Stars come out to christen Aaron museum
Hall of Famers help ring in shrine at legend's childhood home
MOBILE, Ala. -- Hank Aaron's old house will always have a home, thanks to an unprecedented effort by his native city's Minor League baseball team.
The Mobile BayBears of the Double-A Southern League have transported the legendary slugger's childhood residence to the grounds of aptly named Hank Aaron Stadium, a 6,000-seat facility that opened in 1997. The extensively renovated single-family dwelling will now have a new lease on life as the "Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum."
Filled with mementos and artifacts donated by Aaron and his family, as well as the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Negro League Baseball Museum, this unique learning center serves as a lasting testament to a truly spectacular baseball career.
"I have had great things happen to me, but today is the greatest day I have ever had in my entire life," Aaron said.
The museum opened to the public prior to the BayBears' home opener Wednesday evening, and the long list of VIP guests on hand to celebrate the occasion included Commissioner Bud Selig and a formidable sextet of Cooperstown enshrinees: Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Rickey Henderson, Bruce Sutter, Reggie Jackson and Ozzie Smith. The Wizard is a fellow Mobile native, one of five denizens of The Azalea City to go on to a Hall of Fame baseball career.
All seven rooms of the museum are packed with memorabilia, allowing visitors to take a chronological journey through the life and times of Aaron. Baseball dominates the narrative, of course, but family heirlooms and the inherent modesty of the structure shine a light on the African-American experience in the Jim Crow South. The museum, therefore, stands as a dramatic testament to Aaron's transcendence of these circumstances.
"This is a wonderful personal honor, and I hope it inspires the boys and girls of Mobile to dream big, and to work hard so that they can see their dreams realized," said Aaron, standing on the front porch of where he used to call home.
The house, which had previously stood in Mobile's Toulminville neighborhood, had gone through many incarnations even before being converted into a museum. Aaron's father, Herbert, constructed the house in 1942, using scrap wood as his primary material. The home lacked both a kitchen and bathroom until well into its second decade, and later additions included a brick façade (since removed) and additional rooms. But the family remained put through it all, with Aaron's mother, Estella, living in the house until shortly before her death in 2005.
Alfredia Aaron-Scott, Hank's younger sister, recalled the home's humble origins during the museum's opening reception.
"My mother took wood from the dump, wood that others had abandoned," she said. "And that's the way they put it together, one room at a time. My mother would have loved [the museum]. She would enjoy the opportunity to let others see how we lived and how others lived. I want people to remember this as the home that Estella and Herbert built."
In addition to family members, the opening reception included brief speeches from five of the Hall of Fame guests.
"I always admired Hank from afar, but for more than the excitement he created on the field," Smith said. "I admire the man for his integrity; he's exemplary of what baseball should be."
Henderson simply stated that Aaron was an inspiration to every ballplayer that ever played the game, while Jackson lauded him as a "tremendous family man, tremendous husband and a great American."
Selig has enjoyed a long friendship with Aaron, one that dates back to their days together in Milwaukee.
"I've known Henry and members of his family for a long time ... as a kid I watched him hit a home run for the Milwaukee Braves that won the 1957 pennant against the St. Louis Cardinals," said Selig. "We have both been on incredible journeys, but he has become even more of an American icon than he was in 1973 or '74. He's become an American icon because of the way he's conducted himself, in every way, shape, form or manner. Every athlete who plays the game today or in the future should take a look at Henry Aaron."
The festivities soon relocated to the playing field as Aaron and the assemblage of big-name guests were introduced to the sold-out Hank Aaron Stadium crowd after being chauffeured down the first-base line in vintage automobiles.
The only player to rival Aaron's rapturous reception was the "Say Hey Kid," who lauded Aaron's positive attributes while poking fun at their advanced age.
"I still like to call you my friend," said Mays to Aaron. "Even though we cannot run."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.