Hank Aaron’s Journey to the Top

Hank Aaron taking in the scenery during batting practice. | Courtesy of Simma_Down_Na!! on Flickr.

The late Hank Aaron is known as one of the greatest players in Major League Baseball. He holds a number of records in the MLB record book, including most runners batted in, most extra-base hits, and most base hits. His 23-season career, spanning from 1954 to 1976, was full of lustre; but it also had its fair share of controversy and pushback. Coming from humble beginnings, Hank climbed the mountain to the top. His legacy will live on forever and will continue to be in the conversation as the “best of the best” for generations to come. Hank Aaron’s success did not come overnight; he faced adversity throughout his career from start to finish. Entering the 1974 season, the then All-Star and World Champion Hank Aaron prepared to break through a barrier that no other player had overcome. Hank Aaron was preparing himself to pass the great Babe Ruth in the all-time home run record. The daunting 715th homerun of Aaron’s career would put him at the top of the record book and further cement his already lucrative career into the history of the game of baseball. With a number of records under his belt already, this milestone in his career, similarly to the rest of his career, would be faced with adversity and push back.

As he was growing up in the late 1930s, Hank dreamed of becoming a baseball player. During his youth, he would hit bottle caps with a broomstick before he finally got his hands on a bat and ball.1 His father had played amateur baseball before he started working at the local shipyard to provide for his family of seven children and his wife. Hank Aaron’s journey to the top began in 1949 when he began playing semi-professional baseball in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama earning $5 a game, which was an amazing opportunity for a fifteen-year-old high school student at the time. Hank was a talented high school athlete, playing both football and baseball, but he was inspired to pursue professional baseball after attending a talk given by Jackie Robinson in 1947, offering Hank the motivation to be great. Little did Robinson know at the time, he was inspiring a boy who would eventually go on to be one of the most prolific baseball players of all time. Hank would eventually go on record to say that Jackie Robinson was his hero not only because of Jackie’s baseball persona but also for his societal influence and the way he carved a path for Black baseball players by being the first Black player in the MLB. Hank Aaron played for the Mobile Black Bears semi-professionally and was paid $3 an hour. This was a significant upgrade from his past work as a teenager helping support his family by picking cotton, among other jobs. While playing semi-professionally, he attended tryout camp for the Dodgers. At the end of the camp, a scout told the 6’0 tall Hank Aaron that he was too small to play in the Big Leagues.2

Hank went on to play in the Negro Leagues starting in 1951, playing for the Indianapolis Clowns, despite his mother’s wishes for him to attend college. He quickly made noise in the Negro Leagues, putting up an impressive stat line in his first year. The Clowns had stumbled upon Hank Aaron while they were travelling the South playing teams. They stopped in Mobile to play the Black Bears, and the team was so impressed with Hank’s performance that they invited him to play with them. Hank’s mother was very nervous to see her son leave the nest; after all, he was only seventeen years old at the time. She accompanied her son to the bus for his departure and told one of the Clowns top-pitchers Jim Cohen to make sure her son eats well and gets his rest. Hank’s mother was an important piece of his life and through his career that bond stayed true.3

Although never having left Mobile before, he was quick to fit in with the new team by impressing them. He managed to become their clean-up hitter in the rotation and shortstop, which was no easy feat considering their shortstop, Sherwood Brewer, was an All-Star the previous season. While he only played 26 games with the organization, his hit percentage was a daunting .366, with 5 home runs, 33 runners batted in, 41 hits, and 9 stolen bases. Hank Aaron and the Indianapolis Clowns ended up winning the Negro League World Series title that year. Aaron’s bout in the Negro Leagues was short, and his contract was eventually bought out by the Milwaukee Braves organization.4

At the ripe age of seventeen years old, Hank Aaron, who came from a family who struggled to get by, straddling the poverty line and only being able to eat meat once every few weeks, was now on a Major League Contract earning $200 per month. As a part of his signing bonus, Hank was given a cardboard suitcase for his possessions, which quickly fell apart in the rain, leaving him with a handful of possessions and a cardboard handle.5 At the time, Jim Crow Laws still dominated the States of the South, being a legacy of the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War, the prominent features of which were the many rules of segregation. People of color were segregated to separate schools, restrooms, stores, sports teams, churches, and any other public spaces. States that permitted Jim Crow Laws could prevent people of color from living out their dreams and they suppressed their rights to equal opportunities.

1964 Hank Aaron Topps baseball card | Courtesy of Joe on Flickr

Hank was well aware of the segregated society he lived in in the South, and even the prominence of segregation and many other injustices within the game of baseball, particularly in the South. But Hank Aaron lived comfortably playing Major League Baseball and being one of the most popular icons in baseball. He grew up in Toulminville, a black community within Mobile, Alabama. He understood the difficulties that people of color were experiencing during this time. He was overlooked by scouts in his younger years because of the color of his skin, and that only adding fire to the flame that was Hank’s desire to become a professional. He also witnessed gang violence in his hometown while growing up, due to lesser financial opportunities, less available resources, and social frustration due to the restricted rights that gangs would commonly form within black communities. Hank prided himself in not partaking in gang-related activities, calling himself a mature kid and a “loner” who kept to himself. Hank remained something of a loner, even while playing in the Big Leagues. Hank wasn’t in it for the fame; he was in it for the game. Hank was also known to go into communities and give talks to Black youths. He was questioned by the press about the talks he was having with Black youth and was met with a great deal of resistance. He spoke to youths similarly to how Jackie Robinson had once talked to him as a child when he fostered Hank’s dream of becoming a baseball player and helped him believe that there could be more to his life than injustice and negativity towards him based on the color of his skin. Some people in the United States and among the press found it inappropriate for him to be talking to the youth, and although Hank did not go into detail, he stated that he was not passive when defending his talks to the youth when questioned by the press.6

In 1954, Hank got the call to make his Major League debut after playing Minor League ball for the Boston Braves and the Jacksonville Tars. Hank started at left field for the Milwaukee Braves, a change in position from his normal infield posting, but Hank continued to excel in this new area of the diamond. In the first game of his career against Cincinnati, Hank had a grim game, possibly feeling the pressure of his MLB debut, and he went 0 for 5 at the plate. However, a short ten days later, Hank recorded his first Major League hit and a home run in a game against the Cardinals, beginning the hit and homerun tear that would eventually cement Hank Aaron’s name in baseball history for years to come.

Hank’s entrance to the Big Leagues was not just about his calibre of play and a team offering him a contract to sign. Hank also had to make his way into the clubhouse, make relationships with his teammates, and be accepted as one of the players on the team in order for them to succeed. A clubhouse that is filled with tension between players, managers, and staff can affect how they work together as a team during practices and games as well, hurting their chances of winning games. Some of Hank’s teammates considered him to be lazy and not bright; they also questioned his work ethic. It is the belief that this was due to the color of his skin that his teammates and manager thought this; however, it could have also been the natural grace and athleticism that Hank possessed that made his movement seem so effortless. Over time, however, Hank’s value would be realized by his teammates and also by his club manager. It is interesting to think of how many more opportunities Hank would have had in his early career if it wasn’t for the discrimination and poor judgement made due to Hank’s color of his skin.7

Hank’s rookie year was unfortunately cut short in September after fracturing his ankle. Despite this and despite being one of the few Black players in baseball at the time, he still finished fourth in National League Rookie of Year Award voting. Hank batted a solid 0.280 hit percentage and sent 13 balls over the fences that year. An impressive start for a young rookie.8

Despite his injury the past year, Hank persevered and began laying the foundation on which his legacy would be built. In his first fully healthy season in the “Bigs,” Hank had a hitting average of 0.314, 27 homers, and a National League-leading 37 doubles. This led Hank Aaron to participate in his very first All-Star game in only his second year in the league, an impressive feat; but what makes it even more impressive is that this would be the start of a 21-year stretch where Hank would not miss the All-Star game. Hank would appear in 25 total All-Star games throughout his career, the most of any player in Major League Baseball. It is uncommon for a player to play for 25 seasons, let alone have 25 All-Star-worthy seasons.9

By 1957, Hank had begun to establish himself as a household name early in his career. Hank was moved to the cleanup spot in the Milwaukee Braves rotation, earning the trust from the coaching staff and organization to be their guy to produce RBI’s and home runs. Hank’s 1957 season is thought to be one of the best seasons in his long career: he recorded a batting average of 0.328, 200 base hits, 34 double base hits, and ran 340 total bases. This stat line from 1957 awarded Hank the National League MVP Award, but his greatest accomplishment from 1957 was the World Series Pennant that he was able to raise. The Milwaukee Braves defeated the New York Yankees, going the length in their seven-game series, and Hank played a large role in the victory. Hank hit a 0.393 average with 3 home runs in the series. The biggest moment for Hank came in the 11th inning of game seven of the World Series game when he hit a home run breaking a tie between the Braves and Yankees and awarding the Braves the pennant.10

Hank continued to play at this top level of play. The hits, runs, steals, and home runs continued to accumulate. With that accumulation also comes the accumulation of records broken and statistic clubs joined. On July 14, 1968, Hank joined the prestigious 500 home run club. From his MVP campaign year of 1957 to the year 1968, Hank had at least 30 home runs in all but one season, the type of longevity that players can only dream of, and “Hammerin” Hank Aaron wasn’t done yet. In 1970, Hank joined yet another prestigious statistic club after he recorded his 3000th base hit, becoming the only player in history to ever record 500 home runs and 3000 base hits. To this day, there are only five other players to accomplish this feat. Despite his accomplishments, Hank was not yet a household name. Baseball fans, of course, knew of Hank Aaron, but he was not yet a National or International persona.11

This would all change as Hank Aaron hit a career-best 47 home runs in a season during the 1971 campaign. Hank couldn’t keep the baseball in the park that year and would bring his career total to 639 career home runs, within striking distance of Babe ‘The Great Bambino’ Ruth’s home run record of 714 career home runs. While Hank brought himself within striking distance, this was no guarantee that he would break the record. He needed to keep himself not only a great baseball player but also healthy and safe. During the time leading up to Hank’s opportunity to surpass Babe Ruth, staying safe was easier said than done.12

In the 1973 season, Hank made it to the brink of the home run record, finishing with 713 career home runs after putting 40 balls over the fence all over the country. He was only one home run away from tying the legendary Babe Ruth. His ability to stay within his prime was astonishing. Twenty years after entering the MLB, the slugger was still posting incredible numbers that some players could only dream of achieving, Hank’s longevity highlighted his love for the game and his ability to take care of his body over the years.13

As Hank began to prepare for the 1974 season and for what may seem like the inevitable overcoming of the career home run record of Ruth, he quickly realized that breaking the record may not be as easy as he had believed. During the months leading up to the 1974 season, Hank began to receive pushback from the public and from some baseball fans around the country. In 1974, the Civil Rights Act had just passed in the United States only ten years earlier, in 1964. The Civil Rights Act was created to abolish the discrimination of people based on their race, color, gender, religion, or nationality, meant to abolish Jim Crow Laws. Ten years later, there were still Americans who did not agree with the rulings brought forward with the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and believed that Jim Crow Laws should still be in effect. This led to Hank Aaron still being discriminated against in a league that had only begun to allow Black players shortly before Hank entered the league. Hank began receiving thousands of letters every week that offseason, much of it positive encouragement from fans encouraging him to break the record; but he also received downright disgusting and hateful letters as well. Hank received a number of death threats from baseball fans who wanted Babe Ruth to remain the home run king. The death threats went so far that the Atlanta Journal even had an emergency obituary prepared in the case of Hank’s untimely death occurring.14 Most players would be unsettled by such threats, but Hank knew what he had to do.

During the first game of 1974, Hank was prepared to tie the Great Bambino. The game was played in Cincinnati against the Cincinnati Reds. It didn’t take long for Hank Aaron to hit a ball out to bring his career total to 714. It was during the first swing of his first at-bat of the game and also of the regular season. Hank connected with a ball and reminded people once again why he was nicknamed “Hamerin’ Hank,” putting the ball over the heads of the outfielders with no hope of them catching it. The shot over the fence now made Hank realize that he was going to pass Babe Ruth in the record books.15

Bill Bartholomay, the owner of the Braves organization, wanted the 715th to happen at the Braves home stadium, so he tried to get Hank to sit the next two games before they returned home for a 10 game stand. This wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary at the time for Hank, as towards the end of his career he was not playing all 162 games of the season. However, the Commissioner of the MLB at the time did not want Hank to sit out in order for him to be able to hit his 715th in Atlanta in front of the home crowd. Hank believed that the Commissioner had ulterior motives and that he was forced into making decisions that he may not have wanted to make. Fortunately for the Atlanta home fans, Hank did not score another home run during the road trip in Cincinnati, but the Braves did however still leave town with the series win.16

Hank Aaron tips his hat to fans and teammates greeting him at home plate in Atlanta Stadium Monday, April 8, 1974, after crashing a fourth-inning homer against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a record blast, his 715th career homer | Courtesy of beisbolsinaloa on Flickr

The Braves returned to their home stadium in preparation for the 10 game home stretch, and the atmosphere was that of the World Series. Most players would have built a tremendous amount of pressure around themselves to break the record. However, Hank said that he never felt pressure while playing baseball. He said that added pressure, even during a slump, would only hurt his production. Even more, he knew that he had prepared himself properly, so that if he stayed relaxed, he would perform to the best of his ability. He did say that he did feel isolated out on the field during those games leading up to his 715th home run, like he was the only one that people were watching, and for good reason: of course they were waiting to witness history. The Braves played their first game of the home stretch on April 8, 1974 against the Dodgers. The stadium was packed full with 53,775 fans, a record attendance in Atlanta at the time. The tension and excitement in the air was palpable. Hank was the cleanup hitter for the Braves, batting in the 4th place in the order after going 3 up 3 down in the 1st inning. Hank came to the plate in the 2nd inning, not seeming too anxious and showing some self-restraint to swing for his 715th home run. Hank watched four pitches outside of the zone go past him and he took the leadoff walk to start the inning. Hank made his way around the bases in the second inning to score, while reaching another milestone that largely went unrecognized. With that run, he broke Willie Mays National League record for runs scored. The Braves now were trailing 3-1 going into the fourth inning, with a runner reaching on an error the play before Hank coming to the plate, and now an opportunity to tie the game was on the line, although the fans in the stands were not concerned with tying the game at this point. Their only concern was that number 715. It was 9:07 PM when Hank stepped into the batter’s box. The lights were shining bright, and all eyes were on the 6’0 tall man ready to cement his legacy forever. He watched the first pitch from Al Downing miss the strike zone, bringing the count to 1 ball and no strikes. Hank stepped into the batter box for the second pitch, and Al Downing delivered a sinker that didn’t sink or a fastball that stayed too high. Hank swung his recognizable swing, crushing the baseball as the ball soared over the infielders, then over the outfielders, and then it made its way over the fence into the Braves bullpen. Hank had done it! He had surpassed Babe Ruth as the home run king. As Hank jogged around the bases, even the opposing Dodgers players congratulated Hank as he rounded the bases and his teammates rushed out of the dugout to greet him at the home plate along with his mother as well. As Hank stepped onto home plate, his team surrounded him and showered him with praise, and he got to embrace his mother who had been worried sick for the health of her son during the period in which he was being threatened in letters. Hank even got a call from President Nixon during the 8th inning of the game. This was the game that Hank and the baseball world would never forget.17

After the game, it has been said that Hank received millions of letters, more than any athlete at the time. While this may seem to be an honor to Hank and his family, it wasn’t the case. A large amount of the letters were once again threatening his life. This large amount of hate forced him and his family to accept assistance from the police and go into seclusion in order to stay safe, losing a large part of their freedom due to the people threatening the All-Time great and his family. The threats also impacted the lives of his teammates, coaches, and team staff. Security guards had to accompany Hank while on the road and travelling for baseball. It even went as far as to one of Hank’s teammates at the time bringing him food to his hotel room when they were on the road.18 It is clear that Hank had an impact for the Black community through his success in baseball and his relentlessness to play in a league for over twenty years, which did not welcome him with open arms, that to is a large part of what made Hammerin’ Hank so great.

The late Hank Aaron had an incredible career, filled with successes and opposition alike that changed the game of baseball. Hank played as one of the most iconic Black players at the time and of all time. He changed how the public viewed Black players and was embraced by the majority of baseball fans. His trials and tribulations go to show how dedicated he was to the sport and also to the black community, speaking out for black rights and also inspiring a generation of kids who now had a hero that looked like them to look up to. While this may not have been appreciated as much then, it certainly can be today. Hank passed away from natural events on January 22, 2021 at the age of 86. He will be deeply missed by baseball fans, sports fans, and Americans alike, but his legacy will live on for generations to come.

Baseball Hall of Fame plaque dedicated to Hank Aaron | Courtesy of Robert Gusick on Flickr
  1. John Whitehead, “Hank Aaron’s Legacy: Keep Swinging for Freedom,” Clarendon Enterprise (TX) 31, no. 4 (January 28, 2021): 2.
  2. John Davis Cantwell, “Reflections on Hank Aaron,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 32, no. 3 (July 3, 2019): 462–63, https://doi.org/10.1080/08998280.2019.1585716.
  3. John Davis Cantwell, “Reflections on Hank Aaron,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 32, no. 3 (July 3, 2019): 462–63, https://doi.org/10.1080/08998280.2019.1585716.
  4. Brent Kelley, “How Hank Aaron Almost Became a Giant or Pirate,” Baseball Digest 57, no. 12 (December 1998): 72.
  5. John Davis Cantwell, “Reflections on Hank Aaron,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 32, no. 3 (July 3, 2019): 462–63, https://doi.org/10.1080/08998280.2019.1585716.
  6. Thomas W. Buchanan, “Hank Aaron,” in Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (Salem Press, 2021).
  7. Tavis Alan Malcolm, “Henry Louis ‘Hank’ Aaron (1934-2021),” June 27, 2007, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/aaron-henry-louis-hank-1934/.
  8. Thomas W. Buchanan, “Hank Aaron,” in Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (Salem Press, 2021).
  9. Matt Kelly, “Hank Aaron Career Timeline,” MLB.com, accessed March 30, 2021, https://www.mlb.com/news/featured/hank-aaron-career-timeline.
  10. Matt Kelly, “Hank Aaron Career Timeline,” MLB.com, accessed March 30, 2021, https://www.mlb.com/news/featured/hank-aaron-career-timeline.
  11. Matt Kelly, “Hank Aaron Career Timeline,” MLB.com, accessed March 30, 2021, https://www.mlb.com/news/featured/hank-aaron-career-timeline.
  12. Matt Kelly, “Hank Aaron Career Timeline,” MLB.com, accessed March 30, 2021, https://www.mlb.com/news/featured/hank-aaron-career-timeline.
  13. Matt Kelly, “Hank Aaron Career Timeline,” MLB.com, accessed March 30, 2021, https://www.mlb.com/news/featured/hank-aaron-career-timeline.
  14. Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig, “THE GAME I’LL NEVER FORGET BY HANK AARON.: Louis J. Blume Library Discovery Service.,” Baseball Digest, accessed March 30, 2021.
  15. Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig, “THE GAME I’LL NEVER FORGET BY HANK AARON.: Louis J. Blume Library Discovery Service.,” Baseball Digest, accessed March 30, 2021.
  16. Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig, “THE GAME I’LL NEVER FORGET BY HANK AARON.: Louis J. Blume Library Discovery Service.,” Baseball Digest, accessed March 30, 2021.
  17. Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig, “THE GAME I’LL NEVER FORGET BY HANK AARON.: Louis J. Blume Library Discovery Service.,” Baseball Digest, accessed March 30, 2021.
  18. Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig, “THE GAME I’LL NEVER FORGET BY HANK AARON.: Louis J. Blume Library Discovery Service.,” Baseball Digest, accessed March 30, 2021.

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2 Responses

  1. Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players of all time. I did a research paper a couple of years ago about Hank Aaron and reading this article made me want to investigate it even more. I loved reading this article because he is one of my favorite baseball players. It was cool to hear that his role model was Jackie Robinson, but not only because of his presence in baseball but also how he was represented in a societal manner.

  2. Hi,
    First off Id like to say that I love how the writer had many details and was very descriptive because it really helps the reader create a mental image and picture of the scenario and helps for understanding what’s going on. Glad to read about baseball and this players journey to the top.

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