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Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron

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Hank Aaron Pictured Here With Milwaukee Braves

Position(s):
LF, OF, RF, 2B, CF, 3B, 1B, DH
Nicknames:
Hammer, Hammerin' Hank, Bad Henry
Born:
February 5, 1934
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
6'
Weight:
180 lbs
Major League Debut:
4-13-1954 with ML1
Allstar Selections:
1957 MVP, 1958 GG, 1959 GG, 1960 GG, 1970 LG
Hall of Fame:
1982

Hank Aaron is one of the most important American sports figures of the twentieth century, one who belongs to that rare class of athletes whose accomplishments on the playing field resonate in the world beyond – whose feats not only rewrite the record books, but also help to reshape attitudes and redefine social norms. While his predecessor Jackie Robinson first blazed a trail for black athletes by breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947, it was Aaron who reached the very summit of the sporting world by overtaking the immortal Babe Ruth to become baseball’s all-time home run leader in 1974. That Aaron was able to break one of the most hallowed and long-standing records in sports is phenomenal in and of itself; as Aaron closed in on home run number 715, Sports Illustrated likened his passing the Babe to Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. That he was able to reach such a milestone as a black American during one of the most racially explosive eras in the country’s history makes his triumph all the more significant.



By the time he retired after a 23-year career that was the very model of consistency, “Hammerin’ Hank” had passed Ruth in several other all-time offensive categories, making him arguably the most prolific run producer the game has ever seen. Aaron finished his career with a staggering 755 home runs, and he subsequently reigned as baseball’s home run king for more than 33 years. His record was eventually broken by Barry Bonds in 2007, but since Bonds’ accomplishments have been thrown into question by allegations of steroid use, Aaron remains the legitimate home run champ in the minds of many. As it stands, he is still the game’s all-time leader in RBIs, extra base hits, and total bases, is in the top five all-time in five other offensive categories, and holds the record for All-Star Game appearances with 25. In retirement, he has become a successful baseball executive and businessman, and he remains one of the most respected and honored figures in American life.

 

Biography:

Henry Louis Aaron was born deep in the Jim Crow South during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Growing up in a section of Mobile, Alabama known as “Down the Bay”, Aaron split his time between the cotton field and the sandlot, teaching himself to play baseball by hitting bottle caps with makeshift bats. He became a standout athlete at the segregated Central High School, where he starred in football and led the baseball team to two consecutive state championships as a freshman and sophomore. He transferred to an integrated private school his junior year, while at the same time taking up with a local Negro independent league team. His performance caught the attention of the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, who signed Aaron to his first professional contract in 1951, four years after Jackie Robinson became the major leagues' first black player.  Aaron would be the last major leaguer to start his career in the Negro Leagues.

Aaron led the Clowns to the Negro League championship in 1952, after which his contract was purchased by the Boston Braves, who shipped Aaron to their minor league affiliate in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  Aaron began his minor league career almost exclusively as an infielder, and with the odd habit of hitting cross-handed – that is, as a right-handed batter he typically held the bat with his left hand over his right. After quickly adapting to a more conventional style of hitting, Aaron played so well that he earned All-Star and league Rookie of the Year honors. The following year, he was promoted to the Braves’ Class A affiliate and sent south to Jacksonville, Florida.  Aaron faced new challenges both on and off the field in his new environment.  One of only five African Americans to play in the league at the time, Aaron was subject to harsh treatment from fans and fellow players alike, and he often found himself separated from his teammates by the strict segregation policies of the American South. The young second baseman responded to the pressure by dominating the South Atlantic League, topping the circuit in six offensive categories, winning the Most Valuable Player award, and leading his team to the league championship. After honing his skills and converting to the outfield in winter ball in Puerto Rico that year, Aaron received an invitation to start spring training in 1954 with the Braves, who had recently moved to Milwaukee.

Early in spring training that year, Aaron got an opportunity to break into the Braves starting lineup when regular left fielder Bobby Thomson fractured his ankle while sliding into second base.  The 20-year-old converted outfielder hit a home run in his first game and continued to impress that spring, prompting the Braves to bring him north when the big club broke camp for the start of the regular season.  Aaron performed admirably his rookie season, batting .280 with 13 home runs, until he himself was sidelined with an ankle fracture in early September. It was in that first year that Henry was rechristened “Hank” by Braves executive Don Davidson, who thought the shorter name would make the diffident young outfielder seem more approachable to Milwaukee fans. The new name stuck, although opposing pitchers often referred to Aaron as “Bad Henry” in future years.

Aaron matured into a full-fledged star in his second season, raising his average to .314 and hitting a league-leading 37 doubles, while also clubbing 27 homers. He earned All-Star honors for the first of a record 25 times, and he also placed in the top ten in that year’s MVP voting. “The Hammer” followed that up by winning his first batting crown in 1956, leading the league with a .328 average and 200 hits. He once again fared well in the MVP voting, although he had to wait until the following year to win the trophy himself.  Aaron posted one of the best seasons of his career in 1957, establishing himself as a  bone fide superstar in the process. He finished just shy of winning the triple crown by leading the league with 44 home runs and 132 RBIs, while also placing among the leaders with a .322 batting average. Aaron’s offensive might, complemented by the brilliant pitching of Warren Spahn, led the Braves to a World Series appearance against the mighty New York Yankees. Aaron shined in the Fall Classic, leading his club with a .393 average, 3 home runs, and 7 RBIs, as the Braves stunned the sports world by upsetting the Yankees and capturing the championship in seven games.

Aaron followed up his MVP campaign with another solid season in 1958. Posting another 30 home run, .300+ season, Aaron led his Braves to another October date with the Bronx Bombers. Although he posted a .333 average in the World Series, Milwaukee fell to the Yankees in another close seven-game series. Hank rebounded by capturing his second batting title the following year, leading the majors with a sparkling .355 average and 223 hits. He also closed out the decade with his third consecutive Gold Glove award for his outstanding play in the outfield.

Over the course of the next decade, as the Braves once more relocated, this time from Milwaukee to Atlanta, Aaron quietly established himself as one of the game’s most versatile hitters and a perennial MVP candidate. Though not as flashy as big market stars such as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, Aaron proved to be just as productive, and even more consistent. From 1960-70, Aaron averaged over 37 homers and 110 RBIs each season, and he also batted over .300 seven times. Another quality that set Aaron apart from his contemporaries was his remarkable durability; while other stars succumbed to injury and age late in their careers, Aaron seemed almost ageless. In 1966, his first year in Atlanta, a 32-year-old Aaron led the league with 44 home runs, the same total he compiled in his MVP campaign nine years earlier.

Thanks to his remarkable durability and consistency, Aaron began to reach milestones by the late 1960s that placed him among the game's all-time greats.  He smacked his 537th home run in 1969, passing Mickey Mantle for third place on the career home run list behind Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. He also led the Braves to the first-ever NL Western Division crown that year, although they lost the NLCS to the upstart New York Mets. The following year, he collected his 3,000th hit, making him the first player in baseball history to compile 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, and the youngest player to reach the 3,000-hit plateau since Ty Cobb. He set another record by hitting 37 home runs that year, marking the 12th time in his career he finished a season with 30 or more home runs, the most in history up to that point.

Though he was fast approaching middle age by 1971, Aaron posted another MVP-caliber season, hitting a career-high 47 home runs and leading the league in slugging. In the strike-shortened season that followed, Aaron passed Willie Mays on the career home run list, collected his 2,000th RBI, and passed Stan Musial to become the all-time leader in total bases. With Aaron showing no signs of slowing down, it began to appear likely that he would pass Babe Ruth’s seemingly-insurmountable total of 714 career home runs. And as his place in baseball history became more firmly established, Aaron became more outspoken in his criticism of baseball’s treatment of black players, specifically its continued reluctance to appoint former black players to managerial or front office positions. He observed that, "On the field, Blacks have been able to be super giants. But, once our playing days are over, this is the end of it and we go back to the back of the bus again."

The summer of 1973 found Aaron tantalizingly close to the Babe’s record, and he soon became the focus of the sporting world. He began to receive so much fan mail that the Braves had to appoint a special secretary to sort through it. Most of the letters were supportive, but many, written by those who preferred that the national pastime’s most cherished record remain in the hands of a white man, were offensive; some even threatened death to Aaron unless he gave up the pursuit. Once knowledge of this hate mail became public, Aaron received an upwelling of support from sources ranging from Sports Illustrated to Snoopy (illustrator Charles Schultz made the vitriol directed at Aaron the focus of a number of Peanuts comic strips). Aaron, who spent the early part of his career braving taunts and insults from the grandstands, now had the public firmly behind him. He finished the 1973 season with 40 home runs, marking the seventh time he finished a season with 40 or more home runs, yet another record. More importantly, it left him one home run away from tying Ruth for the all-time lead.

Controversy (and sadly, death threats) followed Aaron into the spring of 1974. The Braves were scheduled to start the year with a three-game series in Cincinnati, and team management elected to sit Aaron to insure that he would hit his record-breaking home run in front of a hometown crowd. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn objected, however, insisting that Aaron participate in at least two of the three games “in the best interest of baseball”. Aaron complied, cracking home run number 714 in the first inning of the first game in Cincinnati. Aaron played once more in that series but did not homer, which meant that he would get a chance to hit the record-breaker in front of his hometown fans before a national TV audience on Monday, April 8th.  Aaron rose to the occasion in the fourth inning, launching a pitch from Dodger lefthander Al Downing into the left field bullpen, and vaulting himself over the Babe for the all-time lead. The image of Aaron rounding the bases, flanked by two college students who ran onto the field to congratulate him amid a frenzy of fans, has become one of the most indelible images in modern baseball history. Aaron met his mother at home plate, as cannons roared in celebration.

Aaron finished that momentous year with 20 home runs, after which he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American League, thereby enabling him to finish his career where it started. He hit 22 more home runs in a mostly part-time role over the next two years, before retiring after the 1976 season. He finished his career with the record for career home runs, runs batted in, total bases, and extra base hits; almost 40 years after the fact, he still holds three of those four records. Aaron ranks second in career at-bats and intentional walks, third in runs, games, and hits, fourth in sacrifice flies, and ninth in doubles. With such impeccable credentials, Aaron was easily elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, receiving 97.8 percent of the vote, the second-highest total in major league history.

Aaron, who had been critical of the lack of black executives in baseball during his playing career, became one in his own right when he was named the Braves’ Vice President of Player Development shortly after his retirement. In this position, Aaron helped groom young players such as future two-time MVP Dale Murphy, thereby enabling the team to return to the postseason for the first time in 13 years in 1982.  Since 1989, Aaron has served as senior vice president and special assistant to the Braves’ president. He is also a high-level executive and board member for the TBS network, and the vice president of The Airport Network.

As the 1900’s drew to a close and Major League Baseball reflected on its golden century, Hank Aaron was one of its most esteemed honorees. In 1999, the 25th anniversary of his reign as home run champ, Major League Baseball introduced the Hank Aaron Award, which is given annually to the top hitter in each league; it marked the first time that baseball had bestowed such an honor on a living player. Later that year, he was elected to baseball’s All Century Team, and placed fifth in The Sporting News’ list of the 100 greatest ballplayers of the twentieth century. In the years since, Hank Aaron has received the Presidential Citizens Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor our country can bestow on a private citizen. His uniform #44 has been retired by both the Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves; each team has also erected a statue in Aaron’s honor in front of its new stadium. Barry Bonds’ breaking of Aaron’s record in 2007, and the gracious congratulations Aaron offered on that occasion, have served only to burnish his shining reputation, as both have served as potent reminders of the grace, class, and quiet dignity with which Hammerin’ Hank played the game. On the night he relinquished the throne he held for a third of a century, he expressed his wish that Bonds’ feat would inspire others to chase their own dreams, just as he had chased, and overcome, the greatest player the game had ever known.

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Tagged:
1957 World Series, 1958 World Series, 1982 Hall of Fame, All Star, Atlanta Braves, Baseball History, Gold Glove, Hall of Fame, Hank Aaron, MVP, Milwaukee Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, NL MVP 1957, Negro Leagues
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