Remembering the influence of ‘Hammerin’ Hank Aaron
My father was an Eddie Matthews and Milwaukee Braves fan. When the Braves played the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field, he made it a point to take my older brothers to games. They became Braves fans. The Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, but we continued to follow the Braves and went to Pittsburgh to see them play. My earliest memories were not of watching Matthews, but rather of watching Hank Aaron and the Ohio Valley’s Phil Niekro play at Three Rivers Stadium. I was destined to be a Braves fan –and a Hank Aaron fan.
The allegiance to the Braves was not limited to our house. I grew up on Mellon Street, and it wasn’t uncommon for our neighbors and friends to attend Braves-Pirates games with us. It seemed that half the street became Braves fans. The McCune boys, John and Tony Magnone and Mark Radivoj, among others, were avid Braves fans. Tony Magnone claims to be the greatest of all Braves fans who grew up on Mellon Street. (I might have to agree with him.) The other half of the street, not surprisingly, were fans of the Pirates and the great Roberto Clemente.
Every game of wiffle ball in one of our back yards was a Braves vs. Pirates showdown. Most games involved a shouting match over who was better, Aaron or Clemente. Back in those days, not only did we claim a team name, we also claimed to be our favorite player. The Braves fans on the street fought over who would be Hank Aaron. (As one of the youngest on Mellon Street, I rarely got that opportunity. I might get to be Ralph Garr or Tommy Aaron.)
We listened to Braves games on the radio on the back porch of the Magnone house or in our carport. It would not be uncommon to hear the clamor of pots and pans banging outside of one of our houses when Hank Aaron hit a home run. When Ted Turner launched the Superstation, late in Aaron’s career, we were spoiled and could watch almost every Braves game –and we did.
I remember attending a game when Aaron hit a grand slam, a home run and seven or eight RBIs. I recall being elated when one afternoon the mailman delivered a Hank Aaron autographed photo and letter in response to my letter to him. I still remember vividly where I was in my front yard when I opened the envelope in disbelief. Hank Aaron’s photo was the only photo and autograph I ever requested from a professional athlete.
I wanted to be No. 44 when I played sports, even if it was only on my St. Joseph Spartan basketball jersey or Junior Don football jersey for one season. As a pee wee league baseball player, coached by Mr. Magnone, our team nickname was, of course, the Braves. (One year we were the Brigade Braves and another the Plaza Men’s Shop Braves.) We had a PitchBack. (Hank Aaron told us, “It’s more than a toy, it’s a playmate.”
In 1974, along with my father and a few of my brothers, I watched on television with such anticipation, excitement and then pride, as our favorite player hit his 715th home run, breaking the record that we grew up being told could never be broken. We always thought otherwise.
As I grew older, I read about how badly Aaron had been treated as a young Black athlete, that he couldn’t stay in the same hotel as his white teammates and that he received death threats as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s home run record. My admiration for him only grew stronger when I realized how difficult it must have been for him as a young player, and yet he played at a level few achieved … without such baggage, and never heard him say a negative word about anyone or the way he was treated. He always was a gentleman and, obviously, a man of immense courage.
There is much sadness in Braves Nation, not just in Atlanta and Milwaukee, or in Mobile, Ala., where Hank Aaron grew up, but on little Mellon Street in Weirton. We will forever remember Hammerin’ Hank Aaron.
(McCune is a resident of Weirton.)