The largest Atlanta Brave and Baseball Hall owned by Famer Hank Aaron died Friday morning.
Aaron was from Alabama but built his legend in Georgia.
Before becoming the homerun king of baseball, Aaron rode the South Atlanta League buses to cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, Savannah and Columbus.
A native of Mobile, Aaron was one of three black players to break the color barrier in the South Atlantic League in 1953.
“The first time I saw him play was in Golden Park. It had to be in the 50s, ”said Rudy Allen, a Columbus pastor who was a teenager that year.
Aaron, Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner were fan favorites in the black area of Golden Park.
“Whenever Aaron and Jacksonville came into town, the African Americans filled the section they had for us,” Allen said. “That was about the only time we topped it up.”
And there was no doubt who the black fans were pulling for – and it wasn’t their home team, the Columbus Cardinals. The Cardinals’ farm teams had not been integrated.
“Jacksonville of course,” said Allen with a big laugh.
Richard Hyatt has interviewed Aaron several times over the years. Aaron told him a story about those days in Columbus.
“One of them was that he came here to play and he found a friend in Phenix City,” said Hyatt. “He came back over the bridge and left. Several rednecks chased him over the bridge back to his hotel. They didn’t know who he was or anything. That was one of his experiences here. Golden Park wasn’t a happy memory for Aaron. ”
The black players stayed a block and a half from the park along Second Avenue.
“They couldn’t stay in the hotels here,” said Allen. “They lived in an apartment about four doors from my house.”
The general manager of this Jacksonville team was HB “Spec” Richardson, a Columbus-born man who would run two major league clubs before his baseball career ended around 1990.
“Felix Mantilla was the shortstop and Aaron was the second baseman,” said Hyatt. “And a guy who was 10-12 years older than her was Horace Garner.” He was the executor. He came as protection for Aaron and Mantilla. He was a tall, stocky guy with a good head on his shoulders. He could take care of her and he did. Aaron said he was like a father to him. “
Jacksonville won the Sally Championship that season. Aaron, Mantilla and Garner couldn’t go to the team celebration as it was a hotel that was still separate.
“He gave them a bunch of money and said, ‘Go have fun,” said Hyatt, “and they did.”
The next season, Aaron stood on the opening day of the Milwaukee Braves, and Hyatt saw him play for the first time.
“It was April Fool’s Day 1954,” said Hyatt. “The Braves played an exhibition game against the Atlanta Crackers at Ponce de Leon Park.”
In 1966 the Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta. Allen, then a soldier in the Civil Rights Movement, remembers worrying about Aaron coming south.
“I was wondering how he would be received in Atlanta,” said Allen. “As a civil rights advocate, I felt there was going to be some impact.”
Hyatt was the sports editor of the Columbus Enquirer in 1974 when Aaron Babe was chasing Ruth’s home run record of 714 roundtrippers. The newspaper ran a table on the sports pages that recorded Aaron’s historical journey.
“Even back then, there were people who worked at the paper and wondered why we were wasting space on Aaron,” said Hyatt. “I said, ‘Well, he’s going to be the front runner in Major League Baseball. … You only saw his black face. And that’s all they care about. “
The 84-year-old Allen put Aaron’s achievements into perspective.
“Sport has done more to bring the race together than any other company in America,” said Hyatt.
And Aaron was part of it.
“For me, forget about Barry Bonds. He’s the all-time home run hitter. He has never misbehaved and never got into trouble. “