A stream of consciousness farewell to a personal icon. History is always personal.
I saw the tweet from Atlanta’s CBS affiliate and audibly yelled at my monitor. NO NO NO NO NOOOOOOO!
BREAKING NEWS: Hall of Famer and one-time home run king Atlanta Braves legend Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron passed away this morning at the age of 86. https://t.co/v72XAnGpmY
— CBS46 (@cbs46) January 22, 2021
I’ve been dreading this day for years. Henry Aaron‘s career numbers are staggering, but his outsized influence on the game, on Milwaukee and Wisconsin, on America itself, are understated by the passage of time, particularly in the wake of recent history.
Henry Aaron bought a house in Mequon, an upscale north side suburb where there were no black residents. He singlehandedly nullified an unspoken segregation by going about his business. And by all accounts, he was treated well as a resident and neighbor, in addition to being an MVP, a World Series champion, a Milwaukee Brave, a hero to the city and state. Without that moxie, Ray Allen possibly wouldn’t have taken up residence there while a beloved Milwaukee Buck. That trail was quietly blazed decades in advance.
Speaking of MVPs, it remains a core complaint of mine that Aaron should have won a second MVP in 1959. Not that Ernie Banks‘ season was anything unworthy, but that Aaron was that dominant. One could make arguments for ’56, ’58 and 1971, as well.
The Braves and Aaron left Wisconsin for Georgia three years before Lew Alcindor was drafted by the expansion Bucks. Alcindor, whom we know now of course as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was in need of a mentor in those years, through the local race riots and national tumult. It’s hard to not read between the lines when Abdul-Jabbar said his lifestyle was incompatible with Milwaukee. If the Braves stayed, Aaron could have willed the compatibility Kareem deserved, he was that capable of a social ambassador, and the story of the city, its basketball team and its greatest player not named Giannis might have been different. One can’t know, but one could imagine that the camaraderie shared by MVPs Antetokounmpo, Christian Yelich and Aaron Rodgers could have existed 50 years prior with Aaron, Abdul-Jabbar and Bart Starr. It is a testament to our progress — bumpy and strained though it has undeniably been — that it does now.
Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, would likely agree that Aaron, his boyhood idol, was every bit as good as Willie Mays. It’s a notion that requires its own space and hundreds if not thousands of words and myriad numbers crunched, but the obvious truth is that if there’s a difference between Mays and Aaron, it’s that Mays came of age in the three team era of New York baseball, and that Milwaukee was derided as an outpost out west. Bushville.
Sabermetricians tend to point to Mays, the counting stats are Aaron’s, the similarity scores on Baseball Reference indicate that they were only the same year-for-year at the end of their careers. They took unique routes to their place atop Baseball’s highest echelon, and both have tantalizing ballpark what-ifs. What if Aaron played in a friendlier home ballpark than County Stadium? Or Mays away from the congressional district-sized center field at the Polo Grounds or at frigid Candlestick Park?
We know more about Mays’ greatness because there was more media there to cover it. The provincial Milwaukee newspapers — Milwaukee and Wisconsin to this day can be extremely provincial — knew what Aaron was doing, but absent a larger platform, there’s an understandable gravity with tending toward one than the other. To wit, we know lots about Stan Musial and a host of legendary St. Louis Cardinals because The Sporting News was headquartered down the street from Sportsman’s Park and Busch Stadium. Musial was a monster, but put him, Mays or a lower-profile Hall of Famer like Joe Medwick, in Milwaukee: Do any have the same cache?
Even legends get obscured by the size of their market. True legends don’t care about these things. They just keep swinging and letting their work do the talking. Would that we all, from Twitter seamheads to commanders-in-chief, follow such an example. It’s what endeared Aaron’s Braves to blue-collar 1950s and 60s Milwaukee.
Wally Rank was a part of the inner circle of Milwaukee Braves partners and sponsors and, later, a regular sponsor of Brewers radio broadcasts. He also helped plant my roots in Wisconsin.
In researching my family’s journey, the work tied the history of Milwaukee baseball to what would be my own personal story. In recent years, I’ve been transfixed by my family heritage, both my paternal Finnish ethnic background and roots in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, particularly, my grandfather’s migration from the UP to Milwaukee in the summer of 1964. A former railroad worker turned auto mechanic, he found work at a north side dealership garage at Green Bay Avenue and Capitol Drive. Wally Rank personally hired my grandfather, Walter Sirvio. The Milwaukee Braves were long gone by the time I was born, but they in many respects are closer to my heart than the Brewers could ever be. Those players were funded indirectly by the same person who signed my grandfather’s checks.
The distance between the story of the Braves in Milwaukee and my own family’s isn’t that far. Henry Aaron, Wally Rank, Walter Sirvio, me. Only a few degrees. This is Small-waukee.
In early 2020, Henry Aaron was scheduled to make a return to the Milwaukee area for an exclusive signing event. I’ve had an Aaron Louisville Slugger bat waiting for his signature for years. The cost to even attend the event was exorbitant, as was the fee to have the bat signed. But the right decision, however obvious, wasn’t easily had: I knew that these opportunities wouldn’t be coming around many more times, if at all. It ended up too prohibitive, especially with the uncertainty of a burgeoning, looming pandemic. It wasn’t about the bat or the autograph or the value of ink on wood, but about the chance to meet an icon, someone I’ve revered and was taught to revere as a boy by my Packers-loving father, who would note just how exceptional Aaron was to the Milwaukee he knew as a teenager in the 1960s. I thought he still lived in Milwaukee; after all, he retired as a Brewer.
The bat will get encased and added to my family room wall, above original blueprints to Milwaukee County Stadium, next to Bob Uecker in the press box and an undated promotional photo of Rank from his personal collection with Rank, Aaron, the Braves and a line of shiny new Buicks in the County Stadium parking lot. The story it will tell is little more than, ‘This is a bat I found on eBay once.’ And then I’ll argue afresh Aaron’s merits as the greatest baseball player there ever was, how he should have at least two MVPs, what he did to curbstomp racism by virtue of always swinging and treating people with dignity and decency.
I never met any of them; Aaron, Rank, who passed in 2000, my own grandfather died in 1976, years before I was born across town. I can’t speak to Rank as a man, but I do know that the other two defied the adage Never meet your heroes.
Indeed, I shall not.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.