(Note: Republished from January 10, 2020)
Around every bend he confronted bigotry – and he did so with amazing grace, endearing dignity, and old-school wisdom." – Douglas Brinkley, on "I Had a Hammer"
I'M READING THE Hank Aaron story, another of my one dollar purchases from a local library. I could do a book review every week if I had more time for reading. When Hank was a boy in Mobile, kids threw bottle caps for baseballs, and they hit them with broom sticks. No wonder that town produced so many Hall of Famers. So much I didn't know about one of my boyhood "idols."
January is the month with two faces, and I'm looking back at the 1950s in Wisconsin. Eau Claire was Hank's first stop in pro baseball outside of sometime in the Negro league. One of his boyhood pals wrote:
"The way I can still see Henry is, we'd be having a game on Saturday and he was late most of the time because his mother would have him doing chores. After a couple of innings, you'd see him running across that corn field. You'd see his head bobbing up and down over that corn, and whoever was batting would just lay that bat down, because Henry was going to pinch hit." [a word picture right out of "Field of Dreams"]
Wes Covington was a teammate of his in Eau Claire, and got beaned by a pitcher one day (not a rare thing for the Afro-Am players in those days). Wes says: "I was the first black person who ever went into the hospital there. They assigned different nurses to me every day so they could all get the experience of being in my presence. The nurses would open my mail and water the flowers for me – all but this one nurse who must have been about sixty who filled the water pitcher every day. I'd see this arm coming around the door and picking up the pitcher, then coming around again and putting it back on the tray. One day I was out of bed when she came and I looked at her. She just froze. She stared at me and poured the water nervously and left. She had never seen a black person.
"Well one day I was close enough to the door and handed her the pitcher. She bowed her head a little. Finally she said something one day. After that, we had a little conversation, and by the time I left the hospital, she was sitting at the side of the bed talking to me like an old friend."
In the book, Hank says, "In a game against Ron Kline of the Pirates one year, we tied a record when I hit a home run and then Matthews hit one on the next pitch and Covington hit one on the pitch after that." [I saw them do that in Milwaukee. It's good not to let the first pitch go by just because it's the first pitch.]
[I recommend not letting a good first pitch go by just because it's the first pitch.]
The book made me realize that the early 50s black players suffered almost as much discrimination as Jackie Robinson did in the 40s. They paved the way for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the next step in societal evolution. From the book:
"It wasn't just the fans, either. We had a few Southern boys on our ball club, and they'd say things . . And believe me, there were some mean pitchers in that league. In Macon they had an old ballpark so big you could land a 727, and there was a tin fence that was too deep for a home run, so they had a snow fence inside it . . When Henry was up there the second time, the pitcher said, "I got four for your head, – " One went behind Hank. The next pitch was right at his head, and Henry just stepped back a little and tomahawked that thing . . About two seconds later you could hear the ball banging against that old tin fence way out there." – Joe Andrews, teammate at Jacksonville
They were playing in Augusta in 1953 when fans started throwing stones at Horace Garner in right field, along with taunts like "We're going to kill you next time." Aaron wrote:
"Horace always said he didn't mind the rednecks throwing rocks at him, but when they started hitting him, that was different . . . But we got our revenge that night. I was 5-for-5, and between us, Horace, Felix, and I were on base 13 times in 14 times at bat. That was the only recourse we had. And laughing. . . We'd exchange our stories and just laugh all night at how stupid people could be."
Hank was a natural line drive hitter. Sometimes the shortstop would leap for the ball and it would sail over the fence. He is especially happy about what he did in 1959, hitting for 400 total bases in 153 games. Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, and Willy Mays never did that. Stan Musial did it in 1848 and Jim Rice did it in 1978, in 164 games I think.
But after the 1959 season, Hank was in a home run derby in L.A. and won $30,000, "almost two years worth of salaries." After six years in the majors, he started actually thinking "home run" more. And we all know how that ended. He probably could have hit 800 homers if he had tried sooner, but his all-around hitting helped the Braves win two pennants and a World Series. He's still disappointed that they didn't win four pennants and at least two World Series in the fifties. He says:
"Over the years, it was often said that playing in Milwaukee hurt my career – that I could have been a much bigger star and made more money on the Coasts. That may be so, but I think I would have been a lost child in New York. On the other hand, Milwaukee was perfect for me. Baseball has never seen fans like Milwaukee's in the 1950s and never will again. I was told that in the first game there in 1953, Warren Spahn was pitching to the second batter of the first inning, and all of a sudden people started standing and applauding all over the ballpark . . They were the happiest fans in America, and they stayed that way all through the fifties . . We'd go into a store to buy a suit, and they wouldn't let us pay for it .. Pafko got a Cadillac. Spahn got a tractor. Bruton got a down payment on a new house [he hit the home run that won that first game].
"Milwaukee was the smallest city in the major leagues, but it had plenty of help from the smaller towns around it. The Braves belonged to all of Wisconsin, as well as parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, and North and South Dakota [and even Illinois]. . On weekends, the train would pull up full of fans from Minnesota and drop them off in the rail yard right outside the ballpark . . On Sundays there might be 200 school buses parked outside the stadium. I used to take the street car to the park and walk right along with the fans as they came streaming down the hills and over the bridges from Story Parkway."
The smallest city in baseball broke its attendance record (two million). NOW THOSE WERE SOME DAYS WORTH LOOKING BACK ON.
P.S. Hillary Clinton once asked "What was so good about the fifties?" The answer is we were making progress on "civility"! Since 2016 minorities have been making more progress too, but the previous Administration always took sides against the police, even repeating charges that were contradicted by witnesses, such as in Ferguson, Missouri. And "civility" in politics in Washington has back-slidden (or "slud) as Dizzy Dean would put it).
And the news media have rabbit ears - as ballplayers would put it. And the President loves tweaking them with "Fake news!" And they deserve it, unlike the black players in the 1940s and 50s!
PPS:I I was surprised at the hate mail Hank got when he approached number 715. I couldn't imagine the player I cheered as a 12-year-old getting death threats for hitting one home run. I suppose we shouldn't have been surprised, but that's for another day.© Curtis Dahlgren
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