SABR

Hank Aaron

This article was written by Bill Johnson.

“Henry Aaron in the second inning walked and scored. He’s sittin’ on 714. Here’s the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There’s a drive into left-center field! That ball is gonna be … outta here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron!” — Milo Hamilton, April 8, 1974


With that swing of the bat, along with the 714 that preceded it, Hank Aaron not only passed Babe Ruth as Major League Baseball’s career home run leader, but he also made a giant leap in the integration of the game and the nation. Aaron, an African-American, had broken a record set by the immortal Ruth, and not just any record, but the all-time major league home run record, and in doing so moved the game and the nation forward on the journey started by Jackie Robinson in 1947. By 1974 Aaron’s baseball career was within three years of sunset, but the road he’d travelled to arrive at that spring evening in Atlanta had hardened and tempered him, perhaps irrevocably, in ways that only suffering can produce.  Aaron finally shrugged off the twin burdens of expectation and fear that evening, and few have ever stood taller.

Henry Louis Aaron was born February 5, 1934, in Mobile Alabama, to Herbert and Estella (Pritchett) Aaron. Among Henry’s seven siblings was a brother, Tommie, who later played in parts of seven different seasons in the major leagues. For whatever such records are worth, the brothers still hold the record for most career home runs by a pair of siblings, 768, with the elder Henry contributing 755 to Tommie’s 13. They were also the first siblings to appear in a League Championship Series as teammates.

Henry was born, and the Aarons lived, in a poorer neighborhood of Mobile called “Down the Bay,” but he spent most of his formative years in the nearby district of Toulminville. The Aaron family lived on the edge of poverty, in part due to the general economic conditions of the Great Depression, so every member of the family worked to contribute. Young Henry picked cotton, among other odd jobs, and while his parents could not afford proper baseball equipment for recreation, Aaron was able to practice in endless sandlot games and by hitting bottle caps with ordinary broom handles and sticks. One of the consequences of this self-coaching was that he developed a cross-handed batting style, a habit he kept until his early days in the professional ranks. Aaron was a gifted athlete and starred in both football and baseball at Central High School for two years. On the diamond he played shortstop, third base, and some outfield on a team that won the Mobile Negro High School Championship during those freshman and sophomore years.  

In 1949, the fifteen-year-old Aaron – influenced by the exploits of Jackie Robinson, whom he’d seen on several exhibition passes through Alabama – was allowed to try out with the Brooklyn Dodgers but did not earn a contract offer, likely due to his unorthodox batting grip. Now a high school junior, however, he transferred to the private Josephine Allen Institute for his final two years of education. He had been playing for the semi-pro Pritchett Athletics since age fourteen, and it was during those games, as well as in some of his softball contests, that he drew the attention of Ed Scott. The scout convinced Henry and his mother that it would be a good move to sign with the Mobile Black Bears, a semi-pro team, for $3 a game. Estella granted the boy permission to play, but only on the condition that the he did not travel, thus limiting him to local games.  

On November 20, 1951, despite his mother’s concerns about his not continuing on to college, Henry signed a $200/month contract with the Negro American League champion Indianapolis Clowns. Scout Bunny Downs had discovered Aaron playing with the Black Bears during an earlier exhibition, and once with Indianapolis Aaron flourished, helping guide the team to the 1952 Negro League World Series crown. In 26 games that year he posted a .366 batting average, hit five home runs, and stole nine bases. The series, and the season, allowed Aaron to showcase his range of skills not just for regional scouts, but for several major league organizations as well. 

Following the championship, two telegrams reached Henry – one with an offer from the New York Giants, and a second with an offer from the Boston Braves. Aaron chose the latter, evidently because of a $50-a-month difference in salary, and Boston immediately purchased his contract from Indianapolis. On June 14, 1952, Aaron signed with Braves scout Dewey Griggs, and reported to the Class C Eau Claire Bears. There the coaches helped him eliminate his cross-handed batting grip, and the results were staggering. The infielder, despite playing in only 87 games, batted .336 with nineteen doubles and not only earned a spot on the league’s All-Star squad, but at the end of the season was selected as the Northern League’s Rookie of the Year. Aaron had also shown the Braves that he was not only a wonderful prospect on the field, but also that he could handle the racist taunts with external detachment. 

The next season, 1953, found him and black teammates Horace Garner and Felix Mantilla on the Jacksonville Tars. Along with two other players, Fleming Redy and Al Israel, the quintet broke the color line in the “Sally” League (or, SAL), playing in the heart of old Dixie without the top-cover of a sympathetic national press. Aaron almost single-handedly forced the Jacksonville fans to accept him, regardless of race, by leading the entire league with a batting average of .362, and also being the top producer with 115 runs, 208 hits, 36 doubles, 338 total bases, and 135 runs batted in (RBI) title. To cap the first desegregated season in SAL history Aaron led the Tars to the title and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. As many parts of the South were still unofficially governed by Jim Crow laws, circumstances that forced the black players to live in separate accommodations on the road and were equally limited in dining choices, one pundit wrote, “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”

That year Henry also met a young woman named Barbara Lewis. On a lark, she had decided to attend a Tars game one night early in the season, and watched Aaron single, double, and homer.  By October 6, Aaron, not yet twenty, and Lewis were married and within a year welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Gaile.

Aaron spent part of the offseason playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, learning to play the outfield and working with coach Mickey Owen on his batting stance. The following spring, on March 13, 1954, Milwaukee’s left fielder Bobby Thomson broke an ankle during a spring training game, and on March 14 Henry Aaron made his starting lineup debut as the new left fielder. He homered. Following that performance, the Braves offered Aaron a major league contract.

On Tuesday, April 13, 1954, Aaron made his major league debut in the season opener. Two days later, on April 15, he doubled off Cardinals pitcher Vic Raschi for his first major league hit, and a week later, on April 23, he victimized Raschi again, this time for his first home run. Aaron fractured an ankle on September 5, ending his season, but in his first 122 big league games he batted .280, homered 13 times, and finished fourth in the voting for Rookie of the Year. In 1955 Aaron was moved to right field, and there he earned the first of his twenty-one consecutive All-Star team slots enroute to finishing ninth in National League Most Valuable Player balloting.

During the early days of his career, Milwaukee’s public relations director Don Davidson began referring to Aaron as “Hank,” not “Henry” as he was known by those close to him, in an effort to make the quiet player appear a bit more accessible. 

In 1956 Aaron hit .328 to win the first of his two NL batting titles, led the league with 34 doubles, and was named The Sporting News National League Player of the Year. Hank Aaron would lead the league four times in doubles. The next season he was dropped to the cleanup spot in the order, behind Eddie Mathews, and began using a 34-ounce bat instead of the 36-ounce model he’d used before. With the increased bat speed, Aaron led the league with 44 home runs, a career-high 132 RBIs, batted .322 and won his sole National League Most Valuable Player award.   On September 23, Aaron enjoyed what he later called the best moment of his career when he homered in the eleventh inning for a win that clinched the Braves’ first pennant in Milwaukee. In the 1957 World Series Aaron batted .393 with three homers against the Yankees, and helped Milwaukee to its only championship.

Aaron’s gift in the batter’s box flowed through his hands and wrists. In the 1990 book Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, author George Will summarized Hank’s approach: “Henry Aaron once said, ‘I never worried about the fastball. They couldn’t throw it past me. None of them.’ That was true, but that was Aaron, he of the phenomenally quick wrists and whippy, thin-handled bat.” Despite standing six feet tall, Aaron weighed a mere 180 pounds, almost scrawny in comparison to later sluggers, but his unique physical talent allowed him to wait on the pitcher for a split second longer than most other hitters, to seemingly pluck the ball from the catcher’s glove with his bat, and made him one of the most feared sluggers in the league.  

The year 1957 was special in another way for the Aarons. In March Barbara delivered their first son, Hank Jr., and in December twins Lary and Gary arrived. Tragically, Gary died in the hospital. The family thrived, though, and would grow once more, in 1962, with the birth of youngest daughter Dorinda.

In 1958, due in large part to Aaron’s 30 home runs, the Braves returned to the World Series, but lost to the Yankees in seven games. Although Henry only finished third in MVP voting for the year, he did win his first Gold Glove award. The following year the rising star appeared on the television show Home Run Derby, and won six consecutive matches – along with $13, 000 – before falling to Wally Post. Afterward, Aaron noted that he changed his swing to promote home runs because “…they never had a show called ‘Singles Derby.’”

Aaron hit his 200th career home run on July 3, 1960, off Cardinals pitcher Ron Kline, and on June 8, 1961, he joined Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, and Frank Thomas as the first quartet to hit successive homers in a single game, a loss to the Cincinnati Reds.  In 1963 he led the National League in home runs and RBI, and also became the third-ever member of the 30/30 club, stealing 31 bases and knocking 44 homers. That year he barely missed winning the Triple Crown, losing the batting title to Tommy Davis by a scant .007 points.

Henry, or “Hank” as he was often called by the press, continued to excel throughout the decade. In 1966, the first season for the Braves in their new hometown of Atlanta, Aaron hit his 400th career home run off Bo Belinsky in Philadelphia, and crested the 500-plateau two years later, in 1968 against Mike McCormick and the San Francisco Giants. He moved into third place on the all-time career home run list on July 30, 1969, when he passed Mickey Mantle with number 537. Despite his personal successes, and another third-place finish in the MVP race, the Braves were swept by the improbable New York Mets in the new League Championship series.

With his 3,000th career hit, a single against the Cincinnati Reds on May 17, 1970, Henry Aaron became the first player ever to reach the dual milestones of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. That year, with his thirty-eight homers, he established a new National League record for most seasons by a player with thirty or more home runs. The following year, in April, Aaron hit homer number 600 off future Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, joining Ruth and Mays in a most exclusive power-hitting fraternity. With his career-high forty-seven home runs that year he also set a new league record for most seasons with forty or more homers, and set an unofficial mark for “close-but-no-cigar” when he finished third in MVP balloting for a sixth time.

On the personal front, things between Henry and Barbara came to a head. The couple had been having marital difficulties since 1966, and had drifted apart. In February 1971, they formalized their separation with a legal divorce. Two years later, in 1973, Aaron married Billye Williams, a former Atlanta television journalist, in Jamaica.

Despite Major League Baseball’s first labor-related work stoppage in 1972, Aaron passed Willie Mays on the all-time home run list when he hammered number 661 off Reds pitcher Don Gullett on August 6. The impact of the strike wouldn’t really show until the following season. The two weeks that were lost to pension benefit negotiations represented eight lost opportunities for Aaron to continue his chase of Ruth’s career home run record, and by the end of 1973, with the national media working itself into a lather over Aaron’s pursuit of the iconic total, he ended the season with 713, one shy of tying the Bambino.

The stresses on the player, the team, opposing pitchers, and the sport that were spawned – or perhaps revealed - by Aaron’s 1973 season have been chronicled in an array of sources. Henry retained an essential quiet dignity with the media. He never allowed the moment to cause him to break in public, although a lesser man certainly might have cracked. Aaron received, literally, thousands of letters every week, the torment prolonged over the winter of 1973 due to the strike in 1972. In 1973, however, the nation was a scant decade past the passage of the contentious Civil Rights Act, and less than a generation since Rosa Parks had refused to move to the back of her bus, so overt bigotry was not nearly as foreign as it might be now. Some of the letters that Aaron opened, however, are almost unbelievable for any era.

Some of the notable ones from the collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (spelling is verbatim):

“Hi, Hank,

I sees you hit 711 homers. When I goes to sleep every night I pray as follows:

1 – That you’se stop hitting these cheap homers

2 – That the pitchers stop lobbing in the ball for you to hit.

3 – That youse have a good accident when youse hit 713 and never been able to play another game.

4 – That youse get good and sick.

5 – That Babe Ruth is the best homer hitter & 714 is always the record.

6 – That youse get mugged by one of our brothers of the Black Panther Party.”

Another one, from mid-1973, read:

“Dear Hank Aaron,

Why are they making such a big fuss about your hitting 701 home runs.?

Please remember, you have been at bat over 2700 more times than Babe Ruth. If Babe Ruth was at bat 2700 more times he would have hit 814 home runs.

So, Hank what are you bragging about. Lets have the truth. You mentioned if you were white they would give you more credit. That’s ignorance. Stupid.

Hank, there are three things you can’t give a Nigger. A black eye, a puffed lip or a job.

The Cubs stink, the Cubs stink, Hinky Dinky, Stinky Parlevous. The Cubs are through, the Cubs are through, Hinky Pinky Parlevous.”

These are just a tiny sample of the venom and irrational rage directed at Aaron throughout the later stages of his quest. In a third letter, a self-described “50 year old White Woman from Massachusetts” wrote, “To Hank Aaron: A Rotten Nigger….you must have made every intelligent white man hate you and your opinions even more…”. Describing those letters as mere irrational raving is reasonable nearly forty years after the chase, but at the time, with a black player pursuing the record of a white one, the threats seemed very real. 

On the positive side, once the nation became aware of the bigotry, public support for Aaron poured in. But Aaron, perhaps channeling his inner Jackie Robinson, took the field without apparent regard for the attention surrounding his play. Atlanta opened the 1974 season in Cincinnati, and although the Braves management wanted Hank to break Ruth’s record in Atlanta, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decreed that Aaron had to play at least two games of the road series. 

Henry sat on his 713 total for one at-bat, hitting number 714 on April 4 off Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham. On April 8, in front of 53,775 fans in Atlanta, Aaron finally broke the record with a fourth-inning shot off the Dodgers Al Downing. Dodgers radio announcer Vin Scully captured the moment: “What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron. … And for the first time in a long time, that poker face of Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”

The euphoria lasted all season, until October 2, when Aaron hammered his 733rd, and final, homer for the Braves. One month later, on November 2, Atlanta traded the all-time home run king to the Milwaukee Brewers for Roger Alexander and Dave May. Hank Aaron became a “designated hitter.” The next season, on May 1, 1975, Aaron became the all time RBI leader, and on July 20, 1976 he hit the 755th home run of his career in Milwaukee’s County Stadium. He appeared in his final major league game on October 3, calling it a career after 3,298 games.

In that career, Aaron scored 2,174 runs, and is the all-time leader in RBIs, with 2,297, total bases, with 6,856, and extra-base hits, with 1,477. His 12,364 at-bats remain the second highest total ever, and he is on many other Major League Baseball “top ten” lists, including doubles, plate appearances, and hits (3,771). All the more remarkable is that he remains on these lists more than thirty years since he last took the field.

After retiring, Aaron returned to Atlanta as vice president of player development for the Braves, and on August 1, 1982, was formally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, although an inexplicable 2.2 percent of the ballots did not contain his name. He also worked for a time for Turner Broadcasting, and opened Hank Aaron BMW in Atlanta. His auto empire eventually grew to multiple dealerships in Georgia, although he sold all but one in 2007, and he expanded his business ventures to include a number of smaller restaurants as well.   The “755 Restaurant Corporation” grew to eighteen fast food outlets in the Southeast, including several Church’s Fried Chicken outlets.

In 1990 he wrote his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, and in April 1997 the Mobile Bay Bears (Southern League) christened “Hank Aaron Stadium” in Mobile. In 1999 Major League Baseball created the “Hank Aaron Award” to be awarded to the best offensive performers in each league each season, and in 2000 Aaron was named to MLB’s All-Century Team. In 2001, he was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Clinton, and in 2002 was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush. 

That slew of awards underscores Aaron’s fame and his relevance not only to baseball’s past, but also to America’s history. He was a black man who successfully challenged the record of a white player whose legacy borders on mythological, and he did so with a poise so unshakable that it remains a study in professionalism. Naturally taciturn in public, he was only rarely able to convey his inner feelings with words, but he reserved one of his finest moments for the end of another controversy-laden home run chase, by Barry Bonds in 2007. When Bonds finally hit his 756th homer, Aaron’s face appeared on the JumboTron scoreboard in San Francisco, and he offered his congratulations to his replacement:

I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity, and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.

Dignity. Pride. Courage. Those are words often reserved for describing heroes. They also describe Henry Aaron’s character well. Perhaps that is not a coincidence.

July 31, 2011


Sources

Aaron, Henry, and Lonnie Wheeler. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. New York: Harper, 1991.

Archives, National Baseball Hall of Fame. Cooperstown, New York (accessed 2011)

Atlanta Journal/Atlanta Journal-Constitution: various issues 1954-1975

Bryant, Howard. The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. New York: Random House, 2010.

Furlong, William Barry. “The Panther at the Plate.” The New York Times Magazine. September 21, 1958

http://www.biography.com/articles/Hank-Aaron-9173497?part=0

http://www.baseball-reference.com

Johnson, Lloyd, and Wolff, Miles. Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 3rd edition. Durham, NC: Baseball America. 2007

Sports Illustrated: various issues 1954-1997

Stanton, Tom. Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America. New York: Harper Collins, 2004

The Sporting News: various issues

Will, George. Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. New York: Macmillan. 1990

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