Hank Aaron is one of the most iconic baseball players in the history of the game.
Besides breaking Babe Ruth’s infamous home run record, Aaron was an icon in both Milwaukee and Atlanta, leading the Braves to two pennants and a World Series title in 1957.
Aaron combined his immense hitting power with Gold Glove-caliber defense in the outfield.
Playing for over two decades, Aaron retains multiple offensive records that are yet to be broken.
His influence on the game of baseball not only in his performance on the field but his strength in the face of being a black player growing up and playing in the deep south during the Jim Crow era is inspirational.
Hank Aaron at Wrigley Field pic.twitter.com/MJOC333dE3
— BaseballHistoryNut (@nut_history) August 17, 2022
Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama on February 5, 1934, to parents Herbert and Estella Aaron.
One of seven children, Aaron lived with his family in a poor part of the city hit hard by the Great Depression that was enveloping the country at the time.
Aaron helped earn money for his family by working various jobs, including picking cotton.
In his spare time, Aaron played baseball with whatever he could find—broomsticks, caps—with anyone around on local fields.
At Central High School, Aaron was a two-sport athlete, playing both baseball and football.
Just two years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Aaron attended a tryout for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers but was not offered a contract due to his unorthodox grip on the bat and swinging style.
Instead, Aaron was convinced to sign with the Indianapolis Clowns.
The Clowns were part of the Negro American League, and Aaron helped lead them to a Negro League crown in 1952 at just 18 years old.
Aaron’s performance with the Clowns intrigued a multitude of Major League teams, including the New York Giants and Milwaukee Braves, who had just relocated from Boston.
The Braves signed Aaron to a contract and he soon reported to their Class A minor league team in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Aaron’s minor league coaches helped him adjust his batting grip and swing, resulting in immediate results.
Then a shortstop, Aaron began tearing up the minor leagues and won Rookie of the Year as well as making the league’s All-Star team.
In 1953, Aaron won the league MVP while playing for the Jacksonville Tars.
This teenager gets ready to depart for his career in the Negro Leagues in 1953. 21 years later on 4/8/74 he hits his 715th home Run to surpass Babe Ruth. Remembering Hammerin' Hank Aaron today – Baseball Home Run King! (photo: @nlbmprez Ed Scott). pic.twitter.com/7CHhNWVJ9z
— Ebbets Field Flannels (@EbbetsVintage) April 8, 2018
Aaron’s hitting ability awed spectators, as he hit for a .366 average with 135 RBI.
He accomplished this all while playing in the Jim Crow south, suffering through constant racial scrutiny including segregated hotel stays and restaurant meals, epithets and slurs, and a generally hostile environment.
During the offseason, Aaron decided to improve upon his already-impressive performance by traveling to Puerto Rico to play winter ball.
While in Puerto Rico, Aaron learned how to play the outfield effectively and tweaked his batting stance and swing further.
Learning to play the outfield paid dividends for Aaron almost immediately, as the Braves left fielder Bobby Thomson was injured in early spring.
The Braves replaced Thomson with Aaron in left field, and Aaron hit a home run in his first game.
Following the game, the Braves signed Aaron to a Major League Contract, making Aaron’s stay in the big leagues permanent.
In his rookie year in 1954, Aaron finished in the top five for Rookie of the Year in a season in which he batted .280 with 13 home runs.
In 1955, Aaron would be selected to his first All-Star team as a right fielder.
He finished the 1955 season with 27 home runs, 106 RBI, and a .314 batting average.
Aaron was quickly becoming one of the best young players in the National League.
Building a Legend
The 1956 season was an even better year for Aaron, as he won the National League Player of the Year award from The Sporting News after winning the NL batting title with a .328 average.
He also led the league in doubles and made his second consecutive All-Star team.
Aaron won the 1957 NL MVP at just 22 years old.
After switching to a lighter bat, Aaron’s power numbers improved, and he hit a league-leading 44 home runs, batted .322, and drove in 132 runs batting cleanup for the Braves.
In addition to Aaron’s incredible regular season, he led the Braves to the NL pennant with a walk-off home run against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Braves won 95 games in 1957 and faced off against the heavily-favored New York Yankees in the World Series.
The Braves completed the upset with a 5-0 victory in Game Seven at Yankee Stadium, taking home their only World Series win in Milwaukee.
Aaron hit three home runs in the series, batting almost .400.
Despite the MVP season and World Series championship, Aaron was often overshadowed by players on the coasts like Mays and Mantle, both of whom had been to multiple World Series already.
At the age of just 23, Aaron had won a World Series, an MVP, a batting title, and had been named to three consecutive All-Star teams.
As a young player and throughout the remainder of his career, Aaron remained mostly low-key, avoiding the spotlight of players like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
Now one of the most popular and dominant players in all of baseball, Aaron continued his torrid pace with the bat.
Dominating Through the 1960s
Looking to repeat in 1958, Aaron and the Braves again faced the Yankees.
New York would win the series in seven games, but it was another successful season for the young right-handed slugger.
He hit 30 home runs on the season with a .326 average and 95 RBI.
He also won his first Gold Glove for his defense in right field and was selected to his fourth All-Star game.
In 1959, Aaron hit 39 home runs and won his second consecutive Gold Glove, but the Braves failed to make the World Series again, winning 86 games and finishing in second place.
As the 1960s began, Aaron was viewed as one of baseball’s best overall sluggers and defenders in the outfield.
Along with third baseman Eddie Mathews, Aaron had led the Braves to win records in every season since moving from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953.
From 1960 through 1962, Aaron hit 108 home runs, hit .314, and drove in 374 runs.
In 1963, Aaron almost won the National League Triple Crown, leading the league in home runs and RBI, narrowly losing the batting title to Tommy Davis by less than a point.
After tearing through National League pitching in Milwaukee for the better part of a decade, the Braves relocated to Atlanta in 1966, bringing Aaron closer to home.
In his first year in Atlanta, Aaron smacked 44 home runs, batted .279, and drove in 127 runs.
The Braves had failed to make the World Series since 1958, but that did not slow Aaron down whatsoever.
In 1966, Aaron hit his 400th career home run off of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Bo Belinsky at just 32 years old.
Hammerin’ Hank in Atlanta
It was around this time that many viewed Aaron as having the potential to surpass Babe Ruth’s career home run total of 713.
In 1968, Aaron hit his 500th home run, just two years after eclipsing 400.
The divisional era in baseball began in 1969, and the Braves won the National League West with a 93-69 record.
They would go on to lose to the eventual World Series champion, the underdog New York Mets, in the first-ever NL Championship Series.
In 1970, Aaron became the first player in Major League history to achieve both 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.
Hank Aaron gets his 3000th hit, May 17, 1970. pic.twitter.com/zdvKjp6oph
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) May 17, 2022
He also set the record for most seasons of 30 or more home runs that year, hitting 38 at the age of 36.
Still in his mid-30s, Aaron was quickly approaching Ruth’s record as he moved up the home run leaderboards.
He hit number 600 in 1971, becoming just the third player in history with 600 or more along with Ruth and Willie Mays. In 1972, Aaron finally passed Mays with his 661st home run off of Don Gullett of the Cincinnati Reds.
A work stoppage caused by tension between the players and the league led to the 1973 season being shortened, halting Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s elusive record.
He finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs, just one home run short.
Facing Racism and Catching “The Babe”
Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s home run record resulted in thousands of nasty, angry letters addressed to Aaron.
The threats inside the letters led to considerable stress for both Aaron and the Braves.
Ruth was an American icon, and many did not want to see his record broken, especially by a black man.
The United States was just 10 years removed from the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act, and less than 10 years from the assassinations of civil rights icons Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Race was still a point of contention, and it did not make Aaron’s life easier during his pursuit.
The threats and letters that were directed Aaron’s way also led to an outpour of support from sports fans all around the country, who in turn wrote letters encouraging Aaron and supporting him in his chase for the home run record.
Reflecting on this period in his life and career, Aaron said, “It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about.” He went on to say, “I was getting threatening letters every single day. All these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
The Braves opened the 1974 season in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium against the Reds.
While the Braves were hoping Aaron would break the record in front of the home crowd in Atlanta, Aaron played anyway and tied Ruth’s record with a shot off Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham.
The stadium reacted positively, and Aaron left Cincinnati tied with Ruth for the all-time home run record.
He would finally break Ruth’s record four days later in Atlanta, hitting a pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing over the left field wall.
The crowd erupted and fans stormed the field to congratulate Aaron.
Legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully noted in the moment, “What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world.”
Scully continued in awe at the fact that a black man was receiving a standing ovation in a deep south state like Georgia.
By the end of the season, Aaron had hit a total of 733 home runs.
In his final season with the Braves, Aaron hit 20 home runs, batted .268, and drove in 69 runs.
Now 40 years old, the Braves traded Aaron to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American League, where Hank would have the opportunity to be a designated hitter and not have to play the outfield.
In two seasons with the Brewers, Aaron hit 22 home runs, batted .232, and drove in 95 runs.
In July of 1976, Aaron hit the final home run of his career with the Brewers in Milwaukee, number 755.
Today in 1976, Hank Aaron connects for his 755th, and final, home run. pic.twitter.com/RLWGPVuUBb
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) July 20, 2020
He retired at the end of the year.
Life After Baseball
Hank Aaron retired as one of the greatest sluggers the game of baseball had ever seen.
He finished his two-plus decades in the league with a record 755 home runs, 3,771 hits, a career batting average of .305, and 143 Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
Aaron was selected to a staggering 25 All-Star games, won three Gold Glove awards, and won two NL titles in addition to an MVP in 1957.
He led the league in both home runs and RBI four times and finished his career with the most ever RBI with 2,297, most total bases with 6,856, and most career extra-base hits with 1,477.
In 1982, Aaron was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
He received 97.8 percent of the vote, while Frank Robinson received 89.2 percent.
Aaron’s vote percentage was just second all-time to Ty Cobb, one of the inaugural inductees in 1936.
To honor Aaron’s legacy with the Braves and in the city of Milwaukee, both the Braves and the Brewers retired his number 44.
Reflecting on Aaron’s induction into the Hall of Fame, former teammate Andy Pafko said, “The first time I saw him in spring training, he had ‘Major League’ written all over him—one of those guys who comes around every hundred years.”
Shortly after his retirement, Aaron joined the Braves organization as an executive. He soon moved up to become the team’s Vice President of player development, a role he held for more than ten years.
His role was to oversee the minor league system.
In addition to joining the Braves, Aaron also took on a role with Turner Broadcasting, serving on their board of directors.
Businessman, Baseball Executive, Legend
Aaron’s business acumen did not end there, however. He also opened several BMW dealerships in Atlanta and the state of Georgia.
After 30-plus years, Aaron began selling his dealerships and focused more of his time on the Braves organization.
To honor Aaron’s achievements, Major League Baseball created the Hank Aaron Award in the late 1990s.
The award honors the best offensive player in both the National and American Leagues.
In 2007, it was becoming evident that Giants’ slugger Barry Bonds was going to break Aaron’s home run record.
Aaron chose to downplay the media circus around the event, as he had done with his own home run race over 30 years prior.
When Bonds finally beat Aaron’s record in August of 2007, Aaron appeared on the screen to congratulate Bonds on the feat, saying “I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment that required skill, longevity, and determination.” He continued, “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dream.”
In January of 2021, just two weeks before his 87th birthday, Henry Louis Aaron died in his sleep of natural causes.
Many public figures came forward with their condolences and admiration.
The Braves would go on to win the 2021 World Series over the Houston Astros.
The team designed the World Series ring to honor Aaron, as it includes 755 total diamonds to represent his career home run total and 44 emerald-cut diamonds to mark his uniform number.
Hank Aaron, during his career, was one of the most consistent players in the batter’s box and right field for over a decade, terrorizing National League pitching and developing into one of the game’s best outfielders.
Aaron’s consistency and notoriety came to a head in 1974 as he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record.
He overcame the spotlight and racist threats and defeated Ruth, marking one of the most impressive achievements in American sports history.
Aaron still holds many offensive records, over 45 years since he retired.
Until the moment of his death in 2021, Aaron remained an ambassador for the Braves and the game of baseball around the world and encouraged many to follow their dreams.