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If you like Hank Aaron's story, you might also like:
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Yogi Berra,
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Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron
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Hank Aaron Biography

Home Run King

Hank Aaron Date of birth: February 5, 1934

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  Hank Aaron

Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, and grew up on a farm in nearby Toulminville. His parents, Herbert and Estella, were hardworking people, but with eight children to raise, life was difficult for the Aaron family. Young Henry fell in love with baseball listening to games on a neighbor's radio. The family could not afford sports equipment, so Henry practiced batting by swinging a broom handle at bottle caps he tossed in the air, or by swatting at a bundle of rags he had rolled into a makeshift ball. His brother Tommie also enjoyed baseball, and would later join him in the major leagues.

Hank Aaron Biography Photo
As a freshman and sophomore, Henry attended Mobile's segregated Central High School, where he excelled at both baseball and football. Professional baseball was also racially segregated in the 1940s, with black and white athletes playing in separate leagues. This barrier was broken in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in major league baseball. The 15-year-old Henry Aaron tried out for Robinson's team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, but failed to win a spot in the organization. During his junior and senior years of high school, he attended the private Josephine Allen Institute, and played for the Mobile Black Bears, an independent Negro League team. On graduating from high school, he turned down college football scholarships to play baseball for the Indianapolis Clowns, of the Negro American League.

In his first seasons as a full-time professional, Aaron was a standout, despite the fact that he held the bat in an unusual cross-hand grip. The Clowns won their league's World Series in 1952, and Aaron caught the eyes of major league scouts. Following Jackie Robinson's success with the Dodgers, major league baseball was looking to the Negro Leagues for new talent. Aaron received offers from both the New York Giants and Boston Braves organizations. Had he signed with the Giants, he would have played alongside another young phenomenon recently recruited from the Negro League, Willie Mays, but the Braves offered $50 a month more than the Giants, so Aaron signed with the Braves. The Braves purchased Aaron's contract from the Clowns for $10,000, and Aaron left Indianapolis for the Braves' farm team in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Hank Aaron Biography Photo
Although he had never been so far from home, Aaron enjoyed his first stint in Wisconsin, where he finally abandoned the cross-hand grip for a more conventional batting technique. His performance in Eau Claire earned him a promotion to the Jacksonville (Florida) Braves of the Class A Southern Atlantic or "Sally" League. While the move was a promotion in professional terms, a return to the South meant a return to the indignities of segregation. Aaron was forced to find his own accommodations on the road, since the hotels that housed his white teammates would not admit African Americans.

Despite segregation, petty harassment and other hardships, Aaron continued to develop as an athlete. In his first professional seasons, Aaron played infield positions -- shortstop and third base -- but the Braves soon moved him to the outfield. Jacksonville won ithe Sally League championship that year, and Aaron was voted the league's Most Valuable Player of 1953.

In 1953, the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When their left fielder Bobby Thomson was injured in training, the team added Aaron to its lineup. After a brief period of adjustment, Aaron established himself as a reliable home run hitter. As he was naturally quiet and reserved in person, the team's PR department referred to him as "Hank" Aaron, rather than "Henry," to warm up his public image. His powerful hitting soon won him the nickname "Hammerin' Hank." In 1955, Aaron was named to the National League All-Star team for the first time, and Sporting News named him the National League Player of the Year.

Hank Aaron Biography Photo
The 1957 season brought one of the most dramatic episodes of Aaron's early career. In the final game of the playoffs, he hit a game-ending homer, scoring two runs and winning the National League pennant for the Braves. Carried off the field by his jubilant teammates, he was named the league's Most Valuable Player and led the Braves to victory in the year's World Series. Aaron's pride in these victories was tempered by his awareness of events unfolding in other parts of the country. While Hank Aaron was enjoying the acclaim of white teammates and spectators in Milwaukee, it took the intervention of President Eisenhower -- and the presence of federal troops and U.S. marshals -- for African American students to make their way through the doors of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Although the achievements of public figures such as Hank Aaron prepared many white Americans to accept African Americans as equals, the struggle to achieve full equality under the law would take many more years.

The 1958 season saw Hank Aaron and the Braves winning the National League pennant again, although they were defeated by the New York Yankees in the year's World Series. In 1959, he hit three home runs in a single game against the San Francisco Giants. Aaron remained one of the game's dominant hitters throughout the following decade, often scoring 30 home runs or more in a single season. In 1963, he led the League with 44 home runs and 130 runs batted in. In 1965, the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, Georgia.

Hank Aaron Biography Photo
As the '60s came to a close, Aaron's record as a home run hitter brought him into the historic ranks of the game's great sluggers. In 1969, he passed the home run record held by the Yankees' Mickey Mantle. In 1970, he scored his 3,000th hit, a new record, and established the record for the most seasons with 30 or more home runs. Although the 1972 season was shortened by a players' strike, Aaron surpassed Willie Mays's record to reach second place on the list of most home runs in a professional baseball career. In the 1973 season, it became apparent that Aaron was drawing within reach of breaking the all-time home run record held by Babe Ruth since the 1930s, the most venerated record in professional baseball.

The news media focused intently on the race for Ruth's record, and Aaron began to receive thousands of letters every day. The team hired a secretary just to sort his mail. While many cheered Aaron on, the mailbag also revealed a dark underside of public opinion. Many fans regarded Ruth's record as sacrosanct, and some, animated by irrational hatred, threatened Aaron for daring to challenge the record held by a white champion. Ruth's widow, Claire Hodgson, spoke out, noting that her late husband would have gladly encouraged a younger man to try for the record, regardless of his color.

Aaron hit 40 home runs in the 1973 season, bringing his career total to 713, one run short of the record. The hate mail escalated between the 1973 and 1974 seasons; racist cranks even threatened sports journalists for covering Aaron's exploits. The Atlanta police assigned officer Calvin Wardlaw to guard Aaron for the season. Most baseball fans cheered Aaron's effort, and as the 1974 season began, anticipation rose to a fever pitch. The Braves' front office was determined to see Aaron break the record at home in Atlanta, but the first three games of season, played against the Cincinnati Reds, were to be held in Cincinnati. The Braves tried to keep Aaron out of the games in Cincinnati, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn insisted that he play. In his first time at bat in the new season, Aaron hit home run number 714, tying Ruth's record.

Hank Aaron Biography Photo
On April 8, 1974, the Braves played the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta. More than 53,000 fans attended the game, while millions watched on live television. In the fourth inning, Dodgers pitcher Al Downing threw to Aaron, and Aaron smacked the ball over the outfield wall into the Braves' dugout. As the crowd exploded, and millions cheered before their television screens, Aaron jogged around the bases, joined briefly by two college students who had stormed the field. Herbert and Estella Aaron were present to see their son's achievement, and met him at home plate.

Aaron finished the 1974 season with a total of 733 home runs. At age 39, he was expected to retire. When he decided to continue playing, the Braves traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers, and Aaron returned to the city where he had spent the first years of his major league career. In the 1975 season, Aaron broke another of Babe Ruth's records, for runs batted in (RBI).

Hank Aaron played his last All-Star game in 1975. The following year, his last as a player, he hit his 755th home run. This record stood until 2007, when it was broken by Barry Bonds. At the time, Aaron congratulated Bonds on his achievement, but since Bonds was later found to have used performance-enhancing drugs during his playing career, many fans still regard Hank Aaron as the true home run record-holder.

Hank Aaron Biography Photo
After retiring from the field, Hank Aaron returned to Atlanta to work as an executive with the Braves organization. In 1982, his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. As the Braves' Vice President and Director of Player Development, Aaron was one of the first African Americans to serve in upper-level management in Major League Baseball. He later became Vice President of Community Relations for the Turner Broadcasting System, which owned the Braves. He has also owned and operated a number of automobile dealerships in the greater Atlanta area, as well as food and restaurant franchises including Popeye's and Krispy Kreme. In 1990, he published an autobiography, If I Had a Hammer. Proud as he may be of his successes in baseball and in business, Aaron derives even greater satisfaction from his work with the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, which funds scholarships and financial assistance for young people with limited resources to develop their talents and pursue their dreams.

In 1999, Major League Baseball created the Hank Aaron Award to honor the most effective hitters in the National and American Leagues. In 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Hank Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Today, a statue of Hank Aaron stands outside the Braves' Turner Field in Atlanta. The address of the stadium is 755 Hank Aaron Drive, a tribute to his career home run record.

(See Hank Aaron hit his history-making 715th career home run.)

This page last revised on Sep 23, 2015 12:02 EDT
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