Saturday, April 13, 2013

April 13- Milwaukee Braves

On March 24, 2012 MLB Fan Cave executive Matt Slamon asked me which Major League Baseball player I had always wanted to meet. We were about an hour away from doing our Fan Cave fantasy baseball draft, so my head was really more focused on that as opposed to his question. I was in the process of trying to find an outlet to plug my computer in when I told him that Gary Carter was the one guy I had always wished to have a conversation with. Carter had passed away the month before and the way I heard Slamon’s question I had thought he meant living or dead. He then took a moment, apologized and asked the question one more time.

“Which living player have you always wanted to meet?”
“Oh! My bad,” I said. I thought about it for a few seconds, looked around the room and then said, “Hank Aaron.” Just a name, no explanation. He said ok and walked off to ask somebody else the same question.

To be honest, I was at first offended by his lack of clarification the first time he asked. Everyone in that building knew how much Carter meant to me, and it felt a bit weird for the next hour or so, at least in my mind. When he asked the question the second time I was staring at Atlanta Braves fans and fellow Cave Dwellers Shaun Kippins and Ricky Mast when Hank Aaron’s name came out of my mouth. To be honest, Aaron is someone I’ve always wanted to have a discussion with, but not necessarily about baseball. Every connection I made for the 3 months I was in New York City with anyone who played the game of baseball had nothing to do with the sport. Yes, I love baseball; however, baseball is/was their job. Talking about someone’s career is pretty boring, unless of course my job was to talk about their job; which in my head it wasn’t. With Aaron, the man has been alive for 79 years, and only played baseball professionally for 25 of them. With what that man has been through in his life there are definitely way more important things to talk about than how he made a living. When I looked at Ricky and Shaun’s faces upon answering that question, I mostly did it for them. I had a feeling that the two of them both said Aaron’s name and I wanted to help make that possible for them. 

Aaron, to me at least, would have been the equivalent of meeting The Beatles. With all of my years of training as a journalist, that moment of “Oh my God I’m talking to Hank Aaron!” definitely would have set in within a matter of seconds. So at the time it probably would have been a really good idea to not be around him to save the risk of making him feel uncomfortable. Because let’s be honest, even with all the knowledge of the game and history I possess, I’m still kind of an odd-looking bird.

I’ve been a great admirer of Aaron’s life and times in baseball since I was a little kid. I spent hours at the library on the weekends reading almanacs and history books about guys like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and of course, Aaron. Having been born and raised on the east side of the Bay Area I didn’t really have a lot of white friends until the age of six when my dad relocated us to Bakersfield, California for work. From the ages of two to five I attended pre-school with a lot of Asian, black and a few white kids in Stockton. Being around such a mix of cultures at such a young age you tend not to notice differences in other people. It wasn’t until I was around nine or 10-years-old that I finally experienced racism first hand.

Having read all the books on the greats of the Negro Leagues, I only saw on paper how terrible life could be at times for the players trekking across the country, not being allowed to eat, wash or sleep in the same establishments of the people who came to watch them play. As I got older, and learned more about the subject of racism I then started to notice things in my daily environment. For those of you who don’t know, Bakersfield has had its fair share of history with prejudice on multiple occasions. This was actually a topic that came up in a conversation with current Boston Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes and me in September of 2012. In 2002 Gomes played with the Bakersfield Blaze and he recalled overhearing a conversation between one of the executives of the Blaze and all of the non-white members of the team.

“You see that bridge that’s down the road just passed the Jack in the Box?” said Gomes. “Don’t ever go passed it, especially at night.”

The bridge in question he was referring to was one I knew all too well. Sam Lynn Ball Park, the home of the Blaze, resided just off of Chester Avenue, which is one of the two most crime-ridden streets in the city. Most important, on the opposite side of that bridge is the town of Oildale, one of the more impoverished towns attached to Bakersfield. Literally at the edge of Oildale, on the cusp of the bridge lies a bar which is also a front for one of the large white supremacy group chapters in California. Much in the same way Gomes and company learned about it, I found out about it right before my teenage years. This was also the around the first time I saw one of my friends, Reggie Mackey, get called a nigger and get spit on by some older kids who lived in out neighborhood. This was also the first time I had ever gotten my ass kicked for standing up for my friend Reggie. Black eyes will stop swelling, cuts will close and blood will continue to course through your veins over time, but the heartbreak and anger caused by ignorance will never go away.

These posts I write every single day are more than just about the hat I wear. Every one of them has great stories behind them. This Milwaukee Braves hat was used for every game after their move from Boston in 1953 until their relocation to Atlanta at the end of the 1965 season. It carries an entire legacy behind it, which is the starting point, and the meaning behind my marking for it.

4/13/54- Almost 60 years ago today Hammering Hank Aaron took his first steps out of the dugout and onto a Major League ball field in his debut with the Milwaukee Braves at County Stadium. His journey to the Show actually started On February 5, 1934 (he and I share the same birthday) in Mobile, Alabama to Herbert and Estella (Pritchett) Aaron.  Aaron had seven siblings. Tommie Aaron, one of his brothers, also went on to play Major League Baseball. While he was born in a section of Mobile referred to as "Down the Bay," he spent most of his youth in Toulminville. His family couldn't afford baseball equipment, so he practiced by hitting bottle caps with sticks. He would create his own bats and balls out of materials he found on the streets. Aaron attended Central High School as a freshman and a sophomore, where he played outfield and third base on the baseball team and helped lead his team to the Mobile Negro High School Championship both years. During this time, he also excelled in football. His success on the football field led to several football scholarship offers, which he turned down to pursue a career in professional baseball. Although he batted cross-handed (i.e., as a right-handed hitter, with his left hand above his right), Aaron had already established himself as a power hitter. As a result, in 1949, at the age of fifteen, Aaron had his first tryout with a MLB franchise, with the Brooklyn Dodgers; however, he did not make the team. After this, Aaron returned to school to finish his secondary education, attending the Josephine Allen Institute, a private high school in Alabama. During his junior year, Aaron joined the Mobile Black Bears, an independent Negro league team. While on the Bears, Aaron earned $10 per game ($88 today). Aaron's minor league career began on November 20, 1951, when baseball scout Ed Scott signed Aaron to a contract on behalf of the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League.

During my time on the road last season I happened to visit Kansas City for three days. I was still quite bitter after missing out on the All-Star game that had taken place two months prior, so I had a lot of sights to check out besides catching a Kansas City Royals game. The most important thing, go to the Negro League Baseball Museum. There were a lot of players I knew about from books, films and Ken Burns Baseball, but I hardly knew a lot about their pasts and journeys into professional baseball. The museum helped shed light on a lot of this, especially Aaron’s time with the Clowns. There was a transcript I came across which made me shudder, as with a lot of other real pieces from that time in American history which I’ll never full understand. Aaron was 18-years-old at the time when spoke of an experience during his days with the Clowns.

The day after Baltimore, we were rained out of a big Sunday doubleheader at Griffith Stadium in Washington. We had breakfast while we were waiting for the rain to stop, and I can still envision sitting with the Clowns in a restaurant behind Griffith Stadium and hearing them break all the plates in the kitchen after we were finished eating. What a horrible sound. Even as a kid, the irony of it hit me: Here we were in the capital in the land of freedom and equality, and they had to destroy the plates that had touched the forks that had been in the mouths of black men. If dogs had eaten off those plates, they'd have washed them. - Chris Mays The 8 Things

Such cases of bigotry continued on throughout his life and career.

Aaron helped the team win the 1952 Negro League World Series, and he quickly received two contract offers from the New York Giants and Braves based on his outstanding abilities: a .366 batting average in 26 official Negro league games, with 5 home runs, 33 (RBI), 41 hits, and 9 stolen bases were the only stats recorded.

"I had the Giants' contract in my hand. But the Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That's the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – fifty dollars," said Aaron.

Aaron elected to play for the Braves, who purchased him from the Clowns for $10,000. On June 14, 1952, Aaron signed with Braves' scout Dewey Griggs. During this time, he picked up the nickname pork chops because it "was the only thing I knew to order off the menu." A teammate later said, "the man ate pork chops three meals a day, two for breakfast." Aaron’s first stop through the minor leagues came in the same town in which my girlfriend Angie Kinderman was born and raised in, Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The team was the Eau Claire Bears, a former C-level team of the Northern League that operated from 1933-1942 and again from 1946-1962. In 87 games Aaron batted .336 with four triples, nine home runs and 116 hits. According to there is no indication of his runs batted in. Aaron only lasted one season in Eau Claire, moving on to the Jacksonville Braves of the South Atlantic League. Angie bought this shirt for me when she went back home to visit her family over this last Christmas.

Aaron's performance with the Braves won the league championship that year. Aaron led the league in runs (115), hits (208), doubles (36), RBI (125), total bases (338), and batting average (.362) and won the league's MVP award in such a dominant fashion that one sportswriter was prompted to say, "Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations." Aaron's time with the Braves did not come without problems. He was one of the first five non-white players to play in the league. The 1950s were a period of racial segregation in parts of the United States, especially the southeastern portion of the country. When Aaron traveled around Jacksonville, Florida and the surrounding areas, he was often separated from his team because of Jim Crow laws. In most circumstances, the team was responsible for arranging housing and meals for its players, but Aaron often had to make his own arrangements. The Braves' manager, Ben Geraghty, tried his best to help Aaron on and off the field. Former Braves minor league player and sportswriter Pat Jordan said, "Aaron gave [Geraghty] much of the credit for his own swift rise to stardom." On the plus side, his time with the Braves also allowed him to meet his future wide Barbara Lucas. The night they met, Lucas decided to attend the Braves' game. Aaron singled, doubled, and hit a home run in the game. On October 6, Aaron and Lucas married.

Before being promoted to the majors, Aaron spent the winter of 1953 playing in Puerto Rico. Mickey Owen, the team's manager, helped Aaron with his batting stance. After working with Owen, Aaron was better able to hit the ball effectively all over the field, whereas previously, Aaron was only able to hit for power when he hit the ball to left or center field. During his stay in Puerto Rico the Braves requested that Aaron start playing in the outfield. This was the first time Aaron had played any position other than shortstop or second base with the Braves. - Early Years 2007

Aaron reported to Spring Training in 1954. On March 14 he made his first start in the field for the Braves after starting left fielder Bobby Thomson, of “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” fame, and fractured his ankle sliding into second base during a game which took place the previous day. Aaron played well and hit a home run in that game, which led to Aaron receiving a Major League contract and a jersey with the #5 waiting in his locker. On April 13, 1954 Aaron batted in the five-hole for the Braves as he made his MLB debut on the road at Crosley Fields against the Cincinnati Reds. Joe Nuxhall took the mound for the Reds, getting Aaron to ground out or fly out in all of his at-bats. Aaron went 0-5 that day without tallying a single strikeout. Teammate, and future Hall of Famer, Eddie Matthews crushed two home runs that day.

It wouldn’t be until the following season that Aaron would change his jersey to #44, but that part of his history is what people know most. I’ve done, and will continue to do what I can to shed the light on the small, yet important pieces of history that most people let slip away. Aaron truly had a tough road to travel in the 20 years it took him to get to the Majors. Even after achieving his dream the difficulties of life as a black man in the South never ceased.

I bought this hat the day before we did our fantasy baseball draft, a day before I was asked about who I wanted to meet. This particular hat had been on my radar since I first saw it on the Lids Web site near the tail end of the 2011 MLB season; a few months before the Fan Cave was even in a possibility. Its colors, and even the just the look and shape of the “M” on the front are iconic pieces of MLB/American history. Just taking one glance at it and Aaron’s name and face will come to mind for the average baseball fan. This hat was vital to my collection. I bought it, as well as 20 other hats within the same order, well before I had any intention of ever cataloging and telling stories about each one.

If given the chance to sit with him, even for a few moments as what may have been intended from at the start of this article, I would ask him about how he overcame such obstacles of prejudice; how he gained the strength to go out onto the field and play a game that, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t as vital to human existence as it is to have the freedom to walk down the street and not be attacked because of the color of your skin. Last, I would ask him what this hat means to him. I’ve always been curious what goes through the mind of a player when they suit up for each game, and what values they hold dear anytime they wear the symbols of the franchise they’re affiliated with. Perhaps this could be my mission in 2014.

1 comment:

  1. I've read some of your posts, and this was by far the most meaningful.