Tag Archives: Indianapolis Clowns

Hank Aaron’s Professional Debut Was in Sulphur Dell

Henry Aaron was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1982 after a career that included 25 All-Star appearances, at least a .300 batting mark in 14 seasons, hitting 30 home runs 15 times, and winning three Gold Glove Awards.

Aaron1Most notably renown for becoming baseball’s home run king on April 8, 1974 in passing Babe Ruth with his 715th, Aaron would still have more than 3,000 hits should his total of 755 home runs be removed from his hit total.

“Hammerin’ Hank” captured the National League MVP Award in 1957, won the league’s batting title in 1956 and 1959, and appeared in the World Series in 1957, 1958, and 1969.

Born on February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama, the 18-year-old, 5’11” 170-lb sensation began his march to baseball immortality as a member of the 1952 Negro American League Indianapolis Clowns. The team held spring training in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, then traveled to several cities to play exhibition games between Buffalo and Kansas City.

The Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox, and Philadelphia Stars were the other teams in the six-team league. The Clowns did not schedule games in Indianapolis, playing all games in other cities, but opening day was scheduled for May 11, 1952 as a double header against the Philadelphia Stars.

In Nashville, at Sulphur Dell. It would be Hank Aaron’s first regular-season game as a professional.

The Memphis World heralded the “newcomer Henry Aaron, the sensational 16 [sic]-year-old, will open at short…”

Memphis World 05-06-1952 Indianapolis Clowns Philadephia Stars Hank Aaron Rookie Sulphur Dell

But the Nashville Tennessean made no mention of Aaron in articles previous to and after the two games:

Tennessean 05-10-1952 Henry Aaron Sulphur Dell Indianapolis Clowns Philadelphia Stars 05-11-1952Tennessean 05-11-1952 Henry Aaron Sulphur Dell Indianapolis Clowns Philadelphia Stars 05-11-1952Tennessean 05-12-1952 Henry Aaron Sulphur Dell Indianapolis Clowns Philadelphia Stars 05-11-1952

With no report of his batting or field totals on that day in the historic ballpark, one can only guess that he began a string of games that included strategic hits and powerful blows that lent to his successful career.

Exactly one month later, on June 11, Aaron was leading the Negro American League with a .483 batting average on 15 hits, 51 total bases, five home runs, six doubles, 28 runs, and 24 RBI. On that day he was purchased by the Boston Braves for $10,000 and his major league career was off and running.

Sent to Eau Claire (Class C – Northern League), he ended his first season in organized baseball with a .336 average. In his first full year in the minors at Jacksonville (Class A – South Atlantic League) in 1953, Hank slammed 22 home runs and had 208 hits leading to a batting average of .362. He earned a trip to spring training where he caught on with the Braves who had left Boston for Milwaukee.

On April 4, 1954, Hank returned to Nashville and had two doubles, scored twice and had two RBI in an 18-14 exhibition win over the Brooklyn Dodgers. At Sulphur Dell one year later against Brooklyn, he hit a home run and a single, driving in two runs in the Dodgers 10-8 win.

In Brooklyn’s 12-2 win the next year on April 9, he had a double and an RBI. It would be four years before Aaron returned to Sulphur Dell, this time against Cincinnati before 6,763 in a 6-3 win over the Reds when he had a single and scored a run.

Aaron’s four appearances in Nashville as a member of the Braves were preceded by a particular date on the baseball calendar, May 11, 1952, when Hammerin’ Hank marked his official professional debut in the infield dirt at Sulphur Dell.

© Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Special thanks to fellow researcher, Mark Aubrey (oldknoxvillebaseball.blogspot.com)

References

Bryant, Howard. (2010). The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. New York, New York. Pantheon Books.

Vascellaro, Charlie. (2005). Hank Aaron: A Biography. Greenwood. Westport, Connecticut.

Online Sources

http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/aaron.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com

http://www.baseballhall.org

http://www.crossroadstofreedom.org

http://www.georgiaencyclopeia.org

http://www.newspapers.com

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Filed under History, Negro League, Research

Ernie Banks: Remembering Sulphur Dell

During Hall of Famer Ernie Banks’ recent visit to Nashville, he recalled playing at Sulphur Dell for the Kansas City Monarchs. Banks was on the Negro League team during the 1950 and 1953 seasons (he served in the military during 1951-1952).

“Do you remember the date?” I asked him.

“I believe it would have been 1953, but I can’t tell you what month. I do remember hitting a fly ball up on the hill in right field,” he responded.

Knowing that it would not have been entirely unusual for there to be an announcement about a Negro League game in one of Nashville’s mainstream newspapers, previous research told me that it would be unusual for the game to have been reported in the sports section.

Nor would there be a chance of a box score or any other information to have been printed.

“I’d like to find a box score or some other reference to the game”, I said. “Any thing you could remember about playing here would be helpful.”

I did not want Banks to think he was being interrogated, but experience told me that it might be helpful if he could remember which team was the Monarchs’ opponent for the game.

“Do you remember what team you were playing?” I asked.

Banks thought for a moment, looking straight at me as if he was really wanting to remember any clue he had about the game.

“I believe we were playing the Indianapolis Clowns,” he said. “If you find anything, let me know.”

Hoping I could find some reference to Ernie Banks playing with the Monarchs in Nashville, another research quest was added to my list. Perhaps some reference to a Monarchs game at Sulphur Dell could be found.

I found it. At least, I believe I did. After searching various resources I found a reference to the Kansas City Monarchs playing the Indianapolis Clowns in Nashville. It is only a small write-up and line score of a Negro League game played on August 7 – Banks is not mentioned – but nevertheless there it was. It is from the Kansas City Times, August 8, 1953:

Kansas City Times, August 8, 1953

Often it only takes a tidbit of information (and a little bit of diligence, too) to find that hidden gem. To me, it is about connecting our present to our past, and any tip, hint, or clue whets my appetite for helping to make that connection.

Since Ernie Banks recalled that the Monarchs played the Clowns, it made the difference. I hope to contact him and with the information in the article and perhaps it will produce new memories about his visit to Nashville’s Sulphur Dell.

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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