JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron has a connection with the River City: He played one season with the Jacksonville Braves in 1953.
Following the death of the iconic sporting figure, News4Jax on Sunday spoke with the sons of a batboy for the Braves that year about the impact Aaron had on them and Jacksonville.
“Hammerin’ Hank” will forever be remembered for dethroning Babe Ruth to become baseball’s home run king on the way to 755. But for the Brigances, Aaron’s year on the diamond in the Durkeeville neighborhood is one they will never forget thanks to their late father, Howie Brigance Sr.
“He was Mr. Aaron’s batboy when he was 14 years old,” said Howie Brigance Jr.
Jerry Brigance said: “He taught my dad a lot of lessons -- from a 19-year-old man to teaching a 14-year-old kid some lessons -- that my dad ended up sharing with us. That’s pretty special.”
Aaron once played for the Class A Jacksonville Braves, breaking the South Atlantic League color barrier, according to the Jumbo Shrimp. In his lone season in Jacksonville, Aaron hit 22 home runs, 36 doubles, 14 triples and a .362 average to earn MVP honors.
Aaron and the Braves played their games at Durkee Field in Jacksonville. That park, on the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Eighth Street, is now known as J.P. Small Memorial Park.
“Dad had a lot of stories from there on playing catch with Mr. Aaron. It was more practice than games. Mr. Aaron hit a home run, and he ran out and got a bat, so that was a thrill for dad, as well,” said Howie Brigance Jr.
He broke the color barrier in the South Atlantic League with the 1953 Jacksonville Braves and went on to lead the league in runs (115), hits (208), doubles (36), RBI (125), total bases (338) avg (.362) and was named the league MVP as the Braves won the SAL title.— Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (@JaxShrimp) January 22, 2021
RIP Hank Aaron pic.twitter.com/VIsO2sncJV
A photo with the caption “Jax Braves Sally League Champions 1953″ shows Howie Brigance Sr. on the left in the front row. On the far right in the back row is Aaron. Above him is an autograph.
“It was always displayed in dad’s house, and when he passed away, we took it on, and it’s a keepsake for us,” Howie Brigance Jr. “That means a lot to a lot of people, and it means just as much to us as it does to players and coaches and who all is in that picture.”
Jerry Brigance remembers his father talking about the adversity Aaron faced during his time with the Jacksonville team.
“There were three people of a different race on that team that year, and they could not eat in the restaurants and they would have to ride at the back of the bus and they would stay in a different hotel room, different hotel in general, so a very difficult time for those guys,” Jerry Brigance said. “Mr. Aaron was here for one year and then he moved up. He overcame that adversity.”
Exuding grace and dignity, Aaron spoke bluntly but never bitterly on the many hardships thrown his way -- from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the ugly, racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records.
“Just to think that adversity that Mr. Aaron overcame -- and it was not easy on him as a 19-year-old boy to go through what he did -- and he overcame it and succeeded and became very, very successful and popular,” Jerry Brigance said. “In most people’s opinion, he was the greatest home run hitter ever.”
Just 2 ½ weeks before his death Friday at age 86, Aaron joined civil rights icons to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He wanted to spread the word to the Black community that the shots were safe in the midst of a devastating pandemic.