Hank Aaron reflects on Negro Leagues start

December 22nd, 2020

At this time when Major League Baseball has recognized the Negro Leagues and its stars and statistics as best it can, it seemed like a good time to talk to the great Hank Aaron, whose last stop before joining the Milwaukee Braves was with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953. He was their cleanup hitter and shortstop, but he laughed on Monday afternoon when asked about things he’d learned with the Clowns.

“I learned I wasn’t a shortstop, I can tell you that,” Aaron said. “I could play a little second base and play the outfield. But my job was to hit.”

When I asked him about Negro Leagues statistics now being folded into official history of the game, Aaron laughed again.

“I was only there a few months, but I sure wish they could find all of mine,” Aaron said.

Aaron is 86 now, and he'll turn 87 in February. He signed with the Clowns for $200 a month. It wasn’t much in 1953, six years after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier by running out to first base at Ebbets Field in April 1947. But Aaron was being paid to play ball, on a team that would eventually be as famous for its barnstorming as for winning the Negro American League title in 1950; famous for ballplayers named Buster Haywood, Woody Smallwood, Hubert "Big Daddy" Wooten and even the old Harlem Globetrotter Goose Tatum.

And they were famous for a skinny 19-year-old kid born in Mobile, Ala., named Henry Louis Aaron, who would go on from the Negro Leagues and the Clowns to eventually break Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of 714, finishing with 755 himself.

“Everything I learned [with the Clowns] got me ready for the big leagues,” Aaron said. “I honestly believe that I wouldn’t have gotten to the big leagues as quickly as I did if I hadn’t even played those few months with the Clowns.”

I asked him then what he remembered best about that time in his life, when it was all ahead of him.

“I remember that I was young and so many of the players I played with and against were so much older,” Aaron said. “It was all ahead of me then, and behind so many of them.”

Major League Baseball has now decided to include Negro Leagues statistics from 1920-48 in its record books. By the time Aaron got to Indianapolis, the Negro Leagues had become far more scattered than ever before, with teams like the Clowns sometimes playing as many as three barnstorming games in one day. It is amazing for him -- and for the rest of us -- to look back on that time now and think that the man who would break Ruth’s record was playing for the Clowns six years after Robinson had integrated the sport.

Of course by then, teams like the Clowns were often being used as farm teams by Major League Baseball. The Boston Braves eventually purchased Aaron’s contract for $10,000. The Braves then moved to Milwaukee, and Aaron was a rookie with them in 1954. The rest is glorious and lasting baseball history.

“I’ll say it again,” Aaron said. “If there was a place where I felt as if I really learned to play the game, it was with the Clowns. I watched everything those older players did. They taught, I learned. Some of them had been in the Negro Leagues a long time, before and after Jackie. It turned out their timing wasn’t so good. Turned out mine was much better.

“It’s why I have mixed feelings about everything that’s been happening. I’m happy that baseball has done what it’s done about the Negro Leagues. But the sad part, for me, is that the best of so many of the players I played with and against had come and gone by 1953. The world didn’t get to see them at their best.”

Aaron talked about how little money he was making, and how much baseball he played in those handful of months he was with the Clowns.

“I loved peanut butter,” Aaron said. “And I have to tell you, I could get by for a good stretch of time with one loaf of bread and one jar of peanut butter.”

I heard him chuckling again at the other end of the phone.

“What a time that was,” Aaron said. “You know what it was really like for me? It was like finishing school.

“I washed my own uniform. I had to help bring customers into the ballpark. Then, we’d travel to the next town and there’d be another ballpark and another game. I was 19 and nothing bothered me. I just kept telling myself that my best days were ahead of me, because I had come along at the right time. I was young and so many great ballplayers around me were old.”

The next year, Aaron was in Milwaukee and hit 13 homers as a rookie in 1954. He hit 27 in '55 and 26 in '56. In 1957, he hit the same number of homers as his uniform number -- 44. And one night in 1974, when he was no longer young, he was hitting No. 715 to break Ruth’s record.

“But I never forgot where the ride started for me, and never will,” Aaron said. “Those men I played with in the Negro Leagues, I stood on their shoulders.”

He paused and said, “They lifted me up."