The world lost more than a man with the passing of Hank Aaron this week. We lost an icon, a role model, and a beacon to many who needed hope in a time we sorely needed it.
Who was Hank Aaron? He was a gifted and honorable baseball legend. He began his career in the Negro Leagues and gained national attention as one of the first black men to play in the major leagues. Though many thought they could intimidate him into quitting, his supporters and teammates rallied around him and gave him the strength he needed to persevere. Continuing the work set forth by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
Aaron was a man of principle. He was a man or honor. He was a man gifted and talented at America's favorite pastime - baseball. He broke the long-standing record of baseball's home run king, Babe Ruth. It was told that he and his family suffered many threats of bodily harm and death if he were to continue, but Aaron continued. Upon breaking Ruth's home run record, he received a standing ovation - in the south!
Hank played for 23 seasons in America's Major League Baseball. Henry Louis Aaron, born in Mobile Alabama in 1934, became not only MLB's career home run leader, but he also made giant leaps in the integration of the game and the nation. A black man had broken a record set by "the immortal Babe Ruth". It wasn't just any record, it was the all-time major league home run record.
Hank's brother Tommie played in seven different seasons of the majors. The Aarons still holds the record for most career home runs by a pair of siblings (768 combined - with Tommie's 13). They were also the first brothers to appear in a league championship series as teammates.
Hank was born and raised in a poor neighborhood of Mobile called “Down the Bay.” He spent many of his years in the Toulminville area. Though the Aaron family was near the poverty level, due to the Great Depression, every member of the family worked. Each person contributed to the household finances. It is said that Henry picked even picked cotton.
Henry played in endless stick-ball games in the local sandlot with his friends. Self-taught, he developed a cross-handed batting style that stayed with him until his early days in the major leagues. He was very gifted as an athlete and was a star football and baseball player at Central High School. He'd seen Jackie Robinson at several exhibitions through Alabama in 1949 (at the age of 15).
The Brooklyn Dodgers allowed Henry to try out in 1949, but he couldn't score a contract due to his unusual batting grip. As a high school junior, he transferred to a private school to finish out his last two years of high school. He managed to draw the attention of scout Ed Scott, who convinced Henry and his mother to sign with the Mobile Black Bears, a semi-pro team. His mother consented to his signing on, under the stipulation he couldn't travel, at $3 per game. Henry was limited to playing home-field games.
He managed to win a contract with the Negro American League's Indianapolis Clowns after their scout, Bunny Downs, discovered Aaron playing during an exhibition game. The $200/month contract had Aaron growing in skill and popularity. His career flourished, guiding the team to the 1952 Negro League World Series crown.
Discovered by MLB
After such success with the championship, Aaron received two telegrams with offers from Major League Baseball - the New York Giants and the Boston Braves. The higher offer won out, and Aaron's contract was immediately purchased from Indianapolis by the Braves. Aaron signed with the Braves officially on June 14, 1952, and was sent to the Class C - Eau Claire Bears, where the coaches worked with him to change his grip to a more traditional method. After changing from his cross-handed batting grip, the results were astounding!
Rookie of the year
Though he only played in 87 games with a .336 batting average with 19 doubles, he earned a spot on the league's All-Star squad and was selected as the Northern League's Rockie of the Year. He gained respect on and off the field, managing to handle any racist taunts with dignity and flair.
In 1973, he gained national attention as he came within 1 home-run of Babe Ruth's home run record. The rest is history. Henry "Hank" Aaron was a baseball great. He played with the big boys and out-shined many of them. He was gifted, talented, and charismatic. You will be missed.