Managing to set a mark all his own

Aug. 13, 1973
Aug. 13, 1973

Table of Contents
Aug. 13, 1973

Hottest Guns
Pro Football
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Managing to set a mark all his own

By Larry F. Keith

Any resemblance to his older brother is hidden behind a camouflage of balding pate, sagging paunch and drooping mustache. He can still play his brother's game well enough, but after 10 seasons at places such as Eau Claire and Cedar Rapids he is no longer young enough to hope for another chance to join him at the top.

This is an article from the Aug. 13, 1973 issue Original Layout

That 34-year-old Tommie Aaron never fulfilled the promise he showed year after year in the minors may be due in part to the unhappy consequence of having lived his adult life in fraternal shadow, possessing the name and the inclination, but not the ability. "I am 'Henry-Aaron's-brother-Tommie Aaron,' " he says, recalling countless introductions, "and it took a while to get used to."

Tommie is finally receiving recognition for being something more than the lesser half of the most prolific home-run-hitting brother combination ever (Henry 701, Tommie 13). In Savannah, Ga., which once abandoned minor league baseball rather than seat whites with blacks at Grayson Stadium, Aaron has become perhaps the most highly regarded black manager in baseball. Because of that, there may soon come a day when he will no longer be confused with a home-run hitter or a Masters champ. He has begun his march where Sherman's ended.

First Baseman Aaron's move up from player-coach to player-manager of the Double A Southern League team began late one rainy June afternoon this season when Savannah General Manager Miles Wolff learned that Field Manager Clint Courtney was being transferred to fill an unexpected vacancy with the Braves' Triple A franchise in Richmond. The parent club had another man in mind for the Savannah job, but word of the opening provoked a spontaneous civic campaign for Aaron. Wolff, Courtney, local Sports Editor Marcus Holland and one member of the team's board of directors, Julius S. Fine, all made calls to Atlanta in support of Tommie, who sat silently while others lobbied in his behalf. He was among the crowd in Wolff's little office only because he had come to the park for his paycheck. After deliberations in Atlanta, Aaron was named manager of the Savannah Braves about 6 p.m. that same day, thus surpassing in classification at least two other blacks then managing Class A teams.

"They wanted me to ask for the job myself, but that didn't seem right," says Tommie. "Of course I wanted it. I had been thinking about a managing career for the last several years."

It is Tommie's easy rapport with players and knowledge of baseball that made him the people's choice for the Savannah job. The team responded by winning a doubleheader from Jacksonville the first day under Aaron and has remained a contender for its division title.

Two questions inevitably arose when Aaron was named: Was he promoted because of his brother? Would he have difficulty handling a predominantly white team in a Southern town? In fact, Henry was not notified of the promotion until it had already been made, and the wide-ranging community and team acceptance quashed the possibility of racial discord.

"All of Tommie's actions have seemed to make one point: 'I am the manager,' not 'I am the black manager,' " says Relief Pitcher Ken Alfred. "One of the few guys he got on was a black player and it happened right in the dugout with the rest of the team there."

Aaron's personal experience has taught him the unfairness of failing to judge people individually. A typical lesson occurred not long ago during a game at Knoxville. "You know why he's manager of that team?" asked a beer-drinking customer. "The big dummy is Henry Aaron's brother, that's why." No sooner had Tommie quieted that critic with a home run than another fan screeched, "Only 700 more, Aaron, and you'll catch your brother."

"You can't compare Henry and me," says Tommie on what has become a tiresome subject. "He's gonna do his thing and I'm gonna do mine. I found out a long time ago I'm not as good a player as he is, but if I had let it bother me I wouldn't have stayed around this long. When I first came up with Milwaukee in 1962 everybody expected me to hit 20 to 25 home runs with 100 RBIs. But no two men are alike and nobody understands that more than me."

Tommie's playing career has been no disgrace. Only two years ago he averaged .318 in Triple A, and in 1967 he was the International League's Most Valuable Player. He remains an adroit fielder at first base. But after seven different chances against big-league pitching, his average in the majors is only .229.

"I could always catch the ball," says Tommie. "Any guy off the street can do that. Like most guys, my problem was hitting. I can't really complain. A lot of fellows never got as much of a chance up there as I did. At least I was able to get my pension."

This is Aaron's last year as an active player, but he will continue trying to master the fine points of melding diverse egos and abilities into a winning baseball team. Braves Farm Director Bill Lucas feels there is no question that Tommie has major league managerial potential. Aaron says only, "I'm a pretty good piece from the big leagues, but I'll hang around and see what happens. We're all learning down here—the players, the managers and umpires. I haven't given much thought about becoming the first black manager in the big leagues. I'm not trying to prove nothing to no one."

There is in Atlanta another man who thinks Tommie has a future as a manager. "Tommie knows as much baseball as anyone in the game," he says. "He always studied it more than me. He has the talent and he knows all the strategy." Henry Aaron said that. Tommie-Aaron's-brother.