For a time in the early 1970s, there were more than a half-dozen major leaguers from Mobile and the surrounding area.
The greatest of them all was Hank Aaron, the legendary Baseball Hall of Famer, Home Run King and Atlanta Braves icon who died Friday at age 86. Aaron held the game’s most-hallowed record for more than 30 years, had a long career as a baseball executive and was regarded as a kind and dignified man by those who knew him.
One of Aaron’s long-time friends was Cleon Jones, who first met Aaron as a 12-year-old in 1954 when Aaron — then a 20-year-old rookie with the then-Milwaukee Braves — came to an assembly at Jones’ junior high school. Jones got to shake Aaron’s hand that day, and did so again 15 years later when they were both in the starting lineup for the National League in the 1969 All-Star Game.
“When Hank visited my school, that was the highlight of my life to that point,” said Jones, who played for the New York Mets from 1963-75. “It was at that time I realized that I wanted to be a professional baseball player. … From that day to this one, he was my favorite ballplayer. And not only that, but to play against him and be in the lineup with him for the All-Star Game, how lucky I was to be from the same hometown, and to be called his friend.”
Jones and childhood friend Tommie Agee were starting outfielders for the 1969 World Series champion “Miracle” Mets, with fellow Mobilian Amos Otis also a reserve player on the team. The Mets squared off in the 1969 National League Championship Series with the Braves, who had Hank Aaron and his 44 home runs in the middle of the order and brother Tommie Aaron coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter and back-up first baseman.
Jones’ Mets swept past the Braves and went on to win the World Series over the Baltimore Orioles, but it wasn’t because of any failings by Hank Aaron. “The Hammer” went 5-for-14 with two doubles, three home runs and seven RBIs in the three-game series. (“We got everybody out but Hank Aaron,” Jones remembered with a chuckle.)
In addition to Jones, Agee, Otis, and the Aaron brothers, fellow Mobilians Willie McCovey (San Francisco Giants), Billy Williams (Chicago Cubs) and Jim Mason (New York Yankees) were all major-league regulars at the same time in the early 1970s. The younger players had been following Aaron since their childhood days, and looked upon him as a mentor, Jones said.
“If you lived in the Black community, every ballpark you went to, Hank had hit one there,” Jones said. “And they told you the distance and the date on which it happened. There’s a million stories about Hank I could tell.”
Five years after Jones and Aaron met in the NLCS, on April 8, 1974, Aaron hit his iconic 715th home run to surpass Babe Ruth as baseball’s all-time leader. Aaron had famously endured racist hate mail and death threats during his home run chase, and later said he was more “relieved” than happy after he set the record.
But Aaron’s record-setting home run was a transcendent moment and source of inspiration for countless Black Mobilians, including a future mayor. Sam Jones was 16 years old at the time, and would be elected his city’s first African-American mayor in 2005.
“He brought a lot of attention to Mobile,” Jones said. “He was one of the most well-known baseball players in the world. Even though Mobile has a number of baseball players in the Hall of Fame, he was the person everybody knew, because of his international notoriety. I remember taking a ‘Sister City’ trip to Ichihara, Japan, and the mayor there said ‘if you want to do something for us, send us an autographed ball from Hank Aaron.’ And we did. They displayed it in a very prominent place in their city hall.”
Sam Jones was instrumental in having Aaron’s childhood home preserved and moved from its original site in the Toulminville neighborhood onto the grounds of Hank Aaron Stadium — home of the Mobile BayBears minor-league baseball team — in 2010. Aaron returned to Mobile for the dedication of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum and an on-field ceremony prior to that night’s BayBears game, an event attended by numerous other Hall-of-Famers such as Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Willie Mays and Ozzie Smith, a Mobile native who grew up in California.
Sam Jones was there that night as well, and said he could tell the event meant a lot to Aaron. The two stayed close over the years, with Aaron holding a fundraiser in Atlanta during Jones’ first mayoral campaign and appearing in several television commercials endorsing his candidacy.
“He never forgot that he was from Mobile,” said Jones, who is now a member of the Alabama House of Representatives. “It’s a great loss to all of us throughout the country, but especially those of us from Mobile. I’ll miss him and his kind ways.”
He’s someone who I had a tremendous amount of respect for and was honored to call a friend.”
Some twenty years after Aaron’s big-league career ended, another player with Mobile ties made the team with the Atlanta Braves. Mike Mordecai, an All-American at South Alabama who grew up in Birmingham, was a utility infielder for the Braves from 1994-97, winning a World Series championship ring in 1995.
As a reserve player much of his career, Mordecai was often asked to participate in pre-game ceremonies with visiting dignitaries. On one such occasion, he was the catcher for a ceremonial first pitch thrown by none other than Hank Aaron.
“It was surreal for me,” Mordecai said. “As a baseball player, he put his pants on the same way I do, but this guy was one of the all-time greats. I watched him on television growing up. To think ‘here I am having a conversation with him and shaking hands with him’ … it was really something. When you think about everything he went through and all he accomplished, he had all that wisdom. … I hoped that I could accomplish a quarter of what he did. Of course I didn’t, but I got to play in the major leagues for a while, and we shared that. And that’s really cool.”
Aaron’s legacy has lived on in Mobile not only with the museum and Hank Aaron Stadium, which was built in 1997. The Henry Aaron Loop along Broad Street in downtown Mobile has borne his name since 1977, and there has been informal talk of possibly renaming the Wallace Tunnel that connects Mobile to the Eastern Shore after Aaron.
The BayBears left Mobile for the Huntsville area after the 2019 season, leaving Hank Aaron Stadium empty most of the year. One of the driving forces behind continuing to draw events to the stadium is the Mobile Sports and Entertainment Group, headed up by former BayBears assistant general manager Ari Rosenbaum.
“This is crushing for me personally, but also for all of us at Hank Aaron Stadium,” Rosenbaum said. “It was an honor to meet him and work with him on bringing his childhood home to the stadium and making it into a museum. Maintaining a stadium with his name above the door is an honor for all of us.
“He always said it was a blessing to have his name on a stadium in his hometown. And I think it made him really happy that his childhood home was preserved the way that it was.”