It was March 16, 1954, and Spring Training was in full swing along Florida’s Gulf Coast. The scene, as it was described in legendary sportswriter Red Smith’s syndicated “Views of Sport” column, played out like this.
Bobby Thomson was in St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., with a broken ankle. Thomson -- yes, the same one who hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World -- fractured his right ankle three days earlier making what he called a “lousy slide” into second base during the Milwaukee Braves’ 3-2 loss to the New York Yankees at Al Lang Field. Milwaukee needed a new left fielder, and Braves manager Charlie Grimm was thinking out loud about his options. He mentioned the possibility of Andy Pafko along with Jim Pendleton, Billy Queen, Dick Sinovic and George Metkovich …
“And Aaron,” Grimm is quoted saying in Smith’s column, with the writer noting the manager “brightening” as he discussed the 20-year-old outfielder in question: Hank Aaron.
Aaron, who passed away Friday at the age of 86, offered plenty of proof during Spring Training in 1954 that he was prepared to be something special. He was the buzz of Braves camp, as we can glean from archived newspaper accounts and interviews -- so exceptional that he earned a spot in their Opening Day lineup. Thus began an iconic career that spanned 23 seasons and 755 home runs and ultimately ended with Aaron in the Hall of Fame, recognized as one of the Majors’ greatest players of all time.
In MLB Network’s tribute to Aaron, Braves teammate Johnny Logan recalled the day after Thomson’s injury: “Charlie Grimm went into the dugout and saw Henry, but he didn’t call him Henry. He just said, ‘Hey you, you’re in right field.’ He got up there in St. Petersburg and he hit a home run, the first time at-bat. Now, what do you think he did the second time? Another home run!”
“It was a break, no question about it,” Aaron once told MLB Network. “I was at the right place at the right time.”
But back then, during the spring of 1954? His manager believed in him at first, and by the time camp broke, he had clearly proven himself. But some observers weren’t initially so sure Aaron was ready for The Show despite him demonstrating at every turn that he was.
On March 15, 1954, sportswriter Lew Cornelius wrote in The Capital Times that it was “an even money bet, I think, that Eddie Mathews will wind up playing left field” for Milwaukee. The thinking went that the Braves had five good infielders and not enough outfielders, so why not move one to left field? And what of Aaron?
“Hank Aaron has been flashing exceptional hitting prowess -- meets the ball well, cracks line drives,” Cornelius wrote, “but he needs more experience.”
The sports editor of The Bradenton Herald, the local newspaper in the Braves’ Spring Training home of Bradenton, Fla., noted that Aaron was indeed a “hitting sensation” who “took some of the curse off the Thomson injury.”
“But it’s a long way from the Sally League to the Majors even in this day and age of baseball shortcuts,” wrote Gordon “Red” Marston on March 26, 1954.
Of course, Aaron went on to hit .280 with 13 home runs and 69 RBIs in 122 games as a rookie that season. The next year, a 21-year-old Aaron hit 27 homers, drove in 106 runs and earned the first of his 25 All-Star nods.
Grimm -- known as “Jolly Cholly” -- seemed to believe in Aaron from the start. A March 30 column from Cornelius, noting Aaron’s move from right field to left field, explained that “Grimm’s eyes sparkles [sic] when you mention Aaron and his tremendous wrist power. Henry, as Grimm calls him, leads the team in home runs with five and in runs batted in with 18.”
“Will Aaron stay with the Braves this year? I can’t say definitely,” Grimm is quoted saying in The Wisconsin State Journal on March 15, 1954. “But I’d say he has a real good chance of making it.”
He made it, all right, and there was no question he’d stay with the Braves. The club purchased his contract on April 11, 1954, officially making him a big leaguer. But there were more questions about Aaron’s age and experience during that Spring Training.
Let’s return to Smith’s “Views of Sport” column, too. He wrote that Aaron, who spent 1953 playing for the Jacksonville Braves in the South Atlantic League, was young and inexperienced enough that, “Naturally, there has to be some question regarding this boy’s preparation for the big league.”
Not for his first manager, apparently.
“Well, I don’t know,” Grimm is quoted saying. “He can hit and run and field and throw.”
A person identified only as “somebody” then noted that Aaron “doesn’t look like a fellow built for real power.” Oh, how wrong that “somebody” would prove to be. Grimm knew it then, too.
“Power?” Grimm is quoted saying in response. “You ought to see him. He hits ‘em out of sight.”
Indeed, Aaron’s power became the stuff of legend even during that Spring Training. On March 26, 1954, a Newspaper Enterprise Association report began with an anecdote about a pitch Aaron -- described as a 5-foot-10, 165-pound “speedster” -- hit off a Red Sox pitcher “so hard that the ball landed on a house far back of the Sarasota park’s left-center-field fence.”
“Teammates agreed they had never seen a more awesome poke,” the report continued, “not even with Ted Williams around.”
On March 21, The Bradenton Herald ran an Associated Press profile on Aaron under the headline: “Hank Aaron Attracting Attention.” The story included praise from teammate Joe Adcock -- “Everything the kid hits is a line drive,” he said -- and managers in the Puerto Rican winter league who “hung a ‘can’t miss’ label on Aaron.”
“Rarely has a green youngster had so many champions,” the AP report said.
Writing from Tampa, Fla., on March 16, Wisconsin State Journal sports editor Henry J. McCormick wrote a similarly prescient column on Aaron. McCormick noted Aaron’s past accolades, like being named Northern League Rookie of the Year in 1952 and South Atlantic League Most Valuable Player in ’53, and detailed his incredible numbers in the “Sally League” for the Jacksonville club.
“About the only thing he didn’t do for Jacksonville was drive the bus,” McCormick wrote. “He played second base and the outfield for Jacksonville, but the thinking here seems to be that his future is in the outfield.”
McCormick wrote that the reports from early that Spring Training came from people who were “vastly unimpressed” with the young Aaron, but the sportswriter noted that he was playing excellent in his eyes during the exhibition season.
“He seems to move well, to have sure hands on fly balls, to have a strong arm and to meet the ball well. And he’s only 20 years old,” McCormick wrote. “Young Aaron could have a brilliant Major League career ahead of him, probably starting in 1955 or 1956, but conceivably even earlier.”
There was a small picture of Aaron accompanying McCormick’s column in the newspaper. The photo caption read:
“HENRY LOUIS AARON, brilliant career ahead.”