Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron (born 1934) was major league baseball's leading homerun hitter with a career total of 755 upon his retirement in 1976. He broke ground for the participation of African Americans in professional sports.
Henry (Hank) Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, in the midst of the Great Depression on February 5, 1934. He was the son of an African American shipyard worker and had seven brothers and sisters. Although times were economically difficult, Aaron took an early interest in sports and began playing sandlot baseball at a neighborhood park. In his junior year he transferred out of a segregated high school to attend the Allen Institute in Mobile, which had an organized baseball program. He played on amateur and semi-pro teams like the Pritchett Athletics and the Mobile Black Bears, where he began to make a name for himself. At this time Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in the major leagues, was breaking the baseball color barrier. Gaining immediate success as a hard-hitting infielder, the 17-year-old Aaron was playing semi-professional baseball in the summer of 1951 when the owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, part of the professional Negro American League, signed him as the Clown's shortstop for the 1952 season.
Being almost entirely self-trained, Aaron in his early years batted cross-handed, " … because no one had told him not to," according to one of his biographers. Nevertheless, Aaron's sensational hitting with the Clowns prompted a Boston Braves scout to purchase his contract in 1952. Assigned to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in the minor Northern League (where coaching corrected his batting style), Aaron batted .336 and won the league's rookie-of-the-year award. The following year he was assigned to the Braves' Jacksonville, Florida team, in the South Atlantic (Sally) League. Enduring the taunting of fans and racial slurs from fellow players in the segregated south, he went on to bat .362 with 22 homers and 125 runs batted in (RBIs). This achievement won him the title of the League Most Valuable Player in 1953.
During the winter of 1953-1954 Aaron played in Puerto Rico where he began playing positions in the out-field. In the spring of 1954 he trained with the major league Boston Braves (later the Milwaukee Braves) and won a starting position when the regular right-fielder suffered an injury. Although Aaron was sidelined late in the campaign with a broken ankle, he batted .280 as a rookie that year. Over the next 22 seasons, this quiet, six-foot, right-handed batting champion established himself as one of the most durable and versatile hitters in major league history.
In 14 seasons playing for the Braves Hank Aaron batted .300 or more; in 15 seasons he hit 30 or more homers, scored 100 or more runs, and drove in 100 or more runs. In his long career Aaron led all major league players in runs batted in with 2,297. He played in 3,298 games, which ranked him third among players of all time. Aaron twice led the National League in batting and four times led the league in homers. His consistent hitting produced a career total of 3,771 hits, ranking him third behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. When Aaron recorded his 3,000th hit on May 7, 1970, he was the youngest player (at 36) since Cobb to join the exclusive 3,000 hit club. Aaron played in 24 All-Star games, a record shared with Willie Mays and Stan Musial. Aaron's lifetime batting average was .305, and in his two World Series encounters he batted .364. Aaron also held the record of hitting homeruns in three consecutive National League playoff games, a feat he accomplished in 1969 against the New York Mets.
A Quiet Superstar
Although Aaron's prodigious batting ranked him among baseball's superstars, he received less publicity than such contemporaries as Willie Mays. In part this was due to Aaron's quiet personality and to lingering prejudice against African American players in the majors. Moreover, playing with the Milwaukee Braves (which became the Atlanta Braves in 1966) denied Aaron the high level of publicity afforded major league players in cities like New York or Los Angeles. During Aaron's long career the Braves won only two National League pennants, although in 1957, the year Aaron's 44 homers helped him win his only Most Valuable Player Award, the Braves won the World Series. The following year Milwaukee repeated as National League champions, but lost the World Series.
Aaron perennially ranked among the National League's leading homerun hitters, but only four times did he win the annual homer title. It wasn't until 1970 that Aaron's challenge to Babe Ruth's record total of 714 homers was seriously considered by sportswriters and fans. By 1972 Aaron's assault on the all-time homer record was big news and his $200,000 annual salary was the highest in the league. The following year Aaron hit 40 homers, falling one short of tying the mark. Early into the 1974 season Aaron hit the tying homer in Cincinnati. Then on the night of April 8, 1974, before a large crowd at Atlanta and with a nationwide television audience looking on, Aaron hit his 715th homer off pitcher Al Downing of the Dodgers to break Ruth's record. It was the peak moment of Aaron's career, although it was tempered by an increasing incidence of death threats and racist hate mail which made Aaron fear for the safety of his family.
A New Career
In the Fall of 1974 Aaron left the Braves and went on to play for the Milwaukee Brewers until his retirement in 1976. At the time of his retirement as a player, the 42-year-old veteran had raised his all-time homer output to 755. When he left the Brewers he became a vice president and Director of Player Development for the Braves, where he scouted new team prospects and oversaw the coaching of minor leaguers. His efforts contributed toward making the Braves, now of Atlanta, one of the strongest teams in the National League, and he has since become a senior vice president for that team. In 1982 Aaron was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, and in 1997 Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, was dedicated to him.
Further Reading on Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron
Begin with Hank Aaron's autobiography, I Had A Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story (1992). Available biographies of Hank Aaron include Rick Rennert, Richard Zennert, Henry Aaron (Black Americans of Achievement) (1993), and James Tackach, Hank Aaron (Baseball Legends Series) (1991). A good book for younger readers is Jacob Margolies, Home Run King (Full-Color First Books) (1992). Other books that look at Aaron's place in baseball history are Clare Gault, Frank Gault, Home Run Kings: Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron (1994) and James Hahn and Lynn Hahn, Henry Aaron (1981). Joseph Reichler, Baseball's Great Moments (1985) covers the two highlights of Aaron's career—when he struck his 3,000th hit and when he broke the homer record in 1974. Recent published articles include Hank Aaron, "When Baseball Mattered," The New York Times (5/03/97, Vol. 146), "Aaron Still Chasing Ball No. 755," The New York Times (8/27/96, Vol. 145), and "Aaron honored With New Stadium," The New York Times (8/27/96, Vol. 145). Jules Tygiel, in Baseball's Great Experiment (1984), gives an excellent historical account of black players seeking admission into major league baseball. Art Rust, Jr., in Get That Nigger Off the Field (1976), furnishes sketches of black players who entered the majors during Aaron's time. David Q. Voigt, in American Baseball: From Postwar Expansion to the Electronic Age (1983), treats the black experience within the context of major league history since World War II.