Hank Aaron does not remember a lot about playing a few baseball games in Columbia 60 years ago. He was a 19-year-old, second-year professional playing for Jacksonville, Milwaukee’s Single-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League.
Aaron does have an idea the impression he left on fans of the Columbia Reds probably was not memorable.
“I didn’t leave anything for them to remember me by playing second base,” Aaron said with a hearty laugh this past week by cell phone from his home in Atlanta. Few who saw him play here had an inkling he would some day be a stellar outfielder, or that the 6-foot, 175-pound kid eventually would become baseball’s all-time home run king.
Aaron will return to Columbia this week. He is slated to throw out the first pitch prior to Wednesday’s Columbia Blowfish game at Capital City Stadium.
Aaron does recall vividly that 1953 season as being the most pivotal of his career. He led the South Atlantic League in hitting with a .362 average and also topped the league in runs scored (115), hits (208), doubles (36) and RBIs (125).
“I had a very good year,” Aaron said. “It probably was the year that helped me get to the big leagues, really.”
In leading Jacksonville to the league’s regular-season championship by 2½ games over Columbia, Aaron earned MVP honors. Unfortunately, he also led the league in errors with 36, an alarming number for a second baseman and one more than he committed the season before for Eau Claire in the Class C Northern League.
Early in the ’53 season, Milwaukee sent shortstop Felix Mantilla to Jacksonville specifically to be Aaron’s roommate. It was a strange combination because Mantilla, a native of Puerto Rico, did not speak English and Aaron said he did not speak much at all.
Perhaps the biggest assist Mantilla gave Aaron was to suggest to Milwaukee management that the young second baseman probably had a better future in the outfield. Aaron likes to joke today about how most of Jacksonville’s double plays were unassisted by his shortstop.
At season’s end, rather than send Aaron home to Mobile, Ala., for the offseason, Milwaukee ticketed him to play winter ball in Puerto Rico where he was to begin learning to play the outfield.
“The minute they moved me to the outfield, my hitting and everything else, I started doing fairly well,” Aaron said.
Aaron’s manager in Puerto Rico was Mickey Owen, whose famous passed ball ultimately led to the New York Yankees defeating his Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1941 World Series.
Owen was perfect for Aaron, mostly because the former major-leaguer did not tinker with a swing that had Aaron attacking the ball off his front foot. Instead, Owen worked on the finer points of hitting to the opposite field and better utilizing the quickest wrists in baseball.
By spring training of 1954, Aaron said he still was headed to play with either Atlanta in the Double-A Southern Association or Toledo in the Triple-A American Association.
Milwaukee had traded for Bobby Thomson during the offseason and fielded what appeared to be a solid outfield of Thomson, Billy Bruton and Andy Pafko. Additionally, Jim Pendleton was coming off a solid year in the Milwaukee outfield with a .299 batting average.
But Pendleton held out of spring training in a contract dispute and then reported overweight and out of shape. When Thomson broke his ankle, Milwaukee manager Charlie Grimm turned to his prized rookie.
According to Howard Bryant in his outstanding biography “The Last Hero: The Life of Henry Aaron,” Aaron was inserted into the starting lineup on March 14 to play right field and bat fourth. He produced two hits.
Twenty-three seasons later, Aaron concluded his Hall of Fame career with 755 home runs, a .305 batting average and 3,771 hits.
Bryant’s book mentions back-to-back Jacksonville doubleheaders against Columbia when Aaron collected 12 hits in 13 at-bats. The book also details the racial inequalities that were forced on young minor-leaguers such as Aaron, who often were the subject of taunts from fans.
Aaron was joined on that Jacksonville squad by the dark-skinned Mantilla and a third black, Horace Garner, a 30-year-old who served as mentor and guidance counselor to his young teammates.
Because blacks were not allowed to be housed in white hotels or dine in white restaurants, the club found rooms in black family homes, whether Jacksonville was playing in Columbus, Savannah, Macon, Augusta, Charleston, Montgomery or Columbia.
“You can say it was the sign of the times, but do I feel bitter about it? No,” Aaron said. “I’ll be 80 years old soon, and I just don’t have time for bitterness. I have time for forgiveness.
“I wish things had been a lot different, but personally, it wasn’t different. ... I just don’t have time to be bitter about it and have bad feelings about it.”
Instead, Aaron said he chooses to remember the 1953 season as one in which he showed the Milwaukee organization he was ready for the big leagues, and one in which he finally got moved off second base.