It’s baseball season, and today, commentator Dean Robbins shares a story about a legendary player and a small Wisconsin city.
You might know that one of baseball’s greatest players spent most of his career with the Milwaukee Braves. Hank Aaron set lifetime records for home runs and runs batted in, among other mind boggling feats. He and Babe Ruth are the only two players who have their own rooms in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
You might not know that Hank started his career in another Wisconsin city: Eau Claire. After signing him in 1952, the Braves sent the 18 year-old to the Eau Claire Bears, their Class C farm team. As a kid who’d grown up in Mobile, Alabama, Hank was unprepared for this northern town and Eau Claire was just as unprepared for Hank.
But a funny thing happened in the summer of 1952, Eau Claire and Hank Aaron got along. White families opened their doors to Hank. He got multiple invitations to dinner. One family basically adopted him. Like a lot of folks in town, they were big supporters of the Bears and they felt real affection for the shy kid who began tearing up the Northern League on his way to a Rookie of the Year award. The family had a teenage daughter and she and Hank developed a special friendship. The two of them used to sit on the porch holding hands. And the amazing thing is that nobody made a big deal about it. Of course, they didn’t flaunt their relationship in public. The city probably wasn’t ready to go that far.
Still, as Hank said later, “I was treated as fair as could be in Eau Claire.” Compare this to the treatment he got on his next minor league team in the Deep South, where he experienced the worst of 1950s style racism. Instead of invitations to dinner, he got slurs and death threats. As a Black player, he wasn’t allowed to share a dressing room with his white teammates, so he had to suit up for games at a segregated hotel. And yet he rose above it all with quiet dignity, just as he did throughout his major league career.
To this day, Hank Aaron and Eau Claire get along splendidly. He’s been back to visit several times, most notably in 1994, when the city dedicated a statue of him. Hammerin’ Hank was blown away by the reception he got from thousands of adoring fans. As he put it, “A lot of things happened to me in my 23 years as a ballplayer, but nothing touched me more than that day in Eau Claire.” Eau Claire natives are clearly proud of the big star who began his career in their small city. They should also be proud of themselves for treating the star-to-be with respect.
Editor’s Note: Baseball legend Hank Aaron passed away on January 22, 2021. As reported by WPR, Aaron talked about his time in Wisconsin during a Marquette University commencement speech in 2012.
“A little town called Eau Claire and the city of Milwaukee helped to shape my dreams and helped to mold me into the man I am today,” Aaron said. “I can never forget that here I found acceptance, encouragement, self-confidence and lifelong friends.”
WPR producer Brad Kolberg said his dad loved to share memories of Aaron, remembering how he won the World Series with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 when Kolberg’s dad was was 7 years old.
“Later, my dad ‘almost’ caught a foul ball off Aaron’s bat at a game. He says Hammerin Hank’s numerous home runs were sometimes line drive missiles that seemed to still be gaining altitude as they reached the bleachers,” said Kolberg.
Aaron went on to break Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974 after the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta.