Hank Aaron, one of baseball's best
*On this date in 1934, Hank Aaron was born. Now an African American baseball executive, he remains one of major league baseball’s all-time home run hitters.
Henry Louis Aaron was born and raised in a segregated neighborhood in Mobile, Alabama. Aaron's father worked at the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. Young Henry was a good student, but from an early age he knew he wanted to play professional baseball. He spent most of his spare time at Carver Recreational Park, a neighborhood playground a block from his home. There he played sandlot baseball, essentially teaching himself the game.
When Aaron was a young teenager, professional baseball slowly began to integrate with the arrival of Jackie Robinson, the first Black to play in the major leagues. Aaron’s high school did not have a baseball team, so he played in local amateur and semi-pro leagues. Aaron was recruited by the Mobile Black Bears to help win an exhibition game against a professional Negro League team, the Indianapolis Clowns. The young man's talents attracted the attention of Syd Pollock, the Clowns' owner. In 1952, the Clowns offered Aaron a contract — $200 a month to play in the Negro League during baseball season. He was thrilled, and at that time he thought the salary was a small fortune.
After only a short time in the Negro Leagues, the Milwaukee Braves recruited Aaron. He joined the Braves' system in 1952 and was sent to the minor leagues. There he became one of the first Black players to break the color line in the Deep South; a dangerous proposition in the last, desperate days of segregation that was legally enforced by Jim Crow laws. After one season in Wisconsin, Aaron found himself playing for a Jacksonville, Florida team in the South Atlantic League. Fans insulted him constantly, and even some of his teammates hurled racial slurs at him. Hotels and restaurants were closed to him because he was Black. The situation was only tolerable because Aaron showed such talent and because he was young. Somehow the heightened tension inspired Aaron. During his year with the South Atlantic League, he led the circuit in batting average, doubles, runs scored, total bases and runs batted in. He was voted League Most Valuable Player for 1953.
The following year, a key injury opened a roster spot with the Braves in Milwaukee. Aaron won the position in spring training and joined the team for the 1954 season. As the Braves' starting right fielder, Aaron turned in a superb rookie year. He batted.280 and hit 13 home runs in an injury-shortened season. The following year he more than doubled his home run tally, hitting 27 with a.314 average. Aaron was also an able outfielder and a threat to steal. His speed and power quickly earned him a reputation in the National League. With his help, the Braves advanced to the 1957 World Series against the New York Yankees. By 1958, Aaron was a bona fide baseball star, even if he did little to promote himself. One pitcher commented that getting a fastball past Hank Aaron was like trying to get the sun past a rooster. Another said that trying to fool him was like slapping a rattlesnake. Yet after 1958, Aaron's talents were hidden on a Braves team that failed to make postseason play year after year. People began counting, though, as Aaron passed the ten-year mark in his playing career.
Aaron inched toward the record with a batting stance and running style that defied logic, a carryover from his self-taught youth. At the age where most major league ball players retire, he was still maintaining his superb conditioning and his unique hand-eye coordination. Media attention began to build in 1970, when Aaron became the first player to combine 3000 career hits and 500 home runs. The countdown began for a run on Ruth's record of 714 homers. By 1973 Aaron had closed the gap considerably, and at the end of that season he had 713. The fame he had never particularly courted found him. Letters — most of them congratulatory — came from all over the world. He was offered lucrative endorsement contracts from Magnavox electronics and was honored with a candy bar called "O Henry!" Charities like the Easter Seals Foundation and Big Brothers vied for his time.
His second marriage in November of 1973 made international headlines. Aaron could not bask in the glory, however. He was afraid for his life and the lives of his children. Among the 930,000 pieces of mail Aaron received in 1973 were numerous hate letters. One, printed in Sports Illustrated, read: "Dear Hank Aaron, I got orders to do a bad job on you if and when you get 10 from B. Ruth record. A guy in Atlanta and a few in Miami Fla don't seem to care if they have to take care of your family too." Many others contained similar threats. The chaos came to a climax on April 8, 1974 in a home game in Atlanta. Aaron hit a monstrous home run off Dodger pitcher Al Downing, and the fans went wild.
Aaron left the Atlanta Braves at the end of the 1974 season and finished his playing days with the Milwaukee Brewers. He retired in 1976 with record 755 home runs and 2297 runs batted in. One week later he began a new phase of his career, as director of player development for the Braves. Aaron was one of the first Blacks hired in a major league front office. Throughout his tenure with the Braves' management, he has called for more Black participation in the business end of baseball. Hank Aaron has been a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame since 1982.
20th Century Baseball Chronicle
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Copyright 1999, Publications International Ltd.
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