BY CAROLYN LaWELL
MOBILE, Alabama | When Al Downing threw that pitch to Hank Aaron in the fourth inning of a game remembered almost four decades later, 12-year-old Mike Callahan was sitting at home in Mobile with his father, watching it on TV.
George wanted his young son to see Aaron hit his 715th home run and set the alltime career record. He told him how important this home run was for baseball. George told him how important it was for them, Mobilians, and for their city.
And then Callahan watched Aaron hit the ball over the wall in left-center and round the bases, and he understood exactly what his dad meant. In that moment, he felt a sense of pride.
“I grew up idolizing Hank Aaron,” Callahan says.
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Today, Callahan is curator of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum. At least a couple times every week, normally for tours, he stands in the white, wooden structure, surrounded by Aaron’s personal mementos.
The majority of the furniture and photographs have been removed. Glass cases line the walls, and photos, newspaper clippings, jerseys, bats, Gold Gloves, family heirlooms and videos of Aaron tell the story of his childhood, his climb to professional baseball and his achievements on the field. They tell of the city’s baseball history, which dates back to 1887 when the Mobile Swamp Angels played their first game. They tell of segregation and a local hero who overcame those darker days to love his hometown as much as it loves him.
"When your hero is giving something that nobody else has, that’s a big deal — to this team and to this city and to me personally." - Mike Callahan.
Last year, more than 5,000 people, mostly children, toured the museum, which sits next to Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the Mobile BayBears. “All of this stuff is cool, the shiny stuff is great,” says Callahan, who is also the BayBears assistant general manager of entertainment. “But if we can affect one child’s life, if they come in here and go, ‘You know what, he overcame obstacles — they were different obstacles — but if he can do it and he came from my area, then why can’t I?’”
The museum is about a legend and the game he played. It’s also about hardships and the ability to dream and the courage to never give up.
Before the museum opened to the public, Callahan and Mr. Aaron — as Callahan calls his childhood hero — walked through it together. “He was overwhelmed,” Callahan says. “He was choked up because he knew the love that went into it.” Callahan remembers Aaron turning to him, looking at him.
“You know this house is my heart?” Aaron asked.
“Yes, sir,” Callahan said.
“And you’ll take care of it, won’t you?” Aaron asked.
“Yes, sir,” Callahan said.
“When your hero is giving something that nobody else has, that’s a big deal — to this team and to this city and to me personally,” Callahan says two year after that moment. “But more for the city of Mobile.”
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In 1941, Herbert and Estella Aaron bought two quarter-acre plots of land for $53 each. As houses in the area were going up and coming down, Herbert would salvage materials. “The back of the original house, which is exposed, has 17 different colors because it was the color of whatever wood he could find,” Callahan says as he drags his fingers down what was the back wall of the home before the Aarons added a kitchen.
Herbert and Estella built a home 625 feet square — 25 by 25 — to raise their children. Additions were made decades later, ultimately tripling the area. “Hank being a good son, he’d send a little money back to mom and dad,” Callahan says. “But Mr. Herbert oversaw the construction of everything. This was not a contracted-type job.”
"There was a lot of symbolism in where we went and how we went. But it turned out to be the most direct route anyway." - Mike Callahan
The family lived in the home until Aaron asked his mother to come to Atlanta in 2008 to be closer to him. It was meant to just be a trip to see doctors, but she never moved back to Mobile.
That’s when the BayBears president and COO Bill Shanahan decided it would be a good idea to move the home to the stadium.
The outer layer of bricks had to be removed, the roof had to come off and a new foundation had to be built. A team of more than 100 local volunteers and eight organizations needed to move the house seven miles from its original location to its new spot to the right of the stadium. The move took seven hours.
“We’d get down the street, the truck driver turned as sharp as he could, he would stop, and then we’d build cribbing with four-by-fours, build it up, jack the house up, turn the wheels, jack it down, go six feet,” Callahan says. “We had to make four turns to ultimately get out to an open road. It went by Hank Aaron Park, it came down what was then Davis Avenue — now Dr. Martin Luther King Avenue — which is where Jackie Robinson spoke here in Mobile. There was a lot of symbolism in where we went and how we went. But it turned out to be the most direct route anyway.”
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Callahan and Aaron talk every few weeks. Even now, after working with him for years, Callahan can’t believe when he see Aaron’s name appear on his cell phone screen. “I’ll hear the phone vibrating, and I’ll look at it and I’ll go ‘Haaannnkkk Aaaarrrooonnn! Everyone shut up! I have Hank Aaron on the phone!’” he says, his arm stretched out, showing the screen. “He’s still a big deal in our town. Just because of what he’s done and what he’s been through. Now I have a deeper appreciation of that because of the museum.”
Mobile also means a lot to Aaron. This is where he learned how to play ball with bottle caps and broomsticks in the front yard. This is where he skipped school when he was 14 to hear his idol, Jackie Robinson, speak — a fact Callahan usually glosses over when he takes younger students through the museum. This is where he dreamed of being a professional ballplayer. And this is where his dream came true. As a member of the Milwaukee Braves, he played his first professional game in Mobile — in front of his family and his friends — against Robinson and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Shanahan, the BayBears president, wanted to capture all that history by turning Aaron’s home into a museum. So he and Callahan sat around a phone and gave Aaron a call to ask if they could have the house.
As soon as he asked the question, the call went silent. “It was about that way for 10 seconds,” Callahan says. “My thought was we asked the wrong question. He said, ‘Let me get back to you,’ and hung up.”
Two painfully long weeks passed by for Callahan and Shanahan. “We were on pins and needles the whole time,” Callahan says. “He called back and said, ‘Talked to my mom, talked to my brother and my sister, and they love it. We’re behind it 100 percent.’”
They asked Aaron why the long pause then.
“He said, ‘I was so choked up,’” Callahan recalls him saying. “‘I was so overcome by emotion that you would do that. I just couldn’t speak.’”
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