71 years ago in April of 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, becoming the first African-American to play baseball in the major leagues. Five years later, an 18-year old kid from mobile, Alabama made his professional debut at Carson Park in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
As we continue to celebrate black history month, a look back at how it all started for the legendary Henry Aaron.
June 14th, 1952, Hank Aaron made his professional baseball career debut at Eau Claire’s Carson Park. An 18-year old kid, 2,000 miles away from home for the first time.
“The biggest challenge for him was personally. He had never been in an integrated environment before. He grew up in the segregated south. When he left home in February of 1952 to play for the Indianapolis Clowns, he was only playing in front of black baseball fans in the negro leagues. So when he got to Eau Claire, it was his very first experience in a white city.”
Author of the book, “A Summer Up North,” Jerry Poling says Hank Aaron was lucky in many respects to start his baseball career in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a city that loved baseball, a part of America that treated African-Americans fairly.
“If that part of it hadn’t gone well, he could have very easily gone home. And there were a lot of baseball players at that time, young black players that were breaking color barriers in small cities around the United States. A lot of those guys did go home and they never played baseball again professionally. That was their shot and if they weren’t treated well, then that was it. But Hank Aaron stuck it out, and to the credit of the people in Eau Claire he had a good experience here. And really helped make Hank Aaron, gave him a lot of confidence to go on and play in other cities around the United States after that.”
Aaron played the majority of his career with Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves before retiring in 1976 as a Milwaukee Brewer. His stats speak for itself: 3,771 hits, a career batting average of .305, and in the eyes of many baseball fans, baseball’s true all-time home run king with 755.
“He’s a quiet, very dignified type person and he isn’t flashy. He would just go out and do things his way and let his numbers speak for themselves, so I think he was same person in 1974 when he broke the [Babe Ruth’s home run] record as he was in 1952 in Eau Claire. A quiet person who went out and did all his work with his bat.”
Aaron returned to Eau Claire in 1994 when the city unveiled a statue of that 18-year old kid from Alabama outside of Carson Park.
“And here he stood 42 years later as a hall of fame baseball player. Standing on the field where it all began and he thought about it and he actually had tears coming down his cheeks that day in Carson Park baseball stadium in 1994, the statue celebration. So that told me that he realized how far his life had come and how fortunate he was to have had the support of the fans like the people in Eau Claire in his career.”
Hank Aaron, who turned 84 years old earlier this month, spoke fondly of the people of Eau Claire on that august day in 1994.
“Had it not been for my first year, an 18-year old kid coming to Eau Claire and having the people to accept me as a human being and not just a baseball player, I think my career would have stumbled a little bit. I don’t know of any player that ever played the game, I don’t know of anyone personally that ever played in a city and had gone back to the city that he played in and had this kind of welcome that I’ve had since I came back to Eau Claire.”
For baseball fans in Eau Claire, they take pride knowing that one of baseball’s greatest legends got his start in their backyard, a piece of hidden history that will always be treasured.
“I think Eau Claire has always been a great baseball city. And that’s the pinnacle of Eau Claire’s baseball history, the fact that we put Hank Aaron on the road to the baseball hall of fame.”