Today [February 5th] for Black History Month we celebrate the birth of baseball legend Henry Louis Aaron a.k.a. Hammerin’ Hank Aaron in 1938.
Hank Aaron was an renowned right fielder for The Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers from 1954 to 1978. He was born in Mobile, Alabama to Herbert and Estella Aaron. He was one of eight children, one of which, Tommie Aaron, also played in the MLB for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves with Hank. Upon Hank’s retirement, he and Tommie held the record for most home runs by a pair of siblings with 768 runs. They also were the first brothers to ever play in a Championship Series as teammates.
Aaron was born in what is known as the “Down the Bay” section of Mobile, Alabama. Due to the financial situation of his family, Aaron’s parents were not able to afford baseball equipment for their sons. Their lack of money could not deter Hank; he spent his time practicing by hitting bottle caps with sticks and if there was a shortage of either, he would use materials he found in the street to fuel his passion. In high school Aaron played outfield and third base for the Mobile Black Bears, a local semipro team, due to the lack of organized baseball at his all Black high school. In his spare time, Aaron was an established Boy Scout of America and even earned the prestigious title of Eagle Scout.
Aaron began his professional career as many African American baseball players did at this time, on a Negro League team. His first pro position was short stop for the Indianapolis Clowns. Due to his amazing ability he received two offers from the MLB via telegram. The first was from the New York Giants and the second from the Boston Braves. Years later Aaron recounted, “I had the Giants’ contract in my hand. But the Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates: fifty dollars.”
The Howe Sports Bureau credits Aaron with a batting average of .366 with five home runs, 33 RBIs, 41 hits and 9 stolen bases during his 26 official Negro League games. The Braves paid $10,000 for Aaron’s contract from the Clowns. According to the Braves GM this was a steal because to him Aaron was worth at least $100,000. On June 12, 1952 Aaron signed his contract and was officially a Brave.
In the beginning, Aaron was signed to the Eau Claire Bears, the Braves’ Northern League Class C farm team. During that 1952 season, Aaron’s exemplary game play he earned a spot on the Northern League’s All-Star Team. Playing on this farm team also helped Aaron to break some unhealthy habits that would have hindered his efficiency in professional gameplay. By the end of this season his ability earned him the unanimous vote to be Rookie of the Year even though he only competed in 87 games that season. He finished with 89 runs scored, 116 hits, 9 home runs, and 61 RBIs with a batting average of .336.
For the 1953 season he was promoted to the Jacksonville Braves, the Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League. Due in big part to the addition of Aaron, the Braves won the league championship that year. Aaron lead the league in runs with 115, hits with 208, doubles with 36, RBIs with 125, total bases with 38, and a batting average of .362. Due to this success he was awarded the Most Valuable Player Award.
Hank Aaron made his MLB debut on April 13th, 1954 dawning the number 5. On April 15, Aaron recorded his first major league hit, a double off Cardinals’ pitcher Vic Raschi. Aaron hit his first major league homerun on April 23, also off Raschi. Aaron batted .280 with 13 home runs before suffering a broken ankle on September 5. Upon his return he changed his number to 44 which was his self claimed “lucky number.” Whether the superstition is true or not is up for debate; but, the facts are that after the number switch Aaron hit 44 homeruns in 4 different seasons and hit his record breaking 715th run off of Al Downing who also wore the number 44.
On September 23, 1957 Aaron hit a two run game ending home run in Milwaukee that secure the Pennant for Braves winning them the World Series against the New York Yankees. In this game Aaron hit a .393 batting average with 3 home runs and 7 RBIs in this World Series game. It was his first World Series appearance and victory. In 1958 Aaron again led the Braves to a World Series this time losing in seven games. He received the first of three Golden Glove awards this year.
During the next few years Aaron was one of the top players in the MLB. In 1968 he became the first Atlanta Braves player to hit 500 home runs. and in 1970 he was the first Atlanta Brave to reach 3,000 hits. Aaron was the second youngest player in history to reach 500 home runs. Aaron finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs, one short of Babe Ruth‘s record. He received various death threats upon the end of the season from fans of Ruth who did not want to see him break the record. In 1973, Aaron received a plaque for receiving more mail than anyone else in the country with 930,000 pieces. Sports Illustrated said:
“Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at age thirty-nine, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport…? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball’s attic?”
On April 8, 1974 53,775 people showed up to watch Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record. Aaron’s715th home run was hit off of Los Angele Dodgers pitcher Al Downing.
Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs and a .305 batting average. He had a 23 year career and averaged 32 home runs a year.
Aaron has been awarded the NAACP Spingarn Award and was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 1982. He joined the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1988 for his tenure as a Milwaukee Brave. In 1999 the MLB created the Hank Aaron Award to commemorate the 25th anniversary of him passing Babe Ruth’s record. Hank Aaron’s number 44 was retired by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976. Hank Aaron is today retired, living in Georgia.