YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Friendship Outlasted the Game

Baseball: Aaron and Andrews stuck together through thick and thin until the very end.

May 20, 2001|From Associated Press

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Stick close, Joe Andrews would say, and grabbing a bat he would lead Hank Aaron out of the stadium and onto the streets of Jacksonville or some other Southern town the two had offended by playing on the same field together.

When pitchers brushed Aaron back; when hotels or restaurants refused to serve him; when fans let fly with garbage--verbal or otherwise--Andrews would come to Aaron's defense. Three times, when racists threatened Aaron and two other ballplayers, Andrews was arrested for fighting on their behalf.

"Joe was our protector," Aaron wrote in his autobiography. "We couldn't talk back to the fans calling us names, but Joe could, and he damn sure did."

Two bonus babies certain for stardom, one black and one white, Aaron and Andrews were teammates for just one year, on the 1953 Jacksonville Braves. But during that tumultuous season in the Southern League they forged a friendship that would outlast their careers.

You already know Aaron's story: He hit 755 major league home runs, overcoming the hatred heaped on him to break Babe Ruth's career record.

Andrews' story has a little less gloss.

A three-sport star at Fall River's Durfee High, Andrews' No. 44--the same one Aaron would wear into the Baseball Hall of Fame--was the first the school ever retired.

But he traded a promising athletic career for emotional ruin, drinking himself out of baseball and his first two marriages. Then, after a drug habit added to his financial and spiritual distress, Andrews found redemption by helping others avoid the same mistakes.

And so, when Andrews died in the first hours of the new year, those in Fall River who remembered a young man's promise came together to celebrate the extraordinary way in which he fulfilled it.

"Don't be deceived by the notion that Joe would have been great if his athletic ability hadn't surrendered to the punishment of addiction. Joe Andrews was great," Bernard Sullivan, a high school friend, said in his eulogy.

"I defy you to show me any athlete, regardless of statistical accomplishment, who has done more for his fellow man than that man in that box right there."

Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier in 1947.

But that was in Brooklyn.

Down South, integration was still a struggle in the spring of '47. When the Dodgers brought Robinson to Jacksonville for an exhibition, they were shooed from the field because of an ordinance that banned interracial competition on city-owned property.

By the time Aaron and Andrews arrived to play for the Braves' Class A team in '53, blacks had played in Jacksonville--but always for visiting teams.

"Jackie Robinson started opening up our eyes," Aaron said. "But it didn't start, nor did it end, with Jackie."

Aaron was one of five blacks or Hispanics in the league that year, along with fellow Milwaukee Braves farmhands Felix Mantilla, who is Puerto Rican, and Horace Garner, who was black. Things were not easy for them.

At shortstop, Mantilla was a target for baserunners coming in spikes high, or beanballs from racist pitchers. But he didn't have it as bad as Garner, who was in right field and within range of objects coming from the stands.

"They used to throw pillows from the grandstand, and they used to throw cups, and whatever, at the black players," said Constance Andrews, Joe's first wife. "It was like that all over the South."

When restaurants wouldn't serve Aaron, Garner and Mantilla, Andrews would take his food out to the bus to eat with them.

Mantilla remembers a road trip to Kissimmee when it had one hotel that didn't allow blacks; the players were allowed to stay, but they had to eat in the back. That wasn't good enough for Andrews, who led Mantilla by the hand through the dining room.

"The people looked at him like he was crazy," Mantilla said. "Joe was a different guy. He was too advanced, I guess, for what was happening at that time."

What's most remarkable, perhaps, is not that Joe Andrews took a stand, but that he didn't seem to consider any other option; he didn't just stick his neck out for the future home run king, but for people you've never heard of, as well.

"It was not just because I was who I was," Aaron said. "It could have been anybody, I'm sure. Joe was just that kind of person. Joe just cared about human beings."

To Andrews' high school friends, this was nothing more or less than they expected.

"He did the same thing for Jerry Diniz," a Cape Verdean running back on the Durfee football team, said Jimmy Smith, Andrews' classmate. "Remember, we were all poor. There was no racism. We all played ball together. And athletics gave us our mobility."

Jut 50 miles south of Boston, Fall River could not be farther from the limousine liberalism of Beacon Hill and Harvard Yard that gives Massachusetts its progressive reputation. Growing up in this industrial port, Andrews developed his sense of justice not from any political dogma, but from an innate sense of right and wrong.

Los Angeles Times Articles