8 Times Hank Aaron Faced Racism: #1, The Negro Leagues

For many Braves fans, their favorite Braves ballplayer is either Dale Murphy or Chipper Jones or John Smoltz -- someone who is somewhat contemporary. But for a long time the star in Atlanta was Hank Aaron, and even today most of us hold a special place in our baseball hearts for the Hammer.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be reprinting some great posts made by Chris Mays on his political blog, The 8 Things, highlighting times when Hank Aaron faced racism. This may take many of us back to a different time in baseball and in America. This may also evoke some strong emotions and opinions while reading.

I post these stories with no political intention or agenda, I simply feel this is a good series that presents a different side of baseball and what players of that era, on both sides of the divide, went through. Please remember the rules of Talking Chop, and refrain from political commentary in the comments here. However, this is a post about racism, so I think that is an appropriate topic for courteous discussion.

My thanks to Chris for allowing me to re-print his work. I hope you enjoy the series as much as I have.

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With African-American ballplayers excluded from Major League Baseball, a series of Negro Leagues were formed so that African-American baseball players were able to play the game they loved professionally. Starting in 1920, there were seven different Negro Major Leagues that would operate, but the two most successful were the second Negro National League (1933 - 1948) and the Negro American League (1937 - 1958). Some of the Negro League teams were among the most successful African-American owned businesses in the country (such as the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns).

The downfall for the Negro Leagues began when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for the National League in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Many of the minor leagues outside of the south would integrate and eventually, the major league teams would sign a number of African-American players to their minor league teams. Additionally, the best players, and the biggest draws in the Negro Leagues, would begin to populate the major league teams. With the best players now in the majors, many African-American baseball fans would turn their attention to the major leagues at the expense of the Negro Leagues. By 1960, all that would remain of the Negro Leagues would be the Indianapolis Clowns who would become a comedy barnstorming team in the mold of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Hank Aaron would begin playing semi-professional baseball for the Mobile Black Bears in 1951. From day one, Hank could hit a baseball as good as anyone. His coach worked as a scout for the Clowns in the Negro American League and would sign Aaron to a contract. When Aaron boarded a train for the Clowns 1952 Spring training camp in North Carolina, it would be the first time he left the "black" world of Mobile, Alabama. He would learn a lot about his country.

As a ballplayer, Aaron would get a chance to prove himself right away thanks to an injury to one of the team's infielders. He would quickly establish himself as one of the top hitters in the Negro Leagues. One of the primary sources of income for Negro League teams (and ironically, one that would only hasten their demise) was by selling the contracts for their top talent to the major leagues. The Clowns had drummed up interest in Aaron from both the Boston Braves and the New York Giants, and the summer after Aaron joined the Clowns, his contract was sold to the Braves. During his off-season from the Braves, he would rejoin the Clowns and lead them to a championship in the 1952 Negro World Series.

Prior to singing with the Braves, Aaron would tour America with the Clowns and would experience first-hand that effects of Jim Crow and racism. The team would almost never eat at a restaurant because it was difficult to find one that would serve them. Instead, they would buy groceries when they had the chance and eat on the bus. Needless to say, they would often have to sleep on the bus as there weren't many hotels that would allow them to stay. They would go weeks unable to do their laundry. It was an experience that wasn't unlike that of any other group of African-Americans in the age of Jim Crow.

The most moving story concerned a rare experience of the team getting to eat at a restaurant. In Aaron's words ...

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.

My primary source for the information in this series is Hank Aaron's 1991 autobiography, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, co-written with Lonnie Wheeler.

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I hope you enjoyed the first installment. The next post in the series will be up over the weekend. Again, my thanks to Chris Mays for allowing me to reprint his work here. Chris also maintains a Braves baseball card blog called Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

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