“Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, a player for the Atlanta Braves, hit 755 home runs, a record that stood unchallenged until 2007, during his twenty-three-year career in major league baseball. Aaron’s other records include career runs batted in (RBIs) and number of All-Star game appearances. His contributions to baseball on and off the field continued the struggle against segregation begun by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 5, 1934. He was the third of eight children born to Estella and Herbert Aaron. Raised in Toulminville, a village on the outskirts of Mobile, Aaron attended Central High School and finished school at Josephine Allen Institute.
When he was fourteen his father took him to see Jackie Robinson play during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ spring training swing through Mobile, and they attended a speech Robinson gave in town. From that point on, Aaron said, he was determined to become a major league player himself. Because neither of his schools fielded a baseball team, he originally played softball before joining a semiprofessional baseball team, the Mobile Black Bears, during his junior year in high school. During an exhibition game in 1951 between the Bears and the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns, the Clowns’ management was impressed with Aaron and quickly offered him a contract. He joined the Clowns in the spring of 1952, at the age of eighteen, playing shortstop. Despite his cross-handed grip, the right-handed hitter led the league with a .467 average.
Major league scouts soon took notice of the powerful hitter, and the Boston Braves bought out his contract for $10,000 midway through his first season with the Clowns. With a corrected grip and a new position in the outfield, Aaron played short stints for the Braves’ farm teams in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Jacksonville, Florida. As a member of the Jacksonville Tars, part of the South Atlantic (or Sally) League, he toured Georgia, playing other league teams in Savannah, Columbus, Macon, and Augusta. He won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors in 1953.
When Bobby Thomson, the Braves’ starting left fielder, fractured his ankle in the 1954 preseason, Aaron filled his place in the lineup and hit a home run in his first at-bat. His career as a Brave was sealed. The Braves (who had by then moved from Boston to Milwaukee) would be his team for the next twenty-one years, twelve in Milwaukee and nine in Atlanta.
After his first season in the majors, Aaron hit at least twenty home runs a season for the next twenty consecutive seasons, with thirty home runs or more in fifteen of those seasons. He also scored more than 100 runs each season from 1955 until 1967. Aaron holds yet another record for his twenty-five All-Star games. In 1957 he clinched the pennant for the Braves with an extra-inning homer against the St. Louis Cardinals. That year Aaron was named league MVP, and the Braves went on to win the World Series. He received the Gold Glove as the National League’s top-fielding right fielder in each of the next three years.
The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, and Aaron moved with them. On May 17, 1970, he became the first player to make both 3,000 career hits and more than 500 career home runs. By then it had become apparent that he could conceivably break Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs. The threat to Ruth’s record prompted racial antagonism toward Aaron and his family. In 1973 numerous death threats forced him to hire a bodyguard. His daughter, Gaile, a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, received threatening phone calls and was the target of an abortive kidnapping plot. In spite of the hatred around him, Aaron finished the season just one home run short of Ruth’s record.
More controversy surrounded Aaron as the 1974 season began. The Braves’ management opted to bench their cleanup hitter for the first three games at Cincinnati so that he could break the home run record in Atlanta. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn disagreed with the move and ordered that Aaron play in the opening games. He played two of the three games and tied Ruth’s record without breaking it.
On April 8, 1974, the stage was set for the breaking of one of baseball’s most famous records. In front of a record crowd at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, the forty-year-old Aaron faced pitcher Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the fourth inning he knocked a fastball over the left field fence, his 715th home run. The crowded stadium of 53,775 fans erupted in celebration as fireworks went off overhead. As he rounded third, Aaron saw his teammates and parents waiting for him at home plate. Looking back on his struggle to break the record, Aaron said, “Thank God it’s over.”
That was Aaron’s final season for the Braves. Frustrated by the lack of support from local fans for the team and for himself, he returned to Milwaukee, where he played for two seasons with the Brewers. When he retired after the 1976 season, his career statistics included records for 755 home runs; 2,297 RBIs; 6,856 total bases; and 1,477 extra base hits.
Retirement and Legacy
Contemporary accounts of Aaron’s record-chasing season celebrate his remarkable grace amid the racist taunts, threats, and jeers. But as he admitted to New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden years later, the experience took its toll. “I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day,” he told Rhoden. “All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
There had been official indifference, too, in addition to the vitriol. Commissioner Kuhn had not bothered to attend Aaron’s record-breaking game, and even many Braves fans expressed ambivalence, or worse, as he neared Ruth’s record.
But as the years passed, Aaron came to enjoy the accolades and attention that were denied him as a player. He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility. In 2002 U.S. president George W. Bush awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2010 he was inducted as a Georgia Trustee, an honor conferred by the Georgia Historical Society and the Office of the Governor.
After retiring as a player, Aaron moved back to Atlanta, where he held multiple front office positions with the Braves and at Turner Broadcasting. His autobiography, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, written with collaborator Lonnie Wheeler, became a best-seller upon its publication in 1991.
History pulled Aaron into the spotlight one final time in August of 2007, when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hit his 756th home run, breaking Aaron’s record. Bonds played during baseball’s “steroids era,” when abuse of performance-enhancing drugs was widespread, and many observers believed he was an illegitimate heir to Aaron’s crown. For his part, Aaron said little about the larger controversy, choosing to mark the occasion with a recorded message. “My hope today,” he said, “as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of that record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”
Aaron died in Atlanta, of natural causes, at the age of eighty-six.