Henry Louis Aaron
Aaron, Hank 1934–
Hank Aaron 1934–
Retired professional baseball player, business executive
Professional baseball may never see another slugger as great as Hank Aaron. Aaron’s career record of 755 home runs in 23 years is by far the best in the history of the game. He also holds top honors for runs batted in and total bases and has been a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame since 1982. Aaron was a highly regarded but relatively unknown star of the Atlanta Braves (prior to 1966, the Milwaukee Braves) for nearly two decades before he became an American hero in 1973 and 1974 It was during those seasons that he chased, and finally surpassed, Babe Ruth’s famed career home run record. When Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 8, 1974, amidst a near-melee in the Braves’ home ballpark, he achieved a “superhuman accomplishment, as mysterious and remote as Stonehenge, and certain to stand forever,” to quote Tom Buckley in the New York Times Magazine. Remarkably, that milestone came not at the end, but rather in the middle of an extraordinary baseball career.
Stardom never rested easily on Aaron’s shoulders. By nature a reserved individual, he chafed under the public accolade that accompanied his record-breaking performance. In fact, Aaron spent the last years of his playing career in a constant state of uneasiness. Breaking the home run record brought him legions of new fans, but it also exposed an ugly vein of racism in society. As he edged past Ruth in the record books, Aaron faced death threats and other forms of hate from some angry whites who saw his performance as a challenge to their cherished ideas of supremacy. “What does it say of America that a man fulfills the purest of American dreams, struggling up from Jim Crow poverty to dethrone the greatest of Yankee kings… yet feels not like a hero but like someone hunted?” asked Mike Capuzzo in Sports Illustrated. “The Home Run King is a grandfather now, and by tradition he should be lionized, a legend in the autumn of his life. But Henry Aaron takes no comfort in baseball immortality, in lore and remembrance.”
Aaron was born and raised in a segregated neighborhood in Mobile, Alabama. The house where he and his seven siblings grew up did not have plumbing, electricity, or glass windows. He was born in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, and his parents struggled to keep ahead of the bills. Aaron’s father worked at the Alabama Dry Dock and
At a Glance…
Born Henry Louis Aaron, February 5,1934, in Mobile, AL; son of Herbert (a shipyard worker) and Estella Aaron; married Barbara Lucas, October 6,1953 (divorced); married Billye Suber, November 1973; children (first marriage): Gail, Hank, Lary, Gary (deceased), Dorinda; (second marriage) Ceci.
Professional baseball player, 1952–76; baseball executive, 1976—; vice-president with Turner Broadcasting System, 1990—. Began baseball career with Indianapolis Clowns (Negro League), 1952; joined Milwaukee Braves organization (later became Atlanta Braves), 1952; made parent team, 1954. Traded to Milwaukee Brewers, 1975. Returned to Braves as vice-president for player development, 1976–89; named senior vice-president, 1989. Active in numerous charity concerns, including Easter Seal Society and Hank Aaron Scholarship Fund. Author, with Lonnie Wheeler, of autobiography I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, Harper, 1991.
Selected awards: Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, 1976. Holds lifetime records for most home runs (755), most runs batted in (2297), most long hits (1477), and most total bases (6856). Named to National League All-Star roster 24 times; named National League Most Valuable Player, 1957; elected to Baseball Hall of Fame, 1982.
Addresses: c/o Atlanta Braves, P.O. Box 4064, Atlanta, GA 30302.
Shipbuilding Company. The job was steady, but so was the verbal abuse from white co-workers. Herbert Aaron rarely complained to his children, but he did encourage them to excel in school. Young Henry was a good student, but from an early age he knew he wanted to play professional baseball.
Aaron spent most of his spare time at Carver Recreational Park, a neighborhood playground a block from his home. There he played sandlot baseball, essentially teaching himself the game. When his parents realized that he was intent on pursuing sports, they advised him to “play a lot better than the white boy,” according to Capuzzo.
When Aaron was a young teenager, professional baseball slowly began to integrate with the arrival of Jackie Robinson, the first black to play in the major leagues. While Robinson was enduring taunts and death threats in the majors, Aaron was making a name for himself in Mobile. His high school did not have a baseball team, so he played in local amateur and semi-pro leagues. Early teams included the Pritchett Athletics and the Mobile Black Bears.
Aaron was recruited by the Black Bears to help win an exhibition game against a professional Negro League team, the Indianapolis Clowns. The young man’s talents attracted the attention of Syd Pollock, the Clowns’ owner. In 1952, the Clowns offered Aaron a contract—$200 a month to play in the Negro League during baseball season. He was thrilled, and at that time he thought the salary was a small fortune. Armed with two sandwiches and two dollars his mother gave him, he embarked for Indianapolis by train. Capuzzo wrote of Aaron in those days: “He was skinny as a toothpick, batted cross-handed because no one had told him not to, [and] feared white pitchers because he’d heard they were a superior race.”
After only a short time in the Negro Leagues, Aaron was recruited by the Milwaukee Braves. He joined the Braves’ system in 1952 and was sent to the minor leagues. There he became one of the first black players to break the color line in the Deep South—a dangerous proposition in the last, desperate days of segregation that was legally enforced by Jim Crow laws. After one season in Wisconsin, Aaron found himself playing for a Jacksonville, Florida team in the South Atlantic League. Fans insulted him constantly, and even some of his teammates hurled racial slurs at him. Hotels and restaurants were closed to him because he was black. The situation was only tolerable because Aaron showed such talent, and because he was young. “I was only 19 in the [South Atlantic] League,” he told Sports Illustrated. “It was like sending a 19-year-old into war. What did I know about death? What did I know about the world? It didn’t matter so much then. Later, it mattered.”
Somehow the heightened tension inspired Aaron. During his year with the South Atlantic League, he led the circuit in batting average, doubles, runs scored, total bases and runs batted in. He was voted League Most Valuable Player for 1953. The following year, a key injury opened a roster spot with the Braves in Milwaukee. Aaron won the position in spring training and joined the team for the 1954 season.
As the Braves’ starting right fielder, Aaron turned in a superb rookie year. He batted .280 and hit 13 home runs in an injury-shortened season. The following year he more than doubled his home run tally, hitting 27 with a .314 average. Aaron was also an able outfielder and a threat to steal. His speed and power quickly earned him a reputation in the National League. With his help, the Braves advanced to the 1957 World Series against the New York Yankees.
Aaron still remembers a crucial home run he hit in 1957 as one of the highlights of his career. On September 24, 1957, the Braves faced the second-place St. Louis Cardinals in a game that would clinch the National League pennant for one of the teams. The score was tied 2–2 into the 11th inning. Aaron smacked a homer to win the game and the pennant for the Braves. As he rounded the bases, his teammates gathered at home plate to carry him off the field. The Braves went on that year to beat the Yankees in the World Series. Aaron hit three home runs and a triple for 7 runs batted in as the Braves took the Series in seven games.
The Braves returned to the World Series in 1958, this time losing to the Yankees. By then Aaron was a bona fide baseball star, even if he did little to promote himself. His batting average stood at .326, and he was just beginning a hitting streak that would bring him more than 30 home runs a season almost every year until 1974. Aaron—who had once feared white pitchers—was now himself an object of terror in the National League. One hurler commented that getting a fast ball past Hank Aaron was like trying to get the sun past a rooster. Another said that trying to fool him was like slapping a rattlesnake. Yet after 1958, Aaron’s talents were hidden on a Braves team that failed to make postseason play year after year.
People began counting, though, as Aaron passed the ten-year mark in his playing career. Three times—in 1957, 1963, and 1966—Aaron hit 44 home runs in a season. In 1971 he smacked 47. His lowest season total before 1974 was 24, in 1964. (The average major leaguer might consider himself blessed with 18 home runs each year.) Aaron inched toward the record with a batting stance and running style that defied logic, a carryover from his self-taught youth. At the age where most major league ball players retire, he was still maintaining his superb conditioning and his unique hand-eye coordination. He played throughout the 1960s in Milwaukee and Atlanta—the Braves moved South in 1966—and, in 1973, brought his home run totals to the verge of a new record.
Media attention began to build in 1970, when Aaron became the first player to combine 3000 career hits and 500 home runs. The countdown began for a run on Ruth’s record of 714 homers. By 1973 Aaron had closed the gap considerably, and at the end of that season he had 713. The fame he had never particularly courted found him. Letters—most of them congratulatory—came from all over the world. He was offered lucrative endorsement contracts from Magnavox electronics and was honored with a candy bar called “O Henry!” Charities like the Easter Seals Foundation and Big Brothers vied for his time. His second marriage in November of 1973 made international headlines. Aaron could not bask in the glory, however. He was afraid for his life, and the lives of his children.
Among the 930,000 pieces of mail Aaron received in 1973 were numerous hate letters. One, printed in Sports Illustrated, read: “Dear Hank Aaron, I got orders to do a bad job on you if and when you get 10 from B. Ruth record. A guy in Atlanta and a few in Miami Fla don’t seem to care if they have to take care of your family too.” Many others contained similar threats. A few threatened Aaron’s college-age daughter. Under siege, Aaron hired a personal bodyguard. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated many of the threats and uncovered still other plots to harm the ballplayer.
On the surface Aaron seemed undaunted by the persecution. If anything, the hate mail increased his desire to break the record and set a new one that no one could possibly surpass. Aaron hit 40 home runs in 1973 and began the 1974 season by tying the Ruth record during an Opening Day game in Cincinnati. Sports Illustrated correspondent Ron Fimrite commented: “Through the long weeks of on-field pressure and mass media harassment, [he] had expressed no more agitation than a man brushing aside a housefly. Aaron had labored for most of his 21-year career in shadows cast by more flamboyant superstars, and if he was enjoying his newfound celebrity, he gave no hint of it. He seemed to be nothing more than a man trying to do his job and live a normal life in the presence of incessant chaos.”
The chaos came to a climax on April 8, 1974 in a home game in Atlanta. Aaron hit a monstrous home run off Dodger pitcher Al Downing, and the fans went wild. Aaron was greeted at the plate by his teammates and his mother. Play was suspended for fifteen minutes while he acknowledged the roar of the crowd. During the following weeks, he received more than 20,000 telegrams.
Aaron left the Atlanta Braves at the end of the 1974 season and finished his playing days with the Milwaukee Brewers. He retired in 1976 with a record 755 home runs and 2297 runs batted in. One week later he began a new phase of his career, as director of player development for the Braves. His duties included scouting new prospects for the team and overseeing the coaching of minor leaguers. The farm system Aaron directed provided the Braves with such talents as Dale Murphy, Tom Glavine, Mark Lemke, and Andres Thomas. Aaron worked hard to improve the Braves’ chances of pennant contention, and he was successful. Once a forgotten franchise, the Atlanta Braves today offer one of the strongest teams in the National League.
Aaron was one of the first blacks hired in a major league front office. Throughout his tenure with the Braves’ management, he has called for more black participation in the business end of baseball. The subject of minority hiring is still a priority for Aaron. He told Sports Illustrated: “They say we [African Americans] don’t have the ‘mental necessities’ to sit behind the desk, we just have God-given talent. But, man, I had to work hard, too. I had to think. I didn’t have any more natural talent than Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. I played the game 23 years, and that tells me I had to study some pitchers pretty well. But no—I was a dumb s.o.b. It’s racism. These things really anger me.”
The Home Run King gets angry, too, when the subject turns to his records and his stature in baseball history. “Funny how Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs was the most impressive, unbreakable record in sports until a black man broke it,” he commented in Sports Illustrated. “Then it shifted. Now it’s DiMaggio’s hitting streak.”
Aaron’s full schedule includes duties for the Braves, where he is now a senior vice president, and appearances on the behalf of national charities. He rarely takes part in the lucrative autograph-signing business that provides income for other retired baseball superstars, preferring to spend his spare time at his well-guarded estate near Atlanta with his wife, children, and grandchildren. “I wonder if I really need baseball anymore … and if it really needs me,” Aaron concluded in his autobiography, I Had a Hammer. “But whenever I wonder about it, I usually come to the conclusion that I do, and it does—at least for the time being. Baseball needs me because it needs somebody to stir the pot, and I need it because it’s my life. It’s the means I have to make a little difference in the world.”
Aaron, Hank, and Lonnie Wheeler, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, Harper, 1991.
Plimpton, George, One for the Record: The Inside Story of Hank Aaron’s Chase for the Home-Run Record, Harper, 1974.
Jet, February 23,1987, p. 47; September 28, 1987, p. 50.
Look, May 15, 1956, p. 122.
Newsweek, June 15, 1959, p. 94; April 22, 1974.
New York Times Magazine, March 31, 1974, p. 22.
Sports Illustrated, April 15, 1974, pp. 20–23; December 7, 1992, pp. 80–88.
Time, July 29, 1957, p. 45; September 24, 1973, pp. 73–77.
American baseball player
The baseball legend Hank Aaron holds the major league record for the most career home runs (755) and made his way into the record books with 12 other career firsts, including most games, at-bats, total bases, and runs batted in (RBI). "Hammerin' Hank" made history on April 8, 1974, when he surpassed Babe Ruth 's home run record of 714; he went on to outdo Ruth by 42 home runs. Throughout his long, decorated career as a player for the Indianapolis Clowns, Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta Braves, and Milwaukee Brewers, Aaron played a record number of All-Star Games and won three Golden Glove Awards for his performance in right field. As the last Negro League player to have also played in the major leagues, Aaron was a bridge between two worlds, facing and speaking out against racial discrimination, particularly toward the end of his career. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934, Henry Louis Aaron was the third of eight children of Herbert and Estella Aaron. Nicknamed "Man" by his parents and siblings, young Aaron lived with his family in a poor, predominantly black area of town called Down the Bay. The family later moved to an area known as Toulminville, where the young athlete was raised in the midst of the Great Depression. He fell in love with baseball at an early age, taking his first swings with broomsticks as bats and bottle caps as balls. His boyhood idol was the first African American major league player, Jackie Robinson .
A star athlete in high school, Aaron played shortstop and third base; despite the fact that he batted cross-handed, he was a powerful hitter. By his junior year he was playing semiprofessional baseball with the Mobile Black Bears, who paid him ten dollars a game. A distinguished football player as well as a baseball star, he attended Mobile's Central High School and later transferred to the Josephine Allan Institute. Although he received several football scholarship offers, he turned these down to pursue a career in major league baseball.
Played in Negro League and Major League
On November 20, 1951, 18-year-old Aaron was signed by scout Ed Scott to play shortstop for the Negro League team the Indianapolis Clowns. Leaving home for the first time, he relocated to the Midwest, where he helped the Clowns to a 1952 Negro League World Series victory. Yet Aaron was with the Negro League for only about six months before he received two telegram offers from major league teams—one from the San Francisco Giants and one from the Milwaukee Braves. Thinking he'd have a better chance to make the team, Aaron chose the Braves over the Giants, who had star player Willie Mays .
Sold to the Milwaukee team for $10,000, Aaron signed with Braves' scout Dewey Griggs on June 14, 1952. His first assignment was to the team's farm club in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Playing second base in the farm club, Aaron was named Northern League Rookie of the Year in 1952. "[I]t wasn't too much of a transition from playing the type of baseball that we played in the Negro League to playing professional baseball," Aaron told Tavis Smiley of National Public Radio (NPR). "The difference, of course, was that instead of making $400 a month, I was making $600 a month. Instead of getting $2 a day meal money, I was getting $3 a day meal money. So it wasn't that much of a difference."
The following year Aaron played for the Braves' affiliate team in the South Atlantic League, the Jacksonville Tars. As one of the first five African Americans to play in the "Sally League," Aaron faced racial discrimination in the segregated South. He was separated from his teammates while traveling by bus, and often had to make his own arrangements for housing and meals. Despite these indignities, Aaron helped lead Jacksonville to a pennant win and was named the league's Most Valuable Player. He had led the league in everything from batting average (.362) and RBI (125) to runs (115) and hits (208).
While playing winter ball in Puerto Rico in 1953, Aaron learned to play the outfield. This new skill would come in handy the following spring, when an injury sidelined Braves left fielder Bobby Thomson. Aaron stepped in to take his place in the outfield, making his major league debut at age 20. In March 1954 he hit his first major-league home run during spring training. He made his official debut at the Braves'April 13 game against the Cincinnati Reds. Ten days later he hit his first major league home run. Aaron stopped just short of completing his first season with the Braves, breaking his ankle in early September and sitting out the rest of the year.
|1934||Born on February 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama|
|1951||Signed by the Indianapolis Clowns|
|1952||Helps lead Clowns to victory in Negro World Series|
|1952||Signed by Milwaukee Braves; wins Northern League Rookie of the Year|
|1953||Plays for Jacksonville Tars; named South Atlantic League's Most Valuable Player|
|1953||Marries Barbara Lucas|
|1954||Joins Milwaukee Braves as outfielder|
|1955||Plays in first of 24 All-Star Games|
|1956||Leads league in batting average|
|1962||With teammates Eddie Matthews, Joe Adcock, and Frank Thomas, becomes first of four players ever to hit consecutive home runs in a game|
|1966||Moves with Braves to Atlanta; leads league in home runs|
|1968||Hits 500th home run|
|1971||Divorces Barbara Lucas|
|1972||Hits 649th home run, tie with Willie Mays for second place in career home runs|
|1973||Marries Billye Williams|
|1974||Hits 715th home run, surpassing Babe Ruth to take first place in career home runs|
|1975||Transfers to Milwaukee Brewers|
|1975||Sets record for baseball's highest-ever RBI (2,212)|
|1976||Retires from playing career; rejoins Atlanta Braves as coach and manager|
|1990||Becomes senior vice president and assistant to president of Atlanta Braves|
|1991||Publishes autobiography I Had a Hammer|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1955-76||Played in All-Star Games|
|1956, 1959||Won National League batting title|
|1957||Won Most Valuable Player Award|
|1957, 1960, 1963, 1966||Named leader of league in RBI|
|1957, 1963, 1966-67||Named leader of league in home runs|
|1958-60||Won Golden Glove Award|
|1974||Broke Babe Ruth's career home run record|
|1976||Awarded Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)|
|1982||Inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame|
Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream
Director Mike Tollin's 1995 television documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream was a paean to the legendary baseball player, celebrating his life with archival film footage, photographs, re-creations of events, and present-day interviews. The documentary positioned Aaron as a major player in the American civil rights movement, the seeds of which were planted as early as the 1940s, and which came to fruition in the 1970s, at the end of Aaron's career. Some critics questioned the filmmaker's decision not to include Aaron as a narrator or even as an interviewee; Tollin chose instead to create a mystique about the athlete. Nonetheless, Chasing the Dream received a 1996 Academy Award nomination. The documentary aired on TBS on April 12, 1995, four days after the 20-year anniversary of Aaron's home run title.
It did not take Aaron long to regain his footing. In 1955 he moved to right field, where he would remain for most of his career and earn three Golden Glove Awards; in batting, he averaged. 314 and hit 27 home runs. In July he played in his first All-Star Game. The following season his batting average edged up to%. 328, leading to his first of two National League batting titles. By 1957 the 23-year-old player seemed at the peak of his powers, leading the league with his batting prowess. In a game that led the Braves to a pennant win, Aaron scored a heroic home run in the eleventh inning and was carried off the field by his teammates. He went on to average.393 and hit three home runs in the 1957 World Series, helping the Braves to victory over the New York Yankees.
In October he was named the league's Most Valuable Player for the first and only time of his career.
Now a full-fledged baseball superstar, Aaron began racking up home runs. The six-foot, 180-pound player took his power not from his heft but from his strong, supple wrists and his deft swing. "I looked for one pitch my whole career, a breaking ball," he told David Hinckley of the New York Daily News. "I never worried about the fastball. They couldn't throw it by me, none of them."
In June 1959, after hitting three homers in a single game against the San Francisco Giants, Aaron was paid $30,000 to appear on the television show Home Run Derby. After this experience, which earned him nearly as much as his annual salary, Aaron altered his hitting style to bring in even more home runs. Defending this choice, he once said, "I noticed that they never had a show called 'Singles Derby,'" according to the Sporting News. In June 1962 he and teammates Eddie Matthews, Joe Adcock, and Frank Thomas became the first four players ever to hit consecutive home runs in a game.
Became America's Home Run King
In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta, giving the American South its first major league baseball team. That year and the following, Aaron led the league in home runs. Soon baseball fans began to recognize that the slugger had a chance at breaking Babe Ruth's home run record. In July 1968 he had hit his 500th homer, and a year later he took the 3,000th hit of his career.
The more home runs Aaron hit, the more mail he received—and not all of it was fan mail. By the early 1970s Aaron was receiving an estimated 3,000 letters a day, most of it from racists who warned the player against beating Ruth's record. "Dear Henry," read one such letter as quoted by Larry Schwartz of ESPN.com. "You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it."
The experience changed the soft-spoken player, who became more forthright on racial issues. "When people ask me what progress Negroes have made in baseball, I tell them the Negro hasn't made any progress on the field," he said in 1970 according to BaseballLibrary.com. "We haven't made any progress in the commissioner's office.… I still think it's tokenism. We don't have Negro secretaries in some of the big league offices, and I think it's time that the major leagues and baseball in general just took hold of themselves and started hiring some of these capable people."
On June 10, 1972, Aaron hit his 649th home run, tying with Willie Mays for second place in career home runs. His quest for Ruth's record had officially begun, and the following year and a half was the most difficult period in Aaron's life. While many fans cheered him on, others continued to threaten the African American player. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in, and security was tightened at the Braves' ballpark. The 39-year-old player had to travel with Secret Service agents protecting him. Even worse, his college-student daughter had received threats as well. Separated from his teammates, Aaron often slept at the ballpark, in a room reserved for him, so that he did not have to go out into the public. Throughout this period he drew strength from his strong Christian faith and did not waver from his principles of hard work and self-discipline. He ended the 1973 season with 713 home runs—just one shy of tying Ruth's record.
The 1974 baseball season began with much anticipation; fans wondered not if but when Aaron would break Ruth's record. The answer was not long in coming, as Aaron hit a homer in his first at-bat of the season. His eyes teared as he rounded third base; he was now tied for the record. That night, according to Schwartz, he called his mother, saying, "I'm going to save the next one for you, Mom." Four days later, on April 8, 1974, the largest crowd in Braves history (53,775) filled the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Aaron hit the record-breaking homer in the fourth inning, off a fastball from Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. The ball sailed over the left-center field wall and into the Braves bull pen, where it was caught by relief pitcher Tom House. As Aaron rounded the bases, two college students leaped onto the field to run with him before security guards stepped in. Aaron's excited teammates mobbed him at home base, and the crowd went wild.
Aaron's feat came more than two years before his retirement as a major league ballplayer. He hit his last home run as a Braves player, his 733rd, on October 2, 1974. In November Aaron squared off with Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh in a home run contest, beating Oh 10-9 (the Japanese slugger would go on to break Aaron's record, however). By the following season Aaron had been traded to the Milwaukee Brewers; in Wisconsin, he was able to end his career where he began it. He hit his first home run for the Brewers on April 18, and by May 1 he had set another record: baseball's highest-ever RBI (2,212). Aaron took his final at-bat, hitting a single, on October 3, 1976, in Milwaukee County Stadium. He was 42 years old. Six years later he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving 97.83 percent of the votes cast. Only Ty Cobb has received a higher percentage of votes.
Immediately after his retirement, Aaron rejoined the Atlanta Braves—this time as a player-development manager in the team's minor-league farm system. American media mogul Ted Turner , who had purchased the Braves in 1976, had invited Aaron to take the job. Here he helped develop such Braves talent as Tom Glavine and David Justice. It was not long before Aaron was asked to manage the major league team. In 1990 he became a baseball executive, named senior vice president and assistant to the president of the Braves. A budding businessman, Aaron also served as a board member for the Braves and for Turner Broadcasting System (TBS), and as vice president of business development for the CNN Airport Network.
|ATL: Atlanta Braves; MIL: Milwaukee Braves; MIL-B: Milwaukee Brewers.|
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Aaron has been very active in community services and philanthropy; his partner in these ventures is his wife, Billye Aaron (his marriage to first wife Barbara Lucas ended in divorce in 1971). Aaron's 1991 autobiography, I Had a Hammer, made the New York Times bestseller list, while Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, a 1995 TBS documentary about the player's life, received an Academy Award nomination. In 1999, at a celebration marking Aaron's 65th birthday, Major League Baseball introduced the Hank Aaron Award, presented annually to the best hitters in the American League and the National League. Also in the late 1990s, Aaron and his wife established the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, to help boys and girls ages 9 to 12 pursue their dreams. A statue of Aaron, cast in the mid-1990s, graces the courtyard at the entrance to Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves.
Where Is He Now?
Aaron lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is one of the city's most successful entrepreneurs. He owns several car dealerships, as well as 18 Krispy Kreme doughnut franchises. Throughout his business career, Aaron has held to his philosophy to help other African Americans succeed. "No matter how much success that one may achieve, there's always one of us back there that needs a little help," he told Smiley of NPR. "When I opened up my BMW dealership, I didn't have the experience of being a general manager. But there was somebody back there that was black that needed to have a chance to move up, and if I didn't give him a chance, then nobody else would. And that's what I did."
SELECTED WRITINGS BY AARON:
(With Lonnie Wheeler) I Had a Hammer. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
"Hank Aaron." Notable Black Men. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.
Hinckley, David. "Hank Did More Than Hit Homers." (New York) Daily News (July 7, 2002): 10.
Sandomir, Richard. "Of Home Runs and History." New York Times (April 12, 1995): C24.
"Hank Aaron." BaseballLibrary.com. http://www.pubdim.net/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/A/Aaron_Hank.stm (November 13, 2002).
"Hank Aaron." National Baseball Hall of Fame. http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/hofers_and_honorees/hofer_bios/aaron_hank.htm (November 12, 2002).
"Hank Aaron Statistics." Baseball Almanac. http://www.baseball-almanac.com/players/player.php?p=aaronha01 (November 19, 2002).
"The Hank Aaron Timeline." Sporting News. http://www.sportingnews.com/archives/aaron/timeline.html (November 14, 2002).
Schwartz, Larry. "Hank Aaron: Hammerin' Back at Racism." ESPN.com. http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00006764.html (November 12, 2002).
Sketch by Wendy Kagan
Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron
Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron
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.
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. □
Born: February 5, 1934
African American baseball player
Hank Aaron is major league baseball's leading home run hitter, with a career total of 755 home runs from 1954 to 1976. He also broke ground for the participation of African Americans in professional sports.
Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 5, 1934, the third of Herbert and Estella Aaron's eight children. His father was a shipyard worker and tavern owner. Aaron took an early interest in sports. Although the family had little money and he took several jobs to try to help out, he spent a lot of time playing baseball at a neighborhood park. Lacking interest in school because he believed he would make it as a ballplayer, Aaron transferred out of a segregated (restricted to members of one race) high school in his junior year to attend the Allen Institute in Mobile, which had an organized baseball program.
After high school graduation, Aaron played on local amateur and semi-pro teams, such as the Pritchett Athletics and the Mobile Black Bears, where he began to make a name for himself. At this time Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) of the Brooklyn Dodgers was breaking the baseball color barrier by becoming the first African American player in the major leagues. At age seventeen, Aaron gained immediate success as a hard-hitting infielder. In 1951 the owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, part of the professional Negro American League, signed him as the Clowns' shortstop for the 1952 season.
Being almost entirely self-taught, Aaron batted cross handed in his early years, "because no one had told him not to," according to one of his biographers. Still, 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. Even while enduring the taunting of fans and racial insults from fellow players in the segregated south, he went on to bat .362, with 22 homers and 125 runs batted in (RBIs). He was named the league's most valuable player in 1953.
During winter ball in Puerto Rico in 1953 and 1954 Aaron began playing positions in the outfield. In the spring of 1954 he trained with the major league Milwaukee Braves and won a starting position when the regular right fielder suffered an injury. Although Aaron was sidelined late in the season with a broken ankle, he batted .280 as a rookie that year. Over the next twenty-two seasons, this quiet, six-foot, right-handed All-Star established himself as one of the most durable and skilled hitters in major league history.
In fourteen of the seasons Aaron played for the Braves, he batted .300 or more. In fifteen 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 RBIs 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, again ranking him third all-time. When Aaron recorded his three thousandth hit on May 7, 1970, he was the youngest player (at thirty-six) since Ty Cobb (1886–1961) to reach that milestone. Aaron played in twenty-four All-Star games, tying a record. His lifetime batting average was .305, and in two World Series he batted .364. He also held the record for hitting home runs in three straight National League playoff games, which he accomplished in 1969 against the New York Mets.
A quiet superstar
Although Aaron ranked among baseball's superstars, he received less publicity than other players. In part this was due to Aaron's quiet personality and the continuing prejudice against African American players in the majors. Moreover, playing with the Milwaukee Braves (who became the Atlanta Braves in 1966) denied Aaron the publicity received by major league players in cities like New York or Los Angeles. During Aaron's long career the Braves only won two National League pennants and one divisional title. The Braves won the World Series in 1957, the year Aaron's 44 homers helped him win his only Most Valuable Player award. The following year Milwaukee repeated as National League champions but lost the World Series.
Year after year Aaron ranked among the National League's leading home run hitters. It was not until 1970, however, that sportswriters and fans began noticing that Aaron was about to challenge Babe Ruth's (1895–1948) record total of 714 homers. 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 Ruth's mark. Early in the 1974 season Aaron hit the tying homer in Cincinnati, Ohio. Then, on the night of April 8, 1974, before a large crowd in Atlanta, Georgia, and with a national television audience looking on, Aaron hit his 715th homer off Dodgers pitcher Al Downing, breaking Ruth's record. It was the highlight of Aaron's career, although it was tempered by a growing number of death threats and racist letters that made Aaron fear for his family's safety.
A new career
After the 1974 season Aaron left the Braves and went to play for the Milwaukee Brewers until his retirement in 1976. At the time of his retirement as a player, the forty-two-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. He later went on to become a senior vice president for the Braves. Overall, his efforts contributed toward making the Braves one of the strongest teams in the National League. In 1982 Aaron was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, and in 1997 Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile was dedicated to him.
Aaron received two honors in October 1999. Congress passed a resolution recognizing him as one of baseball's greatest players and praising his work with his Chasing the Dream Foundation, which helps children age nine through twelve pursue their dreams. Later that month, Aaron was named to major league baseball's All-Century Team, whose members were chosen by fans and a panel of baseball experts. In January 2002, Aaron was honored with one of the greatest tributes an athlete can receive: his picture appeared on a Wheaties cereal box.
For More Information
Aaron, Hank, with Lonnie Wheeler. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Rennert, Richard Scott. Henry Aaron. New York: Chelsea House, 1993.
Sweet, Kimberly Noel. Hank Aaron: The Life of the Homerun King. Montgomery, AL: Junebug Books, 2001.
February 5, 1934
Baseball player Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron grew up in relative poverty in Mobile, Alabama. The third of eight children born to Herbert and Estella Aaron, he developed an early love for baseball, playing whenever possible on vacant lots and, later, at municipally owned, though racially restricted, diamonds in his neighborhood. He played semipro ball for the Mobile Black Bears before signing a contract in 1952 with the Indianapolis Clowns of the American Negro League. Aaron quickly attracted the attention of major league scouts, and in May 1952 he signed with the Boston Braves of the National League. The Braves sent him to their Northern League farm club in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he won Rookie of the Year honors. In 1953 Aaron and two other black ball players were selected to integrate the South Atlantic League by playing for the Braves' Class A farm team in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1954 he was elevated to the Braves' major league club, which had moved to Milwaukee the previous year. Aaron rapidly became one of the mainstays for the Braves, both in Milwaukee and, from 1966 to 1974, in Atlanta, leading the Milwaukee club to World Series appearances in 1957 and 1958 and a world championship in 1957, and Atlanta to the National League championship series in 1969. In 1957 he was named the National League's most valuable player. In 1975, after twenty-one seasons with the Braves, Aaron was traded to the American League's Milwaukee Brewers, where he completed his playing career in 1976.
The most celebrated highlight of Aaron's major league career came on April 8, 1974, when he eclipsed the career home run record of Babe Ruth by connecting off the Los Angeles Dodgers' Al Downing at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. The home run, his 715th in the major leagues, climaxed a very difficult period in Aaron's life as he confronted various forms of abuse, including racial insults and death threats, from those who did not want an African American to surpass Ruth's mark. "It should have been the happiest time of my life, the best year," Aaron said. "But it was the worst year. It was hell. So many bad things happened…. Things I'm still trying to get over, and maybe never will. Things I know I'll never forget" (Capuzzo, 1992, p. 83).
Aaron's lifetime record of 3,771 base hits ranks behind only those of Pete Rose and Ty Cobb, and he is the all-time leader in home runs (755), runs batted in (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856). His 2,174 runs scored tie him for third place (with Ruth) behind Rickey Henderson and Cobb. These credentials, established over a 23-year career, easily earned "Hammerin' Hank" induction into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, in his first year of eligibility, 1982. In 1997 his hometown of Mobile honored Aaron by naming its new baseball stadium, home to the Southern League's AA franchise BayBears, in his honor.
Following his retirement as a player, Aaron returned to the Braves' organization as director of player development and later was promoted to a senior vice presidency. In this capacity, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of Major League Baseball's sparse record of bringing minorities into executive leadership positions both on and off the playing field. In addition, he is a vice president of Turner Broadcasting Company and maintains a number of business and charitable interests in the Atlanta area.
See also Baseball
Aaron, Hank, with Lonnie Wheeler. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Capuzzo, Mike. "A Prisoner of Memory." Sports Illustrated (December 7, 1992): 80–92.
james m. sorelle (1996)
Updated by author 2005
Hank Aaron (Henry Louis Aaron), 1934–, U.S. baseball player, b. Mobile, Ala. A durable outfielder and consistent hitter noted for his powerful wrists and explosive swing, Aaron joined a Negro League exhibition team, the Indianapolis Clowns, at 18. Within a month, however, he became a member of the Milwaukee Braves farm system. He was among the first African Americans to play a full career (23 years) in the major leagues, with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves (1954–74) and with the Milwaukee Brewers (1975–76). During his first season with the Braves he led the team in hits. In 1974
broke Babe Ruth's legendary lifetime mark of 714 home runs, eventually setting a record of 755 homers, which held until Barry Bonds hit his 756th in 2007. Elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, Aaron is baseball's career leader in runs batted in (2,297) and extra-base hits (1,477) and was an All Star a record 24 times. He was the National League's most valuable player in 1957 and won three Gold Gloves. In 1976 he became one of the first black executives in the game, beginning a long tenure in the Atlanta Braves front office. He also had a successful business career.
See his autobiography, I Had a Hammer (with L. Wheeler, 1991, repr. 2007); H. Bryant, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron (2010).