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Aaron, Hank

Source:
Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present
Author(s):

Paul Finkelman

Aaron, Hank 

(b. 5 February 1934),

baseball player, baseball executive, civil rights advocate, and businessman. Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, the son of Herbert and Estella Aaron. He was a member of the second generation of black baseball players to enter the major leagues following Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color line in professional baseball in 1947. Aaron began playing for the Milwaukee Braves in 1954; at about the same time Willie Mays joined the New York Giants and Ernie Banks joined the Chicago Cubs. They were among the last black players who began their careers in the Negro Leagues. In 1974 Aaron broke Babe Ruth's lifetime home run record of 714. When he retired from baseball in 1976 after twenty-three seasons, Aaron held the career records for most home runs (755), most runs batted in (2,297), most total bases (6,856), and most extra-base hits (1,477); was second in total at bats (12,364) and runs scored (2,174); was third in games played (3,298) and hits (3,771); and was eighth in career doubles.

Aaron's consistency as a batter hitting for both average and power over a long career is unmatched. In twenty consecutive seasons he hit twenty or more home runs; he also had twenty consecutive seasons in which he had more than one hundred hits per season. His consistency in home runs surpassed Ruth's record of sixteen seasons of twenty or more home runs and also outpaced his contemporaries, such as Eddie Mathew, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds (fifteen seasons each), Reggie Jackson (thirteen seasons), Frank Robinson (twelve seasons), and Mickey Mantle (eleven seasons). In the early twenty-first century Aaron was also the only player to have hit thirty or more home runs in fifteen seasons. Thirty years after he retired, this record remained. His record of more than one hundred hits in twenty consecutive seasons tied him with Ty Cobb for second place behind Pete Rose (twenty-one seasons). In the spring of 1959 Newsweek asserted that Aaron had “become the best hitter in baseball” (quoted in Aaron and Wheeler, p. 163). This assessment remained accurate for another decade. In 1982 Aaron was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 97.8 percent of the ballots, second only to Cobb.

Youth.

Aaron was born in a section of Mobile known as Down the Bay. When he was eight his family moved to Toulminville, just outside the city limits. His father had steady wartime work in the shipyards as a boilermaker's assistant and was able to save enough money to buy two lots for $110 and hire carpenters for another $100 to build a six-room house. Most of the materials came from a house that had recently been torn down. With their own home and no rent and no mortgage, the Aarons were unusual among black Alabamans at this time. His father later opened a tavern, the Black Cat Inn, in Toulminville. Although cash poor, by the standards of black Alabama the Aarons were well-off, even though most white Americans would have seen them as impoverished. The fact that Estella Aaron was never employed outside the home when Hank was growing up—she was never a maid, cook, or laundress for white families in Mobile—is one measure of Herbert Aaron's hard work, frugality, and modest economic success.

Throughout his childhood Hank constantly played baseball or some version of it, even hitting bottle caps with broomsticks and making baseballs out of tin cans. By age sixteen he was skipping school to play pool and whenever possible baseball. He was eventually expelled from school and was soon playing semipro baseball for the Mobile Black Bears as a teenager on a team of men. In 1951 he was getting at least $10 a game for the Bears when the team's coach Ed Scott urged the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues to look at Aaron. In the spring of 1952 Aaron joined the Clowns for $200 a month, an enormous sum for a black teenager in the deeply segregated South. The owner of the Clowns soon contacted the Boston Braves, telling them of the “18-year-old shortstop batting cleanup for us” (Aaron and Wheeler, p. 43). By the end of May the Clowns had dealt Aaron to the Braves, who paid him $350 a month and gave the Clowns $10,000. At the time Aaron was only eighteen, and his father had to sign the contract.

Aaron spent the rest of the summer playing for a Braves farm team in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This was a shocking change for Aaron, who had never played with—or against—white players. The trip to Eau Claire was his first in an airplane. Wisconsin was dramatically different from Alabama. As he wrote in his autobiography, “Eau Claire was not a hateful place for a black person—nothing like the South—but we didn't exactly blend in” (Aaron and Wheeler, p. 55). Aaron was able to eat in restaurants and stay in hotels with whites. But he also experienced people staring at him, almost in disbelief—“looking at me,” he wrote, “as though I were some kind of strange creature” (Aaron and Wheeler, p. 55). Aside from two other ballplayers, there was only one other African American in the city. Aaron and the other black players met white people there who had never even seen a black person. Perhaps the most dramatic change in his cultural circumstances, he rented a room in a house owned by a white family and sat on the family's front porch holding hands with their daughter. In Mobile such an act might have led to a lynching. Three years after Aaron went to Eau Claire, after all, the fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was tortured and murdered merely for whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi. Despite his relative social freedom and a salary that surpassed anything he could find in Alabama, Aaron contemplated quitting shortly after he arrived because living in a small town in Wisconsin was “almost like being in a foreign country” (Aaron and Wheeler, p. 59).

Aaron, HankClick to view larger

Hank Aaron. A jubilant Hank Aaron after his 715th career home run in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta Stadium, 8 April 1974. Photograph by Bob Daugherty. AP Images

Aaron won the Rookie of the Year Award in Eau Claire. The next year, 1953, he played in Florida for Jacksonville in the South Atlantic League, known as the Sally League. Aaron and two others, Horace Garner and Felix Mantilla, integrated the league. These players did not face the national press and pressure that Robinson had encountered when he integrated the minor leagues in 1946 and the majors in 1947. But they faced potentially more dangerous conditions: fans threw rocks at them and sent them death threats. At one game in Montgomery the FBI had agents sitting in the stands. The president of the Sally League went to numerous Jacksonville games, mostly to monitor the treatment of Aaron, who was clearly the league's up-and-coming star and therefore the player most likely to face violence.

Major Leagues.

In 1954 Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves, leading them to the World Series in 1957 with an eleventh-inning home run on the last day of the season. His teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders. The Braves won the series in seven games and returned in 1958, when they lost in seven games. Never again did Aaron play in a World Series. However, he continued year after year to be the most consistent offensive player in the game. In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta, becoming the first baseball team to play in the Old South. Although segregation was no longer legal, Aaron felt some discomfort playing in a city where overt racism—and especially the use of overtly racist language by fans and critics—was still rampant. While in Atlanta, Aaron divorced his wife, whom he had met while playing in the Sally League, and in 1974 he married Billye Williams, a local television talk show host and the widow of a Morehouse University professor and civil rights activist. Aaron's engagement and marriage brought him into increasing contact with the local and national civil rights community.

By the time he met Williams, Aaron was closing in on Ruth's lifetime home run record. In 1969 he passed Mantle for the third most home runs in a career at 537. The next year he became the only player to have three thousand hits in a career and hit more than five hundred home runs. In 1971 he became the third player to hit more than six hundred home runs. In the next season he passed Mays in lifetime home runs. As the 1973 season began, Aaron was just forty-one home runs away from tying Ruth's lifetime home run record of 714, which was arguably the most famous and iconic record in American sports. During the season Aaron received an enormous amount of hate mail, with some people threatening to kill him if he broke Ruth's record. All these hate letters were racially motivated, and they almost always had the word “nigger” in them. By the end of the season Aaron had full-time police protection. The stress on him was enormous but appeared not to affect his playing skills: he hit forty home runs, the eighth time in his career that he hit forty or more in one season.

Aaron hit number 714 to tie the record in his first at bat in the first game of the next season. The game was played on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and reflecting his increasing interest in civil rights, Aaron successfully convinced the home team Cincinnati Reds to observe a moment of silence before the game. That day he also announced the creation of the Hank Aaron Scholarship Fund. He broke the record a few days later in the first home game of the season in Atlanta. Although numerous celebrities and dignitaries flew in for the game, the commissioner of baseball Bowie Kuhn was noticeably absent. By this time Aaron was increasingly critical of Major League Baseball for its failure to promote blacks from the field to managerial positions, either on the field or in the front office. By September, Aaron was openly critical of the Braves for not offering him either a position in their executive offices or as manager of the team when they fired their manager at the end of the season. Happily for Aaron, he was traded to the newly created Milwaukee Brewers, where he played in 1975 and 1976. He then returned to the Braves, which had been bought by the media magnate Ted Turner. Aaron was hired as a vice president.

Following his retirement as a player, Aaron became openly critical of baseball for its failure to promote more than a handful of black players to the positions of power and decision-making. Unlike many former professional athletes, he openly spoke out about civil rights, racism, and the need for gender and racial equity in sports.

Legacy.

In 1982, the first year that he was eligible, Aaron was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This honor capped a spectacular career. In 1957 and 1963 he led the league in home runs and runs batted in (RBIs). He led the league in home runs in 1957 (44), 1963 (44), 1966 (44), and 1967 (39). He led the league in batting average in 1956 (.328) and 1959 (.355). He was named the Sports Illustrated Player of the Year in 1956 and won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1957. He was chosen for the All-Star Team every year from 1955 to 1975 and in 1959 became the first player unanimously chosen by all the other players to play on the All-Star Team.

Aaron's unanimous election to the All-Star Team illustrates an oddity of his career. Fellow players recognized him as one of the greatest athletes in the game. He came to spring training already in excellent shape. He was not a prude and drank a beer on occasion, but he avoided the self-destructive drinking and womanizing of many players. He prepared for his craft and was a relentless competitor with stunning talent and an incredible work ethic. Thus Mantle asserted shortly after Aaron retired: “As far as I'm concerned, Aaron is the best ball player of my era…. He is to baseball of the last 15 years what Joe DiMaggio was before him” (Baseball Almanac, Aaron biography).

But despite the respect and admiration, Aaron did not achieve the superstar status of such contemporaries as Mantle, Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Pete Rose, or his own teammate Warren Spahn. This was in part because of his personality. He was quiet, circumspect, and workmanlike. His playing came with an ease and smoothness that professionals understood to be the result of hard work, great conditioning, careful study of his opponents, and incredible talent. Fans saw only a smoothly functioning player—perhaps the best all-around player of his era—who was always at the top of the leading statistical measure of hitting, hitting for power, fielding, and base running. He never had spectacular seasons, as did Mantle or Koufax. Indeed the most remarkable aspect of his career may be that he hit 755 home runs but never hit more than 47 in any one season. He lacked the spirit of Mays, the boyish good looks and charm of Mantle, or the charisma of Clemente and Koufax.

But year in and year out Aaron was the best and most consistent hitter and fielder in the game. For most of his career he played in the smallest media market of professional baseball, out of the limelight. Unlike the Dodgers, Cubs, or Yankees, the Milwaukee Braves—and in his last two years the Milwaukee Brewers—had almost no national constituency. Atlanta was a bigger market, but not much bigger in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Aaron played there. Thus it was only when he began to approach Ruth's record, in 1972, that Aaron gained the media attention that his skills and accomplishments had merited all along.

Outside baseball Aaron became the successful owner of a car dealership, served on various civil and corporate boards, and took an increasingly active role in civil rights causes, working with both the NAACP and the Reverend Jesse Jackson's various programs. In 1982 Aaron received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

[See also Baseball; Bonds, Barry; and Sports, subentry Professional Sports.]

Bibliography

Aaron, Hank, with Lonnie Wheeler. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.Find this resource:

    Stanton, Tom. Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America. New York: W. Morrow, 2004.Find this resource:

      Tolan, Sandy. Me and Hank: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-five Years Later. New York: Free Press, 2000.Find this resource:

        —Paul Finkelman