Henry Aaron, who rose from the depths of Southern poverty to become one of the dominant figures in baseball history and a bittersweet symbol of racial intolerance and American triumph, died today. He was 86 years old.
He joined the National League Braves in 1976 after a 23-year major league career (1954-1965 with Milwaukee, 1966-74 with Atlanta) and then played his final two seasons in the American League with the Milwaukee Braves. Aaron posted amazing offensive numbers and holds career records for most home runs (755), RBIs (2297), total bases (6856), games played (3298), batting average (12,364) and home plate appearances (13,941). He is second only to Ty Cobb in terms of number of hits (3,771), although he holds the record in the Netherlands.
He is still his career leader in total bases and RBI and ranks third for shots behind Pete Rose and Cobb. He was the first player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs and 3,000 hits in his career, and the last player in history to go from the Black Leagues to the Major Leagues. Aaron played in a record 24 All-Star games, won the batting title in 1956 and 1959, led the league in home runs four times, was named National League MVP in 1957 and played in the World Series twice, winning the 1957 title when the Braves defeated the New York Yankees in seven games.
Aaron was a great player whose career was similar to that of more charismatic and spectacular players like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, whose brilliance often overshadowed his productive but hard-working style, but it was Babe Ruth’s three-year pursuit of a career record of 714 home runs that made him an enduring national figure. The home run record on the 8th. April 1974 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was run in the fourth set by Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Al Downing and provided one of the sport’s most enduring images, as well as one of its highlights.
The eighth. In April 1974, Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run, beating the legendary record set by Babe Ruth (714). Sports News via Getty Images
Over the years, Aaron received thousands of letters, many of which were racist and many of which contained death threats against him and his family. The image of him rounding second base, accompanied by two white fans jumping onto the field, has become one of the sport’s most emblematic. What is less well known is that while Aaron was rounding the bases, his bodyguard, Calvin Wardlow, was sitting in the stands, his hand secretly on a gun, and in an instant decided if the two young fans had hostile intentions and if he was going to shoot them.
Over the years, Aaron has been praised for his calm determination and dignity in the face of threats. He has dined with international heads of state and all presidents in office, from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama, but the negative reaction of many of his countrymen is a scar he will carry for the rest of his life.
It would be the greatest triumph of my life, but I never got to enjoy it. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, he said one day. The only reason some people didn’t want me to graduate was because I was black.
Aaron held the record for 33 years until Barry Bonds tied it at 7. August 2007, and though he currently ranks second on the list of career home runs behind Bonds’ 762, Aaron is remembered by many as the last legitimate home baseball champion because of the steroid-era spot.
Although Hank Aaron is the second-best home run player of his career, behind Barry Bonds (762), the steroid era left Aaron in the memory of many as the last legitimate home run champion in baseball. Rich Pilling/MLB photos via Getty Images
Henry Louis Aaron was born on the 5th. February 1934, third of eight children of Herbert and Stella Aaron in Mobile, Alabama. When Aaron was 8 years old, the family moved to Toulminville, near Mobile, to a house that Herbert Aaron had built from the remains of boat wood. As a child, Henry recalls more than once that his mother forced her children to hide under their beds when the Ku Klux Klan came to the streets.
Aaron’s legend has always been focused on baseball. He was, as Ed Scott said, the scout who discovered him, destined to be a great baseball player. But the limits of a black man’s life in America, especially in the Deep South, have never been far away. When he was young, Aaron told his father he wanted to be a pilot; his father told him it was impossible because there were no colored pilots. He told his older brother Herbert Jr. that he would then become a baseball player and play in the World Series, which his brother said there were no colored baseball players in the major leagues either.
It was in 1948, when Aaron was 14 years old, that Jackie Robinson visited Mobile and Aaron saw his future. Robinson, Aaron would later say, was the model he would follow. Robinson’s message was first to study and learn, and only then to think about baseball.
Aaron never took Robinson’s advice to heart. He skipped school that day to see Robinson speak, and was eventually expelled from Mobile Central School for absenteeism and transferred to Josephine Allen School, a small private school nearby.
There was no contingency plan, Hank Aaron once said. It was baseball or nothing. It should have worked. Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics via Getty Images
There was no plan B, Aaron once said. It was baseball or nothing. It should have worked.
In 1952, Aaron signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Black League, and his talent, which drew the attention of big league scouts to the last remnants of the black leagues, lasted less than a month. Boston Braves owner Lou Perini signed Aaron, and his dynamic rise began, beginning with a year in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and ending with a promotion to Jacksonville in the notoriously racist South Atlantic League in 1953. With no cameras and no interest from the national media, it was Aaron, along with teammates Felix Mantilla and Joe Andrews, who started a hostile Sully League, and Aaron became MVP.
Aaron made his debut with the Braves at the age of 20 in 1954. He immediately made a name for himself as a member of a promising young team and finished fourth in the Cincinnati Wally Moon Rookie of the Year award voting. Over the next six years, Aaron and third baseman Eddie Matthews combined to become the greatest players in baseball history. The Milwaukee Braves, just two years after leaving Boston for the Midwest, have become one of the most powerful franchises in National League history.
In 1959, Milwaukee Braves third baseman Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews led the league in home runs and batting average. Over the next six years, they became the best players on the baseball team. Bettmann via Getty Images
Aaron’s influence was immediate, but this did not protect him from the often harsh racist attitudes of his teammates and the sports press, who silenced Aaron and insulted him in the mainstream media. He has had to endure insults from teammates, including first baseman Joe Adcock, and has been called Stepinfetchit several times by the press. Unlike other black stars like Robinson, Mays, Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks, Aaron didn’t have the advantage of playing in a bigger, fancier city.
But he soon outdid himself, winning the 1957 pennant against the Braves on the 23rd. September, hit his 11th. Home run with Billy Muffett of Cincinnati and beat .393 in the World Series. A few weeks later he won his only NL Most Valuable Player award. The Braves have suffered bitter defeats: They lost the 1956 pennant to the Brooklyn Dodgers on the last day of the season, the 1958 series to the Yankees in seven games after three games to one, and the 1959 pennant to the Los Angeles Dodgers in three playoff games. Aaron would later say that these late losses kept Milwaukee from being remembered as one of the greatest teams of all time.
1959 was arguably Aaron’s best year, winning his second World Championship title with a .355 batting average, 223 hits, 46 doubles, 39 home runs, 123 RBIs and 400 total bases, but finishing third in the MVP standings behind Banks and Mathews, continuing a trend of massive offensive production with few ticks.
Hank Aaron was a great player whose career was often overshadowed by Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. For years it was thought that Mays would break Ruth’s record, but that began to change with the Braves’ move to Atlanta in 1966. Focus on sports / sharp images
Aaron has always been known as a dangerous lineman, whose legendary quick wrists generated enough torque to hit even a home run. For his 30th birthday. At age 70, he surpassed Cobb in career home runs, but before the 1963 season, as the Braves suffered from an aging core and fewer stars, Aaron made a conscious effort to hit more home runs. In the 1960s, the generally accepted view was that Mays had the best chance of breaking Ruth’s record, but that began to change dramatically in Aaron’s direction. In 1970, when the team moved to Atlanta in 1966, it was clear that Aaron, not Mays, had the best chance to break the career home record.
Over the years, Hank Aaron has been praised for his calm determination and dignity in the face of racist threats. The only reason some people didn’t want me to graduate was because I was black. Bettman via Getty Images
For the first time in his career, marked by Mays, Mantle and Banks, Henry Aaron was in the national spotlight. Fearful of the South and its racist practices, Aaron hesitates to allow the Braves to move from Milwaukee to Atlanta and speaks of his desire not to return to his home region – fears tempered by his involvement in the civil rights movement and his friendship with Atlanta’s black political establishment. His personal life has also changed – with his divorce from Barbara, his wife of 18 years, but Aaron has caught the attention of his teammates. Aaron, to his credit, struck between the 35th and 39th minutes. In 1972, Aaron signed what was then the richest contract in baseball history: three years, $600,000. Aaron remarried in 1973, finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs, one less than Ruth, and spent the entire winter thinking he might be killed before the start of the 1974 season.
When the record was finally broken, Aaron finished the season with the Braves, but Ruth’s pursuit exhausted him. He was 40, but he wanted to keep playing. After the 1974 season, the Braves traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers, who reunited him with the city where he began his career and his friend Bud Selig.
At age 40, Hank Aaron was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and returned to the city where he began his career. He hit his 755th and final home run in the 20th. July 1976. Bettmann via Getty Images
Two disappointing seasons with the Brewers caused him to resign. A member of the Brewers, Aaron hit his 755th and final home run in the 20th. July, by Dick Drago of the California Angels.
Aaron was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982 on 406 of the 415 ballots cast. At the time, the 97.83 admission rate was the second highest in history behind only Ty Cobb, and today it ranks ninth all-time. Aaron had been retired for years and felt disconnected from the game, embittered both by the fact that he felt the game did not value him or his accomplishments and by the fact that baseball was slow and often hindered progress in hiring minorities. He joined the front office in baseball when the Braves made him the first African-American operations manager in baseball history. He encountered baseball in the 1980s, particularly during the Al Campanis scandal, which underscored his belief that baseball was not serious about promoting African Americans to leadership positions or the front office.
Hank Aaron was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982 on 406 of the 415 ballots cast. Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Aaron did not return to the game until the mid-1990s, after Selig was promoted to baseball operations commissioner. He has been the Braves’ manager since Ted Turner hired him in 1977, but it was under Selig that baseball made a conscious effort to celebrate Aaron, who Selig considered undervalued. In 1999, on the 25th anniversary of Aaron’s win over Ruth, Selig created the Hank Aaron Award to honor the best offensive player in each league.