The greatest Atlanta Brave and Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron passed away Friday morning.
Aaron was an Alabama native, but built his legend in Georgia.
Before he became baseball’s homerun king, Aaron rode the buses of the South Atlanta League into towns like Birmingham, Montgomery, Savannah and Columbus.
A native of Mobile, Aaron was one of three black players who helped break the color barrier in the South Atlantic League in 1953.
“The first time I saw him play was at Golden Park. It had to be back 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 section of Golden Park.
“Whenever Aaron and Jacksonville came to town, the African Americans filled up the section they had for us,” Allen said. “That was a about the only time we filled 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,” Allen said with a big laugh.
Richard Hyatt interviewed Aaron several times over the years. Aaron told him a story about those days in Columbus.
“One of them was he came here to play, and he found a girlfriend over in Phenix City,” Hyatt said. “He was coming back across the bridge, walking. Some rednecks chased him across the bridge back to his hotel. They didn’t know who he was or anything else. That was one of his experiences here. Golden Park was not a happy memory for Aaron.”
The black players stayed a block and a half from the park along Second Avenue.
“They couldn’t live in the hotels here,” Allen said. “They lived about four doors up from my house in an apartment.”
The general manager of that Jacksonville team was H.B. “Spec” Richardson, a Columbus native who would manage two big-league clubs before his baseball career concluded around 1990.
“Felix Mantilla was the shortstop and Aaron the second baseman,” Hyatt said “And a guy who was 10-12 years older than them named Horace Garner. He was the enforcer. He came as protection for Aaron and Mantilla. He was a big burly guy who had a good head on his shoulders. He could take care of them and he did. Aaron said he was like a father to him.”
Jacksonville won the Sally championship that season. Aaron, Mantilla and Garner could not go to the team celebration because it was in a hotel that was still segerated.
“He gave them a wad of money and said, ‘Go have fun,” Hyatt said. “And they did.”
The next season Aaron was on the Milwaukee Braves opening-day roster and Hyatt saw him play for the first time.
“It was April Fools Day, 1954,” Hyatt said. “The Braves were playing an exhibition game against the Atlanta Crackers in Ponce de Leon Park.”
In 1966, the Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta. Allen, then a soldier in the Civil Rights movement, remembers being worried about Aaron coming South.
“I was wondering how he was going to be received in Atlanta,” Allen said. “As a Civil Rights advocate, I felt there were going to be some repercussions.”
Hyatt was the sports editor of the Columbus Enquirer in 1974 when Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record, 714 round-trippers. The newspaper ran a chart in the sports pages, tracking Aaron’s historic journey.
“Even then, there were people who worked at the newspaper who wondered why we were wasting space on Aaron,” Hyatt remembered. “I said, ‘Well, he’s about to become the all-time home run leader in Major League Baseball. … All they saw was his black face. And that’s all they cared about.”
The 84-year-old Allen put Aaron’s accomplishments in perspective.
“Sports has done more good for the coming together of the races than any other entity in America,” Hyatt said.
And Aaron was part of that.
“To me, forget Barry Bonds. He is the all-time home run hitter. He never misbehaved and never got into any trouble.”