Inspired by Robinson, Aaron rewrote baseball’s record book

Hank Aaron
(Painting by @graigkreindler)

How do you truly give all due respect to one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived?

That’s the daunting task of trying to sum up Hank Aaron’s contribution to baseball and the world beyond it. 

Aaron, a Braves legend and Baseball Hall of Famer, died on Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86.

What Aaron would accomplish on the baseball field was inconceivable when he entered the world on Feb. 5, 1934 in Mobile, Ala.  At that time, baseball was divided into the Major League and the Negro Leagues.  

Inspired by Robinson

As Aaron learned to play in his preteen years, people of color played in their own league — the Negro Leagues.  It wasn’t until Aaron was 13 years old that the possibility of playing in the Major Leagues opened up.  On April 15, 1947,  Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the “color barrier.”  

Two years later, Aaron, inspired by the success of Robinson, tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers. According to some sources, Aaron’s unorthodox batting stance might have been one of the reasons he wasn’t offered a contract (SABR). 

So, Aaron turned to the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues and hit .366 with 5 home runs in his first season. After the Clowns won the championship, Aaron received two offers from major league teams — the New York Giants and the Boston Braves.  Aaron chose the Braves, apparently because the team was offering him $50 more a month than the Giants (SABR).

In his first year in the Braves system, coaches worked with Aaron to help improve his batting stance and grip.  Playing for Jacksonville, Aaron showed his first signs of being a star.  He hit .336.  The next year, he hit .362 with 22 home runs.

In the Major Leagues

He arrived in the major leagues in 1954 with the now-Milwaukee Braves and he never looked back.  Just three years later, Aaron led the league with 44 home runs and 132 runs batted in.   In that season, in 1957, Aaron was the National League MVP.  At the end of the season, the Braves beat the Yankees in the World Series and Aaron hit three home runs.  He would appear in the World Series one more time, in 1958, but that Braves would lose.  Aaron would never make it there again.

Aaron played 23 seasons in the Major Leagues and, despite his lofty numbers, would not be named MVP again.  

In the fourth inning of a home game against the Dodgers on April 8, 1974, Aaron hit his 715th home run to surpass Babe Ruth’s career home run record.   While some would think this is a cause to celebrate, Aaron had experienced another side as he moved closer to this record.  Racism reared its ugly head.

“Some people resented the fact that I was trying to break a white man’s record,” Aaron would say in describing the situation he faced.  (BrainyQuotes)  In the lead up to breaking the record, Aaron received letters and threats.  In fact, Aaron received an award from the Postal Service for breaking a record in receiving mail.  In the early 1990s, Aaron received more than 990,000 letters leading up to the record.  Some were congratulatory.  Others were vile and disgusting. (CNN)

He kept many of those letters as a reminder of the struggle to get to the record. (AP)

Aaron weathered that storm and would keep hitting home runs. He hit 755, in fact. . At the time he finished his career as a player, Aaron held numerous career records including home runs, RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits.  His home run record was broken by Barry Bonds with 762.

Near the end of his career, Aaron was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers where he finished his playing career.  The Braves wanted to move Aaron into a front-office position and Aaron was not ready. (AP).  

Making a difference

Following his career as a player, Aaron continued to make a difference in the Atlanta area.  He and the Braves mended their differences over the trade and Aaron took a job with the team.  He remained a visible part of the Atlanta Braves organization and left a mark that reached far beyond baseball and into our culture.  Even into his 80s, Aaron was attending baseball games in Atlanta.

In 2002, Aaron received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush who had been part owner of the Texas Rangers.

“The former Home Run King wasn’t handed his throne.  He grew up poor and faced racism as he worked to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him,” Bush said during the presentation (AP). 

Sources:

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