I was born and raised in Milwaukee. When I was almost 7 – in June of 1953— I went with mom, grandma and grandpa to my first professional baseball game. I think the Braves were playing the Phillies. Walking through the parking lot at Milwaukee County Stadium, on our way to the gate for our seats, grandpa asked me, “Who’s your favorite player?” My knee-jerk response: “Billy Bruton,” the speedster centerfielder. Grandpa turned to his daughter –my mom—and said, “twenty-five guys on the team and his hero has to be a N____r.” I asked mom, “what’s a N____r?” She said she’d tell me later. She never did.
I saw a couple of games the next year and still liked Bruton best. By then I was aware of “race,” probably because there were some black kids in my school and we played ball together during recess. I think the Braves had four black players in 1954: Bill Bruton, Wes Covington, Felix Mantilla and rookie Henry Aaron who joined the team after Bobby Thompson broke an ankle sliding. Aaron replaced Thompson in left field despite having been a shortstop with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League and a utility infielder in the Major League Baseball minors.
I’m no expert on the details of Henry Aaron’s baseball career, but I remember following him when I was in grade school. I played shortstop for the Pike, a Lane School recess-league team. We won the school championship in 1955 when I was in fourth grade. I collected baseball cards passionately then and had all the Topps Braves cards in 1956. Then in 1957 Henry Aaron was MVP in the National League and the Braves beat the Yankees to win the World Series. Life gets no better for an 11 year old Braves fan. I didn’t know Warren Spahn and Joe Adcock were using the N word in the Braves clubhouse when Henry was present.
I was in college in Minnesota when the Braves franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966. Henry Aaron wanted to stay in Milwaukee. He was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, and while in the minors he did a stint in the Southern Atlantic League where he was subject to the worst treatment of his life –constant racist taunts, being spit upon and having things thrown at him while on the ball field, and racial harassment off the field. The best ballplayer in the league couldn’t have a meal or stay in a hotel with his teammates. No wonder he didn’t want to move to Atlanta. He had lived with Jim Crow and preferred living in the north. As it turned out, Aaron moved with the team and was part of changing Atlanta during “the city too busy to hate” campaign. He not only helped make Atlanta a big league city with his bat, but he also worked in the Civil Rights movement –with Dr. King and others—to help undo legal racial segregation across the Deep South.
The closer Henry Aaron got to Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record the greater the number of hate letters and death threats he received. His hate mail peaked around 3000 letters per day by the end of the ’73 season; the death threats were highest during the off-season when Aaron was one home run behind the record 714. Obviously, many Babe Ruth fans did not want their hero surpassed by a black man.
About a dozen years ago, paring down my dad’s things as I helped move him to assisted living, I ran across a letter to dad from Henry Aaron. He was thanking dad and said that support from fans like him kept him going. Dad never mentioned writing Aaron or getting a letter back, but he saved Aaron’s letter for over forty years. Dad and I talked about it after my discovery. By then near ninety, he enjoyed the reminder. I framed Aaron’s letter to dad and gave it to my son Ton a few years ago.
p.s. My baseball cards? My folks found them in the mid ‘70s while cleaning out the house, preparing to move. They didn’t toss them out (whew!) but gave them back to me. I have since passed them on to son Ton who, by the way, was eleven when the Twins won the ’87 World Series. Ton’s favorite player was Kirby Puckett, another black outfielder…with a bat.