The recent passing of Henry Aaron resulted in a wide-scale exploration and celebration of his legendary baseball career. These historical deep dives have led to a greater awareness of and appreciation for those who influenced who him along the way. Ben Geraghty, whom Aaron once said was "the greatest manager I ever played for, perhaps the greatest manager who ever lived," was one such individual.
Aaron's death prompted Michael Geraghty, Ben Geraghty's great-nephew, to write a personal essay in praise of the man he has always known as "Uncle Benny."
"[Ben Geraghty was] a transcendent figure who was way ahead of his time and what I would call a baseball Aristotle," wrote Michael. "He was always prepping his team for different scenarios they would face at the plate and in their lives. He took a different approach to managing than most, investing time in their day-to-day routine on and off the field."
Ben Geraghty, an Irish-American native of Jersey City whose professional baseball career as a player and manager spanned the course of three decades, piloted the 1953 Jacksonville Braves. Aaron, then 19 and in his second and final Minor League season, was the second baseman on this championship-winning squad. Along with teammates Horace Garner and Felix Mantilla, Aaron was one of five players who broke the South Atlantic League's color barrier that season. Geraghty's mentorship of these trail-blazing players extended beyond the ballfield. He visited them in their Black-only hotel rooms, stuck up for them when they faced racist abuse from fans and openly challenged Jim Crow segregation laws by demanding they be served in restaurants alongside their white teammates.
Geraghty died in 1963, 25 years before Michael was born. Uncle Benny was a part of his childhood, however, via tales of triumph and tragedy passed down by his grandfather, uncle and father.
"I remember family dinner conversations every year, hearing about Uncle Benny and Hank," Michael told MiLB.com. "He helped developed Hank's swing in Jacksonville, saw in him the potential to do great things and Hank turned out to be one of the greatest. And Benny, what he did in the Jim Crow South, how he fought for Hank and his teammates, for Felix Mantilla, it was really unheard of that time. Most men would have looked the other way. This was in 1953, more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act. He was a man ahead of his time and our family takes great pride in that."
Michael attributes his great-uncle's willingness to take a stand, in part, to the racism that his own family had endured. Ben's parents, Patrick and Ida, were the children of immigrants.
"When this side of my family came over to Ellis Island, they faced a lot of discrimination," said Michael. "'No Irish need apply.' Stuff like that. I think that made an impact and his Catholic upbringing was sacred to him as well. He really believed that all men are created equal and he lived by that."
The course of Ben Geraghty's life was profoundly altered by tragedy. In 1926, his father, Patrick, a member of the Teamsters Union, died in a horrific workplace accident after getting crushed between two trucks. Older brother Thomas became the de facto head of the family, helping to support Ben in high school and collegiately at Villanova University. After excelling on the baseball diamond at Villanova, Geraghty was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and went straight to the big leagues, debuting with the club on April 17, 1936. He appeared in 51 games for Brooklyn that year, but only played in 19 more Major League games with the Boston Braves in 1943-44.
In 1946, after getting released by the Pacific Coast League's Sacramento Solons, Geraghty signed with the Spokane Indians. Once again, tragedy struck. While en route to Bremerton, Washington, on June 24, the team bus skidded off the Snoqualmie Pass, rolled 350 feet into a valley and burst into flames. Nine players were killed. Geraghty, who was haunted by the accident for the rest of his life, needed more than two dozen stitches to close a gash on his head. He returned to Spokane later that season as a player-manager, broken but not beaten, setting the stage for the next phase of his career.
Geraghty managed in the Cleveland Indians system in 1948 and then logged three years in the New York Giants organization. He spent 1951 as manager of the Jacksonville Tars and stayed on with Jacksonville the following season in its new incarnation as a Boston Braves affiliate. That squad, featuring Aaron, was the first of five championship teams Geraghty managed over a seven-season span.
"What he was able to do, getting through adversity, was amazing to me," said Michael. "I don’t think many players involved in an accident like that would be able to get back up and manage. But he saw something in other players. He always wanted others to be better. It was never about himself."
Aaron was one of many players who went on to sing Geraghty's praises. In his Minor League memoir, A False Spring, pitcher-turned-author Pat Jordan postulated that Geraghty's zealous devotion to his players was due in large part to the trauma he had endured and the awareness of his own mortality resulting from it. Michael Geraghty, in his essay about his Uncle Benny, quoted the following passage from Jordan: “His players spoke of him with an awe and reverence one associates not with a minor league manager who had enriched their careers, but with a man who had enriched their lives in a way that had nothing to do with baseball.”
And yet Ben Geraghty never had the chance to apply these leadership skills as a coach or manager in the Major Leagues. While he was often considered for jobs, they inevitably went to someone else. He stayed in the Minors, riding thousands of miles on buses each season while trying to blot out the bus-related trauma of 1946.
"He had very bad PTSD from the bus accident, so whenever he traveled, he drank a lot," said Michael. "It became a habit. The drinking took a toll on his body and his health was in major decline by the mid '50s. Pat Jordan writes in his book that the Braves kept telling him that he's still young. 'You still have time.' Unfortunately time was running out and I think he knew that. It's tragic. If there had been more years left in him, who knows he could have became."
After stints managing in Wichita and Louisville, Geraghty returned to Jacksonville in 1962. This time he was in charge of the Suns, an Indians affiliate operating out of the International League. He led the Suns to a championship in 1962, his final triumph before dying of a heart attack the following season at age 50. Per The Florida-Times Union, Geraghty was "the most respected man in Jacksonville baseball...[his death] shocked the city and stunned the baseball world."
Though his time was short, there can be no doubt Ben Geraghty made a profound impact. Michael said Uncle Benny, who had no children of his own, makes him proud to be a Geraghty and grateful to be able to pass the family name on to his children.
"He was a guy with tremendous character," said Michael. "He didn't just develop great baseball players, he helped them develop into great men. He had perseverance. A lot of people admired him then and a lot admire him today. I think what he did was monumental and I want to keep spreading the word."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.