The most important things happen when nobody is looking. It has ever been so.
Jerry Poling’s winsome and poignant tale of an 18-year-old, skinny-as-a-rail African American boy from Mobile, Alabama making his break into professional baseball in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1952 rescues some of those things from the obscurity that persistently enshrouds.
My father was a relief pitcher for the Superior (Wisconsin) Blues that year. He too was breaking into professional ball with a wicked curve ball that by some accounts had the future Hank Aaron stymied. Raymond ‘Cool as a Cucumber’ Baer is not mentioned in Poling’s eminently readable volume. Yet the fact that Dad was on the field during some of the games that Poling narrates provides corroboration of boyhood memories of tales spun that is almost eery in its impact.
Eau Claire, like most of the decent cities that dot the heartland of this nation, was in 1952 capable of racial pettiness as well. Few whites in the industrial core of Wisconsin had met a black man. Aaron, more boy than man, walked uninvited into their lives, struggling to decide whether it was worth all that. But boy could the kid from Mobile hit a baseball.
Truth be told, Poling—a gifted, almost lyrical writer—tells more than one tale here. There is Aaron breaking a color barrier that Jackie Robinson had, for all his formidable courage, barely begun to erase. There is the pennant race in central and northern Wisconsin, won in the end by my father’s Blues in spite of the hard-hitting shortstop who now bolstered the Eau Claire lineup.
There is, as well, Poling’s journey with his son in more recent times to discover what remains of professional baseball in the upper Midwest. There is the tracing of the trajectory of the man who would become ‘Hammerin’ Hank’, enigma abounding along the way.
But most of all there is the gentle probing under the rocks and topsoil that was and remains Midwestern America. Fittingly, Poling ends his chronicle by touching upon Aaron’s belated phone call to Susan Hauck, the daughter of an Eau Claire family possessed of an untimely recognition that we humans are all the same, regardless of race. Aaron had held hands with young Susan, a man’s black hand encasing the soft whiteness of a young woman in his on the front porch of the Hauck home. The best of America appears in the lines with which Poling narrates the Hauck family’s embrace of Henry Aaron as a man just like them.
In reading this engaging piece of sports writing, I come across the names of two Cuban teammates of my Dad about whom I heard stories as a kid: José Bustamante and Alfredo Ibáñez. I will find them one day, or their families if they are already gone, in Cuba, a country I visit frequently. I will present them with newspaper clippings and photos from the summer of ’52. My pursuit, not unlike Jerry Poling’s, is one of recovery, of rescue, of honoring a past that—while no one is watching—disappears from all recall.
There is gold in them thar’ hills. Poling sifts for it with the confidence of a grizzled miner. Henry would go on to baseball immortality, leaving teammates and competitors like ‘Fireman Ray’ to remember Aaron’s brief, blazing ascent to glory while they themselves accommodated themselves to more ordinary altitudes.
It would all be forgotten were it not for the Jerry Polings of this world, a place in which journalism still matters because men showing up night after night to play ball on half the salary of the average factory worker, Iowa field trips, extra innings in Carson Park, and a Home Run King’s earliest innings once mattered. Still do. Still must.