Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, April 8, 1974. More than 53,000 fans were in attendance, a number dwarfed by the millions watching on live television. In the fourth inning, the Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron stepped into the batter’s box and hit Los Angeles Dodger Al Downing’s pitch over the left-center field wall. As Aaron jogged around the bases, the fans in the stadium and in front of their televisions erupted. Aaron had just hit his 715th career home run, a new major league record.
Born on Feb. 5, 1934, in Mobile, Ala., and raised on a farm in nearby Toulminville, Ala., Henry Louis Aaron was one of eight children (his brother, Tommie, also became a major league baseball player). Due to his family’s finances, Aaron’s earliest baseball experiences had him using a broom handle as a bat and bottle caps or a bundle of rags as a ball. Despite this, Aaron was a noteworthy baseball and football player at Mobile’s segregated Central High School, which he attended as a freshman and sophomore. Aaron’s first attempt to play professional baseball – trying out for the Brooklyn Dodgers when he was 15 – was unsuccessful. He divided his time during his junior and senior years of high school between attending the private Josephine Allen Institute and playing for the independent Negro League team the Mobile Black Bears. Following his high school graduation, Aaron chose playing baseball for the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns over accepting college football scholarships.
Aaron enjoyed his first championship while playing for the Clowns in 1952. Jackie Robinson’s success with the Brooklyn Dodgers had inspired major league scouts to seek new talent in the Negro Leagues, and Aaron received offers from two major league teams. An additional $50 in his monthly paycheck led him to sign with the Boston Braves over the New York Giants. The Braves bought Aaron’s contract from the Clowns for $10,000 and sent him to their farm team in Eau Claire, Wis.
It was in Wisconsin that Aaron replaced his cross-hand batting grip with a more traditional batting technique. He was promoted to play for the Jacksonville (Florida) Braves of the Class A Southern Atlantic (“Sally”) League and moved from the infield to the outfield. Aaron was named the Sally League’s most valuable player in 1953 as Jacksonville won the league championship. The Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee that same year. Aaron would soon be joining them.
When Braves left fielder Bobby Thomson was injured during training in 1954, Aaron was chosen to replace him. Before long, the 20-year-old was known for his home runs. To help his public image, the team’s public relations department began calling him “Hank” Aaron. Meanwhile, his offensive prowess earned him the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank.” In 1955, Aaron made the first of his 21 consecutive All-Star appearances and was named National League Player of the Year by the Sporting News. Two years later, he won his only Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. The Braves won the 1957 National League pennant – thanks to Aaron’s home run to win the final game of the playoffs – and went on to triumph in the World Series. It was to be Aaron’s only major league championship; the Braves won the 1958 pennant but lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series.
A regret of Aaron’s is never winning the Triple Crown. He came tantalizingly close in 1963 by tying for first in the National League with 44 home runs and finishing first with 130 runs batted in (RBIs), but his .319 batting average was second to champion Tommy Davis’ .326. Surprisingly, it was the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dick Groat, rather than Aaron, who finished second to Sandy Koufax in the National League MVP voting, despite the fact that Aaron recorded 38 more home runs, 57 more RBIs and 28 more stolen bases (his 31 that year were a career-high) than Groat.
The 1966 season saw the Braves in a new home: Atlanta. Aaron had hit at least 39 home runs in five of the Braves’ final nine seasons in Milwaukee, and he didn’t miss a beat after moving South. In May 1970, he became the first player to have both 3,000 career hits and 500 career home runs. When the 1973 season ended, Aaron had 713 career home runs, one shy of Babe Ruth’s all-time record.
Toppling baseball’s most famous record inspired passion in many fans, and Aaron began receiving thousands of letters daily. Many fans were supportive, while others were horrified at the prospect of Aaron dethroning Ruth. Racism played a role in some of the opposition, with some letters threatening the lives of Aaron as well as the sportswriters covering him. The threats became so extreme that Atlanta police officer Calvin Wardlaw was assigned to protect Aaron for the 1974 season.
Braves executives wanted Aaron to break the record in front of the hometown fans, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn demanded that he play in the team’s first three games of the season in Cincinnati. Aaron’s first at bat of 1974 brought his 714th home run. His run around the bases after hitting his 715th was crowded; two college students ran onto the field and joined him, and his parents met him at home plate. Following his historic season, the Braves traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers. In his first season in Beer City, Aaron made his final All-Star appearance and broke Ruth’s record for RBIs. He retired in 1976, having hit a total of 755 home runs and won three Gold Gloves.
Aaron was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. Beginning in 1999, the most effective hitters in the American and National Leagues were honored with the Hank Aaron Award. Aaron received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, from President George W. Bush in 2002. Barry Bonds was congratulated by Aaron after breaking his home run record in 2007, but because Bonds was later found to have used performance-enhancing drugs while playing many fans consider his accomplishment illegitimate. Visitors to the Braves’ Turner Field will see a statue of Aaron standing outside, and the stadium’s address – 755 Hank Aaron Drive – celebrates his accomplishment.