city soon to celebrate the 60 year anniversary of Aaron’s time in Eau Claire
Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron: just a few of the baseballs greats. But only one of them called Eau Claire home, at least for a summer.
Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama in a poor, cotton-picking family. The story goes that because his family couldn’t afford baseball equipment Aaron practiced by hitting bottle caps with sticks.
Chippewa Valley Museum editor Frank Smoot said Aaron got his first gig playing baseball in the dying “Negro Leagues” for the Indianapolis Clowns. While on a road circuit, the Boston Braves – soon to be the Milwaukee Braves – sent a scout out to look at Aaron because he was making big news for his batting. In 1952, the Braves offered Aaron $350 a month to play in the minor leagues. They shipped him off to Eau Claire to play for the Bears, one of the Braves seven minor league teams.
“The ‘Northern League,’ of which Eau Claire was a part, was known as an extraordinarily competitive league, almost a ‘Class A’ level,” Smoot said. “That made Eau Claire a great testing ground for very promising players.
In the 87 games he played in for the Bears, Aaron scored 89 runs, had 116 hits, nine home runs, had 61 runs batted in, and a impressive .336 batting average. By seasons end, he had preformed so well that he was that the league made him the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year.
“As Aaron’s star rose, his time in Eau Claire has loomed larger in people’s memory, as you would expect. People remember details of his time here – told stories of talking to him or watching him play...” – Frank Smoot, on Hank Aaron’s time in EC
Aarons time in Eau Claire was short lived, however. The following season he was promoted to the Jacksonville Braves, and eventually to the major league Milwaukee Braves. By the end of his career, he’d set a then-MLB record 755 career home runs.
“He was part of a great baseball tradition in Eau Claire,” Smoot said. “Eau Claire did know that really talented young men played here: Joe Torre, Wes Covington, Andy Pafko, and many others. We sent quite a few players to the majors, and the fact that Aaron went on to gain the all-time home run record makes him a standout among many other Eau Claire standouts.”
Aaron, now in his late 70s, had returned to Eau Claire just three times since the 1952 season: once in 1962, by which time he had become a baseball hero; in 1982, to give a short speech at UWEC; and in 1994 when the bronze statue in Carson Park was dedicated.
Though it’s been 60 years since Aaron played for the Bears, Smoot said he’s far from forgotten.
“As Aaron’s star rose, his time in Eau Claire has loomed larger in people’s memory, as you would expect,” Smoot said. “People remember details of his time here – told stories about talking to him, or watching him play, or seeing him walk from the ‘old’ YMCA to Carson Park.”
Books have been written about Aarons time here, as well. Jerry Poling’s popular book, “Summer Up North” chronicles Aaron’s 1952 season, and Smoot and Glen St. Arnault are currently working to publish a book all about baseball in Eau Claire.
This summer, Eau Claire will see a surge of Hank Aaron related events, starting with Turn Back the Clock Night on June 14, hosted by the Express baseball team. The game is 60 years to the day that Aaron made his debut in Eau Claire. Players will wear replicas 1952 Bears jerseys, sell hot dogs for $1.00, and give out mini-bobble head dolls of Aaron to select fans at the front gate.
The Chippewa Valley Museum will also be hosting a children’s class about Aaron in July, and starting next month, there will be a short-term panel exhibit about baseball produced by UWEC Public History students on display at the museum.