Last month, the MLB and the sports world lost an icon in Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. Aaron was known to his family and friends as, “Hammerin Hank”. He put up incredible numbers on the baseball diamond, while he fought discrimination and racism off the field. Back-in-the-day, black baseball players were rare, and for the ones who played, they learned what it was like to be included, but excluded at the same time. Along with Aaron, you had Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson who was heckled by older white fans calling him a bunch of bad racial terms that even today are considered deplorable. But players like Aaron fought through that, and paved the way for more black players to play baseball, to include Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., among other talented players. On the field, Aaron was a star and his career home-run total of 755 still stands today as an impressive feat. He broke the late Babe Ruth’s record, which was a dream turned reality.
Aaron was born on Feb. 5, 1934 in Mobile Alabama, to Herbert Allen Sr. and Estella (Pritchett) Aaron. He grew up with seven siblings, including Tommie Aaron who also played in the MLB. His family was very poor and were unable to afford baseball equipment. As a creative way of thinking, Aaron practiced by hitting bottle caps with sticks. Also, his bats and balls were created out of street-made material. Aaron’s childhood model was Jackie Robinson who was the first African-American player to break through in the major leagues. He too wanted to be like Robinson and show America that more black players can shine on the field just as good as the white players. Aaron went to Central High School where there was no organized baseball team, so he decided to turn semi-pro. He played outfield and third base for the Mobile Black Bears. His path to the MLB was not an easy one, but with hard work and determination, Aaron believed he could be successful.
On Nov 20, 1951, Aaron signed a contract with the Indianapolis Clowns by baseball scout Ed Scott. Aaron played for the Clowns for three-months, where he made $200 a month. Because of his play, Aaron received two-offers from the MLB via telegram, one for the New York (baseball) Giants, and the Boston Braves. He rejected the Giants offer, because the Braves offered him $50 dollars extra. Had he taken the offer from the Giants, he and fellow MLB great Willie Mays, would have been team-mates, but money talks. The Braves purchased Aaron’s contract from the Clowns for an astounding $10,000 which back then, was a nice chunk of change. General Manager John Quinn thought he was getting a steal as he thought Aaron was a $100,000 “property”. Yes, property. Remember the times he was living in.
Aaron began his pro-career in 1954 with the Milwaukee Braves (later the Atlanta Braves). He entered the spring training roster on March 8, as a member of the Braves’ farm club and was waiting to finally make the big team. Then, On Mar. 13 of that same year, Braves left fielder Bobby Thomson fractured his ankle while sliding into second base during a spring training game. Aaron then made his first spring training start the next day. He hit his first ever home run and started out in left field, even though technically they were preseason games. On April 15, Aaron collected his first major league hit, with a double off pitcher Vic Raschi.
With the Atlanta Braves, Aaron was only the eighth-player ever to hit 500 career home runs. His 500th came against Mike McCormick of the San Francisco Giants on July 14, 1968, a year after his former teammate of the Milwaukee Braves Eddie Matthews had hit his 500th. On Jul 31, 1969 Aaron passed Mickey Mantle on the all-time home run list with 537 moving him into third-place in career home runs. He finished third for the league MVP again after the 1969 season. Aaron then made his 3000th career hit on May 17, 1970. Finally, in 1974, Aaron became the new career home run leader passing Babe Ruth with 715 career home runs. But the journey did not come with controversy and ignorance.
Racism and Hate Mail
African Americans have dealt with a great deal of despair and adversity in terms of fighting for equality and justice among both black and white people in society. For years, despite America being a country full of opportunity and success, it has had it’s flaws, and racism has been one of them. During the 1800s, a majority of elderly white people used black people as property or to use the correct term, “slaves”. They were also called terms such as the dreaded n-word which has been used in both forms, the hard r, and the a. In the 1860’s there was a civil war between the Union (North) and the Confederates (South). The Union was made up of black slaves who were asked to do hard work for their slave owners or as they were called, “masters”. Finally, in 1865 then president Abraham Lincoln saved the Union and banded it together to officially declare slavery as tarnished both legally and ethically.
Unfortunately, racism still was a problem, as over 100 years later, there was segregation (or the separation of white and black communities). Aaron lived during those times, and he too was a victim of racism during his MLB career. In 1973-1974 he received hate mail and death threats from blatantly racist white fans. Some fans went as far as calling up and verbally harassing the sports media. Some journalists who were covering Aaron’s chase towards Babe Ruth’s home run records as n***r lovers. Their motive for doing such did not want to see a black baseball player become the all time leader in career home runs. Despite this hate and racism, Aaron overcame these ignorant people and made history the next year.
My cousin Carla opening mountainssss of Hank Aaron’s mail as his personal Secretary in the 70s. RIP to an absolute legend pic.twitter.com/iLCz58Uf6a
— Elli Friedman (@ellifriedman) January 22, 2021
On Apr. 8, 1954, the Braves came back to Atlanta in front of a packed house at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The game was being broadcast on NBC in front of a national audience. Aaron came up to the plate in the bottom of the second inning sitting at 714 career home runs. All he needed was one home run to break Babe Ruth’s record. On one bad-pitch from Los Angeles Dodger’s pitcher Al Downing, history was made and barriers were broken as Aaron finally had done it. He finally hit his 715th career home run. Just like that, the record was officially broken and the celebration began. Cannons flew off outside the stadium and people were out on the field jogging alongside Aaron as a sign of congratulations and good faith. Aaron had done the unthinkable and became the first black MLB player to become the all-time leader in career home runs.
End of his Career
Aaron would go on to play for two-more years and hit a total of 40 more home runs, including his last one ever of his career. Aaron hit his 755th and final home run on Jul. 20, 1976 at Milwaukee County Stadium off pitcher Dick Drago of the California Angels. His final total of 755 would stand at the MLB record until it was broken by former San Francisco Giant slugger Barry Bonds in 2007.
We lost a great one in “Hammerin Hank”, he will be missed!