Ballpark pup has Brewers celebrating 'Hanksgiving'
Hank's story, which began at Spring Training, continues to raise money, spirits, awareness
MILWAUKEE -- The story of Hank, the Ballpark Pup began the morning of Feb. 17 at a green oasis nestled in a tough neighborhood on Phoenix's west side. A scraggly stray dog trotted up to Maryvale Baseball Park's main gate and deposited himself at the feet of two security guards wearing white coats. The pup might have matched had his own fur not been stained black from so many days dodging traffic.
He probably just wanted a bite to eat. Instead, Hank was about to hit it big.
"I am personally going to be celebrating 'Hanksgiving' this year with my family," said the Wisconsin Humane Society's Angela Speed, and no, that's not a typo. "Thanksgiving is a time to ponder what we're thankful for over the past year, and organizationally, Hank is at the top of our list.
"It's really a magical story."
Named for Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, the pup stumbled into the Spring Training home of the Milwaukee Brewers, who happen to employ dog fanatics for a vice president of communications (Tyler Barnes) and a third-base coach (Ed Sedar). They were among the first to fall for Hank's friendly eyes and mild manner, and while Sedar started the skin-and-bones pup on a daily diet of sausage and eggs from the players' breakfast spread, Barnes set about to figure out what to do with him.
Employees of the Brewers' food service provider took Hank to a veterinarian, who estimated the dog's age (three years) and breed (a Bichon Frise mix). Two days after he arrived, Hank donned a doggie-sized Brewers uniform and posed for photos and videos intended to spread the word about his arrival in hopes of finding his owner. A day after that, Hank strutted inside the clubhouse and out onto the practice fields for the first time, and his story exploded.
Over the ensuing days and weeks, players vied with each other to be the one to take Hank home for the night. He gained national profile with appearances from MLB.com to People Magazine to ABC's World News Tonight, and The Tonight Show called to request a live, in-studio appearance (the idea was scuttled by concerns about travel). Brewers fans back in frigid Wisconsin had their hearts melted by daily Hank updates in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
He made a series of appearances at Spring Training games that created a line around the concourse and raised funds for the Arizona Humane Society. Hank-themed merchandise flew off the shelves at the team store, with proceeds going to fund stray animal care.
Twice, families traveled to Maryvale Baseball Park believing Hank was their lost dog. One family came all the way from north of Flagstaff seeking "Bolt." Another arrived from the San Tan Valley east of Phoenix hoping the Brewers had found "Snickers."
Both were false alarms, and when no one else stepped forward to claim the dog, the Brewers began planning with branches of the Humane Society in both Arizona and Wisconsin to find Hank a permanent home. Because the dog had gained fame, everybody agreed it would be inappropriate to simply put Hank up for public adoption. The wisest course, it was deemed, was adoption by a club employee.
"None of us could have understood what was about to happen," said Marti Wronski, who would be the pick.
Wronski is the Brewers' chief legal counsel, and she was involved from the start as club officials worked through the issues surrounding adoption and moving the dog to Milwaukee. In March, Hank made the trip and was greeted at the airport by hundreds of fans, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, before going home with Wronski and her husband, Andy. Hank now has a sister (a mini goldendoodle named Bella) and four brothers (the Wronskis have four boys, ages 6-12).
The Wisconsin Humane Society played a prominent role in Hank's move to Milwaukee. Among the representatives at the airport that day was an animal behaviorist, who looked for signs of stress as Hank was engulfed by fans. A behaviorist was also on hand Opening Day, when Hank made his Miller Park debut.
The Brewers built Hank a doghouse on the center-field concourse at the ballpark, and he attended 15-20 games, including a Humane Society fundraiser in May and a Hank bobblehead night in September. He got his own children's book, "Hank, The Ballpark Pup," which naturally was for sale at the Brewers' team store, along with nine different styles of T-shirts, plush toys, dog jerseys and -- seriously -- "game used," authenticated items like leashes, collars, jerseys, dog bowls, dog beds and other items. The original Hank T-shirt is the most popular retail item in franchise history.
Twenty percent of the sales of Hank items is donated to the Humane Society, and the Brewers have given about $146,000 to date, Speed said. The money has been supporting stray animal care, and it will soon be put toward building Milwaukee's first high-volume, low-cost spay and neuter clinic. Before Hank, Milwaukee was one of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation without such a facility.
Participation at the Society's annual dog walk doubled after Hank's involvement was made public, and the Wisconsin Humane Society has had one of its busiest years ever in terms of adoptions.
"All of that means we have been able to take more animals from animal control and place them in homes," Speed said. "He's not only raising awareness of homeless animals around the country, but he's making a measurable impact here in Wisconsin.
"It's amazing to think that this pup, who's been featured by every major media outlet in the country, could have ever been homeless. He was on the streets, he was dirty, he was hungry. It's just something of a miracle that he found the Brewers."
Months later, the Wronskis still receive at least one letter or a phone call per week from Hank fans. Recently, they received a call from the family of a 12-year-old girl in northern Wisconsin who was losing a battle with brain cancer. She wanted to meet Hank, so Marti and her oldest son, Jonah, who is also 12, paid a visit.
After nearly three hours in the car, Wronski worried that Hank might be too wound up to meet the girl.
"Instead, he jumps out of the car, jumps on her lap and is immediately as gentle as can be," Wronski said. "I swear he looked at me like, 'This is what I'm supposed to be doing, right?' It's just a funny thing. He's been a little dose of magic for everyone.
"My kids have learned so much from this dog. When we go out with Hank, I bring them along as much as I can, and at first, they were on the covers of magazines and the newspaper and were like, 'This is pretty cool.' But I've told them, this is not about you. I want them to see and understand how you can help give people something that makes the rest of the world happy, or create a benefit from something we do."
So far it has been a seamless move for baseball's most famous pup, but Wronski worries about one challenge ahead. Can Hank endure a Wisconsin winter?
"With the absolute freezing cold here, that dog might be reconsidering how much he loves me," Wronski said. "Early mornings outside he's like, 'What is this about?' I tried boots, I've tried everything. It's going to be an interesting winter."