JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Ron Salem has been a fan of Hank Aaron since he was kid.
Now more than ever, Salem, a Jacksonville City Council at-large member, said that he wants people to remember the iconic former Atlanta Braves star and the time that he spent in town in 1953.
Salem wants those here to remember Aaron’s time in town, both the good and the bad. Aaron had a remarkable season on the field then but had to endure the racism of the 1950′s segregated South.
Aaron’s death on Jan. 22 was international news. The baseball hall of famer and one of the most beloved players in sports history was 86.
But many don’t know or only loosely know, of Aaron’s ties to Jacksonville. Long before ‘Hammerin’ Hank’ became a household name, he spent one season playing for the Jacksonville Braves at J.P. Small Park, and was one of five players credited with breaking the color barrier in the South Atlantic League that season.
Salem is proposing that the city name the baseball grounds at J.P. Small Park in Durkeeville, Hank Aaron Field. It’s the right time to honor Aaron, Salem said, an incremental and long overdue, but much-needed step in the city’s history.
“I don’t think we’ve treated our African-American history here in Jacksonville very well, particularly our sports history here in Jacksonville,” Salem said Monday morning. “I hope this is a start to sort of rectify that. And we just need to try and build on it.”
Aaron, along with Horace Garner and Felix Mantilla, were the first three Black players to play for Jacksonville in the SAL. Fleming Reedy and Al Israel were the two others who broke the color barrier in the SAL in 1953 when they played with Savannah.
Salem’s interest in this stretches back years, but Aaron’s death has renewed the focus on highlighting his time in town.
Salem said that he hoped to invite Aaron to Jacksonville to be honored at a Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp game, first in 2019, and then again in 2020. Cancellations ultimately prevented that.
“I hope it shows where Jacksonville is, I hope we can at this point,” Salem said. “This is just the start for me. I want to try to get with Major League Baseball and contact the Braves and let them know what we’ve done and to see what interest we can generate in them participating and maybe some changes to the park.”
Salem’s proposal wouldn’t change the actual name of the park, which is named for former Stanton teacher, athletic director and coach, James P. Small.
Small worked at Stanton in all of those capacities from 1934 to 1969. In July of 1980, the city rededicated the park and changed its name from Durkee Field to bear the name of Small.