Travel, History & Culture in America's Dairyland
|HOME||A Summer Up North|
Author: Jerry Poling
On Saturday, June 14, 1952, Aaron's once-small world began to expand. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Aaron signed a four-page document that made him the property of the Boston Braves, one of the most storied teams in baseball history (they began playing in the National League in 1876), and the Class C Eau Claire Bears. The agreement gave Aaron $350 a month during the season -- $200 a month from the Bears and $150 a month from Evansville, Indiana, of the Class B Three-I League.
For an 18-year-old who was almost penniless, the money must have looked like a windfall -- even if it only was for three months. The wage was better than most players were making in the Northern League, where the team salary cap for the season was $3,400. With a roster limit of 17, that meant the average salary was $200 a month, which probably is why Aaron received his other $150 a month from Evansville. Aaron's salary also was better than most people were making in Wisconsin. The average manufacturing wage in Eau Claire in 1952 was $325 a month, the best in the state.
Aaron's contract later was signed by the president of the NAPBL and by Herman D. White, the Northern League president who lived in Eau Claire and was one of the founders of minor league ball in the city. Four days later, the contract was stamped as "approved" at 9:22 a.m. on June 18, 1952. Henry Louis Aaron of Mobile, Alabama, officially was a pro baseball player. Yet he knew he would be in the pros only as long as he was producing, especially if he read his contract carefully. Paragraph 5b said: "This contract may be terminated at any time by the Club or by any assignee by giving official release notice to the player."
Aaron, who was discovered that spring by Braves scouts while playing for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, officially replaced veteran outfielder Earl Bass on the Bears roster. Bass was a fan favorite, mostly because he hit a home run in the last game of the 1949 season to give the Bears the pennant. Bass still was bothered by a fractured ankle that he had suffered one or two seasons before. It wasn't the only time another player's broken ankle would figure in Aaron's advancement; in 1954, Bobby Thomson's broken ankle in spring training would open a spot for the rookie Aaron on the Milwaukee Braves' roster.
The struggling Bears also made other roster moves, including sending infielders Jim "Lucky" Fairchild and John Dobeck and pitcher Gene Derwinski down to Class D at Appleton, Wisconsin, in the Wisconsin State League. Fairchild's departure left the shortstop position open for Aaron. The first month of the season had been a tough one on Fairchild, 23, a rookie from Long Island, New York. In his first game with the Bears, he made two errors. "It was awful. Too nervous, I guess," he surmised. He committed 15 errors in his first 14 games, which was a Northern League record. Fairchild attended a prep school as a teen-ager then went to the upper-class Princeton University, helping the team win an Ivy League championship. All his education wasn't an advantage in Eau Claire; he was replaced by an inexperienced, immature shortstop who had dropped out of high school that spring to play pro baseball. Fairchild, like many people, had to wonder, "Who is Henry Aaron?"
That night, Aaron suited up for the first time when the Bears took on the first-place Rox, a farm team for the New York Giants, the team Aaron didn't sign with, the team that someday would realize it could have had Willie Mays and Henry Aaron in the same outfield. At game time, the temperature was 86 degrees and humid -- Alabama weather. Aaron donned his No. 6 Bears uniform for the first time, the word Bears in red script across the front of the white wool, button-up jersey. The baggy pants fell down to about mid-calf, where they were met with stirrup socks. Like all the players, he brought his own shoes and glove, the only parts of the uniform the club didn't provide. His still-developing post-adolescent frame looked lean, almost underfed as if he had been away from his mother's cooking for several months, which he had. The Bears wore navy blue caps with red bills. The insignia was an oversized C encircling an E.
Players dressed in a spartan locker room at Carson Park stadium in Eau Claire. They changed clothes on wood slats over a dirt floor, which sometimes turned muddy after a rain. The Bears learned to get to the park early to claim one of the few nails on which to hang their gloves and clothes on the sloped ceiling, which was directly under the grandstand. After the game, they took turns showering in a musty two-nozzle stall. Yet they weren't complaining; until that season, visiting players didn't have any dressing room or a shower. Plus, the Bears were a privileged few taking part in pro baseball, the only sport that really mattered in the 1950s, except maybe boxing. Pro football, basketball, golf, tennis and other sports made headlines but weren't followed by the masses like baseball.
It was a 6 p.m. game, and 1,250 fans had paid $1 for a box seat or 70 cents for general admission ticket to walk through the thick sandstone walls, take one of the 3,000 seats and see the Bears' latest major league prospect. Kids in the Knot Hole gang had paid 35 cents for the entire season. A box seat season ticket was only $54 for 125 games, about the price of a good seat to one major league game today. It was a simple time, monetarily. With another $1 in their pockets, fans could buy plenty to keep them busy between pitches: a scorecard, a seat cushion, peanuts, popcorn, a hot dog, a soda and an ice cream -- and still have a dime left over to call Lightning Cab if they needed a ride home.
Fresh from the not-always-serious Clowns, Aaron walked onto Carson Park field for the first time and saw a half-filled stadium of curious white people staring at him from the covered wooden grandstand and metal auxiliary bleachers down the lines. "I was scared as hell," he said years later. Shy as he was, he probably kept his eyes off the crowd and on the field, a chain-link outfield fence and a "Home of the Eau Claire Bears" scoreboard. In center field was a flagpole that carried the Bears' 1951 Northern League pennant flag, which was hoisted two weeks earlier by Herman White, the league president and Eau Claire's City Council president. Beyond left field was a football stadium; beyond center and right fields were softball fields, tennis courts and Half Moon Lake.
Aaron had doubts, not necessarily about his ability but his situation. He had grown up with the impression that white people were superior in every way. How could he forget the sound and the feel of racism -- his dinner plate being smashed at a Washington, D.C., restaurant only weeks earlier with the Clowns because he, a black man, had eaten off it? How could he not recall that just months earlier white people in his hometown wouldn't dare be seen with him, not in school, church, on a bus, at a restaurant, at a drinking fountain and certainly not on a baseball field?
He had never faced a white pitcher in his life. Were they faster than black pitchers? Were their curve balls better? Did they know something he didn't? Would he be able to hit a white man? Were they really a superior race?
Just the prospect of facing that fear in a city far from home at age 18 all alone might have been enough to send many people to the Union bus depot. Mobile had to look pretty inviting to Aaron that night. Home sickness ruined many a promising baseball career. For example, in 1951 the Chicago White Sox gave a $15,000 bonus to third baseman Luis Garcia of Venezuela. Garcia played for the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Pheasants, in the Northern League. But Garcia became homesick, gave the money back and went home. Alas, Garcia was back with the Pheasants in 1952. Aaron faced loneliness as well as a great cultural divide when he walked on the field for the first time in Eau Claire. He was comforted only in knowing that Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Willie Mays and other blacks had passed the white test. Would he?
Aaron didn't come to bat in the first inning, although he started in the field at shortstop. Aaron batted seventh in player-manager Marion "Bill" Adair's lineup. Leading off was first baseman Dick Engquist followed by second baseman Pat Patterson, leftfielder Wes Covington, catcher Julie Bowers, rightfielder Lantz Blaney, centerfielder Chester Morgan, the ex-Clown Aaron, third baseman Ron Gendreau and pitcher Bobby Brown. Adair and Bill Conroy also saw action in the game as substitutes. Among the pitchers was Don Jordan, a hometown product and fan favorite who had a 16-6 record the previous pennant year. Pitchers Jordan, Brown and Gordon Roach along with Morgan were holdovers from the 1951 pennant team.
In the second inning, trailing 2-0, the Bears began a rally when Morgan doubled to the fence in right-center field. Aaron came to bat against white pitcher Art Rosser of St. Cloud and calmly cracked a clean, line-drive single over third baseman Wray Upper to drive in Morgan, who had just come off the disabled list after 20 days with a blood clot in his leg. Aaron -- either trying to make an impression or trying to emulate Jackie Robinson -- tried to stretch the hit into a double but was thrown out.
In the fifth inning it was the same combination. Morgan doubled and Aaron singled in his second at-bat -- again a line drive to left -- to drive in Morgan.
All the waiting was over for Aaron. He had his answer. "Hank Aaron, 18-year-old Negro shortstop, made an auspicious beginning by banging out singles in his first two trips," sports editor Clell Buzzell wrote in the Eau Claire Leader the next day. Buzzell, like most media at the time, often on first reference mentioned the race or nationality of players if they weren't white or American.
If Aaron's two line-drive hits were harbingers of his major-league career, so was his play at shortstop. Aaron had a solid night fielding until he muffed a double-play ball in the sixth inning that let the winning run score in a 4-3 loss. By the time he reached the majors in 1954, Aaron was an outfielder. Yet no one was blaming that night's loss on Aaron. Several other players made rookie-type errors, and Wes Covington went 0-for-5, striking out three times, once with the bases loaded and once in the bottom of the ninth with the tying run on second base as he looked at a called third strike.
Aaron's bat had to be a welcome sight to Bears fans, whose teams had won two of the last three Northern League pennants. In 1951, the Bears won the pennant by 12 games under Adair. He was back as manager, but his 1952 Bears were 17-20 and already 13 games out of first place.
Only two days before Aaron arrived, Buzzell wrote an editorial about the team's sagging attendance the first month. The team was 6,000 fans behind the 1951 attendance and beginning to worry about paying the bills. "Unless there is a big climb in attendance that holds up all season, there may be no Eau Claire Bears in 1953," Buzzell wrote. Although the weather had been poor in May, team officials and Buzzell surmised that low attendance figures could be blamed in part on the team's poor start, people listening to the radio broadcasts of the games and others simply staying home to enjoy television, the latest form of entertainment.
Buzzell also mentioned a more volatile issue that may have been affecting attendance. "There have also been grumblings about the number of Negro players," he said. The Bears started the season with four black players, their most ever. They were Covington, Bowers, pitcher Walt James of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and outfielder Orlando Casellas of Puerto Rico. However, two weeks into the season Casellas was sent to Class D Danville, Illinois, in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. Another two weeks later, James followed. Buzzell most likely raised the blacks/attendance issue in his story because he had heard city residents -- and maybe some club officials -- complain. Even if he didn't give credence to the theory, he probably felt it was his responsibility to report what he had been hearing.
Were James and Casellas sent down because the Bears suddenly developed a black quota when early-season attendance was down? Many black athletes in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when pro baseball, football and basketball were being integrated, felt they were victims of teams that set limits on how many black players could be on the roster. Many teams had an even number of blacks -- often two -- so that the blacks could room together on the road. But the arrangement wasn't necessarily for the blacks; teams were heading off any potential complaints from white players who didn't want to sleep in the same room as blacks.
When Aaron arrived, he boosted the number of black Bears up to three, the way it stayed the rest of the season. All three of them stayed at the YMCA. However, the white players were offered rooms in private homes or in hotels. Only one white Bears player, pitcher Elmer Toth, stayed at the YMCA, but he doesn't remember associating with the three black players there. Thus, the white and black Bears players were segregated, but in 1952 with no black families in Eau Claire and with the YMCA available, separate housing probably was the path of least resistance. Aaron didn't mind the arrangement and didn't make an issue of it. "It was fine with me," he said.
The arrival of Aaron had to please Bears officials and the fans. Within a week of Aaron being inserted into the lineup, the Bears won five of seven games, were 22-22 and beginning to grain ground on St. Cloud and Superior. After five home games, Aaron was batting .354. The team had made other changes that would make them more competitive, but early on Aaron was living up to his billing as one of the hottest young hitting prospects in pro baseball.
Copyright 2002-2010, Michael Bie (Classic Wisconsin)
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