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Baseball great Hank Aaron passed away today, January 22, 2021, at age 86. No cause of death has been provided.
Henry Louis Aaron was born on February 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama to Herbert and Estella Aaron. He was one of eight children which included a younger brother, Tommie, who would also play in the major leagues. The family was quite poor and so the young Henry had to work at odd jobs including picking cotton to help ends meet. He loved sports and learned baseball in sandlot games in which bottle caps or rocks usually substituted for balls and sticks or broom handles substituted for bats. He hit cross-handed from the start and he would keep hitting cross-handed until he began his professional career. Perhaps this is how he developed such quick and strong wrists which was much remarked upon from the beginning of his career. He did play baseball and football in high school, but like the young Willie Mays, he also began playing semi-pro baseball around the age of 14 thus adding another small sum to the family income.
And, like Mays and many of the other early black players to make it to the majors, he began his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns helping them to the 1952 Negro League World Series championship hitting .366. This brought him to the attention of major league scouts – the Giants and the Boston Braves were main suitors for his services – and he signed with the Braves allegedly for an additional $50 per month salary. The Braves sent him to their Class C team in Eau Claire where he hit .336. The following year, he was promoted to the Braves’ Class A team the Jacksonville Tars in the South Atlantic League where the 19-year old led the league in just about everything – batting average (.362), hits (208), runs (115), doubles (36) and RBI (115) and was named the league MVP.
In 1954, Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves and he became their starting left fielder when the incumbent LF Bobby Thomson broke his ankle in spring training. Up this point, Aaron had mainly played the infield although the Braves had sent him to Winter League the previous off-season to help him learn to play the outfield. As a rookie, he hit .280 with 13 home runs with his season ending in early September when he fractured his ankle sliding. The fractured ankle would not stall his career, however. In 1955, the Braves moved him to right field where he would settle in for most of the rest of his career and he had the first of what would be an annual occurrence over the next 15 plus years – what I call a “Hank Aaron season” an All-Star season at worst with many MVP caliber seasons mixed in. In 1955 he would hit .314 – the first of 14 .300 seasons and slug .540 – the first 18 seasons with .500 or better slugging average, and he would lead the league in doubles with 37 – the first of 11 seasons in which he would lead the league in at least one major offensive category.
The Braves in the late fifties were a great team led by three all-time greats – Aaron, pitcher Warren Spahn and third baseman Eddie Matthews – they finished first or second each year from 1955-1960 winning two pennants – back to back in 1957-58, one World Series (1957) and losing out on the 1959 pennant in a 3-game playoff with the Dodgers. Aaron would his only MVP during that 1957 season when hit .322 with league-leading totals of 44 HR and 132 RBI. He would never win another MVP despite having many other seasons just as good or better than 1957. For the record, I think his 1959 season is his best. He led the league in batting (.355), slugging (.636), hits (223), total bases (400), and extra base hits (92) winning one of his three Gold Glove awards to boot. In a measure of his consistency, he would get MVP votes every season 19 seasons in a row (1955-71) with 13 top-10 finishes.
Aaron’s career is less measured by individual great seasons than by the sheer bulk of his career achievements. This is the case even though he led his leagues so many times in so many major categories – batting average (twice), slugging average (four times), home runs (four times), games (once), runs (three times), hits (twice), doubles (four times) and total bases (a remarkable eight times). He is among the career leaders in many categories. He is still the all-time leader in RBI (2297) and total bases (6856). His 755 career homers are now second although many put a large asterisk next to the current record holder. He is third in runs (2174) and in hits (3,771) while his 624 doubles are 13th all-time. Here is a link to his Baseball Reference page.
Of course, the thing even non-sports fans know about Aaron is his breaking of the career home run record of 714 set by Babe Ruth. His pursuit of the record was somewhat stealthy until somewhat late in the process. This was due to a couple of things I think. First, he played the first half of his career in Milwaukee which was 1) not an especially good hitters park and 2) a cultural backwater per coastal elites but he spent the later part of his career in Atlanta when the Braves relocated there in 1966. The park was a great hitters park especially for home run hitters, which helped him a bit in his final kick to 715 and beyond. Second, he played the first half of his career in the shadow of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and so his accomplishments were less well known and certainly less commented upon. In 1972 and into 1973 when it became clear that Aaron was going to break the record he became the target of much abuse and venom among racists. He received thousands of abusive letters some even threatening his life. Despite the vitriol, he continued to go about his business as he always had – as a professional. He would finish the 1973 season at 713 home runs, one off Babe’s 714. After hitting 714 on the road in the first game of the season, he hit no. 715 on April 8, 1974, off of Al Downing of the Dodgers in front of 53,775 cheering Braves fans. Below is a four-minute video of that home run and the celebration as announced by Vin Scully.
Again, like Mays, Aaron was traded to a new team in an old playing city in his case the Milwaukee Brewers at age 41 to finish out his career. He was well received by the Milwaukee fans and he retired at age 42 after the 1976 season. Aaron’s playing career was capped his election to the Hall of Fame in 1982 his first year of eligibility entering the Hall with his long-time right field rival Frank Robinson. After his playing career, he worked for the Braves in a variety of positions including Director of Player Development. He also pursued several ventures in the private sector. He had a number of auto dealerships as well as a fast-food franchise (755 Restaurant Corporation). In recent years he had become more of a goodwill ambassador for the game of baseball. Aaron was married twice. He married his first wife in 1953 and that marriage produced five children although they divorced in 1971. He married again in 1973 and that marriage which lasted the rest of his life produced one child.Published in