American baseball icon Hank Aaron, nicknamed “Hammerin’ Hank,” is widely regarded as one of the greatest hitters in the history of the sport. For nearly 23 years (1954–76), Aaron played as an outfielder for the Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers, setting several records and winning a number of honors along the way. Aaron continues to hold many of baseball’s most distinguished records today, including runs batted in (2,297), extra base hits (1,477), total bases (6,856) and most years with 30 or more home runs (15). He is also ranked one of baseball’s Top 5 players for career hits and runs. For more than two decades, Aaron held the record for most career home runs (755), surpassing Babe Ruth’s home-run record on April 8, 1974. Barry Bonds broke the record on August 7, 2007, when he scored his 756th home run in San Francisco, California.
Born Henry Louis Aaron on February 5, 1934, in a poor black section of Mobile, Alabama, called “Down The Bay,” Hank Aaron was the third of eight children born to Estella and Herbert Aaron, who made a living as a tavern owner and a dry dock boilermaker’s assistant. Aaron and his family moved to the middle-class Toulminville neighborhood when he was 8 years old. Aaron developed a strong affinity for baseball and football at a young age, and tended to focus more heavily on sports than his studies. During his freshman and sophomore years, he attended Central High School, a segregated high school in Mobile, where he excelled at both football and baseball. On the baseball diamond, he played shortstop and third base. In his junior year, Aaron transferred to the Josephine Allen Institute, a neighboring private school that had an organized baseball program. Before the end of his first year at Allen, he had more than proved his abilities on the baseball field. Then, perhaps sensing that he had a bigger future ahead of him, in 1951, the 18-year-old Aaron quit school to play for the Negro Baseball League’s Indianopolis Clowns.
It wasn’t a long stay. After leading his club to victory in the league’s 1952 World Series, in June 1952, Aaron was recruited by the Milwaukee Braves (formerly of Boston and later of Atlanta) for $10,000. The Braves assigned their new player to one of their farm clubs, The Eau Claire Bears. Again, Aaron did not disappoint, earning the esteemed title of “Northern League Rookie of the Year.” Hank Aaron made his Major League debut in 1954, at age 20, when a spring training injury to a Braves outfielder created a roster spot for him. Following a respectable first year (he hit .280), Aaron charged through the 1955 season with a blend of power (27 home runs), run production (106 runs batted in), and average (.328) that would come to define his long career. In 1956, after winning the first of two batting titles, Aaron registered an unrivaled 1957 season, taking home the National League MVP and nearly nabbing the Triple Crown by hitting 44 home runs, knocking in another 132, and batting .322.
That same year, Aaron demonstrated his ability to come up big when it counted most. His 11th inning home run in late September propelled the Braves to the World Series, where he led underdog Milwaukee to an upset win over the New York Yankees in seven games. With the game still years away from the multimillion-dollar contracts that would later dominate player salaries, Aaron’s annual pay in 1959 was around $30,000. When he equaled that amount that same year in endorsements, Aaron realized there may be more in store for him if he continued to hit for power. “I noticed that they never had a show called ‘Singles Derby,'” he once explained. He was right, of course, and over the next decade and a half, the always-fit Aaron banged out a steady stream of 30 and 40 home run seasons. In 1973, at the age of 39, Aaron was still a force, clubbing a remarkable 40 home runs to finish just one run behind Babe Ruth’s all-time career mark of 714.
But the chase to beat the Babe’s record revealed that world of baseball was far from being free of the racial tensions that prevailed around it. Letters poured into the Braves offices, as many as 3,000 a day for Aaron. Some wrote to congratulate him, but many others were appalled that a black man should break baseball’s most sacred record. Death threats were a part of the mix. Still, Aaron pushed forward. He didn’t try to inflame the atmosphere, but he didn’t keep his mouth shut either, speaking out against the league’s lack of ownership and management opportunities for minorities. “On the field, blacks have been able to be super giants,” he once stated. “But, once our playing days are over, this is the end of it and we go back to the back of the bus again.”
In 1974, after tying the Babe on Opening Day in Cincinnati, Ohio, Aaron came home with his team. On April 15, he banged out his record 715th home run at 9:07 p.m. in the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a triumph and a relief. The more than 50,000 fans on hand cheered him on as he rounded the bases. There were fireworks and a band, and when he crossed home plate, Aaron’s parents were there to greet him. Overall, Aaron finished the 1974 season with 20 home runs. He played two more years, moving back to Milwaukee to finish out his career to play in the same city where he’d started. After retiring as a player, Aaron moved into the Atlanta Braves front office as executive vice-president, where he has been a leading spokesman for minority hiring in baseball. He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1982. His autobiography, I Had a Hammer, was published in 1990. In 1999, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of breaking Ruth’s record, Major League Baseball announced the Hank Aaron Award, given annually to the best overall hitter in each league. Hank Aaron was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.