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The bronzed statue of Henry Aaron.
The bronzed statue of Henry Aaron.

Overfield & Billoni recognize Hank Aaron's contributions to baseball, Buffalo

Wed, May 29th 2024 07:55 pm

By Michael J. Billoni

Senior Contributing Writer

Outside the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum last Friday, we met a graceful Billye Aaron, the widow of Henry Lewis “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron to present a plaque, titled, “Henry Aaron’s Connection with Buffalo, New York.” It was one day after a bronze statue of her husband was unveiled, and moments before the ribbon would be cut on the museum’s newest exhibit, “The Souls of the Game: The Voices of Black Baseball.”

The plaque was created by Dr. James H. Overfield, Ph.D. and me, editors of the book “The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball 1857-2020.”

Aaron’s connection to the Queen City began in 1952 inside the former Offermann Stadium, located at Masten and Woodlawn avenues in east Buffalo. He was an 18-year-old, power-hitting shortstop, who was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934, idolizing baseball great Jackie Robinson.

He signed with the barnstorming Indianapolis Clowns of the Black American League and, for some unknown reason, the Clowns made Buffalo home in 1952. According to Randy Anderson, Chautauqua County Hall of Fame president, the Clowns even played one game, without Aaron, in Jamestown that summer.

In his biography, “I Had a Hammer,” Aaron refers to his summer in Buffalo as “My home base.” He was being heavily recruited by Major League Baseball scouts and wanted to sign with the New York Giants and join his friend, Willie Mays. However, the Boston Braves signed him for $350 per month – $100 more than the Giants had offered.

As the former general manager of the Buffalo Bisons, I was involved in old-timer games in 1985 at War Memorial Stadium and 1988 at Pilot Field when Aaron participated, earning him the distinction as the only member of baseball’s Hall of Fame to play in Buffalo’s three ballparks dating back nearly 75 years.

The plaque presented to Mrs. Aaron, Henry Aaron Jr., the presidents of the Baseball and Negro League Museum Hall of Fames.


The plaque includes a photo of the Offermann Stadium landmark that hangs outside Performing Arts School today; four black and white photos of Offermann Stadium; a photo of Aaron in his Clowns uniform and a baseball card of him from the 1985 old-timers game, which was part of the Bisons’ centennial celebration. Underneath those photos is one taken in that 1985 game by C. Douglas Hartmayer, the retired director of public affairs at the NFTA and a member of the Cardinal O’Hara High School Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame.

Mrs. Aaron, accompanied by her granddaughter and aspiring television journalist, Emily Haydel, was extremely appreciative and her eyes lit up when she saw the photo of her husband with Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame legend from the Chicago Cubs.

“They were close friends,” she said quietly.

When asked if her husband ever spoke about his year with the Clowns in Buffalo, she replied, “Briefly. Henry did not like to talk much about himself or his accomplishments.”

Michael J. Billoni presenting a plaque to Mrs. Billye Aaron, widow of Henry “Hank” Aaron.


Asked for her reaction when the Hall of Fame unveiled “Keep Swinging,” a bronze statue of her husband, created by nationally renowned sculptor William Behrends, “It was just amazing,” Mrs. Aaron said. “It is a feeling one has difficulty describing. I am so, so proud this has come about and now Henry will be here, in the Hall of Fame Museum, for everyone to see. I was so glad our family members and friends from Atlanta were here to share this wonderful experience with us.”

Aaron retired in 1976 after playing 21 seasons for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves in the National League and the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League. At the time of his retirement, Aaron held most of the game’s key career power-hitting records, including the most famous one, breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714 on April 8, 1974, when he hit number 715 in Atlanta against the Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Al Dowling. Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs, a record that stood for 33 years until Barry Bonds eclipsed it during the so-called steroid era.

Reflecting on his post-playing career, Mrs. Aaron said her husband was most fond of their Chasing the Dream Foundation they founded to inspire young people to develop their skills and pursue their passions. It annually presents The Dreamchaser Scholarship to students with limited financial capabilities from all over the country.

Michael J. Billoni presenting a plaque to Henry Aaron Jr., son of the Hall of Fame great.


That point was echoed by first-born son, Henry Aaron Jr., whom we also presented with a plaque.

“As much as my dad was proud of his baseball accomplishments, he was extremely proud he was able to put 77 students through college with Dreamchaser scholarships from the foundation,” Aaron Jr. said proudly. “Education was very important to him, but he would always tell me it was much more important to be a better person than a better baseball player.”

Michael J. Billoni presenting a plaque to Josh Rawitch, president of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.


Josh Rawitch, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, was most proud to see Aaron’s statue unveiled in the hall on the same weekend as “The Souls of the Game; Voices of Black Baseball” exhibit opened, and the former Negro League East vs. West all-star baseball game was recreated with former big-league ballplayers on Saturday inside Doubleday Park.

“The statue unveiling was an unbelievable experience,” Rawitch said after receiving a copy of our book and plaque for the Hall of Fame Museum. “To have Billye here and so many family members were extremely special. You could see how touched Billye was to look up at Hank and realize what he had done both on and off the field and now he is going to be part of this Hall of Fame forever.”

Jane Forbes Clark, the Hall of Fame’s chairman, said, “Henry Aaron is a player whose off-the-field legacy has only grown more powerful since his incredible playing career ended almost 50 years ago.”

After signing with the Braves – five seasons after Robinson had integrated the all-white Major League – Aaron became the first Black player in the Southern Atlantic League. He grew up the son of sharecropper parents in Mobile, a hotbed of baseball, as well as the indignities of the Jim Crow Era.

When he was here in 1985, I arranged a meet and greet with Aaron and several of our elderly Bison baseball fans. Aaron spoke bluntly, but not bitterly, about the racism he experienced throughout his career, including death threats he endured during his pursuit of Ruth’s homer record.

He vowed to continue advocating for change, such as the lack of minorities in the front office or ownership of professional sports teams. Whatever the topic, Aaron always presented himself with class and humility.

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