Baseball Springs Eternal
season’s arrival a reminder of the sport’s history, and Eau Claire’s place in it
As I shoveled the ice off my driveway on a recent Sunday, I was listening to the Brewers and Indians spring training game taking place in hot Arizona. It reminded me that so often baseball ushers in spring and not the other way around. Each year the excitement of a new baseball season melts away the winter doldrums and reminds me that there is life outside of the frozen world we’ve known for months. When baseball fever hits, I begin reading books to get myself back into form for the upcoming drama that will unfold for the next half year.
One of the things I always come back to is the rich history of baseball in the Eau Claire area. Going to Carson Park to watch the Express each summer I’m reminded that not so long ago Hank Aaron was here, on the ball field honing his skills. Jerry Poling’s book A Summer Up North: Henry Aaron and the Legend of Eau Claire Baseball details how the 18 year old showed up in the northwoods scared and green in 1952. Today, the historic ballpark has a bronze statue in front of the ticketing windows commemorating this rich history.
Young Aaron’s arrival came just five years after Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in 1947. The noble experiment by Branch Rickey would lead to the ultimate demise of the Negro Leagues and change Major League Baseball forever. On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the arrival of young organizer Martin Luther King Jr. Change was coming.
Baseball was ahead of the change. Three years after Aaron played baseball in Eau Claire, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case. This led to the courageous acts of the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges.
Hank Aaron went on to win Rookie of the Year with the Eau Claire Bears in 1952. He then played for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, where he broke Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run record. Aaron went on to become a civil rights activist and an icon in the sport of baseball. His Eau Claire roots were not the beginning of his baseball career. Prior to that he played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League.
Each summer while I’m sitting on my lawn chair at Phalen Park watching the Menomonie Blue Caps play vintage baseball, I’m reminded that that game has changed. Change does not come easily or without the dedication of countless people who have come before us. I wonder if Hank Aaron knew what his move from Alabama to idyllic Eau Claire, Wisconsin, would lead to. Each year baseball reminds us that the snow will melt. The ice will turn to green grass and skies will go from gray to blue.
Dolan teaches eighth-grade language arts at Menomonie Middle School.