Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron (February 5, 1934-January 22, 2021) established himself early in his career as one of the greatest power hitters in baseball. Aaron had humble beginnings near Mobile, Alabama, but found that sport offered a way out of the cotton fields – which, by the way, helped to build up the strength in his hands for his powerful and effortless swing. Henry’s focus as a teenager seemed to lean more towards sport that his studies and his skill on the baseball diamond allowed him to abandon school for greener pastures like the Negro Leagues. His performance as a member of the semi-pro Mobile Black Bears earned him a spot on the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. It has been estimated that Aaron hit .366 with five home runs and 33 RBI in 26 Negro League games before catching the eye of two Major League franchises, the New York Giants and the Boston Braves. “…the Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – fifty dollars.” The Boston Braves signed Aaron as a free agent in 1952, and he was shipped to the Eau Claire Bears of the Northern League. To that point, Aaron batted cross-handed (as a right-handed batter, his left hand was placed above his right on the bat), but once in the Braves organization deserted the unorthodox grip and excelled as he scored 89 runs, had 116 hits, nine home runs and batted .336 to earn the Northern League Rookie of the Year award.
In 1953, Henry was promoted to the Jacksonville Braves of the South Atlantic League and he once again proceeded to tear up pitching as he led the league in batting average (.362), runs (115), hits (208), doubles (36), RBI (125) and total Bases (338). After leading the Braves to the South Atlantic League championship, he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. He then played winter ball in Puerto Rico, where manager Mickey Owen helped improve his hitting even further by adjusting his stance allowing Henry to hit to all fields rather than only left and center, to which he was accustomed. At the Braves 1954 spring training, Aaron made it very difficult for management to keep him off the roster and when left fielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle, Henry took over in left for the newly relocated Milwaukee Braves. Aaron, renamed as Hank by a local sport reporter to make him seem more approachable, was added to a lineup that already included future Hall of Fame slugger Eddie Mathews and All-Stars Del Crandell, Joe Adcock, Johnny Logan and Andy Pafko, among may others. In his second year, 1955, Hank led the National League in doubles (37), notched 27 home runs and 106 RBI, and earned his first of 21 All-Star Game selections. (He would appear in a record 25 All-Star Games over the course of his 23-year career.) This was his first of 20 consecutive seasons that Aaron eclipsed the 20-home run mark, a streak that also saw him amass 30 or more in fifteen seasons which included 40 or more eight times.
In 1956, he won his first of two National League batting titles with a .328 average earning him third place in NL MVP voting – a position he would hold six times in his career. Hank earned top ten MVP consideration 13 times including winning the 1957 NL MVP award. That season, Hank missed capturing the coveted and elusive Triple Crown as he finished third in batting average (.322) – 29 point less than St. Louis Cardinals Stan Musial – while leading the NL in home runs (44) and RBI (132) as well as runs (118) and total bases (340). In 1958, Aaron won his first of three straight Gold Glove awards. Hank Aaron led the NL in hits and batting average (1956, 1959) twice, three times in runs scored, four times in doubles, home runs, RBI and slugging percentage and eight times in total bases. Despite never hitting over 50 home runs in a single season, Aaron’s blasts cleared the outfield walls consistently throughout his 23 Major League seasons (1954-1976), eclipsing the 40-mark eight times. Hammerin’ Hank hit for power, crushing 755 home runs, but he also hit for a career average of .305, had 3,771 hits and drove in more runs than any other player in baseball history with 2,297 at the time of his retirement.
While averaging 36 home runs each year from 1954 to 1973, Aaron was on the inevitable path to potentially top one of baseball’s most heralded marks – Babe Ruth’s career 714 home runs. At the conclusion of the 1973 season, Aaron sat on 713 career home runs and, sadly, endured an off-season wrought with racism, hate mail and even death threats at the notion that he, a black man, might top Ruth’s mark. But, still not finished at the age of 39, Aaron tied The Babe on his first swing of the 1974 season off Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jack Billingham in Cincinnati. Then, on April 8, 1974, in front of a record-crowd of 53,000-plus in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium for the Braves home opener, Aaron topped the mighty Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714, which stood for 39 years, when he took Los Angeles Dodgers Al Downing’s 1-0 pitch over the left field wall for his 715th career home run. As he rounded the bases, he was greeted between second and third by two white college students who congratulated the slugger all the way to home plate. Opposing play-by-play announcer Vin Scully declared this a “marvelous moment for baseball … the country and the world … A black man getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.” Hank Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs and remains atop the list of the greatest players in the history of baseball. Upon retirement, he joined the Braves head office and since 1980 has served as the senior vice president and assistant to the Braves president. Henry Louis Aaron was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1999, the Hank Aaron Award was created to honor each league’s most effective hitter. That same year, The Sporting News placed him fifth on their “100 Greatest Baseball Players” list. In 2002, President George W. Bush presented Hank with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.