I picked Hank Aaron as my favorite baseball player in 1959 when I was five years old. I’m pretty sure about the year because I’m pretty sure the data I used to guide me was on his 1959 Topps baseball card. At the time baseball was at the center of my life with the neighborhood kids. Most were older than me, and they all had favorite players, like Mickey Mantle. Spittle would spatter from Bobby Gilmore’s mouth when he spoke Mantle’s name. It meant that much.
I wanted a favorite player, too, but I didn’t know how you get one. I was aware of only one guiding principal: your favorite player is on your favorite team. So mine was on the Milwaukee Braves, an unusual choice in the Yankee country I grew up in. I now assume they were my favorite team because my parents were from Boston, where the Braves originated. I don’t recall my Dad ever pushing me towards the Braves or even mentioning them. I surmised later in life that as a kid he was more a Braves fan than Red Sox fan, and even that I never heard him say directly.
Regardless, the Braves were an easy team to like in 1959. They beat the Yankees in the ‘57 World Series, lost to them in the ‘58 Series, and they were in the thick of the pennant race again in ‘59. Plus they had the best uniforms, with the embroidered tomahawk across the chest, the laughing Brave on the sleeve, the hat with blue top and red brim, and the extensive piping that even traced the players’ belt loops.
So my quest for a favorite player was narrowed down to a single 25-man roster—actually to a handful of the team’s better players.
How to pick one? In those days of one televised game a week, we had little to go on. I remember asking one of the older guys for advice. His response: you can judge how good a player is by the number at the bottom of the third column from the right on the back of his baseball card. (That’s his home run total.)
I didn’t fully trust this advice. Home runs aren’t even a stat for pitchers, so they were all ruled out. And what about all those other numbers? They must mean something, too. But the older guys knew more than I did, and I had nothing else to go by. So I checked the home run totals on my cards.
Using that criteria, you’d think Hank Aaron would have been a lock, given that he eventually broke Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs. But at that time, Aaron was in only his sixth year, and his 140 home runs put him third on the team behind third baseman Eddie Mathews with 253 and first baseman Joe Adcock at 156.
So why did I pick Aaron? I have 1959 baseball cards of Mathews and Adcock, so I would have seen that their home run totals were greater than Aaron’s. Maybe I hadn’t gotten those cards yet when I made the decision? Maybe I didn’t trust that home runs alone could determine the best player and there was some intangible that made me go for Aaron? I don’t remember. But I do remember getting confirmation from an older guy that Aaron’s totals made him a “good” player. That was the stamp of approval that finalized my decision.
In retrospect, I’m fascinated that my pseudo scientific approach landed me on the guy who broke one of baseball’s most cherished records. And that despite starting with a rather mild commitment, I quickly came to obsess over him, the way you’re supposed to obsess over your favorite player. He had a great career, and his playing days lasted into my early 20s, about the time my baseball passions began to wane (they returned later in life), so our baseball peaks aligned pretty well. And I got to see him play twice, in the 1961 All Star Game at Fenway Park, Boston, and in the 1963 Hall of Fame Game against the Boston Red Sox in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he homered with a line drive that just cleared the left field fence while playing in a lineup that included his younger brother, Tommie.
I’m also fascinated that in the very year (1959) when Pumpsie Green joined the Red Sox to finally integrate every major league baseball team, when racial segregation was still the rule for many public accommodations in the South, I chose a Black man as my favorite player. Apparently in Hank Aaron’s baseball card picture I saw nothing but a great player. I had no preconceptions based on race, no awareness of racial stereotypes.
Yes, growing up in an all-white suburb as I did, I would learn the stereotypes soon enough. But the memory of choosing to align with Hank Aaron preceded all that. And he delivered in a much bigger way than I or anyone else expected. I still keep this in my mind. Like a touchstone.
Image at the top of the page is a 1959 Topps baseball card showing Hank Aaron, hitting a home run in the fourth game of the 1957 World Series. The other player pictured is Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, who was my older brother, Scott’s, favorite player at the time, making this a pretty special card in our family. Image at the bottom of the page is from my neighborhood.