Baseball icon Henry "Hank" Aaron (1934- ) first honed the skills that ultimately led him to a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame while growing up in Alabama. He is best known for breaking Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs, ultimately hitting 755, a record that stood from 1974 to 2007, and he achieved other baseball milestones that still stand, including most runs batted in and most extra base hits. Aaron was known as "Hammerin' Hank" and "Bad Henry" during his playing career because of his considerable skills as a batter.
Henry Louis Aaron was born February 5, 1934, in Mobile, one of Herbert and Estella Aaron's eight children. Hank's brother Tommie would also play for the Atlanta Braves. The Aarons grew up in a low-income section of Mobile known as "Down the Bay." Aaron grew up hitting cross-handed (meaning that although he batted right-handed, he placed his left hand higher on the bat) and was a standout football player at Mobile's Central High.
Aaron's first tryout for the major leagues was in 1949 at the age of 15 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he failed to make the team. His first paying job, at the age of 17, was as a shortstop in the Negro Leagues with the Mobile Black Bears, earning $10.00 a game. He began his professional career as a shortstop in the Negro American League, playing for the Indianapolis Clowns, leading the team to a 1952 Negro League World Series. A few months into his career, the Boston Braves of the National League bought his contract, and he played for the Braves' minor-league affiliate in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In 1954, Aaron was brought up to the major leagues as the right fielder for the Braves, who had moved the franchise to Milwaukee in 1953. Soon, the Mobile native would become one of baseball's most skilled all-around players. In 1956, Aaron's third major-league season, he led the National League in hitting with a .328 average; and in 1957 he was voted the league's Most Valuable Player. Teaming with future Hall of Fame stars, including third baseman Eddie Matthews and pitcher Warren Spahn, the Braves won the National League pennant and faced the perennial champion New York Yankees in the World Series.
Aaron and the Braves became the toast of major league baseball by defeating the Yankees in 1957. Aaron was voted the series MVP for batting .393 and for hitting three home runs and seven RBIs, but it would be the only time he ever played on a world championship team. One year later, Aaron and his teammates won a second straight National League title but lost in a rematch with the Yankees, led by Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. Although Milwaukee jumped to a 3-1 advantage, New York swept the final three games, including two at County Stadium in Milwaukee.
In 1963, Aaron had his best overall season, leading the National League with 44 home runs and 130 runs batted in (RBIs). He finished third in batting, with a .319 average, narrowly missing the coveted Triple Crown (in which a batter leads the league in home runs, RBIs, and batting average). Aaron, however, stole 30 bases that year, becoming only the third player ever to have 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a season. The Braves relocated to Atlanta for the 1966 season, and in 1974, Aaron became the all-time baseball home-run king when he hit number 715, which occurred April 8, 1974.
Traded at the end of the 1974 season, Aaron played his final two seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers. He concluded his remarkable career with 755 home runs. After retiring as a player, Aaron returned to Atlanta to serve in the Braves' front office. He has been an executive with the team ever since. During his drive to overtake Babe Ruth as the all-time home run champion, Aaron received hate mail and threatening phone calls, many of which were racially offensive. He faced the threats with immense composure.
During Aaron's career, which spanned from 1954 through 1976, he made the National League All-Star team every year, from 1955 to 1975, for 21 straight seasons. In 1958, 1959, and 1960, he won the Gold Glove for outfield, an award given annually to the nine best fielders in the respective leagues. Aaron was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in January 1982, with 97.8 percent of the votes cast, second only to Ty Cobb's 98.2 percent. Aaron finished his 23-year career with a lifetime .305 batting average. His 3,771 hits rank third on the all-time list behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. In addition, Aaron is one of only four players with more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, an accomplishment later matched by Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, and Rafael Palmeiro. In 2000, he was voted as one of the 30 best players in the history of the sport. Aaron holds the record for most runs batted in (2,297) and extra-base hits (1,477). Aaron's home run record stood until Barry Bonds eclipsed the mark in 2007.
Years after his playing days, Aaron was lauded for his baseball skills and persona. The minor league park of the Mobile Bay
Bears was named Hank Aaron Stadium in 1997. Since 1999 Major League Baseball has annually given the Hank Aaron Award to the
best offensive player in the American and National leagues. In 2002, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's
highest civilian award. Statues of Aaron greet fans at three different baseball stadiums: Atlanta's Turner Field, Milwaukee's
Miller Park, and Carson Park in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In September 2010, Aaron's refurbished childhood home was relocated
to Hank Aaron Stadium as the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum.
Aaron, Hank., with Wheeler, Lonnie. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.
Stanton, Tom. Hank Aaron and the Run That Changed America. New York: William Morrow, 2004.
Published June 13, 2008
Last updated April 26, 2013