How Henry Aaron made baseball a form of civil rights activism

Coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s and playing baseball in a world dominated by whites, while finding his voice as an outspoken critic on race and equality, Hank Aaron also served as a major civil rights leader.
Coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s and playing baseball in a world dominated by whites, while finding his voice as an outspoken critic on race and equality, Hank Aaron also served as a major civil rights leader.

He arrived in Atlanta at height of movement

In 1966, when the Braves relocated to Atlanta from Milwaukee Hank Aaron was the team’s biggest star, and he was reluctant to go back South.

Born and raised in deeply segregated Mobile, Alabama, Aaron had never played on a baseball field with white players until his professional debut in 1953. Milwaukee became a respite from Jim Crow, but, as Aaron’s biographer Howard Bryant wrote: “The family now risked having everything they’d earned in Milwaukee taken away by the denigrating ways of life in the South.”

“I have lived in the South, and I don’t want to live there again,” Aaron said at the time. “We can go anywhere in Milwaukee. I don’t know what would happen in Atlanta.”

Aaron found a sprawling home in the comfortably middle-class Black enclave of Southwest Atlanta and started building relationships with his neighbors and other Black figures in town — notably Andrew Young, Martin Luther King Sr., and Martin Luther King Jr.

On Friday, Young recalled their first meeting, where Aaron appeared somewhat embarrassed that he had not been more involved publicly in the civil rights movement.

“Martin was a big baseball fan. We told (Aaron) not to worry,” Young told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We told him just keep hitting that ball. That was his job.”

ExploreHank Aaron: Hero to many, especially Black people

Young said Aaron’s work on the baseball field and being the face of baseball in the Deep South was a form of civil rights activism, showing that achievements can be made if the playing field were equal.

He was a natural extension, said Young, of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, who directly confronted race with their bodies.

“He was like Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in ’38 and Jackie breaking the color line in ’47,” Young said. “You got to remember that Martin didn’t start until ’55. Baseball and Hank opened up a lot of doors in a lot of people’s minds.”

A Black star on a white field

Aaron, who died Friday at the age of 86 in the same Atlanta home he purchased when he moved here, was known for his exploits on the field as well as his business savvy and philanthropy after he retired.

But coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s and playing baseball in a world dominated by whites, while finding his voice as an outspoken critic on race and equality, Aaron also served as a major civil rights leader.

“Henry had never considered himself as important a historical figure as Jackie Robinson,” Bryant wrote in his 2010 biography of Aaron, “The Last Hero.” “And yet by twice integrating the South — first in the Sally [South Atlantic] League and later as the first Black star on the first major league team in the South (during the apex of the civil rights movement, no less) — his road in many ways was no less lonely, and in other ways far more difficult.”

Aaron started his professional baseball career in the Negro American League in 1952 as an 18-year-old star of the Indianapolis Clowns. In 14 games, the 180-pound shortstop would hit .483, with 28 hits, six doubles, five home runs and 24 RBIs.

A difficult road

Hank Aaron began his career in 1952 with a Negro League team -- the Indianapolis Clowns. He played for the Clowns for only three months before receiving offers from Major League teams. (Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)
Hank Aaron began his career in 1952 with a Negro League team -- the Indianapolis Clowns. He played for the Clowns for only three months before receiving offers from Major League teams. (Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)

Credit: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Credit: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

The Boston Braves quickly signed him. Until that point, Aaron had never shared the field with a white ballplayer. The team assigned him to play for an integrated farm team in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

But for the 1953 season, the Braves promoted him to the Jacksonville, Florida, club in the South Atlantic League. Although Robinson had just completed his 6th year in the majors for the Dodgers after breaking the color barrier, the Sally League, with teams in the Deep South, had not yet integrated.

Until Aaron arrived.

Throughout towns such as Columbus and Macon, he received a constant stream of taunts.

In Bryant’s biography, even when he played well enough to soften up Jacksonville’s home crowd, the compliments were still backhanded.

Felix Mantilla, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican who had been sent to Jacksonville to room with Aaron, recalled a moment after the two of them helped the team win a key ballgame.

As they were leaving the ballpark, a winded fan ran up to them smiling.

“I just wanted to say,” the man said. “That you (racial epithet) played a hell of a game.”

‘I’ll be there with you’

Hank and Billye Suber Aaron’s $3 million gift to Morehouse School of Medicine will be used to expand the Hugh Gloster Medical Education building and create the Billye Suber Aaron Student Pavilion. The gift was presented during the school’s 40th anniversary and 31st fall convocation, white coat and pinning ceremony. The participating students are MSM s largest first-year class of 159 M.D., M.P.H. and graduate students. PHOTO COURTESY MOREHOUSE SCHOOL OF MEDICINE
Hank and Billye Suber Aaron’s $3 million gift to Morehouse School of Medicine will be used to expand the Hugh Gloster Medical Education building and create the Billye Suber Aaron Student Pavilion. The gift was presented during the school’s 40th anniversary and 31st fall convocation, white coat and pinning ceremony. The participating students are MSM s largest first-year class of 159 M.D., M.P.H. and graduate students. PHOTO COURTESY MOREHOUSE SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

Credit: Morehouse School of Medicine

Credit: Morehouse School of Medicine

After his promotion to the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, just a year before the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Aaron began to take notice of the civil rights movement and Democratic causes. In 1960, while his boyhood idol Robinson supported Richard Nixon, Aaron traveled throughout Wisconsin campaigning for John F. Kennedy.

But Howard wrote that even when he expressed his opinions on racial matters, Aaron was always wary of being labeled a troublemaker.

“His political strategy would always begin behind closed doors,” Howard wrote.

ExploreBraves mourn Aaron: ‘We lost a legend ... an unbelievably great person’

Long-time Atlanta friend Xernona Clayton said while Aaron may not have been as visible as others, “He was someone we knew we could count for contributions or if we needed him to make a statement or an appearance somewhere where it was important to show solidarity.”

After he retired Aaron devoted his attention to business and charity, setting up programs and scholarships for Black students. In 1999, he became the first Black majority owner of a BMW franchise, and he lobbied for efforts encouraging more young Black athletes to play baseball.

In 2016 Aaron and his wife Billye Suber Aaron donated $3 million to the Morehouse School of Medicine as part of an expansion of academic facilities at the Atlanta institution.“He let people know ‘I’m there with you,’” Clayton said. “He understood the pain of segregation and discrimination. He never forgot who he was and what the needs were of Black people trying to get equality and justice.”

In 1999, Aaron, then a senior vice president with the Braves, said he was “very sick and disgusted,” at the revelation that Braves reliever John Rocker had made homophobic and racists comments in a Sports Illustrated profile.

“I have no place in my heart for people who feel that way,” Aaron said.

Rocker personally apologized to Aaron, who had seen his share of those attitudes even late into his career.

A bitter anniversary

FILE PHOTO:730904. Hank Aaron's 715th homerun on April 8, 1974.
FILE PHOTO:730904. Hank Aaron's 715th homerun on April 8, 1974.

On April 4, 1974, the opening day of what would be his most memorable season, Aaron was uneasy.

He had 713 home runs, just two shy of breaking Babe Ruth’s hallowed record of 714.

The Braves were opening in Cincinnati and the Reds asked him if there were anything the franchise could do for him,

“Yes,” Aaron told them

Just six years earlier to that day, Martin Luther King Jr., his friend, had been assassinated.

Aaron asked that the assassination of King be publicly acknowledged with a pregame moment of silence. In the days and months leading up to that day, Aaron had been constantly harassed by so-called fans of the Babe, who didn’t want a Black man breaking the record. Letters would come in by the sack full promising Aaron the same fate that had befallen King in 1968.

The moment never happened.

In the first inning, Aaron launched his 714th homerun, tying Ruth. Four days later, on April 8 in Atlanta, he broke the record.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had discussed the moment of silence idea with Aaron before the game, said Aaron was a “hero and champion against racial odds.”

“He made all of us proud. With his presence, he transformed baseball and helped make it major,” Jackson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Friday. “He rode on the peoples’ shoulders as we looked upon him in adoration. And we rode on his shoulders as he lifted us to higher heights.”

Making Atlanta a big-league city

072920 Atlanta: Andy Young (left) and Hank Aaron social distance with masks while watching the Atlanta Braves  home opener on Wednesday, July 29, 2020 in Atlanta.    Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
072920 Atlanta: Andy Young (left) and Hank Aaron social distance with masks while watching the Atlanta Braves home opener on Wednesday, July 29, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Eight years earlier, on a chilly morning in early 1966, Young stood in front of the old American hotel on what is now Spring Street. The city was throwing a parade to welcome the Braves to Atlanta, and Young found a spot behind “a bunch of folks in country overalls because I wanted to hear and see what their reactions would be to the Black players.”

Each player on the team came by perched in the back seat of a convertible.

Aaron was one of the last to ride through. Young listened as one of the men in overalls nudged his buddy.

“Now, if we’re gonna be a big-league city, that fella’s gonna have to be able to live anywhere he wants to live in this town,” Young recalled.

“I said, ‘They said that?’ This must mean something. He was welcomed in this city and he loved this city.”

Staff writer Shelia Poole contributed to this story.

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