INDIANAPOLIS — Before 18-year-old Hank Aaron left to join the Boston Braves organization and become one of the greatest Major League Baseball players of all time, he had one last game to play in Indianapolis.
Aaron, who died Friday at age 86, played three months in 1952 for the Indianapolis Clowns, a member of the Negro American League. The Clowns made their home in Indianapolis exclusively from 1946-50, and later split time between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, according to "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues."
When the Clowns returned to Indianapolis for their game against the Chicago American Giants on June 11, 1952, they featured a unique talent at shortstop.
"Indianapolis fans will be interested in the Clowns' shortstop, Henry 'Hank' Aaron who has been signed by the Boston Braves and is due to report right after Tuesday night's contest," the Indianapolis Recorder reported on June 7. "Aaron, who reminds sports writers of Ted Williams, the Red Sox ace now in the air corps, at the bat, tops the Negro American League batters with .483."
Aaron's statistics from his final game with the Clowns are not available, but he watched his team lose 14-6 after the American Giants scored nine runs in the eighth inning of the game played at Victory Field, later known as Bush Stadium, on West 16th Street.
Aaron, a Mobile, Alabama native, signed with the Clowns in April 1952 for $200 a month after the team's business manager, Bunny Downs, saw him play for the Mobile Black Bears the year before in an exhibition game against the Clowns, according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
The Braves and New York Giants both scouted Aaron while he played for the Clowns. With the Giants unimpressed by the skinny teenager who batted cross-handed, the Braves bought his contract from the Clowns for $10,000.
By 1954, Aaron would make his major league debut for the Milwaukee Braves. Within five years of his time with the Clowns, he would win the 1957 National League Most Valuable Player Award.
His 23-year career in Milwaukee and Atlanta was one of the most prolific the game has ever seen.
While enduring racism, death threats and hate mail, he surpassed Babe Ruth and retired as the sport's all-time home run leader with 755, a record that stood until 2007 when Barry Bonds ended his career with 762.
Aaron still has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856) than anyone in baseball history. He ranks second in at-bats (12,354), third in games played (3,298) and hits (3,771), fourth in runs scored (tied with Ruth at 2,174) and 13th in doubles (624). He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.
“I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Aaron said, summing it up better than anyone.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Hank Aaron, departing to play for the Indianapolis Clowns, 70 years ago. I remember pausing with @nlbmprez in front of this photo at the @NLBMuseumKC. I’ve never forgotten this image. (Additional photo credit: @Baseballography.) @MLB @MLBNetwork pic.twitter.com/INIIVJEjeK— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) January 22, 2021
“What a marvelous moment for baseball ... What a marvelous moment for the country and the world.”— MLB Vault (@MLBVault) January 22, 2021
RIP Hank Aaron, one of the greatest of all time.pic.twitter.com/kjrvSK19BM
Our NLBM family joins the baseball world in mourning the lost of legendary Henry Aaron.— Negro Leagues Baseball Museum KC (@NLBMuseumKC) January 22, 2021
Mr. Aaron was no stranger to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. More like family. This one hurts us for sure. https://t.co/XbsfvUkByu
In 1952 at age 18, Hank Aaron wore an Indianapolis Clowns uniform as the team's starting shortstop in the Negro Leagues, well before he became @MLB's home run king.— Indianapolis Indians (@indyindians) January 22, 2021
Today, we mourn his death and extend our sincerest condolences to his family and friends.
RIP, Hammerin' Hank. ♥️ pic.twitter.com/Cndhbj7Vlk
We are devastated by the passing of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, one of the greatest players and people in the history of our game. He was 86. pic.twitter.com/bCvLOydGBZ— MLB (@MLB) January 22, 2021
Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to the Aaron family and everyone who was inspired by this unassuming man and his towering example. pic.twitter.com/2RZdc82Y18— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 22, 2021