By Bob Feikema
In the summer of 1957, my family’s nomadic trail of relocations from one small Midwestern town to another brought us to Monroe, Wisconsin. Located south of Madison near the Illinois border, Monroe had 8,000 residents at the time. It is still proud to call itself “Little Switzerland,” claiming to be “the Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA.” It is also the home of Huber Beer, the oldest continually operating brewery in the Midwest and second oldest in the United States. (Pennsylvania’s Yuengling is the oldest, in case you were wondering.)
We lived in a small house, notable for exterior walls that were covered with brown, black-specked, asphalt shingles. During the bitter-cold Wisconsin winters the coal-burning furnace in the basement labored to warm the entire house, sending hot air rising through a large metal grate strategically placed between the living room and dining room on the first floor. It could, and did, melt any plastic toys left on it.
I was seven-years-old that summer, turning eight at the end of August. My brothers, Bill and Mike, were six-and-a-half and five-years-old. Our backyard was large enough for us and a passel of neighbor kids to play in. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send somebody over.” At the back end of the yard there was an eight-foot high, wooden-plank fence, beyond which was a grove of towering oaks and elms near the backstretch of the harness racing track that was part of the Green County Fairgrounds.
I don’t know how he knew about it or if he made it happen, but my Dad showed us how to slip into the fairgrounds by removing a loose plank in the fence. It was the gateway to an adventureland tailor-made for three young boys growing up in the days when every other show on the black and white television set was a Western.
I was an avid baseball fan. The back wall of the house was windowless, making it perfect for playing catch with myself by bouncing a rubber ball off the asphalt shingles. I played many multi-inning games off that wall, usually featuring the Milwaukee Braves against the New York Yankees. I would broadcast the game in my head, as I knew the lineups by heart from my baseball card collection that included all their future hall of famers.
Monroe was a great place to be for a young baseball fan in 1957. The town was immersed in the sound of Braves’ games, heard on radios in homes and business throughout the community. If you happened to miss hearing a game and wondered who won, you could walk by a nearby gas station that displayed the day’s score with two rows of square stickers stuck to its front window:
Baseball fever rose throughout that summer. The Braves won the National League pennant and were to face the feared and despised Yankees in the World Series. The Bronx Bombers had a star-studded roster — Kubek, Mantle, Berra, Skowron, Slaughter. Their names alone were intimidating. And with Whitey Ford and Don Larson — who had pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers in the 1956 series — on the mound, the Braves were distinct underdogs.
But the Braves had their share of talent — Matthews, Schoendienst, and Torre — with Warren Spahn and Lou Burdette on the mound. The Braves most prolific and feared player was Henry “Hank” Aaron, who had joined the team in 1954. Aaron was coming off a spectacular year in which he led the major leagues in home runs and runs batted in while finishing fifth in batting average behind Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, and Willie Mays, four of the best players of all-time. “Hammerin’ Hank,” as he was known, did his part in the World Series by hitting .393 with three homers and seven RBIs, and topped the year by being voted the league’s Most Valuable Player.
The Braves won the 1957 series, four games to three. There was joy throughout Monroe(ville). They would meet the Yankees again in 1958, this time losing in seven games. Nonetheless, it was another magical summer for a young boy, living in a community united in its love of a baseball team, cheese, and beer.
That spell would have been broken had the racial animosity that followed Henry Aaron throughout his career been known. He was subjected to racist taunts all along the way. When traveling in the southeast, he was often separated from his team because of Jim Crow laws. He had to make his own housing arrangements, prompting one sportswriter to comment that during his 1957 MVP year “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”
What Aaron endured as he approached Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1973 and ‘74 rose to a more virulent level of hatred. He got letters laced with slurs, death threats, taunts and racist rage, all because a Black man was on the way to hitting more home runs than a white idol. By the time he broke the record with his 715th career home run on April 8, 1974, he had two personal security guards and the threats he had received were investigated by the FBI.
It took a toll. He acknowledged that the ordeal “carved a part of me out that I will never regain, never restore.” But the assaults on his humanity only served to elevate his decency and dignity to a higher plane. He went on to become one of the first black executives in the front office of a major league baseball team (the Braves) and a civil rights leader. Muhammad Ali once called him “The only man I idolize more than myself.”
The Home Run King’s death last month prompted me to try to clearly remember those summer days as I saw them as a young child. Did I see a “Negro” (the term in use at the time) when I watched Hank Aaron on black and white TV or saw his picture in the paper? I often looked at his baseball card. I certainly saw that his face was black, but that perception, as best I recall it, was devoid of racial significance. I simply saw him as one of a group of men whose arms and bats possessed the power to whip the Yankees. I was glad he was on my team.
Having grown up in the wholly white world of the rural, small-town Midwest, I hadn’t yet been introduced to the idea of race. It was an era in which young children remained guileless much longer than they do today. It was a time when the only other skin color on TV were the “redmen” in many Westerns, usually played by white men.
With a bow to Immanuel Kant, is it possible that I couldn’t experience Hank Aaron in racial terms for lack of an a priori mental category of “race” within which to frame him. Brown v. Board of Education had already shaken society in 1954, but it wasn’t on the mind of a young boy walking along the railroad tracks with dreams of becoming a major league ballplayer.
I would enter the racialized world two years later when my family pulled up stakes and moved to Washington Court House, Ohio. The summer of 1959 proved to be very different in two respects. Sadly, the Braves lost to the Dodgers in the National League playoff series despite Hank Aaron playing in every game that year and hitting .355 with 39 home runs and 123 RBIs. And the public community swimming pool in my new town was segregated — No Blacks allowed. It also marked the first time I heard the “N-word.” Was there something in the water?
I muse on these memories as I approach the end of a long career in human services, largely spent in agencies that served African-American families, individuals, and communities. How did I get there? At the same time, the country is going through yet another reckoning with the wages of the racism that resides at the dark heart of the American experience. How do we get out of here? We would do well to reflect on the life of Hank Aaron. He had a hammer and he swung it all over this land.
— Bob Feikema lived in Monroe from 1957-59 and attended St. Victor’s school. He was born in Green Bay with family continuously living throughout the area. “I consider Wisconsin to be my home state. It’s where I learned to breathe. It’s always worth noting how even a relatively brief time in a place can have a long-lasting impact on a person.” He is currently the President and CEO of Family Services in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.