“I Had A Hammer” revisited

Posted by : admin | On : August 10, 2010

I haven’t read Howard Bryant’s new biography of Henry Aaron, “The Last Hero.” I suspect that it’s a solid read, but for now I’m content with re-reading Aaron’s 1991 autobiography, “I Had A Hammer.”

Going through it again, I was struck by a couple of things:

  • The extent to which the doggedly integrated National League of the late ’50s and early-to-mid ’60s — the one that won the All-Star Game every year because it had most of the black and latin superstars — was still straitjacketed by racial quotas.

One of Aaron’s inquiries in the book is how the hard-hitting Braves of 1956 to 1964 ended up with only two NL pennants and one world championship. He contends that the club, also bolstered by the pitching of Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette and Juan Pizarro, was certainly good enough to have run the table from 1956 to ’60, and should have at least had a fighting chance during the next few seasons.

One of the problems the team had was that it could never solidify second base. Red Schoendienst, acquired from the New York Giants in 1957, looked capable of strong work at the position, earning an All-Star berth in that championship year. But in 1958, he contracted tuberculosis, which kept him out of action for just about all of 1959.

Felix Mantilla was coming off the bench for Braves manager Fred Haney as a shortstop, and thought he deserved a chance to win the second base job, which was clearly up for grabs.

“A lot of teams had an unwritten rule that you could have five white guys and four black guys on the field, but you crossed the line when you had five black guys and four white guys. I remember one game against the Giants, they had eight black guys on the field against us — Jim Davenport was the only white guy — and one of the white players on our team said, ‘Who we playing, the Harlem Globetrotters?’

“…[Juan] Pizarro and I used to talk about how he and I were almost never on the field at the same time, because we always had Hank, Bruton and Covington in the outfield, and that only left room for one more black guy in the lineup…It was strange, because as long as I was in Milwaukee, we always had a problem at second base, and yet they never gave me the chance to win the job.” *

*”I Had A Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story,” Hank Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler, HarperCollins Publishing, 1991, pp. 217-218

  • Aaron notes that the Braves’ move to Milwaukee was hastened by the relocation of one team and the resurgence of another in the Midwest.

He recalls:

“…[T]he Braves’ regional impact was dramatically reduced when the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961. And it was probably not a coincidence that our decline coincided with the spectacular rise of the Green Bay Packers.”*

*ibid, p. 228

I’m generally more interested in Aaron’s Milwaukee years because he was on a strong contender for the first six years of his career, as opposed to Atlanta where, with the exception of 1969, his supporting cast was entirely uninteresting. I always hate franchise shifts, especially as a Cleveland Browns fan, aside from the earliest situations in which there were two teams in one city, and it was obvious that the area couldn’t support both. But I had never considered the impact of these two factors in the move to Atlanta.

It’s easy to see Minnesotans following the nearby Braves during their glory years, but once the traditionally woeful Senators moved there, they quickly became a compelling draw. Just a year after they got to Minnesota, the Twins were a very good team, finishing second with a 91-71 record, and they went 91-70 in 1963, ending the year in third place. In 1965, of course, they stormed to 102 wins in copping their first American League pennant.

Aaron — a Browns fan — admits in his book that “like everyone else in Wisconsin,” he “soaked up” the Packers after Vince Lombardi began to turn their fortunes around in 1959. A loss to Philadelphia in the 1960 NFL title game was followed by two straight championships, and the Packers would win three more times during the decade, including victories in the first two Super Bowls.

“I Had A Hammer” is one of the great sports autobiographies, probably every bit as underrated as its subject.

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