8 Times Hank Aaron Faced Racism: #4, Major League Rookie

This is the fourth installment of the terrific series by Chris Mays, highlighting several times that Hank Aaron faced racism. These were originally posted on his blog, The 8 Things, and are reprinted here with permission.


Upon his arrival at the Braves spring training camp in Bradenton, Florida in 1954, the press would tout Hank Aaron as a major prospect. Hank felt like anything but. He spent the Spring fighting the bigoted notion that he was lazy, a label often placed on African-American players. His manager had even nicknamed him "Stepanfetchit" in the papers. First baseman Joe Adcock labeled him "Slow Motion Henry". They even misspelled his name on his locker. Aaron didn't believe he had any chance of making the team, but when Bobby Thomson broke his ankle, Hank Aaron was made the team's starting left-fielder. It would be 23 years before he would leave the starting lineup.

After spring training, the Braves and Dodgers would barnstorm their way north playing exhibition games across the south. It was a particular thrill for Hank to play against Jackie Robinson in front of his Dad in Mobile. The African-American players from both teams would spend their evenings in Jackie's room. Robinson and the other veterans offered advice to the newer players about surviving in the game as African-American players. Hank Aaron said he learned from hanging out with the veteran Dodgers that ...

I could never be just another major-league player. I was a black player, and that meant I would be separate most of the time from most of the players on the team. It meant that I'd better be good, or I'd be gone. It meant that some players and some fans would hate me no matter what I did. 
Life in the majors was a step up for Aaron, but his race presented the usual difficulties. He wasn't allowed to eat in the hotel restaurants with most of his teammates. He had a hard time finding a restaurant that would serve him. Once, Aaron was riding around with a friend of Italian descent in Cincinnati, his friend's wife and her sister, when they were pulled over and the police made Aaron get out of the car and told him to get out of town. He hid in the woods and snuck back to his hotel.
As a player, Aaron was solid as a rookie and would improve as the season went on. There was no doubt that he was a major league hitter. His image, however, was that of a backwoods, country boy who wasn't very bright. Much of that image was the result of stories from manager Charlie Grimm, a natural entertainer. Unfortunately for Aaron, it is an image he has spent his entire life attempting to shake. It was hard because, as good as Aaron was, he was never a flashy player like Willie Mays. So he had to deal with the typically stereotyping applied to black players: he was slow and dim-witted and whatever talent he had was just a natural occurrence.
Aaron's rookie season would end in September when he broke his ankle. When he would return to the Braves in 1955, he would establish himself as one of the best players in the league. He'd be one of the best for 20 more years.

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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