NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — As we remember Hank Aaron as one of the all-time greats, we’re looking back at his illustrious career and why some say it all started in Nashville.
It was 1952 and the field we now know as First Horizon Park was once Sulphur Dell Stadium. Nashville baseball historian Skip Nipper says conveniently located railways made it easy for teams from all over to make it to Music City.
“Nashville was a hotspot for baseball. It was a hotspot for recruiting Negro League players,” Nipper said.
On May 11 of that year, the Negro American League was set to open their season with a game between the Philadelphia Stars and the Indianapolis Clowns. At shortstop for the clowns was a young 18-year-old Henry Aaron who the Memphis World newspaper called sensational.
Aside from the team name, the joke was usually on the opposing players. We’re not sure how many games Aaron played that month, but we know he hit five home runs and 24 RBI’s in that time.
“He only played a month and he signed with the Boston Braves for $10,000. They saw in that month how good he was,” Nipper said.
The Boston Braves would later become the Milwaukee Braves and before long, the team would move to Atlanta. Each stop had challenges as the country was still adjusting to the idea of an integrated major league.
Sidney Bunch III is the son of former Negro League legend, Sidney Bunch Jr. He says he still remembers watching his father play at Sulphur Dell, back when his father was a member of the Baltimore Elite Giants.
“People don’t realize how tough it was for them back then. The stories my dad used to tell me about them being on the bus and couldn’t stay here or couldn’t use the bathroom here,” Bunch said.
Aaron and others persevered, later paving the way for more integration. Bunch says he often tells people without some of the Negro League players from decades earlier, there wouldn’t be a Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. That said, he regards Aaron as the best to ever play and not just because of his achievements. He says Aaron’s attitude through all the struggle inspired minorities of all backgrounds.
“Out of all the stars and guys that have come before him and after him, to me he made the biggest impact,” Bunch said.
22 years removed from Nashville, the legend only grew when “Hammerin Hank” broke a record some did not want him to break.
“He was threatened that he shouldn’t even be playing in a game to hit 715 to beat Babe Ruth’s record. That’s pretty sad, but he saw it through and became an icon and he’s an icon now and he will be an icon forever,” Nipper said.
Aaron’s legacy is commemorated with plaques outside Sulfur Dell, more than 68 years from when he first stepped to the plate.
Metro Nashville Mayor John Cooper expressed his admiration for Aaron on social media.
"Baseball lost one of the greatest players today with the passing of Hank Aaron. “Hammering Hank” was a hero on and off the field and a true inspiration for many."