I finally hit the home run, got at the bases, And when I got home that night I got on my knees and prayed to the Good Lord, really thanked Him for all of the things that He had sent me through. Because really, the two years — I had really had a bad time for two years leading up to the home run.
Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, and grew up on a farm in nearby Toulminville. His parents, Herbert and Estella, were hardworking people, but with eight children to raise, life was difficult for the Aaron family. Young Henry fell in love with baseball listening to games on a neighbor’s radio. The family could not afford sports equipment, so Henry practiced batting by swinging a broom handle at bottle caps he tossed in the air, or by swatting at a bundle of rags he had rolled into a makeshift ball. His brother Tommie also enjoyed baseball, and would later join him in the major leagues.
As a freshman and sophomore, Henry attended Mobile’s segregated Central High School, where he excelled at both baseball and football. Professional baseball was also racially segregated in the 1940s, with black and white athletes playing in separate leagues. This barrier was broken in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in major league baseball. The 15-year-old Henry Aaron tried out for Robinson’s team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, but failed to win a spot in the organization. During his junior and senior years of high school, he attended the private Josephine Allen Institute, and played for the Mobile Black Bears, an independent Negro League team. On graduating from high school, he turned down college football scholarships to play baseball for the Indianapolis Clowns, of the Negro American League.
In his first seasons as a full-time professional, Aaron was a standout, despite the fact that he held the bat in an unusual cross-hand grip. The Clowns won their league’s World Series in 1952, and Aaron caught the eyes of major league scouts. Following Jackie Robinson’s success with the Dodgers, major league baseball was looking to the Negro Leagues for new talent. Aaron received offers from both the New York Giants and Boston Braves organizations. Had he signed with the Giants, he would have played alongside another young phenomenon recently recruited from the Negro League, Willie Mays, but the Braves offered $50 a month more than the Giants, so Aaron signed with the Braves. The Braves purchased Aaron’s contract from the Clowns for $10,000, and Aaron left Indianapolis for the Braves’ farm team in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Although he had never been so far from home, Aaron enjoyed his first stint in Wisconsin, where he finally abandoned the cross-hand grip for a more conventional batting technique. His performance in Eau Claire earned him a promotion to the Jacksonville (Florida) Braves of the Class A Southern Atlantic, or “Sally,” League. While the move was a promotion in professional terms, a return to the South meant a return to the indignities of segregation. Aaron was forced to find his own accommodations on the road, since the hotels that housed his white teammates would not admit African Americans.
Despite segregation, petty harassment and other hardships, Aaron continued to develop as an athlete. In his first professional seasons, Aaron played infield positions — shortstop and third base — but the Braves soon moved him to the outfield. Jacksonville won the Sally League championship that year, and Aaron was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player of 1953.
In 1953, the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When their left fielder, Bobby Thomson, was injured in training, the team added Aaron to its lineup. After a brief period of adjustment, Aaron established himself as a reliable home run hitter. As he was naturally quiet and reserved in person, the team’s PR department referred to him as “Hank” Aaron, rather than “Henry,” to warm up his public image. His powerful hitting soon won him the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank.” In 1955, Aaron was named to the National League All-Star team for the first time, and Sporting News named him the National League Player of the Year.
The 1957 season brought one of the most dramatic episodes of Aaron’s early career. In the final game of the playoffs, he hit a game-ending homer, scoring two runs and winning the National League pennant for the Braves. Carried off the field by his jubilant teammates, he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and led the Braves to victory in the year’s World Series. Aaron’s pride in these victories was tempered by his awareness of events unfolding in other parts of the country. While Hank Aaron was enjoying the acclaim of white teammates and spectators in Milwaukee, it took the intervention of President Eisenhower — and the presence of federal troops and U.S. marshals — for African American students to make their way through the doors of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Although the achievements of public figures such as Hank Aaron prepared many white Americans to accept African Americans as equals, the struggle to achieve full equality under the law would take many more years.
The 1958 season saw Hank Aaron and the Braves winning the National League pennant again, although they were defeated by the New York Yankees in the year’s World Series. In 1959, he hit three home runs in a single game against the San Francisco Giants. Aaron remained one of the game’s dominant hitters throughout the following decade, often scoring 30 home runs or more in a single season. In 1963, he led the League with 44 home runs and 130 runs batted in. In 1965, the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, Georgia.
As the ’60s came to a close, Aaron’s record as a home run hitter brought him into the historic ranks of the game’s great sluggers. In 1969, he passed the home run record held by the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle. In 1970, he scored his 3,000th hit, a new record, and established the record for the most seasons with 30 or more home runs. Although the 1972 season was shortened by a players’ strike, Aaron surpassed Willie Mays’s record to reach second place on the list of most home runs in a professional baseball career. In the 1973 season, it became apparent that Aaron was drawing within reach of breaking the all-time home run record held by Babe Ruth since the 1930s, the most venerated record in professional baseball.
The news media focused intently on the race for Ruth’s record, and Aaron began to receive thousands of letters every day. The team hired a secretary just to sort his mail. While many cheered Aaron on, the mailbag also revealed a dark underside of public opinion. Many fans regarded Ruth’s record as sacrosanct, but some, animated by irrational hatred, threatened Aaron for daring to challenge the record held by a white champion. Ruth’s widow, Claire Hodgson, spoke out, noting that her late husband would have gladly encouraged a younger man to try for the record, regardless of his color.
Aaron hit 40 home runs in the 1973 season, bringing his career total to 713, one run short of the record. The hate mail escalated between the 1973 and 1974 seasons; racist cranks even threatened sports journalists for covering Aaron’s exploits. The Atlanta police assigned officer Calvin Wardlaw to guard Aaron for the season. Most baseball fans cheered Aaron’s effort, and as the 1974 season began, anticipation rose to a fever pitch. The Braves’ front office was determined to see Aaron break the record at home in Atlanta, but the first three games of the season, played against the Cincinnati Reds, were to be held in Cincinnati. The Braves tried to keep Aaron out of the games in Cincinnati, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn insisted that he play. In his first time at bat in the new season, Aaron hit home run number 714, tying Ruth’s record.
On April 8, 1974, the Braves played the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta. More than 53,000 fans attended the game, while millions watched on live television. In the fourth inning, Dodgers pitcher Al Downing threw to Aaron, and Aaron smacked the ball over the outfield wall into the Braves’ dugout. As the crowd exploded, and millions cheered before their television screens, Aaron jogged around the bases, joined briefly by two college students who had stormed the field. Herbert and Estella Aaron were present to see their son’s achievement, and met him at home plate.
Aaron finished the 1974 season with a total of 733 home runs. At age 39, he was expected to retire. When he decided to continue playing, the Braves traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers, and Aaron returned to the city where he had spent the first years of his major league career. In the 1975 season, Aaron broke another of Babe Ruth’s records, for runs batted in (RBI).
Hank Aaron played his last All-Star game in 1975. The following year, his last as a player, he hit his 755th home run. This record stood until 2007, when it was broken by Barry Bonds. At the time, Aaron congratulated Bonds on his achievement, but since Bonds was later found to have used performance-enhancing drugs during his playing career, many fans still regard Hank Aaron as the true home run record-holder.
After retiring from the field, Hank Aaron returned to Atlanta to work as an executive with the Braves organization. In 1982, his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. As the Braves’ Vice President and Director of Player Development, Aaron was one of the first African Americans to serve in upper-level management in Major League Baseball. He later became Vice President of Community Relations for the Turner Broadcasting System, which owned the Braves. He has also owned and operated a number of automobile dealerships in the greater Atlanta area, as well as food and restaurant franchises including Popeye’s and Krispy Kreme. In 1990, he published an autobiography, If I Had a Hammer. Proud as he may be of his successes in baseball and in business, Aaron derives even greater satisfaction from his work with the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, which funds scholarships and financial assistance for young people with limited resources to develop their talents and pursue their dreams.
In 1999, Major League Baseball created the Hank Aaron Award to honor the most effective hitters in the National and American Leagues. In 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Hank Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Today, a statue of Hank Aaron stands outside the Braves’ Turner Field in Atlanta. The address of the stadium is 755 Hank Aaron Drive, a tribute to his career home run record.
From an impoverished childhood in rural Alabama, Henry “Hank” Aaron overcame all of the indignities of segregation to become an immortal hero in world sports, baseball’s home run king. He made the leap to the major leagues in 1954, as the Supreme Court was striking down the legal basis of segregation. In 1957, as federal troops escorted black students to school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Hank Aaron was leading the Milwaukee Braves to a World Series Championship. One of the most consistently effective offensive players in the history of the game, he is one of only two players to hit 30 or more home runs in 15 separate seasons. His exploits on the diamond opened doors for those who followed, but even in baseball, one formidable barrier remained.
When Aaron’s tally of career home runs began to approach that of record-holder Babe Ruth, he was deluged with racist hate mail, letters threatening his life and his family for daring to challenge the record of a white champion. With unshakeable determination and unwavering grace under pressure, Hank Aaron went about his business: hitting home runs. On April 8, 1974, he shattered the record that had stood for 35 years, and with it, the last vestige of the obstacles that had barred athletes of color from the front ranks of American sport.
He retired in 1977, with 755 home runs, a record that stood for another 33 years. In addition to the home run title, he held more batting records than any player in the history of the sport, including the records for total bases (6,838) and runs batted in (2,297). After his 23 seasons in the major leagues, he achieved continued success as a businessman, and his proudest accomplishment, the creation of the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, to enable disadvantaged young people to achieve their own ambitions.
It was 1972 when you began to close in on Babe Ruth’s home run record, and you started receiving some hate mail. Why was there so much anger, do you think?
Hank Aaron: I don’t know. There’s two reasons you can look at.
Babe Ruth was an icon, really. You can say he was a white icon. And the other thing, I think that people had not readily accepted the idea that here is a black player that is in the major leagues, and he just got here — and when I say just got here, five or six, ten years ago Jackie Robinson just got here — and here he is challenging one of the most cherished records in all of sports.So you look at it two ways, you look at it and say, “A black player? Would they have done a white player like that?” I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I think that the reason that they did me like that is simply because of the fact that we were still trying to make our marks. We were still — black players were still — trying to come in and make their mark in the major leagues. And people were not, 90 percent of the people — I wouldn’t say 90 percent, I would say 50 percent — of the people were not accepting that. And I was challenging a Babe Ruth record. “Oh no! That’s not heard of!”
Even your children received threats. How did you cope with that? Were you angry? Disgusted? Were you afraid?
Hank Aaron: I was angry because of my kids, not myself. I was angry because they were not able to share in what I think was the greatest part of my life, as far as baseball. I was angry because of that. I was angry because of the fact that my daughter, who was at Fisk University, wasn’t able to enjoy a college life. She had to stay on campus for three years. No matter where she went, she had to be escorted out, and to ballparks, wherever she wanted to go. My kids I had in private school — I had two of my boys in private school — they had to be backed off. That was the only reason. I was used to — in some ways — used to the other thing, but they were not able to enjoy some of the lifestyle that I had built for them.
That’s terrible. People were threatening you and your children?
Hank Aaron: I had many, many, many death threats. I couldn’t open letters for a long time, because they all had to be opened by either the FBI or somebody. I couldn’t open letters. I had to be escorted. In fact, just recently I went to a funeral, Calvin Wardlaw, who was the detective — the policeman — with me for two years, passed away just recently. He and I got to be bosom buddies really, but that was the hardest part. I wasn’t able to enjoy.
You hit home run 714, tying Ruth’s record, when you were in Cincinnati to open the 1974 baseball season. It was a count of three to one. What were you thinking as you trotted around the bases after matching that record?
Hank Aaron: I was thrilled and happy. I told the Cincinnati paper — they asked me what I wanted to have — and I said, “I would like for you to have a moment of silence for Dr. King.”
They knew you were going to tie the record, right?
Hank Aaron: Yeah. They came to me and wanted to know what I wanted, and I said, “I’d like to have a moment of silence for Dr. King.” And they said, “No, we’re not getting into that.” They refused to do that, because of politics or whatever it was. But the Vice President was there, Gerald Ford.
They wouldn’t do the moment of silence for Dr. King?
Hank Aaron: No, they wouldn’t do it.
Didn’t the Braves management try to keep you out of the away games because they wanted you to break the record here in Atlanta?
Hank Aaron: I think the Commissioner was listening to Dick Young, who was a sportswriter — God rest his soul, he’s no longer with us — he was a sportswriter in New York. I think he was kind of listening to Dick Young, and I had had some problems before. Dick Young thought that I should have played every game, every inning, every moment, no matter what. And yet I played the opening game, and I hit the home run. Then they wanted to sit me out the next two games, and the Commissioner come in and said, “No, he’s got to play two out of three games.” So they made me play two out of three games. They also said if I didn’t play, that Matthews, who was the manager at that time, would be serious… they would fine him something serious, and they would do something to me. Not do something, they were going to fine me also. And I said, “Umph!” I played two out of three games in Cincinnati, and then we come back here, and that’s when I hit the home run — because we had an off day — and that’s when I hit the home run.
April 8, 1974 — Hank Aaron Night — was the home opener of 1974. It was the biggest crowd in Braves history, with nearly 54,000 fans in the stadium. The Braves were playing the L.A. Dodgers. Al Downing was pitching for Los Angeles. What happened next? Did he throw you a slider?
Hank Aaron: I never had great luck against Al Downing. Al Downing was always very tough on me for some reason. Really. I remember him when he was with the Yankees, threw very hard, very, very hard, and had very good stuff. Then they traded him. He hurt his arm somewhere, I don’t know what, but he went on to the Dodgers and I still never had very good luck with him. He was pitching against us that night, and he had thrown me two — well, he walked me the first time up. The second time up, he had me at two balls, I think. Two balls and no strikes. Then he threw me a — it wasn’t a slider — he threw something like a little screwball or something. He was trying to keep the ball away from me, and what had happened was that I had creeped up on the plate just a little bit, and the screwball that he threw me, that pitch hung on the outside part of the plate, but it hung right down the middle, and I was able to get my bat on it, and that was it!
But how did you feel when you hit it?
Hank Aaron: I felt great. I felt wonderful. And here’s where Mr. Calvin Wardlaw comes into play. When I ran around the bases, these two kids come out. They were doing nothing but having fun, and he said, “Hank, I almost pulled…” If you noticed, he used to always have a binocular case, and inside the case was a snub nose .45. That’s what he had in there.
Was he FBI?
Hank Aaron: He was police. Manny Jackson loaned him to the Braves, and the Braves paid for him to go to spring training with me. But no, he wasn’t the FBI, he was a policeman. He was a detective.
So after you hit the ball, these two kids ran out and followed you around the field. It was exciting to watch. What was it like for you?
Hank Aaron: They were having fun, the kids were. They were nothing but kids, and one turned out to be a doctor. In fact, maybe three or four years ago, they brought them back to the ballpark and we met up in my office. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I finally hit the home run, got at the bases, And when I got home that night I got on my knees and prayed to the Good Lord, really thanked him for all of the things that he had sent me through. Because really, the two years — I had really had a bad time for two years leading up to the home run. I had had some things that had been said, done. Every day was something different. I think a lot of it came from the press, really. I hate to say it, but a lot of it came from them. They decided that they were going to say things, and jump on me about certain things, and a lot of it was untrue. “Oh, he’s trying to break the records because of this and that…” You know?
Do you think they just wanted to discredit you?
Hank Aaron: I don’t know what it was really. For two years I had a rough time. I really had a rough, rough time.
Did this change everything when you hit that ball and ran those bases?
Hank Aaron: It changed me that I wanted to try to get out of the game. Really, for the first time I had felt like, as Dr. King said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” I’ve gotten as far as I’m going to go. I felt like there was nothing else for me to accomplish. I had hit the home run, broke the record, and that was it. I didn’t know anything else to do. I didn’t know anything else to do, and lo and behold, I got this call at the end of the year from my good friend, Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig. He wanted me to end my career in Milwaukee, which I had no intentions of doing. I had some very good friends of mine that flew here. We had dinner, and we talked about me spending two years more in Milwaukee. I really didn’t want to. I told them at the dinner table, in presence of my wife, I said, “Now listen, I want all you guys to know that I’m not the same ball player I was when I left Milwaukee. I can’t steal a base, I don’t play the outfield, I can’t do certain things. I don’t run as fast. I might think I’m running fast, but I’m not. I’m not doing things as fast as I used to. So you have to understand it.” “Well no, we just want you to come back and finish your career.” And I said, “Okay.” Because I was really thinking about — seriously, I probably would have — I was thinking about retiring.
Are you glad you didn’t?
Hank Aaron: I’m glad. I went back to Milwaukee and had two more years. I was a long ways from having the kind of year that I was used to having, but I spent the last two years in Milwaukee and the fans appreciated it, and that was the end of it.