How A Summer In Eau Claire Helped Shape Hank Aaron's Life
Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on June 16, 2009
Hank Aaron died last Friday at the age of 86. “Hammerin’ Hank” was known for breaking Babe Ruth’s long held homerun record and for his advocacy for civil rights. Aaron started his Major League career with the Milwaukee Braves and moved to Atlanta with the team in 1965.
But the baseball legend played for another Wisconsin team, the Eau Claire Bears.
Jerry Poling is the author of the book A Summer Up North: Henry Aaron and the Legend of Eau Claire Baseball, about Hank Aaron's year playing minor league baseball in Eau Claire, Wisc., published by The University of Wisconsin Press.
Poling said even though baseball had been integrated for five years by the time Aaron arrived in Wisconsin, it would be a stretch to say that Black players were accepted across baseball as a whole.
“[It wasn’t] racial epithets being shouted at them during games or there might have been the occasional refusal of service at a restaurant or hotel or the implication that it might be there but it wasn’t really that in terms of the way it was in the south. It was more, sort of this awkward social period where the Black players in Eau Claire were essentially the only Black people in town,” said Poling.
Aaron described the feeling of living in Eau Claire like living in a fish bowl but said he was always treated fairly by the manager and his white teammates.
Poling explained that Aaron’s summer in Eau Claire taught him lessons like how to deal with living far way from his family in Mobile, Ala. and how to live in the spotlight that he would need once he made it to the Major League.
“I think that was the foundation for him to say, ‘if I can handle that when I’m 17 years old in Eau Claire, being that far away from home and in a totally awkward environment, I can handle these other things as I go forward in my life’,” said Poling.