Henry Aaron, one of the most talented and accomplished players in the history of professional sports, passed away Friday at age 86. It is difficult to overestimate how much Aaron meant to the game, and to American society at large.
As many have pointed out in the course of eulogizing Aaron, to focus only on his prodigious home run total is to do a disservice to his overall career accomplishments. Over 23 Major League seasons, from Milwaukee to Atlanta and back again, he established the all-time record for RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856) while collecting 3,771 hits (third all-time). He appeared in the All-Star Game between the years 1955 and '75, every season but his first and last. He was perhaps the most consistent hitter in Major League Baseball history, and yet the societal response to his undeniable success was often a virulent combination of back-handed ambivalence and outright hostility. This makes his accomplishments all the more impressive, as they were achieved while operating within a deeply racist cultural milieu.
Before he was an icon, before he was "The Hammer," before he established himself in the uppermost echelon of the game's greatest players, Aaron was a skinny -- but deceptively strong -- teenager from Mobile, Alabama, with Major League dreams. Nearly 70 years ago, he spent two seasons in the Minors honing his skills. While his time in the Minors was brief -- 224 games, split between Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Jacksonville, Florida -- it was nonetheless a crucial chapter of his legendary baseball career.
1952: Eau Claire Bears (Northern League)
Carson Park, currently home to the Eau Claire Express in the summer-collegiate Northwoods League, was built in 1937. Visitors to that facility are greeted by a statue of Aaron, erected in 1994 and unveiled at a ceremony attended by the man himself. The statue commemorates Aaron's 1952 season, when at age 18, he appeared in 87 games for the Eau Claire Bears of the Class C Northern League.
Aaron's 1952 campaign ended in Eau Claire, but it began in the Negro American League as a member of the Indianapolis Clowns. Per the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, "Aaron had been signed in April for $200 per month by Bunny Downs, the Clowns' business manager, after being discovered the previous season (1951) while playing with the semi-pro Mobile Black Bears." He spent approximately three months with the Clowns as their starting shortstop, still utilizing the cross-handed batting stance he learned while growing up in Mobile. Aaron was an immediate standout in Indianapolis and soon attracted interest from Major League clubs.
The Boston Braves -- who relocated to Milwaukee the following season -- purchased Aaron's contract from the Clowns in June and assigned him to Eau Claire. He made his debut with the Bears on June 14, marking the first of 3,300 games he played as a member of the Braves organization. Author Jerry Poling documented Aaron's time with the 1952 Bears in his book "A Summer Up North: Hank Aaron and the Legend of Eau Claire Baseball."
“He lands in Eau Claire, this northern city, that has really only one or two other Black people in town at that time,” Poling told Wisconsin Public Radio. “He had never played against a white player, had never batted against a white player. It was a completely new experience for him culturally.”
Despite the culture shock, Aaron excelled in his new environs. He went on to hit .336 en route to being named Rookie of the Year and making the All-Star team, bashing nine home runs along the way. While in Eau Claire, he roomed at the local YMCA alongside the team's two other Black players, Wes Covington and Julie Bowers. The former, an outfielder from North Carolina, played 11 seasons in the Majors and was Aaron's teammate on the Milwaukee Braves from 1956 through '61. The latter, a catcher from Staten Island, was eight years Aaron's senior.
Willie Bowers Jr., Julie's son, told the Staten Island Advance that “whenever there was a new player on any of my father’s Minor League teams, especially one of color, they always bunked with him. He became their mentor … you know, the guy who showed them the ropes. He helped the kids adjust and prepared them for what to expect on and off the field.”
"My closest friends on the Eau Clair Bears were Covington and especially Julie Bowers," Aaron said in Poling's book. "I often wonder what happened to Bowers ... I haven’t heard from since 1952.”
That 1952 Bears team was managed by Bill Adair, who like Aaron, was a native of Mobile, Alabama. Upon Adair's death in 2002, Aaron remarked, "I learned an awful lot from him as a young kid. He gave me the foundation I needed to start out." Adair intermittently managed teams in the Braves system between the years 1951 and '76, encompassing the organization's time in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. He frequently crossed paths with another recently deceased Hall of Famer, Phil Niekro, managing the legendary knuckleballer in Austin (1961), Denver ('64) and, finally, Richmond ('66).
1953: Jacksonville Braves (South Atlantic League)
It's hard to have a better season than Aaron had as a member of the Jacksonville Braves in 1953. All he did was lead the South Atlantic League in runs (115), hits (208), doubles (36), RBIs (125), total bases (338) and batting average (.362). His 22 home runs led Jacksonville, but he was outpaced in that category on the circuit by Savannah's Tommy Giordano (24). The Braves, who played at still-standing Durkee Field, went 93-44 en route to winning the league championship. At the end of the season, Aaron was named MVP. He had nothing left to prove and never appeared in the Minor Leagues again.
Aaron put up these gaudy numbers as one of five players who broke the South Atlantic League's color barrier that season. The Deep South circuit's eight teams rigidly adhered to Jim Crow segregation laws; racist abuse from fans and exclusionary business practices were commonplace. (The South Atlantic League in which Aaron played changed its name to the Southern League in 1964. Today's South Atlantic League, a Class A circuit, was established in 1980.) The other four players who broke the color barrier in 1953 were Horace Garner, Felix Mantilla, Al Israel and Fleming Reedy. Outfielder Garner and shortstop Mantilla were Aaron's teammates in Jacksonvillle. Garner, who was 29 at the time, never appeared in the Major Leagues. Puerto Rico native Mantilla played 11 seasons in the Majors and was Aaron's teammate on the Milwaukee Braves from 1956-'61. Mantilla served as Aaron's double-play partner in Jacksonville, but Aaron was error-prone as a second baseman and played primarily as an outfielder for the remainder of his career.
Aaron, Garner and Mantilla were not allowed to live with their white Jacksonville teammates. As extensively detailed by The Jaxson magazine, the trio lived in a house owned by entrepreneur Manuel Rivera, who owned a popular 24-hour bar and restaurant called Miguel's Taproom. While Jacksonville was home, it was nonetheless a tough place to play. In Howard Bryant's Hank Aaron biography, "The Last Hero," Mantilla said white fans referred to Black players as "alligator bait."
"You had to know all the rules, all of the things you could do and couldn’t do,” Mantilla told Bryant. “Believe it or not, Jacksonville was one of the better towns for us. It was Hank who always kept me away from the things that could have gotten me in trouble.”
Another of the standout players on the Jacksonville Braves was first baseman Joe Andrews, a Massachusetts native who died in 2001. Andrews' obituary in the [New Bedford, Massachusetts] Standard-Times included reminiscences from Aaron, who "recalled that when southern restaurants refused to serve the Braves’ black players, Mr. Andrews brought them food and ate with them. Mr. Andrews defused racial attacks, including rock-throwing by fans, and in general, he tried to serve as a protector for black players."
At a time when it was not common for whites “to take a black man’s side, [Andrews] was there for me," said Aaron. "And he didn’t change a bit in the entire time I knew him."
Aaron, Garner and Mantilla also were supported by Jacksonville manager Ben Geraghty, a survivor of the horrific 1946 Spokane Indians bus crash that resulted in the deaths of nine players. During road trips, Geraghty visited the players at their Black-only hotels and ate with them in restaurants. In a 1957 Sports Illustrated profile, Geraghty referred to Aaron as "the most relaxed kid I ever saw" and "the most natural hitter I ever saw."
The respect was mutual. Rory Castello's detailed SABR biography of Geraghty led with the following quote from Aaron:
"He was the greatest manager I ever played for, perhaps the greatest manager who ever lived, and that includes managers in the big leagues. I’ve never played for a guy who could get more out of every ballplayer than he could. He knew how to communicate with everybody and to treat every player as an individual.”
Since Aaron played for Jacksonville in 1953, the city has seen the likes of Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Edgar Martinez suit up for its hometown team. Nonetheless, he is -- and will likely always remain -- the greatest player in Jacksonville baseball history.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.