Before he became "Hammerin' Hank" and a hero to millions, Henry Aaron was simply a boy from Mobile, Ala. who wanted nothing more than to play the game of baseball. Thanks to an unprecedented effort by the Mobile BayBears, fans will soon be able to get a sense of what the slugger's life was like during his formative years.
The BayBears have transported Aaron's childhood home to the grounds of the aptly named Hank Aaron Stadium. After extensive renovations, it will open later this season as the Hank Aaron Museum.
"We've been very fortunate in that Hank was born in Mobile and his family lived here, so we've gotten a chance to know him and his family," said BayBears president Bill Shanahan. "The house was built by Hank's father in 1942, and his mother lived there until shortly before her death [in April 2008]. ... One day I called Hank up and said 'We'd really like to honor you by moving your home and turning it into a museum.' There was just silence on the other end, until he said 'Well look, I'll talk to my siblings and get back to you.'
"When he called me back, he explained that the silence was because he was so touched by the offer. ... He was humbled that we would consider it, and we were humbled that he would consider it."
The Aaron family soon donated the house to the City of Mobile, with the understanding that the BayBears would move and restore it before the museum opening. A press conference took place in July to announce the project, and the house was moved to its new location in October. The BayBears will stage a 75th Birthday Gala for Aaron on April 7, during which attendees will be able to view the house's refurbished exterior. At some point later this season, the museum will officially open its doors.
"We don't know how long the process is going to take," explained BayBears assistant general manager Mike Callahan, who is overseeing many aspects of the project. "This is something that takes an incredible amount of work. It has to meet today's standards for a museum, not just a residential home."
From the beginning, the BayBears have received an impressive amount of support from local businesses.
"The first call I made was to Hinkle House Movers," explained Callahan. "[Larry Hinkle] and I met at Mr. Aaron's home. I threw it out there, like 'Oh, by the way, this is Hank's childhood home, and we're doing this for him.' I thought maybe we could get a little hometown cookin', a little discount. But Larry just said he'll do it for free.
"Another five minutes passed, I asked him again, and again he said he'd do it for free. So we talk some more, about tree cutting, limb removal, things of that nature, and again, he said he'd do it for free. I said, 'Well, I'm gonna believe you now that you've said it a third time.' And that's how the process started."
Hinkle's generosity was a sign of things to come. The BayBears have since received in-kind donations from a wide variety of local businesses, covering nearly every aspect of the relocation and renovation process.
"Everyone, unanimously, has said they would help us in any way they could. It's been amazing," said Shanahan. "And so much of this comes down to how people feel about Hank Aaron. He's become a true ambassador for the game of baseball, and the way that he has represented himself through the years has just been extraordinary."
A Window into a Bygone Era
Despite its logistical difficulties, the Hank Aaron Museum is a natural project for the BayBears. Since their inception in 1997, the club has made a point to preserve and promote Mobile's rich baseball history.
"Aaron, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Ozzie Smith are all from Mobile. We're tied with the city of San Francisco for most Hall of Famers born in one city," Shanahan said. "The entire 1969 Miracle Mets Opening Day outfield were all from here as well -- Amos Otis, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee. And Jake Peavy wasn't just born here; he went on to play for the BayBears. There's just something in the water.
"It is our goal and objective to honor all of our Hall of Famers and great players in this ballpark. It's a great connection -- Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball all at one time."
Accordingly, the Hank Aaron Museum will house a wide array of items from Aaron's life and career. In their quest for memorabilia, the club has contacted the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. But a good portion of the items contained therein will come from Aaron himself.
"From day one, Hank has been very generous," Callahan said. "He'll ask things like 'Well, do you want me to give you my World Series ring now?'"
But as interesting as this sort of memorabilia may be, the BayBears think the most valuable aspect of the museum will be the structure itself.
"It all starts with his family and the foundation that his mother and father built," said Callahan. "[Visitors] will be able to see how his environment formed him as a baseball player and as a man. We'll also talk about Hank's early life in Mobile and not glamorize it. We want to show things for the way they were.
"Hank faced a lot of obstacles and opposition, but all he wanted to do was play baseball. We want to educate people about that [the Jim Crow] era of our country's history, and what growing up during that time meant for Hank Aaron."
And, in the end, it's fitting that a unique man will be honored in such a unique way.
"At no time in the history of the United States has a house been relocated, restored and brought to stadium grounds," Shanahan said. "It's just never been done, and we're learning as we go."
"This one's from the heart," Callahan added. "When we came up with the idea, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. But thanks to Hank and the outpouring of support from the community, whatever we've needed has been provided."
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.