Henry Aaron was the best hitter I ever saw. He could have been a .350, .360 hitter, whatever he wanted to do.”


In late June and early July, he had seven homers in eight days. By All-Star time, his .347 average was tops in the National League but not enough to keep the Braves in first place, which St. Louis held by 2½ games.

Six Braves went to the Midsummer Classic after Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick placed Aaron and Willie Mays into the opening lineup as replacements for Wally Post and Gus Bell, two of the seven Cincinnati starters chosen by over-zealous fans in a notorious ballot-stuffing scheme. The other Braves who went to St. Louis for the game were infielders Eddie Mathews, Johnny Logan, and Red Schoendienst and pitchers Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette.


When Aaron smacked his 29th home run on July 16, he began to look like the front-runner for Most Valuable Player honors. The very next day, however, he tripped over a drainage board deep in the Shibe Park outfield while pursuing a two-run double by Willie (Pudding Head) Jones. His ankle swelled and cost him a week on the bench – while Andy Pafko, Johnny DeMerit, and even Red Schoendienst took turns trying to fill the gaping void in center field. Even Del Crandall, no paragon of speed, got to sow his oats in right field.


Haney, who had played for Ty Cobb before managing moribund ballclubs with the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Browns, wasn’t about to blow his best shot at the World Series. He mixed and matched like a magician, even using journeyman Nippy Jones, out of the majors since 1952.

And he convinced Mathews to work harder on both his defense at third base and his at-bats against left-handed pitchers.


The Braves clinched the pennant on September 23 when Aaron delivered a two-run home run in the 11th inning of a home game against the St. Louis Cardinals. A rookie right-hander recalled a month before, Muffett had not yielded a home run in 44 innings before that moment in time.


Aaron, who had two singles, a walk, and a groundout during a tight 2-2 game that night, wasted little time, turning a hard curveball into a rocket that barely cleared Wally Moon’s glove before landing in the thicket of pine trees dubbed Perini’s Forest after Braves owner Lou Perini.


Although the outfielder had hit 42 previous home runs that season, that one had special meaning because it brought back memories of Bobby Thomson, whose “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run for the New York Giants on Oct. 3, 1951 not only won a pennant but was heard on the radio by the 17-year-old Henry Aaron. The future home run king promised himself then and there that he would like nothing better than experiencing the euphoria of Thomson as he trotted around the bases.


“I had always dreamed of having a moment like Bobby Thomson had,” Aaron said amid the clubhouse celebration afterward, “and that was it.”


The next day, Aaron homered again, picking on a pitch from Sam (Toothpick) Jones with the bases loaded. That first-inning blast was his last home run of the year but one of the best, since it gave Aaron league leadership in home runs and was also the first of four times he matched his uniform number.


As a confident defense attorney might say, “The defense rests, your honor.”


Aaron, playing in 151 games, led the league with 118 runs scored, 132 runs batted in, 369 total bases, and 44 home runs.


After a grueling pennant race that involved five teams, the Milwaukee Braves wrapped up their first pennant with a 95-59 record that left them eight games ahead of the runner-up St. Louis Cardinals. The Dodgers, in their final Brooklyn season but first since Jackie Robinson retired, were third, 11 games out, while the Cincinnati Reds finished fourth at 80-74, rounding out what was then called the first division.


The Braves, who were based in Boston when they won previous pennants in 1914 and 1948, had Milwaukee records for wins, winning percentage (.617), and attendance (2,220,000). Their 50 victories on the road also led the league.


In 1957, the best teams from each eight-team league went directly into the World Series without passing GO or collecting $500. Without an endless maze of playoffs, nothing could compromise the integrity of the final round.


Before the World Series began, Yankees icon Mickey Mantle lit a fire under the Braves by referring to Milwaukee as “Bushville,” a derisive term for anything Midwestern.


By the time the World Series started in Yankee Stadium on Oct. 2, the Braves were ready.


They lost the opener, 3-1, in front of 69,476 fans in the Bronx but got even the next day with a 4-2 victory – marred only when  supporters of Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro littered the field with leaflets urging the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista.


After losing a 12-3 rout Oct. 5 in Milwaukee County Stadium, the home team evened the best-of-seven series again with a 10-inning, 7-5 victory in the fourth game.


Nippy Jones was the unexpected hero. In the 10th inning, he proved he had been hit by a Tommy Bryne pitch when he showed plate umpire Augie Donatelli that the white ball had a fresh smudge of black shoe polish. Jones had no hits and no runs scored in three plate appearances but that one hit-by-pitch made him a baseball legend.


After Bob Grim replaced Byrne, Felix Mantilla – running for Jones – moved to second on a bunt by Red Schoendienst and scored on a game-tying double by Johnny Logan. Then Eddie Mathews hit a two-run homer to break the 5-5 tie. Jones never batted in a major-league game again.


In the fifth game, Lew Burdette, winner of Game 2, went all the way in a 1-0 win that put the Braves within one win of a world championship over the heavily-favored Yankees.


New York rebounded for a 3-2 triumph in the sixth game before Burdette returned to the mound on short rest when Warren Spahn came down with the flu. He responded by pitching a 5-0 shutout at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 10 to wrap up the World Series and capture MVP honors that could have gone to Aaron, whose .393 average, three home runs, and seven runs batted in led both teams.

“The Yankees came back to tie us after every home run I hit,” Aaron said several years into his retirement, “so I can’t rate any of them on my [favorites] list since none of them won a ball game.”


Although the Braves would win another pennant in 1958 and finish in a first-place tie with the Dodgers a year later, Hank Aaron would never win another World Series ring.


Nor would he win another MVP trophy. Before the City of Milwaukee had even stopped celebrating its only world championship, Henry Louis Aaron was named National League Most Valuable Player in a photo finish over seven-time batting champion Stan Musial. His margin of victory was nine votes.


The coveted Player of the Year Award presented by The Sporting News, which could have gone to Aaron, went instead to Ted Williams, who batted .388 for the Boston Red Sox at the advanced athletic age of 39.


Teammate Warren Spahn also went home for the winter with an extra prize when he became the first left-handed pitcher to win the Cy Young Award, then given to one pitcher per year. He went 21-11 with a 2.69 earned run average and worked 271 innings, including four relief outings that would have produced three saves under rules adopted later. Although he would win 20 games in 13 different seasons and throw two no-hitters, the future Hall of Famer won the award only once.


After the season, the baseball map underwent a significant change when both the Dodgers and Giants announced they were leaving New York for California.


Nine years later, the Braves would also relocate – for the second time – and change the fortunes of Hank Aaron forever.


Author Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ started following baseball after watching the 1957 World Series. He’s now on a speaking tour promoting his book. E.mail Dan at 

1 Comment

Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Apr 27

Great excerpt!

I'd never heard about that last weekend 1956 NL pennant race before, and it got me interested. Even though the Braves lost 2 out of 3, Aaron really showed up, 6-for-13, 2 2Bs. The back-breaker was the 2-1, 12-inning loss in the middle game. Warren Spahn went 11.1 IP for the loss, and the immortal Herm Wehmeier (13-year career 92-108, 4.08 ERA) threw a complete game for the win. It was a different time. Oh, and the Cards' winning pitcher in Game 1? 20-year-old Lindy McDaniel. Small world.

Small quibble: Not passing Go in Monopoly means not collecting $200, not $500!

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