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Thoughts on Hank Aaron, a Milwaukee Legend Before My Time

(Image: Benny Sieu/USA Today)

Hall of Famer and baseball hero Hank Aaron slipped on some ice Friday, and underwent hip surgery to repair the damage.  Aaron is expected to make a full recovery within six to eight weeks, which means he should be in good shape when the Atlanta Braves honor the 40th anniversary of his 715th home run on April 8.  I’m sure he’ll be fine, but Aaron’s spill put me in a similar mindset as a few weeks ago when I contemplated the eventual loss of Bob Uecker (who is also 80 years old).  It’s hard to imagine how fans in Milwaukee and Atlanta will be able to cope with the loss of such a legend.

Aaron’s last season in Milwaukee as a member of the Brewers was 1976, so he was out of baseball before I was even born.  Yet I can’t imagine I’m alone in feeling an affinity for Aaron even though I never saw him play.  I would also guess there are plenty of Milwaukeeans and Atlanta residents (Atlantans?) who aren’t even baseball fans who admire Aaron.

Of course, if you are a Milwaukee baseball fan, you have to appreciate Aaron for his leadership on the 1957 Braves team that won the city’s only World Series.  My dad – who has never been much of a baseball fan – has told me he remembers going to a friend’s house where a bunch of kids from the neighborhood crowded around a black and white TV to watch the Series.  Even though they lived in West Bend, it must have been a big deal all over Wisconsin for the Braves to beat the otherwise unstoppable Yankees.

Jackie Robinson’s civil rights era book Baseball Has Done It includes personal stories from players who lived through the end of segregation.  Then a current Milwaukee Braves player, Aaron contributed a chapter.  In his telling, Milwaukee was relatively liberal for its time in terms of race relations:

“The fans in Milwaukee have been very good to me.  They never have booed me, even when I’ve been in some slumps and pulled some booboos on the base paths.  They’ve always been very courteous to me. […]

“We live, my wife and me, in a little country town 18 miles from Milwaukee, called Mequon.  Living’s been good there.  The kids go to school and don’t have any trouble; they play with other kids in the town.  Of course Milwaukee is a pretty good city as far as Negroes are concerned, but all places can stand improvement regardless of where you go. […]

There’s no discrimination in Milwaukee in stores and restaurants as far as I can see.  Of course I’m recognized…When I take my wife out to dinner they have three or four waitresses waiting on us.  But if the average Negro goes in the same places, he’s the last one to be served.”

Last August, before a game against the Nationals, the Brewers commemorated the 20th anniversary of Robin Yount’s retirement.  Aaron was one of the guests, along with Rollie Fingers and Mark Attanasio.  Although he made no remarks, Aaron got by far the largest ovation.  I was in attendance that night, and I assume the large majority of fans were, like me, either not alive when Aaron played or too young to remember.  But we still gave Aaron a much bigger reaction than the other Hall of Famers, including the one being honored.  I even remember feeling a sense of Beatlemania-esque exhilaration just being in the same “room” as Aaron.  If there’s a Milwaukee sports legend who generates more good will, I can’t think of who it would be.

The Hank Aaron State Trail runs not far from where I live near State Fair Park.  On summer mornings I like to go for a run down to Miller Park and back.  In one of the parking lots, there’s a plaque that memorializes Aaron’s 755th and final career homer in the approximate spot it would have landed in the left field grandstand of County Stadium.  I run by that plaque every time as part of my route, a tiny tribute to a hero whose accomplishments predate my own existence.  Surely it’s a testament to Aaron’s greatness that he could inspire someone to perform a silly little ritual like that.  Hopefully he knows how much he means to people like who don’t technically have a reason to idolize him.