MOBILE, Ala. – With the Cubs and White Sox traveling to baseball’s nether worlds, this summer is a good time to explore greener pastures.
The overdue Ron Santo induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame will be held July 20 in Cooperstown, N.Y. Santo played for the Cubs and the White Sox, and I love telling people how I saw the slow-footed third baseman’s inside-the-park home run at Old Comiskey Park. Talk about going places!
Major League Baseball’s All-Star game is July 10 in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City’s Class A affiliate Kane County Cougars are hosting this year’s Midwest League All-Star Game June 19 in suburban Geneva with live performances from former White Sox organist Nancy Faust.
But the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum is sweet music on baseball’s road mix.
It is the first time a Baseball Hall of Famer’s childhood home has been moved and converted into a museum. (Shoeless Joe Jackson’s house in Greenville, S.C. was moved, but he is not in the Hall of Fame).
The quaint Aaron home sits next to the 15-year-old Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the Class AA Mobile BayBears, an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Aaron home exterior has white paneling and a rocking chair that sits on a large green front porch.
The Aaron home was originally 625 square feet of brick and wood and about the size of a two-car garage.
“And they had eight people living in there,” said BayBears sales manager and promotion guru John Golz, who gave me a tour of the home and museum that is now 1,800 square feet. Golz, 27, was a passionate and detailed guide. He is no-nonsense. Golz is from Beverly. His mother, Patti, is a legal assistant, and his late father, John, was a loan officer in Hinsdale.
“In 1942 when Hank was 8, Hank and his older brother Tommie (who also played major league baseball and died in 1984 at age 45) helped his dad, Herbert, build this house from the ground up,” Golz said as he entered the front door. “They bought a plot of land for $ 50. They got the spare lumber and bricks from different construction sites around Mobile.” The Aarons lived in the Toulminville section of Mobile about 6 miles away from the home’s current site.
BayBears president Bill Shanahan had the idea for moving the house and transforming it into a museum. He received the blessings of Estella Aaron, Hank’s mother who had lived in the house from 1942 until she moved to Atlanta in late 2007. She was 94 at the time. The house was as empty as the Cubs World Series trophy case for six months. Hammerin’ Hank also green-lighted the move.
The family donated the house to the City of Mobile, and the BayBears were in charge of renovation and operation of the facility as a non-profit charity. Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson and the Hall of Fame mentored the BayBears.
In 2008 the house arrived next to the 6,000-seat stadium. After restoration it opened to the public, on April 14, 2010. Hall of Famers including Willie Mays, ex-Cub Bruce Sutter and Bob Feller attended the housewarming with Aaron. The event turned out to be Feller’s last public appearance before his death. The BayBears won’t disclose figures on the cost of the move, but they said many local businesses contributed in-kind services. Fans can buy commemorative 4 by 8-inch bricks for $250 each to support the museum (www.hankaaronstadium.com).
Estella, who died in 2008, Aaron and his surviving siblings provided oral histories of the home.
The Aaron children hand scrawled inspirational cardboard signs that their parents told them to hang above their beds. One of young Hank’s signs read, “Rely on God and act on the things you can change.” The signs are on display as is a plain black briefcase which sits next to Herbert’s canes. Golz said, “When Herbert was doing his odd jobs he would see people walking around Mobile with their briefcases. It was a status symbol but he never had a reason for one. When Hank signed his first contract he bought his dad a briefcase.
“And Herbert carried it around even though it didn’t have anything in it.”
The detail of the replica kitchen is stunning. “It was very important for Estella to have it the exact same way when they moved it in here,” Golz said. The kitchen includes original wall hangings, salt and pepper shakers and happy-face cookie jars. The kitchen was the centerpiece of activity in the Aaron home. Aaron’s bats and gloves from the 1930s and ’40s are on display as is the original home plate from Milwaukee County Stadium when Aaron was a star for the Braves. You can see Aaron’s original Topps chewing gum contract – for $50.
Video loops play for visitors who enter the home, including a narrative from Hank Aaron who was born Feb, 5, 1934 in Mobile as Henry Aaron.
“Growing up in Mobile was a challenge in some ways, yet it was something I learned over a period of time,” Aaron said in the video. “When I grew up segregation was part of Mobile. … I left kind of early out of Mobile, right out of high school, and I started playing professional baseball (in 1952 in Eau Claire, Wis., after a stint with the Negro Leagues Indianapolis Clowns). My mother and father always taught all of us to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Aaron was a fan of the Mobile Bears who played in the now-defunct Southern Association from 1944 until 1961. The late NBA player and actor Chuck “The Rifleman” Connors played first base for the Bears in 1947 while hitting 15 home runs. The museum does a good job of placing Aaron’s youth in the context of an earlier Mobile.
In the early 20th Century baseball was played at Monroe Park (cap. 6,500), once known as “The Coney Island of the South.” The Mobile Oyster Grabbers were the first professional team to play in Mobile, debuting in 1903. In addition to the Monroe Park ballfield, the grounds included a swimming pool, penny arcade and Mobile’s first outdoor movie theater. All of this was off limits to blacks. The Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians and the White Sox held Spring Training at Monroe Park until it was destroyed by a category 3 hurricane on Sept. 20, 1926.
African-American stars such as Satchel Paige, Amos Otis and former White Sox Tommie Agee came from Mobile. Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams is from Whistler, about 10 miles north of Mobile.
No one can explain how one region produced so much talent. In a separate interview Scotty Kirkland, curator of History at the Museum of Mobile said, “Larry Tye (Satchel Paige biographer) did a book event here. I actually brought up that question. We had Negro League baseball players here. None of them could answer it. It might have something to do with the weather here because you can play year round. The old ballplayers just liked to play the game. Times were so hard during segregation in Mobile, they saw baseball – as any other athletic endeavor – as a way to get out of the web of segregation.”
And now the doors of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum are open – to everyone.