In the summer of 1996, I served an internship at my hometown newspaper in Carroll, Iowa. Five days a week for most of the summer, I reported on an array of general assignment stories and also helped the veteran sports editor take high school baseball call-ins at night.
Covering my rural hometown was a lot more interesting than I thought. I wrote about a native of our town who was working as an athletic trainer at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, a new hog operation, a feature on the pork chop vendor at the high school state baseball tournament, Iowa State football media day and the saddest story of my career – a teen who drowned at Boys’ State in Des Moines.
And then there was my interview with Jim Kerwin. Jim was a retired banker in town. I swung by his modest house near the Catholic high school to visit with him about a story I was writing on the state’s sesquicentennial. See, Jim was a sort of town historian and would be a valuable resource for the piece.
As we began the interview I noticed a picture of him and legendary MLB slugger Henry “Hank” Aaron at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. “Hey, Jim how did you get to meet Hank Aaron,” I asked. The answer was one of the greatest stories I’ve ever been told.
When Jim was a boy, his dad took him to Rockwell City, a small town near Carroll. Legendary Major League star Babe Ruth was with several other MLB luminaries playing on a “barnstorming” tour. Young Jim was lucky enough to have a ball signed by Ruth that fall day.
He hung on to the ball into adulthood and in the spring of 1974 watched on as Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Ruth’s MLB home run record. With the help of a local radio man in town named Neil Trobak, Jim contacted the St. Louis Cardinals who would be hosting Aaron’s Atlanta Braves in June.
Jim or Neil told the Cardinals about the ball and asked about setting up a meeting with Aaron. The club obliged and the two friends traveled to St. Louis.
The framed picture I saw captures the moment Aaron meets Jim and sees the baseball signed by Ruth. The smiles on both men’s faces are wide. Jim said Aaron was amused to the see the ball and quickly signed it. He was both engaging and gracious during the meeting on the field, and it made a big impression on Jim.
Even at 22, I thought about how relieved Aaron must have felt two months after he broke the record knowing it was over. My brother and I had read Aaron’s book “I Had a Hammer” a few years before, and it chronicled all of the hate Aaron had to endure from racists who didn’t want to see an African-American breaking Ruth’s record.
I thought Aaron may not have been as happy to sign the ball beforehand but a few months removed and the pressure gone, his face tells the story of a guy who is enjoying the moment. Something that wasn’t probably easy just a few months before as he received thousands of hateful letters.
My next question to Jim was, “Can I see the ball?”
“Well, it’s in a safe deposit at the bank,” he said.
Smart move. Even in a small, rural town where many didn’t lock their front doors, you wouldn’t want a relic such as that just sitting on a shelf.
Jim died in 2009 and his daughter died after that, so the current newspaper publisher couldn’t answer my question Friday of who owns the ball or where it is now.
Since it may be the only one of its kind in existence, the value of it has to be astronomical. It very well could be one of the rarer pieces of baseball memorabilia you would find.
I thought of Aaron and Jim today as I read a story about Aaron’s passing. Aaron was arguably the greatest baseball player of all-time, but his quiet strength and grace stand out even more. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Jackie Robinson as being a pioneer for baseball civil rights for what he endured in 1974 and beyond. He took it in stride while speaking out about racial discrimination.
It gives me a warm feeling to think about that baseball being housed in a small town in Iowa for so many years. I won’t forget that story, Jim or Aaron.