Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron (born February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama), nicknamed “Hammer,” “Hammerin’ Hank,” and “Bad Henry,” is a retired American baseball player whose Major League Baseball (MLB) career spanned from 1954 through 1976. After playing with the Negro American League and in the minor leagues, Aaron started his Major League Baseball career in 1954. He played 21 seasons with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves in the National League, and his last two years (1975–76) with the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League. In his career, Aaron set a number of records.
“Trying to throw a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”
— Curt Simmons
In 1973, baseball enthusiasts grew increasingly excited when Aaron, playing for the Atlanta Braves, neared the home run record of Babe Ruth. But he ended the season just one home run short of the record. After the game, Aaron said his only fear was that he might not live to see the 1974 season.
Over the winter, Aaron was the recipient of death threats and a large assortment of hate mail from people who did not want to see a black man break Ruth’s home run record. The threats extended to those providing positive press coverage of Aaron. Lewis Grizzard, then editor of the Atlanta Journal, reported receiving numerous phone calls calling them “nigger lovers” for covering Aaron’s chase. While preparing the massive coverage of the home run record, he quietly had an obituary written, scared that Aaron might be murdered.
Aaron also received an outpouring of public support in response to the bigotry. Babe Ruth’s widow, Claire Hodgson, even denounced the racism and declared that her husband would have enthusiastically cheered Aaron’s attempt at the record.
As the 1974 season began, the Braves wanted Aaron to sit out the first three games of the season, because they were not home games. They wanted Aaron to break the record in Atlanta. But Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that he had to play two games in the first series. (Mr. Kuhn did not show up for the record-breaking event.) Aaron played two out of three games, tying Babe Ruth’s record in his very first at bat off Reds pitcher Jack Billingham, but did not hit another home run in the series.
The team returned to Atlanta, and on April 8, 1974, a crowd of 53,775 people showed up for the game — a Braves attendance record. In the 4th inning, Aaron hit career home run number 715 off L.A. Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. Although Dodgers outfielder Bill Buckner nearly went over the outfield wall trying to catch it, the ball landed in the Braves bullpen, where relief pitcher Tom House caught it.
The Sporting News posted this poignant exchange with Aaron on April 8, 1999:
TSN: As you were approaching the record, what was the most disappointing experience you had on or off the field?
Aaron: That’s a tough question. The closer I got to the record, people started thinking that it wasn’t the most important record in baseball. Of course, there were other things. I just wished for a moment that I could have enjoyed it as much as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire enjoyed their chase last year.
TSN: The death threats and the letters from bigots are the reasons you didn’t enjoy the chase, right?
Aaron: The threats and all the controversy. My daughter was in college at Fisk University, and she wasn’t able to enjoy it. And I had to put my two boys in private schools, so they weren’t there to be bat boys. They weren’t able to enjoy it. So I was deprived of a lot of things that really should have belonged to me and my family.
A few months later, on October 5, 1974, Aaron hit his 733rd and final home run as a Brave, which stood as the National League’s home run record until it was broken by Barry Bonds in 2006. Thirty days later, the Braves traded Aaron to the Milwaukee Brewers for Roger Alexander and Dave May. Because the Brewers were an American League team, he was able to extend his career by taking advantage of the designated hitter rule. On May 1, 1975, Aaron broke baseball’s all-time RBI record, previously held by Ruth with 2,217. That year, he also made the last of his 24 record-tying (with Musial and Mays) All-Star appearances.
On July 20, 1976, Hank Aaron hit his 755th and final home run at Milwaukee County Stadium off Dick Drago of the California Angels. Sporting News asked Aaron why people are so fascinated by home runs. Aaron said, “A home run is the greatest thing in sports. The fans don’t care about watching a no-hitter or a one-hitter, but they do care about a lot of offense. They want to see runs scored, people circling the bases, balls flying out of the ballpark. Anytime baseball is in trouble, they bring the home run back.”
A complete player whose skills were never fully appreciated until he broke the record in 1974, Aaron was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player only once (1957).
After retiring as a player, Aaron moved into the Atlanta Braves front office as executive vice-president, where he has been a leading spokesman for minority hiring in baseball. He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1982.
His autobiography, I Had a Hammer, was published in 1990.
When Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s record in 2006, the gracious Aaron made a congratulatory video: