It is perhaps the most underrated moment in Wisconsin sports history and one of the most underrated moments in Major League Baseball history.
Just after 10:30 on the night of Sept. 23, 1957, future Hall of Famer and home run king Hank Aaron hits an 11th inning walk-off home run to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-2 giving the Milwaukee Braves the National League championship leading to a World Series victory over the New York Yankees.
With only five games left in that glorious 1957 season, the Braves clinched the pennant in front of 40,926 County Stadium fans that included 23-year-old future Brewers owner, MLB commissioner and Hall of Famer Bud Selig. The moment has been noted by Selig as one of the highlights of his storied baseball life.
It didn’t happen on the last day of the season, but Aaron’s two-out home run helped put Milwaukee on the national sports map at a time long before network television really covered pro sports, much less cable TV and the internet.
I contend that only Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak to give the Green Bay Packers the 1967 NFL championship in the "Ice Bowl" is a bigger single moment in all of Wisconsin sports. Yet, many of our state’s sports fans may barely be aware of Aaron’s home run as it celebrates its 60th anniversary very quietly this year, much like the modest man who hit it.
Part of the reason for the obscurity of Aaron’s pennant clincher is timing, location and the fact that it is rarely replayed in the sports media. Most of us have seen Aaron’s 715th home run in Atlanta countless times on television, but his ’57 pennant clincher mainly exists in a grainy black and white 40-second YouTube clip. You have to dig up Braves’ announcer Earl Gillespie’s entire last half inning and signature "Holy Cow" home run call on the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) site, which is well worth it for Milwaukee baseball fans.
It also doesn’t help that Aaron is one of the most underrated ballplayers of all-time because of the way his career played out in the small markets of Milwaukee and Atlanta and his extremely humble nature. His 755 career home runs were the most ever in the MLB for 33 years until Barry Bonds broke it in 2001. Although, some purists still consider Aaron the true homerun king due to Bonds’ steroid controversy. Aaron was NL MVP of that ’57 season and his many accomplishments can be Googled.
Most other iconic moments that stood out for baseball in the 1950s occurred in New York such as Bobby Thompson’s 1951 "the Giants won the pennant!" clinching home run, Willie Mays 1954 World Series circus catch at the Polo Grounds, and Don Larson’s 1956 World Series perfect game final out. Aaron’s home run on a late night in fly-over country capped an already amazing decade for baseball leading to the west coast franchise moves and the tumultuous 1960s.
For some perspective, Aaron’s home run came 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and the night before President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to integrate public schools in Arkansas. During his final season with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976, Aaron was the last MLB player from the old segregated Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951.
The Braves beat the Cincinnati Reds in their final game of the regular season in Milwaukee on a ninth-inning walk-off single by Felix Mantilla in front of 45,000 fans, and went on the beat the Yankees in a seven-game series ending in New York.
We can debate the numerical ranking of Aaron’s ’57 home run in state sports history, but it’s hard to argue its larger significance 60 years later.
How Wisconsin sports moments compare
Marquette 1977 NCAA title: Milwaukeeans and college hoops historians relish coach Al McGuire breaking down on the bench with assistant Hank Raymonds as his career ended in Atlanta, but it wasn’t a buzzer beater.
Brewers 1982 Pennant: Cecil Cooper’s 7th inning single and the final out are memorable, and may have topped Aaron’s homer if they had beat the dreaded Cardinals in the World Series. Nyjer Morgan’s walk-off single in 2011 was huge as was Braun’s homer in 2008, but they didn’t win the Series. The way things are going this year, a historic moment may not be far off?
Bucks 1971 NBA Championship: That Bucks team was so dominant that they swept the Baltimore Bullets in four games winning the title 118-106 in Baltimore, so that was really the defining moment of a great season.
The Packers and Badgers: Starr’s ’67 "Ice Bowl" sneak tops so many other great Packer moments that they almost blend together. While the Wisconsin Badgers have won several NCAA hockey titles, there’s hasn’t been a dramatic "skate-off" win and seems we’re getting ever closer to a football or basketball championship in Madison with their continued success.