Remembering a Legend: Hank Aaron
By Peri Kahn
On January 22, 2021, we lost one of baseball’s most honorable and historic players, Hank Aaron. The late Hall of Fame outfielder was the picture perfect baseball player. He had an incredible eye up at the plate, hitting homerun after homerun, and had the fighting spirit of a warrior in the outfield. Hank Aaron was the epitome of a baseball hero, inspiring many young boys, especially those of color, to chase their dreams and play the sport they love so much, even if they were viewed as an underdog. Aaron was not just the dictionary definition of outstanding, he was also that of kindness, giving back to his family, friends, and community.
Henry Louis Aaron, known to every one else as Hank Aaron, was born on February 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama, to Herbert and Estella Aaron. Aaron was one of eight African American children growing up in a poor household, with a father working two jobs in order to provide for the family. Early on, Hank Aaron developed a love for baseball, however he was only able to practice at local parks because of his family’s small income and local Jim Crow Laws, policies that segregated whites and blacks. These restrictions prohibited Aaron from playing on a real team until he got to high school, which was also subject to Jim Crow Laws. After Aaron graduated, he began playing baseball for local amateur and semi pro teams, some being the Pritchett Athletics and Mobile Black Bears. After gaining experience on those teams, Aaron signed with the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League baseball team, as a shortstop, only a few years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color line.
Soon after Hank Aaron started with the Indianapolis Clowns, a scout from the Boston Braves, a Major League Baseball team, bought out his contract, signing Aaron to his organization in 1952. That year, Aaron was placed on one of the Braves’ minor league teams in Wisconsin, the Eau Claire Bears, where he had an amazing performance. In his first professional baseball season, Hank Aaron recorded a batting average of .336, meaning he got a hit three out of every 10 at bats, and won Rookie of the Year for the Northern League. The next season, in 1953, Hank Aaron was transferred to another Braves’ minor league team, the Jacksonville Braves, in the South Atlantic League. In contrast to his experience in the Wisconsin, Aaron heard many racists comments and slurs from fans and fellow teammates, due to Jim Crow Laws being more prominent in the south. But the backlash didn’t stop him from putting up yet another incredible performance with 22 homeruns, 125 RBI’s (runs batted in), and the award of Most Valuable Player. Although Aaron was putting up remarkable numbers, his minor league career was short lived.
During the winter of 1953-1954, Hank Aaron began practicing outfield positions instead of perfecting his skills at shortstop. His talent in the outfield got him promoted to the majors, playing right field for the Milwaukee Braves, which had just moved to Milwaukee from Boston that same year. Although Aaron’s major league career got off to a rocky start with an ankle injury and only a .280 batting average, he soon established himself as one of the most skilled offensive players in baseball’s history. He played 23 seasons in the MLB, having hit 30 or more homeruns in 15 of those seasons, and had a batting average of over .300 in 14. The list of Aaron’s accomplishments goes on including, his 2,297 RBI’s and 3,298 games played, which puts him third in the leagues all-time ranking. However, there is one statistic that Hank Aaron is and always will be known for, and that is his 755 career homeruns. On April 8, 1974, in the Braves’ stadium, now in Atlanta, Georgia, Aaron faced Dodgers pitcher Al Downing and hit his 715th homerun, breaking the league’s homerun record, previously held by Babe Ruth with 714. This homerun was more than just a homerun or a record, it meant danger for Hank Aaron. Baseball fans from across the country sent Aaron and his family death threats and countless racists letter, which sadly made Hank Aaron scared for their safety. This wasn’t the only racism Aaron experienced while playing in the majors. He was one of the least publicized players in the league, and why, because of his skin color. This man was probably the best hitter the MLB ever saw, and he was not being recognized for his excellence because he was African American. After the 1974 season, Aaron moved to Milwaukee to play for the Brewers, where he ended his career in 1976.
After his professional career, Hank Aaron remained an active participant in the MLB, achieving many great accomplishments. He first got a job as the vice president and player director for the Atlanta Braves, where scouted new players for the team’s roster and assembled the organization’s minor league squads. His work for the Braves was deeply appreciated, and Aaron was promoted to senior vice president of the organization soon after. In 1982 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, along with being honored with an award in 1999, known as the Hank Aaron Award. This honor would be given out each year to the best offensive player in the league.
Although Hank Aaron is viewed as one of the most skilled players in baseball’s history, he was also one of the most generous, giving back to his community. In 1976, Aaron established the Hank Aaron Youth Fund in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, created to distribute funds to under privileged kids in order for them to improve their talents and have outlets where they can display their greatness. This charity worked side by side with the Boys and Girls Club of Milwaukee, which allowed the Youth Fund to find all the kids in need of opportunities. Years later, in 1994, Hank Aaron and his wife Billye established a larger charity, the Hank Aaron Chasing Dreams Foundation, to provide scholarships to underprivileged kids across the country to support their dreams, so they wouldn’t miss out like Aaron did as a child.
Hank Aaron once said, “I don’t want them to forget Ruth, I just want them to remember me!” That request will certainly be fulfilled. Hank Aaron was a brave, kind, incredibly skilled baseball player who will forever by remembered as one of the greats.