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Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron (born February 5, 1934), is a retired American baseball player and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Aaron is best known for setting the Major League record for most home runs in a career (755), surpassing the previous mark of 714 by Babe Ruth. Aaron also holds the career marks for runs batted in (2,297), extra base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856). He won one World Series ring with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, and the National League Most Valuable Player Award the same year. He also earned three Gold Glove Awards, and made 22 All-Star appearances.
Aaron was born in a part of Mobile, Alabama called Down The Bay. It was a poor area of town populated mostly by minorities. His family later moved to a better part of Mobile called Toulminville, where he was brought up and attended school. In Central High School, Aaron played shortstop and third base and was an outstanding hitter though he batted cross-handed. His team won the Negro High School Championship two years running. In high school, he also excelled in football.
Aaron's last two years of high school were spent at Josephine Allen Institute, a private high school. Aaron was so proficient a ballplayer at this young age that before his fifteenth birthday he was playing on a semi-pro team, the Pritchett Athletics, as their shortstop and third baseman. He made $3 a game. He tried out for the Dodgers but did not get to show his abilities to the scouts there. He then started playing with the semi-pro Mobile Black Bears for $10 a game.
His mother wanted Aaron to attend college in Florida. But with the promise to finish high school, on November 20, 1951 he was signed by scout Ed Scott to play for the Negro American League champion Indianapolis Clowns after the Black Bears played an exhibition against the Clowns the previous year. Aaron helped lead the Clowns to victory in the 1952 Negro League World Series.
On June 14, 1952 Aaron's contract was acquired by the Boston Braves for $10,000. He was the last Negro League player to make the jump to the major leagues. Aaron was assigned to the Braves' Class C farm club, the Eau Claire Bears, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin where he played second base. He got two line drive singles in his first game. He won the Northern League's Rookie of the Year, and he earned $350 a month. In 1953, Aaron, along with Horace Garner and Felix Mantilla, was sent to the Jacksonville Tars to break the color line in the South Atlantic League. Despite enduring non-stop racial epithets and threats, Aaron led the league in runs (115), hits (208), doubles (36), RBI (115), and batting average (.362) to become the league's Most Valuable Player. One writer said, "Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations".
To prepare for the big leagues, Aaron played winter ball in Puerto Rico and learned to play the outfield. On March 13, 1954, Braves left fielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding into second base during a spring training game. The next day Aaron made his first spring training start for the Braves in left field and hit a home run.
The early years
On April 13, 1954, Aaron made his major league debut and went 0-for-5 against the Cincinnati Reds' Joe Nuxhall. In the same game, Aaron's teammate, Eddie Mathews hit two home runs, the first two of a record 863 home runs the pair would hit as teammates. On April 15, 1954 Aaron got his first major league hit, a single off of Cardinals pitcher Vic Raschi. Aaron hit his first Major League home run on April 23, 1954 off of Raschi. Over the next 122 games, Aaron batted .280 (he would not hit that low again until 1966) with 13 homers (he wouldn't go below 20 for the next 20 years) before suffering a broken ankle on September 5.
In the following season, Aaron was moved to right field, where he played for most of his career, winning three Gold Gloves. 1955 also saw the first of a record-tying 24 All-Star Games for Aaron - only Willie Mays and Stan Musial appeared in as many All-Star Games. On June 24, 1955, Aaron became the first strike out victim of the Brooklyn Dodgers' future Hall of Famer, Sandy Koufax. Koufax came on in relief for the Dodgers on Milwaukee's County Stadium, pitching two shutout innings and fanning two. Aaron finished the season batting .314 with 27 home runs and 106 RBI.
1956 saw Aaron hit .328 to win the first of two NL batting titles. He is also named The Sporting News' NL Player of the Year. Two changes were made in 1957 that had a profound effect on Aaron. First, he went from second in the batting order to fourth, behind Eddie Mathews instead of in front of him, and, second, he switched from a 36-ounce bat to a 34-ounce model. Aaron responded by leading the league with 44 home runs, a career-high 132 RBI, batted .322 and won his only NL MVP Award. During a game on August 15th, Aaron belted his 100th major league home run off of the Reds' Don Gross. On September 23, 1957, Aaron had what he called the best moment of his career. Aaron drilled a pitch from the Cardinals' Billy Muffett for a two-run homer in the 11th inning of a game. It clinched the Braves' first pennant in Milwaukee and Aaron was carried off the field by his teammates. That year, Milwaukee registered its only World Series victory behind right-handed pitcher Lew Burdette, who defeated the Yankees three times. Aaron did his part by hitting .393 with three homers and seven RBI.
Prime of career
Aaron had another spectacular year in 1958 by hitting .326, with 30 home runs and 95 RBI. He led the Braves to another pennant, but this time they lost a seven-game Series to the Yankees. Aaron picked up his first Gold Glove and finished 3rd in MVP voting. Hall of Famer Don Drysdale served up the first of seventeen home runs to Aaron on June 29, 1958 - more than any other pitcher.
On June 21, 1959 Aaron had his single most productive day as a hitter. Against the San Francisco Giants, he hit two-run home runs in the 1st, 6th and 7th inning off of Johnny Antonelli, Stu Miller and Gordon Jones. It was the only time in his career that he would hit three homers in a game. Exactly one month later, on July 21, Aaron appeared on the television show "Home Run Derby." He was paid $30,000 for his appearance - almost as much as his annual salary. The prize money encouraged Aaron to change his approach in hitting and swing for more homers. Aaron defended his decision by saying, "I noticed that they never had a show called "Singles Derby". Eddie Mathews led the league in home runs with 46 and Aaron led the league in hitting with a .355 average and finished 3rd in MVP voting.
July 3, 1960 saw Aaron hit his 200th home run off of the Cardinals' Ron Kline at Sportsman's Park. On June 8, 1961, Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock and Frank Thomas became the first four players ever to hit successive home runs in a game. Aaron and Mathews went back to back off of Reds' pitcher Jim Maloney. Adcock and Thomas hit theirs off of reliever Marshall Bridges. Despite the unprecedented feat, the Braves lost the game 10-8.
On June 18, 1962, Aaron hit what most consider to be the longest home run of his career—a 470-foot shot to straight-away center at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Only two other players ever hit a ball there - Joe Adcock in 1953 and Lou Brock, who oddly did it the day before Aaron. On April 19, 1963 he hit his 300th home run off of the Mets' Jay Hook. Aaron just missed winning the triple crown in 1963 by leading the league with 44 home runs and 130 RBI. He finished .007 percentage points behind Tommy Davis in batting. Aaron became the third member of the 30-30 club behind Ken Williams and Willie Mays. He again finished third in the MVP voting.
On September 20, 1965, Aaron hit the last home run by a Milwaukee Braves player at Milwaukee County Stadium. It came off Ray Culp of the Phillies. The Braves moved to Atlanta the following season and made Fulton County Stadium their new home. Aaron's home run output increased due to the hitter friendly park - later nicknamed "The Launching Pad".
Aaron hit his 400th home run on April 20, 1966 off Bob Priddy of the San Francisco Giants. On August 23 he homered to set a major league record with Eddie Mathews for most career home runs by teammates (863). The first two batters faced by Nolan Ryan in his career were Mathews and Aaron, on September 11, 1966. Neither of them struck out against Ryan.
In the first game of a double header against the Phillies on May 10, 1967, Aaron hit his only inside the park home run off Jim Bunning. Aaron hit a conventional home run in the second game of the double header off of Larry Jackson.
Aaron hit his 500th home run on July 14, 1968 off Mike McCormick of the San Francisco Giants at Fulton County Stadium. Aaron was just the eighth player to reach the milestone and he did it exactly one year after his former teammate Eddie Mathews did it with the Houston Astros. At the time, Aaron was the second youngest player to ever do so at 34 years, five months and nine days, a year and a half older than the youngest player to do so, Jimmie Foxx.
The chase is on
On July 30, 1969 Aaron hit his 537th home run to move into third place on the career home run list, past Mickey Mantle and behind only Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. Aaron was now in the most productive homerun hitting stretch of his career, and it became apparent that he would have a legitimate chance of overtaking Ruth, more so than Mays who was more rapidly approaching the end of his career.
The Braves marked the first year of division play by winning the West. The Braves were fifth place on August 19, but outplayed the Giants and Reds down the stretch to win the division. Aaron slugged 44 homers and knocked in 97 runs. The Braves lost to the Miracle Mets in the playoffs, three games to none. Aaron and brother Tommie were the first siblings to appear in a League Championship series together as teammates. Aaron finished 3rd in MVP voting.
Aaron got his 3,000th career hit off of Reds' Wayne Simpson on May 17, 1970 with a single in the second game of a doubleheader at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, becoming the first player to reach that milestone and hit 500 career home runs. On July 31, he hit a home run against Dave Guisti of the Pirates in Atlanta for this 30th homer of the season, establishing a National League record for most seasons with 30 or more homers (12).
1971 saw several milestones for Aaron. On April 27 he hit his 600th career homer off the San Francisco Giants' Gaylord Perry in Atlanta. The greatest home run hitter slugged two homers off the great strikeout pitcher, Nolan Ryan, the first of which was on May 21, 1971, in Shea Stadium. On July 31 Aaron homered in an All-Star Game for the first time, connecting off Vida Blue in Detroit. He hit his 40th home run of the season against the Giants' Jerry Johnson on August 10, establishing a National League record for most seasons with 40 or more home runs (seven). On September 21, Aaron homered against the Padres' Jay Franklin for his 46th home run of the season - a new career high. Five days later, he hit his 47th home run, the most he hit in a season. He finished third in MVP voting for the 6th time in his career.
During the strike shortened season of 1972, Aaron tied and then surpassed Willie Mays for second place on the career home run list with home runs on May 31 (648) off of the Padres' Fred Norman and June 10 (649) off of the Phillies' Wayne Twitchell. His home run on June 10 was also his 14th grand slam, tying him with Willie McCovey and Gil Hodges for the National League record. On June 28 Aaron hit a two-run homer to tie Lou Gehrig for second place on the all-time RBI list with 1,990. The next day he passed Gehrig with a home run off of the Padres' Mike Caldwell to move into sole possession of second place on the all-time RBI list. Aaron got his 2,000 career RBI when he homered off Astros' Jim York. Aaron tied then surpassed Babe Ruth for the most home runs by a player with a single team when he homered for the 659th time as a Brave on July 19 against the Pirates' Nelson Briles and for the 660th on July 25 against the Reds' Wayne Simpson. At the first All-Star Game in Atlanta, Aaron thrilled the hometown crowd by homering in the sixth inning off the Cleveland Indians' Gaylord Perry. Aaron homered twice against the Phillies to break Stan Musial's major league record for total bases (6,134).
Racism and the record
The chase to beat the Babe heated up in the summer of 1973 and with it the mail. Aaron needed a secretary to sort it as he received more than an estimated 3,000 letters a day, more than any American outside of politics. Unfortunately, racists initially did much of the writing. A sampling:
"Dear Nigger Henry,
You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. ...
Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. My gun is watching your every black move."
"Dear Henry Aaron,
How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?"
The letters came from every state, but most were postmarked in northern cities. They were filled with hate; more hate than Aaron had ever imagined. "This," Aaron said later about the letters, "changed me."
Aaron hit his 700th home run off of the Phillies' Ken Brett. The 1973 season ended with Aaron at 713 homers after hitting a remarkable 40 in just 392 at-bats. He was 39. The Braves became the first team to have three players hit 40 or more homers in a season. Darrell Evans and Davey Johnson also reached the 40-homer mark.
Over the winter, Aaron endured death threats and a barrage of racist hate mail from people who did not want to see a black man break Ruth's home run record. Lewis Grizzard, then sports editor the Atlanta Journal became so concerned that he had an obituary written just in case. However, when the harassment became widely known, the ballplayer enjoyed a massive flood of public support motivated at least partially to counter the bigotry. This included Babe Ruth's widow who denounced the racists and declared that her husband would have enthusiastically cheered Aaron's attempt at the record.
As the 1974 season began, Aaron's pursuit of the home run record caused a small controversy. The Braves opened the season on the road in Cincinnati with a three game series. Braves management wanted him to break the record in Atlanta. Therefore, they were going to have Aaron sit out the first three games of the season. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that he had to play two out of three. He tied Babe Ruth's record in his very first at bat, but did not hit another home run in the series. The largest crowd in Braves history (53,775) watched Hank Aaron break the record on April 8, 1974 with a home run in the 4th inning off Los Angeles pitcher Al Downing. The ball landed in the Braves bullpen where reliever Tom House caught it. While cannons were firing in celebration and Aaron rounded the bases, two college students appeared and ran alongside, congratulating him before security stepped in. Aaron's mother ran onto the field and into the arms of her son, tears brimming in her eyes. Mrs. Aaron wasn't just proud of her son; she rushed the plate because she thought her son had been shot. On October 2, 1974, Aaron hit his 733rd and final home run as a Brave.
One month later, on November 2, 1974, the Braves traded Aaron to the Milwaukee Brewers for Roger Alexander and Dave May. Because the Brewers were an American League team, Aaron could extend his career by taking advantage of the designated hitter rule.
As a popular member of the long-missed Milwaukee Braves club, Aaron brought credibility to the new Brewers franchise.
Aaron rejoined the Atlanta Braves organization as player development director four days after retiring from baseball. On August 1, 1982 Hank Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving votes on 97.8 percent of the ballots. At the time, only Ty Cobb received a higher percentage (98.2) of votes cast.
Aaron became one of the first blacks in Major League Baseball upper-level management as Atlanta's vice president of player development. Since December 1989, he has served as senior vice president and assistant to the president, but he is more active for Turner Broadcasting as a corporate vice president of community relations and a member of TBS' board of directors. He also is vice president of business development for The Airport Network.
Henry Aaron is a proud member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Inc.
On February 5, 1999, at a celebration for his 65th birthday, Aaron was honored for his achievements as a player and a person. Major League Baseball announced the introduction of the Hank Aaron Award, to be presented annually to the best hitters in the American League and National League. The first major award to be introduced in more than thirty years, it is also the first to be named after a former player still living at the time the award was inaugurated. Later that year, he ranked number 5 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
In 2002 Aaron received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
His autobiography I Had a Hammer was published in 1990. Aaron now owns Hank Aaron BMW of south Atlanta where every car is sold with an autographed baseball. The book's title is a play on his nickname, "The Hammer" or "Hammerin' Hank", itself a play on comparing his power hitting with the legendary steel-driving hammer of John Henry; and on the title of the folk song, If I Had a Hammer.
Statues of Aaron now stand outside the front entrance of both Turner Field and Miller Park, where the Braves and Brewers currently play. (Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Milwaukee County Stadium, which were Aaron's home parks for his entire career, were demolished in 1997 and 2001, respectively. A parking lot occupies the site where Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium used to stand and a youth baseball field (named Helfaer Field) occupies the site where Milwaukee County Stadium used to stand (next to Miller Park)).
Turner Field's home address is 755 Hank Aaron Drive SE, in honor of Aaron's 755 career home runs.
Aaron's jersey number "44" has been retired by both the Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers.
The fact so few Americans consider Aaron the greatest player of all time despite his coming closer than any other player to the near equivalent of an all-time triple crown (1st in all-time homers, 1st in all-time RBI's, 3rd in all-time hits) is attributed by some to his personal humility and simple racism. Others attribute this to his winning only one MVP, his team's winning only one world series, and his leading in home runs, RBI's, and hits so seldomly.
- All-time home run leader: 755 (from 1974–2007; currntly, 2nd behind Barry Bonds)
- All-time games played: 3,298 (at time of retirement, currently 3rd behind Pete Rose and Carl Yastrzemski)
- All-time at-bats leader: 12,364 (at time of retirement, currently 2nd behind Pete Rose)
- All-time RBI leader: 2,297
- All-time total bases leader: 6,856
- All-time extra-base hits leader: 1,477
- NL MVP: 1957
- Gold Glove award: 1958 - 1960
- The Sporting News NL Player of the Year: 1956, 1963
- NL batting champion: 1956 (.328), 1959 (.355)
- NL home run champion: 1957 (44), 1963 (44), 1966 (44), 1967 (39)
- NL RBI leader: 1957 (132), 1960 (126), 1963 (130), 1966 (127)
- NL total bases leader: 1956 (340), 1957 (369), 1959 (400), 1960 (334), 1961 (358), 1963 (370), 1967 (344), 1969 (332)
- NL slugging percentage leader: 1959 (.636), 1963 (.586), 1971 (.669)
- NL runs scored leader: 1957 (118); 1963 (121); 1967(113)
- Lou Gehrig Memorial Award: 1970
- NL hits leader: 1956 (200), 1959 (223)
- NL doubles leader: 1955 (37), 1956 (34), 1961 (39), 1965 (40)
- Three home runs in one game: June 21, 1959
- Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame: 1982
- Third in career hits (3,771)
- Only player to hit at least 30 home runs in 15 seasons
- Only player to hit at least 20 home runs in 20 seasons
- Hit 40 home runs in a season 8 times
- First player to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs
- 21 All-Star appearances
- Signed as a non-drafted free agent by Boston Braves (June 14, 1952).
- Traded by Atlanta Braves to Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Dave May and a player to be named later (November 2, 1974); Atlanta Braves received Roger Alexander (December 2, 1974).