In mid-April seventy years ago, Hank Aaron integrated the South Atlantic League, one of baseball’s minor leagues, stretching from South Carolina to Alabama. Somehow, his heroic barrier-busting in the Jim Crow South as a just a teenager has gotten lost in the 755 major-league home runs he began hitting the following season.
In 1953, though, Aaron was just a very quiet, skinny 19-year-old second baseman for the Jacksonville Braves who—during a tumultuous summer of baseball—changed attitudes with the reverberating crack of his bat and the courageous dignity of his walk.
A game in Macon was completed with police, encircling the field with guns drawn after stopping a bench-clearing brawl that had brought white and Black fans onto the field. In Montgomery, there were death threats. Aaron kept playing. Even in Jacksonville, FBI agents sat in the stands in response to death threats.
“We had a terrible time the first couple of months. Really, it was a bad situation,” Aaron told me in an interview in 1982, a few days before he was voted in the Hall of Fame. He remembered that the fans in Jacksonville “just couldn’t understand why they wanted to have Blacks and whites play together.”
In the Jim Crow South of the fifties, interracial athletic competition represented a threat to white superiority, being seen by some segregationists as a foot through the door of “race mixing.”
Caution was the order of the day. So, before their first game, the Jacksonville mayor told Aaron and his two Black teammates that whatever they heard or fans tried to do to them, they must “suffer it quietly.” Aaron would later call it the mayor’s Branch Rickey speech.
Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who integrated baseball in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, saw racism as the South’s physical and emotional bully, keeping Blacks and whites alike from “stepping out of line.” Hence, he believed integrated competition in the South would come at a greater cost to its pioneers and take longer to accomplish than elsewhere. He was right. Baseball segregation continued in 175 southern towns and the South’s twenty-four minor leagues for four seasons after Robinson broke the color line.
The South Atlantic League would become the first league in the Deep South to integrate and at a time of great racial uneasiness in America. The U.S. Supreme Court had recently delayed its ruling on Brown v. Board until May 1954, and both Black and white Americans were anxious about its outcome.
Such was the pressure Aaron and teammates Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner shouldered in their first game, which drew 5,508 loud and curious fans Savannah’s Grayson Stadium April 14, 1953.
Savannah had the league’s only other two Black players, Al Israel and Junior Reedy, and all five Black players received a warning from the umpire before the game not to argue calls or retaliate for being spiked by baserunners or hit by pitches.
“We had to live aside and separate from our teammates,” Aaron said. “When we got to a place like Columbia or Savannah, they’d let us off the bus and we’d have to catch a cab to wherever we had to stay. We had nothing to do but hang around the hotel.”
On a road trip to Columbus, Georgia, the team visited Fort Benning, but Aaron, Garner and Mantilla were not allowed to eat with whites on the U.S. Army Base. They were sent to eat in the kitchen, where they were soon joined by manager Ben Geraghty, whom Aaron called the “most caring manager I ever had.”
Even in Jacksonville, when Braves players had to walk through the stands from their locker room to the dugout, the insults heaped on Aaron, Garner, and Mantilla were “absolutely horrible,” according to a white teammate.
Aaron said he tried just to focus baseball, but “when we looked at all the Black faces and white faces hollering at us, we couldn’t help but feel the weight of what we were doing.”
By July, Aaron’s bat had begun to silence the hatred. “The middle of that season, things began to fall in place,” he said. “The fans began to accept us, the players got along with us.” And Aaron kept hitting.
He led the league in batting at .362, 20 points higher than the second-place finisher. He drove in 125 runs, scored 115, and had 208 hits—in only 137 games. And struck out only 22 times.
Aaron was voted the league’s most valuable player, and Jacksonville won the pennant and doubled its attendance from the previous season. “Hank made Christians of those people,” said league president Dick Butler.
Somehow, in 1982, Aaron was able to call his season in Jacksonville “a great experience for me.” He had played a fantastic season of baseball in the Deep South, and, as he would later say, not one of the four states in the South Atlantic League fell off the U.S. map. Things were changing.
He had shown white southerners that Blacks could compete as well as, if not better than, whites, and he had seized a role in an unwritten part of the civil rights movement, changing one mind at a time.