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Hank Aaron: Stories, Biography, & Things You Didn't Know About The Sports Legend

People | February 5, 2021

A baseball signed by Hank Aaron. (Arturo Pardavila III/Wikimedia Commons)

It's not hyperbole to say that baseball wouldn't be the same without Hank Aaron, the right fielder from Mobile, Alabama whose talent was so inherent that he transcended the profession of "baseball player" and became a living legend. Throughout his career, Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record with 755 balls knocked into the stands, and in his first year of eligibility, he was inducted into the M.L.B. Hall of Fame. Aaron went on to become the Senior Vice President of the Atlanta Braves and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but all of that is just a small part of Aaron's story. In his 86 years, he changed the sport that made him famous and inspired people to reach for the stars regardless of where they come from.

Bottle Caps And Baseball

In 1934, Hank Aaron was born in Mobile as one of seven siblings, including Tommie Aaron, who joined Hank in the M.L.B. The family couldn't afford sporting equipment, so Aaron practiced his swing by hitting bottle caps with broken branches, broom handles, or sticks. As a student at a high school with no baseball team, he tried out for and won a spot as an outfielder and third baseman for the semi-pro Mobile Black Bears, who paid him $3 a game.

In 1951, he was signed to the Indianapolis Clowns and spent three months playing with the team, during which time he contended with low pay, bad teammates, and rampant racism. While traveling through Washington, D.C. with the Clowns, he recalled, he heard the kitchen staff of a restaurant break all the plates the team had used after they ate breakfast. He wasn't with the Clowns for long, as he was soon courted by both the New York Giants and Boston Braves, selecting the Braves because they offered him $50 more per month.

Aaron with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960. (Baseball Digest/Wikimedia Commons)

Major League

Aaron didn't just jump to the majors when he signed his contract with the Braves. He was first sent to Eau Claire, where he joined the Bears, a Class C farm team. By the end of the season, Aaron was such a dominant player that he won Rookie of the Year. In 1953, he moved on to play with the Jacksonville Braves, Boston's Class A farm team, where continued to shine. He led the league in runs, hits, total bases, and batting average. Off the field, however, he was often left to his own devices. As one of the few black players on a team that was firmly entrenched in the Jim Crow South, he ate alone and had to find his own accommodations.

The same year that he joined the Braves, Aaron met his future wife at a game where he hit a home run while also singling and doubling. The couple married in October just before he went to Puerto Rico to play for the winter, where he not only made a move to the outfield but fortunately avoided the draft. Following spring training in Milwaukee, Aaron made his major league debut on April 13, 1954. He was initially assigned the number 5, but his number was changed to 44 after he fractured his ankle that September.

If we listed every milestone in Aaron's career, we'd be here all day, but there were a few standouts throughout the '50s and '60s. In 1957, he nabbed the pennant for the Braves after hitting a two-run walk-off home run and then led the Braves to victory at the World Series against the Yankees. In 1963, he became the third player to steal 30 bases and hit 30 home runs in one season. Two years later, he moved with the Braves to their current home in Atlanta.

Babe Ruth fans really didn't want Hank Aaron to break the home run record

The fence at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium over which Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run still exists. (Jorfer/Wikimedia Commons)

Breaking Babe

Aaron received hundreds of thousands of letters as he closed in on Babe Ruth's home run record in the early '70s. Aaron never really cared about the record, explaining that he didn't believe baseball was about one guy hitting a ball, but a lot of other people sure did: In all, the Braves received 990,000 letters from hateful baseball fans who were outraged by Aaron's success. The team had to hire someone just to deal with the mail, and the U.S. Postal Service was so impressed that they gave Aaron a plaque for the most mail received by a non-politician.

Aaron didn't read much of the mail. In fact, he received so many death threats that the F.B.I. refused to let him open his own mail for a few years, but he held onto it to remind him that no level of success would exempt him from the realities of racism. After Aaron tied Ruth's record on his first at bat of 1974 and broke it the second time he stepped up to the plate, he only said "I just thank God it's all over."

Aaron accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President George W. Bush in 2002. (National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

The End Of An Aaron

When Aaron's contract was up with the Braves, he thought about retiring. The Braves offered him a role in public relations, but he wanted to help run the team, not be trotted out as a has-been. Aaron finished out his stunning 23-year career playing for the Milwaukee Brewers through the '75 and '76 seasons, when he broke the all-time runs batted in record and set the home run record at 755, which remained unbroken until 2007.

Aaron wasn't long for the Midwest. Following his two years in Milwaukee, he returned to Atlanta, where he took on an executive role with the team. In 1980, he became senior vice president of the Braves and the corporate vice president of community relations for Turner Broadcasting System. In 1982, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of FameThe last decades of his life were spent working as an executive within the Braves establishment while raising his family, which consisted of six children over the course of two marriages. He passed away on January 22, 2021, at the age of 86.

Tags: baseball | famous people | racism

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.