In celebration of Black History Month, throughout February, teams across Minor League Baseball are taking a look back at five of the best Black players to suit up for their club. On February 1, the Jumbo Shrimp unveiled five of the best Black players to ever suit up for Jacksonville (Henry Aaron, Willie Wilson, Giancarlo Stanton, Frank White, Buck O'Neil), plus a legendary Negro leagues star with ties to the city (John Henry "Pop" Lloyd).
Here is a deeper look at Henry Aaron, the club's best Black player, and the best player period, in Jacksonville history.
Eleven different Hall of Famers either played or managed in Jacksonville at some point during their careers.
The list includes Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Phil Niekro and Rube Marquard (one day, in this fantasy rotation, Clayton Kershaw will push Marquard to the bullpen), which is a manager’s dream to just simply run a different ace out to the mound every single day. Speaking of managers, Al López, who caught for the 1927 Jacksonville Tars, later became a Hall of Fame skipper with the Chicago White Sox.
Not that López would ever need to use his bullpen on this hypothetical team, but in case he did, he could call on Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm. Jacksonville can also claim baseball’s greatest designated hitter of all-time in Edgar Martinez among its alumni, as well as Hall of Fame outfielder Larry Walker.
But none of those 10 Hall of Famers come close to Henry Aaron. He is, with due respect to Seaver and Johnson, the greatest player in Jacksonville baseball history.
At just 15 years old in 1949, Aaron earned a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his unorthodox batting grip likely contributed to the team deciding not to offer him a contract (incidentally, the first time Aaron hit conventionally with his right hand on top of his left, which he was instructed to do in 1952, he homered). Instead, he signed with a semi-pro team called the Mobile Black Bears, collecting $3 per game. Aaron’s mother, Estella, only granted Henry permission to play with the Black Bears on the condition that he did not travel with the team, thus limiting him to games in their hometown of Mobile.
Two years later, Henry inked a deal for $200 per month as a shortstop with the Negro American League champion Indianapolis Clowns. Immediately, Aaron excelled, batting .366 with five home runs and nine stolen bases in 26 games to help Indianapolis win the 1952 Negro Leagues World Series. He was just 18 years old.
Aaron’s instantaneous stardom quickly caught the eye of several major league organizations. By this point, future Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Willard “Sonny” Brown, Roy Campanella, Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin and Willie Mays had already integrated MLB. While Indianapolis manager Piggy Barnes thought he had his shortstop for the foreseeable future, the legendary Buck O’Neil, as told in Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball, knew differently:
“I remember the first time I saw Henry Aaron. He was playing shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns. He looked like a little kid. He couldn’t have weighed a hundred and fifty pounds. I asked their manager, Piggy Barnes, ‘Who’s the kid?’ He just smiled and said, ‘You’ll see.’
“So this kid comes up, and I tell our pitcher to throw his best fastball. The kid bangs a ball off the right-field wall. Kid comes up again, and I tell our next pitcher to throw his best fastball, and the kid hits it off the center-field wall. I tell our last pitcher to throw him a curve, and he hits it off the left-field wall. All the time, Piggy Barnes is in the dugout just smiling.
“So after the game, I go see Piggy, and he’s telling me about this kid Aaron, how good he’s going to be, and this time I started smiling. He said, ‘What are you smiling about?’ I said, ‘Piggy, when you guys come to Kansas City later this year, Henry Aaron won’t be on your team.’ Sure enough, he was signed by the Milwaukee Braves days later.”
Aaron signed with the Braves, who assigned him to Class A Jacksonville for the 1953 season. Along with Black teammates Horace Garner and Felix Mantilla, Aaron integrated the South Atlantic League. Despite the pressure of breaking the color line in places like Montgomery, Ala., Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah, Ga., and Charleston and Columbia, S.C., Aaron led the league in batting average (.362), runs scored (115), hits (208), doubles (36), total bases (338) and RBIs (135). He spurred Jacksonville to the league championship and was named MVP. As one scribe wrote in regards to Aaron’s performance while navigating the Jim Crow laws that still governed the South at the time, “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”
How could there be pressure, even in the minor leagues, even after baseball was already integrated? Well, here are some of the letters Aaron received throughout his career (and most of these came much later than the Civil Rights Act of 1968):
Dear N — –,
Everybody loved Babe Ruth. You will be the most hated man in the country if you break his career home run record.
Dear N — –,
You are doing more to hurt baseball than any other that ever played the game. You may break the record and you may replace Babe Ruth in the hearts of the liberal sportswriters, the liberal newspapers, TV and radio … but you will never replace the Babe in the hearts of clear-thinking members of our Society.
Dear Black Boy,
Listen Black Boy, We don’t want no n — — Babe Ruth.
Dear Super Spook,
First of all, I don’t care for the color of s — . You are pretty damn repugnant trying to break the Babe’s record.
Dear Mr. N — –,
I hope you don’t break the Babe’s record. How do I tell my kids that a n — — did it?
Dear Henry Aaron,
How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?
Dear Brother Hank Aaron,
I hope you join Brother Dr. Martin Luther King in that Heaven he spoke of. Willie Mays was a much better player than you anyway.
In 1954, Aaron made his debut for the Milwaukee Braves. He asked for a repeating uniform number. Donald Davidson, the Braves’ traveling secretary, told him, “You’re too skinny to have a double number.” But he then handed Henry what would become his famous №44.
The number was magic. When it comes to Henry Aaron, it’s almost instantaneous picturing №44 bashing 755 home runs. But he was so much more than that, so much more than simply a lumbering slugger who uppercut home runs. His whole career was magic.
For example, over the first five years of his career, Aaron stole a grand total of 12 bases. It’s simply not what baseball strategy entailed at the time; in 1958, the Braves swiped just 26 bags as an entire team.
In 1959, though, Aaron was successful on all eight of his stolen base attempts. From 1959 through 1968, Aaron stole 203 bases, seventh in all of baseball. In those 10 seasons, his success rate was more than 80 percent, the highest in the game. Aaron was successful on more than 76 percent of his stolen base attempts for his career, a higher percentage than Robinson, Lou Brock, and even Willie Mays.
Aaron also just could not stop hitting the ball hard. Seven hundred and fifty-five times, he hit the ball so hard it went over the fence. But even if he didn’t hit a single home run in his career, Aaron still would have totaled more than 3,000 hits. He accumulated an MLB record 6,856 total bases; second-place Stan Musial is closer to 10th-place Carl Yastrzemski than he is to Aaron in first. Aaron knocked in 2,297 runs, the most in major league history. When he finally retired, he had scored 2,174 runs, the most of any National League player (he has since been passed by Barry Bonds).
Add it all up, and Aaron was a 25-time All-Star. That number is so staggering it blows the mind. It’s more All-Star Games than Seaver and Frank Robinson combined. It’s as many All-Star Games that Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Schmidt can tally up. Heck, Johnson, Ryan and Niekro combined for 23 All-Star Games between the three of them.
When Aaron passed Babe Ruth for most homers in baseball history on April 8, 1974, legendary broadcaster Vin Scully called the home run and then did not say anything for nearly 30 seconds, letting the roar of the crowd speak to viewers. When he began describing the scene of an emotional Aaron being swarmed by teammates, family and friends at home plate, he said, “What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”
Henry Aaron began his career in a league that only existed because of segregation. His only full season in the minor leagues, which came in Jacksonville in 1953, was fraught with having to break the color amidst overt, blatant racism in the Deep South. He received racist death threats his entire career, and at various points, his children needed security to go to school and he utilized an escort just to appear in public.
To ponder Henry Aaron and think of №44 or 755 is doing a disservice. As a ballplayer, as a person, he was simply so much more than that.
“You know,” Aaron once said, “If I had to pay to go see somebody play for one game, I wouldn’t pay to see Hank Aaron. I wasn’t flashy. I didn’t start fights. I didn’t rush out to the mound every time a pitch came near me. I didn’t hustle after fly balls that were 20 rows back in the seats.”
“But,” he added, “if I had to pay to see someone play in a three-game series, I’d rather see me.”