Remembering Hank Aaron and a forgotten Labor Day | Open minded

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For Major League Baseball teams and their fans, Labor Day is a benchmark for predicting which teams will make it to the playoffs.

With Sabermetric Analytics, teams are virtual division winners if they lead at least six games on Labor Day, but are unlikely to play after the season if they are more than 3.5 games behind in the wild card rating.

As of this writing, the SABR formula says the Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, and Chicago White Sox will play this fall. A group of teams stand on the cusp, battling it out for the remaining seven playoff slots: the Tampa Bay Rays, Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers the Cincinnati reds.

But pre-Sabermetrics and before several playoff levels lasted until Halloween, Labor Day was considered the last breath of summer. It was a great time going to the ballpark to enjoy the afternoon baseball and, for lucky fans, a scheduled double headed ball, a relic from the bygone era of National Pastime.

On September 2, 1957, 40,000 fans flocked to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to see the eternal second division club Chicago Cubs (49-77) battle eventual World Series champion Milwaukee Braves (79-49). For Hall of Fame Cubs thug Ernie Banks, famous for saying, “Let’s play two,” the warm late summer afternoon’s double-dip was what he’d hoped for.

In the opener, Braves manager Fred Haney put “Nitro” Lew Burdette on the record. A month later, Burdette became one of 12 pitchers to win three games in a single World Series when Braves removed the New York Yankees as champions. Wrigley fans got their money’s worth and a few more on that long-forgotten Labor Day.

While the double bill had little impact on the pennant’s outcome, the National League home run crown was up for grabs between Banks and Hall of Famer Henry Aaron, the African-American baseball superstar. Another long-range threat, third baseman of the Braves and Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, was also on the line-up.

The result of game one was settled early. After a half-inning, the Braves were leading 6-0; the exchange of blows was in progress. The Braves outlasted the overwhelmed Cubs 23-10. The big bats were booming: banks, three for five with two homers and 4 RBIs; Mathews, three for five with a homer and three RBIs, and Aaron, three for six with six RBIs, a daily sum that kept him on his way to becoming the all-time baseball RBI leader. A fourth Hall of Famer, Red Schoendienst, who hit the switch, scored four runs for the day. The Chicago Tribune summed up the Labor Day blowout by stating that “the game turned into a debacle in the opening round.”

The nightcap was a yawn by comparison as Bob Trowbridge of the cunning Braves beat nine and ruled out an entire game to beat the Cubs 4-0. Banks, Aaron, and Mathews played in the second game but, perhaps exhausted from their exploits in the opening game, were limited to a joint three for 10. A total of 12 Cubs and Braves of the 16 positional players who were registered in the opening line-up started and finished both games.

Wrigley fans also got a glimpse of a young Braves outfielder who rose to instant success and then just as quickly disappeared from the big league spotlight. Rookie outfielder Bob Hazle was called up by Triple-AAA Wichita in late July and set baseball on fire when Hazle hit .403 over a range of 134 bats. His amazing skills helped the Braves get into the World Series and earned Hazle the nickname “Hurricane”. Author Howard Bryant wrote that Hazle’s performance was “the greatest five-week show in baseball history.” But injuries shortened Hazle’s career, and by 1958 he was no longer in baseball.

In 1982, the Cubs retired the bank’s number 14 and unveiled a statue of Chicago’s most beloved person on the opening day of 2008. Two years before his death in 2015 at the age of 83, Banks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a U.S. citizen.

When his playing career ended, Mathews was the only player to represent the Braves in all three of their hometowns: Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. He later directed the Braves and coached several MLB teams. His 1978 Hall of Fame induction, some claim, was delayed because of Mathews’ frosty relationship with the media, which he felt was unduly invading his personal life.

Eventually, Aaron also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as many other baseball and civil rights awards. Because Aaron made his 744 home runs without taking performance-enhancing drugs, many baseball historians consider Aaron’s legitimate home run king. On January 22nd, two weeks before his 87th birthday and in his Atlanta home, Aaron died in his sleep.

Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers’ Association. Contact him at [email protected]

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