When Henry Aaron died in January, the city that embraced the baseball legend for playing his first professional season there again remembered. On the plaza of Eau Claire’s 85-year-old Carson Park baseball stadium, flowers began showing up on the bronze bust of Hammerin’ Hank.
With a backdrop of snow on a winter’s day, Jerry and Lynn Poling brought silk purple flowers and a ribbon, on which they wrote, “Hank EC/52.” Next to Aaron’s hands, which are clutching a bat as he would have as an 18-year-old hitter in 1952, was a bouquet of yellow and white flowers, and on the base of the bust were more flowers and two baseballs.
“The balls and other flowers were already there,” said Jerry, who on his way home picked up the New York Times newspaper and found it had devoted five pages to Aaron’s life the day after his death on Jan. 22. Jerry said it was quite amazing and it again spoke to the importance of the career and life of Henry Aaron.
Aaron’s professional baseball career started in Eau Claire, and it can be argued that the home run king’s path to stardom and baseball’s Hall of Fame took a giant step in 1952 in the northwestern Wisconsin city of 35,000. When Aaron moved into a room at the downtown YMCA and then walked over the Chippewa River on his way to Carson Park, the teenager from Mobile, Alabama, was facing his first summer away from home and family, and his first experience living in a mostly-white city (in the 1950 census, Eau Claire had seven black residents).
Jerry Poling learned much about that summer, having devoted parts of several years of his life to researching the story of Aaron’s three months in Eau Claire in 1952, when the young hitting star amazed Sawdust City’s baseball fans and those throughout the Northern League’s Upper Midwest. Two years later, Aaron would be a rookie with the Milwaukee Braves.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Jerry’s book, “A Summer up North,” was published. Inspired by the crowd of 5,000 people who packed Carson Park for Aaron’s appearance at his statue unveiling in 1994, Poling set out to chronicle “Henry Aaron and the Legend of Eau Claire Baseball,” as stated on the book cover. Besides the facts and figures of Aaron’s 1952 season, what the book portrays is how the quiet teenager was accepted in Eau Claire while making his transition from the segregated South to life among white people in the North.
Jerry tells the story beautifully and in detail, not only about Aaron but of what Eau Claire looked like in the early 1950s, when fans packed Carson Park’s stadium to watch the Bears, renamed the Braves in 1954. Poling says had it not been for Eau Claire’s role of acceptance in Aaron’s young life, the future star may have given up on pro baseball and returned home to Mobile, or gone back to the Indianapolis Clowns, an all-black touring baseball team he hooked up with in the spring of 1952, before the Boston Braves — soon to be the Milwaukee Braves — came calling. By June of that year, Aaron was playing with the Braves’ farm team, the Eau Claire Bears.
“Most people have a point when they leave home, for college, for work or for the service, when they have to prove they can make it on their own,” said Poling. “That  was the year for Aaron. He was put to the test. He had never lived in a white city, never been in a white home, never faced a white pitcher. He had a big hill to climb. He proved himself. When he left here he was full of confidence.”
Poling was born in Eau Claire, but his family moved to La Crosse when he was 9 years old in 1967. He returned to Eau Claire 15 years later as a sports reporter at the Leader-Telegram, later becoming a news wire editor and columnist. Poling was part of a small city contingent that flew to Minneapolis on Aug. 17, 1994, to meet Aaron and accompany him to Eau Claire for “Hammerin’ Hank’s Homecoming.”
Aaron was straight-faced on the plane from Minneapolis to Eau Claire, probably thinking, said Poling, he was headed for just another perfunctory appearance he had to do as a former baseball star and ambassador of the game.
“I don’t think he realized how special that day was going to be to him. When we turned off Menomonie Street where the Dairy Queen is, the road into Carson Park was lined with cars,” Poling recalls. “As we got closer to the stadium, all these people were walking that way. Aaron looked around and said, ‘You have quite a crowd here today.’”
Yes, it was quite the day for the city where Aaron played baseball for only three months but whose residents will always say the shy and talented teenager got his start and showed his first hint of stardom. Aaron embraced that day. In one of his several conversations with Aaron, whom Poling always found to be gracious, dignified and just plain nice, he said, “A lot of things happened to me in my 23 years as a ballplayer, but nothing touched me more than that day in Eau Claire.”
That’s because, as Poling makes the strong argument in his book, of the city’s acceptance of the lonely teenager that summer of 1952. Poling said that Eau Claire was not a perfect city then, nor now, in terms of racial issues, but that “Aaron was treated well and accepted by the majority of Eau Claire citizens.”
Aaron said the same to Poling. “If people had not accepted me in Eau Claire, my career would have stumbled a little bit. I don’t know what would have happened to me in baseball.”
He was treated especially well by Leader-Telegram sports editor Clell “Buzz” Buzzell and his wife, Joyce. After Buzz picked Aaron up at the airport in 1952, he took him to his home. Joyce later recalled how Aaron was so scared he was shaking; it was the first time Aaron had been in the home of white people. By the end of the summer, he was a regular Sunday night dinner guest at the Buzzells, where he played with their children. Fifty years later, when Buzz died, Aaron sent a card to Joyce.
And then there was the Arnold and Blanche Hauck family, and Aaron’s friendship with their daughter, Susan. Aaron met her as he walked the 1.3 miles from the YMCA to Carson Park, across the bridge and along Grand Avenue. It was a friendship that went as far as it could, relates Poling, to holding hands on summer nights in the Haucks’ front porch. It was another step for Aaron, and it led to an uneasy incident in nearby Elk Mound with white teenage boys, an incident defused by Susan and her friends.
When Aaron left Eau Claire after the statue dedication in 1994, he asked the pilot if they could fly over Elk Mound. Years later he asked Poling about Susan Hauck, and Poling ends his book with a touching recount of Aaron’s reaction.
Poling’s book, available through Amazon and the publisher The University of Wisconsin Press, is among the top 100 baseball biographies on Amazon. Poling, who is now communications manager at UW-Stout in Menomonie but continues to live in Eau Claire, has also written two books on the Green Bay Packers: “Downfield” and “After They Were Packers,” along with a history of UW-Stout.
Poling said he remains satisfied with the story he told, and its accuracy, in “A Season Up North.” He said the way Eau Claire people treated Aaron and two other black players on the team figured largely in their success.
When Aaron spoke to the crowd at the statue dedication in 1994, he told of his work with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and emphasized that “the greatest commodity we have are our children.” What a contributor to society Aaron had become. As another baseball season dawns, Poling says, “All people are important to society. How we treat and accept each other can make a difference.”
Greschner is a retired sports editor for The Chronotype and writes about the outdoors and nature, including for his blog at davegreschneroutdoorjournal.org.