It would have been a perfect night for baseball if the other team had showed. A fierce storm in Minneapolis during the week had kept the visiting team home to mop up. It was little league night and the home team, the Cavaliers, was playing catch with the 40 or so young boys.
I heard someone say it was nice of the team to stick around and play with them. A couple of the players, one on second, and another on first, were practicing. The player on second was scooping up grounders rolled to him by one of the little leaguers. The man on first would throw it back and the one on second would toss it to one of the boys who would roll it back to him.
Carson Park is a movie set. The only thing missing is a corn field. The horseshoe shaped stands cover the bleachers behind home plate. The emerald, green field frames the brown diamond and white bases, a field of dreams. When games do happen there is a small group of enthusiastic fans. A few games during the summer are sponsored by local businesses and there are drawings for prizes. On these nights there is usually a good-sized crowd maybe a couple of hundred people. The average game drew less than a hundred.
I sat with the small crowd in the stands watching the Cavaliers play catch and give advice to the little leaguers. This was real baseball, and the Cavaliers were real heroes. When I watch the Cavs play their opponents, I see the same intensity that is present when the Minnesota Twins are at work. The same love for the game.
Hank Aaron started his major league career in this park with the Eau Claire Bears, a farm team for the then Milwaukee Braves. The community commissioned a statue depicting the young Aaron bat in hand looking out toward his future. The first time Aaron was scheduled to dedicate the memorial he missed his plane from Atlanta. There were hints that Aaron was arrogant and that maybe he had less than fond memoirs as a black man in Eau Claire in the 1950s. It was also reported that he was an angry man. He had a case. As he approached breaking Babe Ruth’s record of sixty home runs in a season, he received telephone death threats. And he never did seem to get the recognition due him. But he did come to Eau Claire.
Hank Aaron began his journey to the big leagues in 1952, when he played shortstop for the Eau Claire Bears. That year Hank hit .336 with nine home runs and was selected as rookie of the year for the Northern League. In 1955 the Milwaukee Braves called him up. In April of 1974 he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record when he banged number 715 over the wall in Atlanta. On August 17, 1994, he came to Eau Claire to the dedication of a statue. Situated in front of the Carson Park baseball stadium he looked out with his bat on his shoulder, into the future.
The day Aaron pulled in, like this night, the little leaguers were on the field. They continued to play while the local politicians and other leaders stood with Aaron around the statue. Then they walked through the door of the classic old stadium. As the adults entered the little leaguers stopped their play and stood aside. Some of the boys stood with their baseball gloves hanging at their sides other with bats on their shoulders or leaning against them.
The official party organized themselves in front of the pitcher’s mound. The head of the city council and other who had been instrumental in the statue spoke about their high regard for Aaron and their gratitude for his return. Then it was his turn. He thanked the officials for recognizing his accomplishments in baseball then he said all of that was not important. He said what was important was enjoying the game and being a person who contributed to the world. The little leaguers stood silent as if they were together with the great slugger in a painting. And it was a moment of art. Baseball historian Jerry Poling captured Aaron’s reflections on that day, “A lot of things have happened to me in my 23 years as a ball player, but nothing touched me more than that day in Eau Claire.”
I was 12 when Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves. I was living on forty-acre farm two miles from Utica, a hamlet twenty miles southwest of Madison. After coming home from high school in Stoughton, I helped my stepdad Dick with the milking. After supper I would end my summer day listening to the Braves. I lay on the floor next to my little red plastic radio listening to Earl Gillespie do play by play. When I was 14 my mother’s sister, Ellen Jacobson and her husband Palmer, along with their friends Phyllis and Kelly Sperle took me to Milwaukee County Stadium to see the Braves. I saw Hank Aaron that night. I have a photo of the 1957 team and can still name most of the players today.
When I lived in Eau Claire, my connection to the game was at Carson Park. I attended a couple of games a year. It’s a restorative experience to join the usual small crowd. I’d have a cold beer, a hot dog, peanuts, and savor the sight of the players in white dotting the green field.
One year I was joined at a game by two friends Jerry Price and Jack O’Connell. During our conversation we realized that none of us had won an athletic letter in high school. We thought it unfortunate that men like us never got the recognition we deserved. We had decent careers and married great woman all without that coveted letter. That night we formed the Men’s Athletic Club or MAC. Only men who had never got a letter were allowed in. At its peak the club had eight members. Jack and I took the lead to design and produce our special shirts. They had pockets, of course, we needed them for our reading glasses. On the front the word “Men’s Athletic Club.” The names of the places where the member lived were on the back: St. Paul, Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, and Prescott. It was Jack’s Idea that we put “We Don’t Fold” of the back.
For 10 years or so we met at the park, each of us bringing something for our picnic. Our wives refused to be called the “Maccetes” and had reservations about their husband’s ability to organize their pre-game picnic. Wayne’s partner, Barb Powers, assumed that she would contribute desert, so she sent a delicious chocolate cake along with Wayne. As a result, every meeting concluded with a delicious slice of “the cake.” After our meal and a discussion, sometimes about health care, we would proceed to the game, watch five innings and head home.
The club met yearly for 10 years. After Jack died of stomach cancer the life went out of it and we folded it up. We did fold after all.
Richard Cornell is the author of The Chippewa: Biography of a Wisconsin Waterway (2018) published by the Wisconsin Historical Society. In 2010 he self-published Finding my father—A War Orphan’s Journey. He produced the documentary film Cray Research in Chippewa Falls: A Supercomputer Story, available on You Tube.
He has a BA in business and economics from University of Wisconsin, Whitewater; an MA in curriculum development from Western Michigan University and an ABD in Organizational Behavior at U Mass Amherst MA.