Hank Aaron (b. 1934)
"Hammerin' Hank" Aaron, a player for the Atlanta Braves, hit 755 home runs, a record that stood unchallenged until 2007, during his twenty-three-year career in major league baseball.
Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 5, 1934, the day before Babe Ruth's thirty-ninth birthday. He was the third of eight children born to Estella and Herbert Aaron. Raised in Toulminville, a village on the outskirts of Mobile, Aaron attended Central High School and finished school at Josephine Allen Institute.
When he was fourteen his father took him to see Jackie Robinson play during the Brooklyn Dodgers' spring training swing through Mobile, and they attended a speech Robinson gave in town. From that point on, Aaron has said, he was determined to become a major league player himself. Because neither high school he attended had a baseball team, he originally played softball before joining a semiprofessional baseball team, the Mobile Black Bears, during his junior year in high school. During an exhibition game in 1951 between the Bears and the Negro American League's Indianapolis Clowns, the Clowns' management was impressed with Aaron and quickly offered him a contract. He joined the Clowns in the spring of 1952, at the age of eighteen, playing shortstop. Despite his cross-handed grip, the right-handed hitter led the league with a .467 average.
When Bobby Thomson, the Braves' starting left fielder, fractured his ankle in the 1954 preseason, Aaron filled his place in the lineup and hit a home run in his first at-bat. His career as a Brave was sealed. The Braves (who had by then moved from Boston to Milwaukee) would be his team for the next twenty-one years, twelve in Milwaukee and nine in Atlanta.
After his first season in the majors, Aaron hit at least twenty home runs a season for the next twenty consecutive seasons, with thirty home runs or more in fifteen of those seasons.
The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, and Aaron moved with them. On May 17, 1970, he became the first player to make both 3,000 career hits and more than 500 career home runs. By then it had become apparent that he could conceivably break Babe Ruth's record of 714 career home runs. The threat to Ruth's record prompted racial antagonism toward Aaron and his family. In 1973 numerous death threats forced him to hire a bodyguard. His daughter, Gaile, a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, received threatening phone calls and was the target of an abortive kidnapping plot. In spite of the hatred around him, Aaron finished the season just one home run short of Ruth's record.
On April 8, 1974, the stage was set for the breaking of one of baseball's most famous records. In front of a record crowd at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, the forty-year-old Aaron faced pitcher Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the fourth inning he knocked a fastball over the left field fence, his 715th home run. The crowded stadium of 53,775 fans erupted in celebration as fireworks went off overhead. As he rounded third, Aaron saw his teammates and parents waiting for him at home plate. Looking back on his struggle to break the record, Aaron said, "Thank God it's over."
That was Aaron's final season for the Braves. Frustrated by the lack of support from local fans for the team and for himself, he returned to Milwaukee, where he played for two seasons with the Brewers. When he retired after the 1976 season, his career statistics included records for 755 home runs; 2,297 RBIs; 6,856 total bases; and 1,477 extra base hits.
On August 7, 2007, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hit his 756th home run, thereby breaking Aaron's record. The event was controversial, given that Bonds was under investigation at the time for the alleged use of performance-enhancing steroids, but the occasion was nevertheless marked at the ballpark in San Francisco, California, by fireworks and a recorded message from Aaron congratulating Bonds.
Stan Baldwin, Jerry Jenkins, and Henry Aaron, Bad Henry (Radnor, Pa.: Chilton, 1974).
Joe Garner, And the Crowd Goes Wild (Napersville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 1999).
Tom Stanton, Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America (New York: William Morrow, 2004).
Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, dir. Mike Tollin (TBS Productions, 1995), documentary.
A. Binford Minter, University of Georgia
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