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*On this date, in 1934, Hank Aaron was born. He was a Black baseball player and executive.
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. His mother would summon him from the baseball field to come home and hide under the bed because the Ku Klux Klan was riding through the neighborhood. But he was never deterred, going right back outside to finish playing when the Klan left.
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. His 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; 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 played 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 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 batting in. He was voted League Most Valuable Player in 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. Aaron turned in a superb rookie year as the Braves starting right fielder. 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 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 when 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. Printed in Sports Illustrated, one 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 climaxed 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 a record 755 home runs and 2297 batted in. National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial said in a statement, "Retiring as the last Major League player to have played in the Negro Leagues, Aaron's career can be seen as a symbolic bridge from the dark days of segregation to an era of greater opportunity,"
One week later, he began a new career phase as director of player development for the Braves. Aaron was among 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.
In 2002, Aaron was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his humanitarian efforts. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund presented him with the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 and established the Hank Aaron Humanitarian in Sports Award in his honor. In his final days, Aaron received the Covid-19 vaccine as part of a campaign to encourage other Blacks to be immunized.
Hank Aaron, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame since 1982 and one of major league baseball’s all-time home run hitters, died on January 22, 2021, at 86.