On today’s edition of This Day in Black Sports History, the 77th birthday of the man who is still widely recognized as Major League Baseball’s home run king is celebrated.
Born in Mobile, AL on Feb. 5, 1934, Henry Louis Aaron grew up in relatively poor surroundings, picking cotton on a farm and hitting bottle caps with sticks because his family couldn’t afford baseball equipment.
Aaron’s early fascination with the national pastime would also be evidenced through the creation of his own bats and balls, made from materials he found on the streets.
Thus, it came as no surprise when Aaron excelled on the diamond in high school, leading his team to the Mobile Negro High School Championship as a freshman and a sophomore.
During this period, in addition to flourishing as a third baseman and outfielder for Central High School, Aaron proved to be equally adept on the gridiron, which earned him several football scholarship offers. However, Aaron would turn his back on these tempting offers to doggedly pursue a career in professional baseball.
Batting cross-handed, as a right-hander with his left hand above his right, Aaron’s power-hitting exploits would garner him a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, at the tender age of 15.
Although Aaron didn’t make the team, he signed to a minor league contract only two years later, with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, where his impact would be felt immediately.
As an 18-year-old standout, Aaron would play a crucial role in helping the Clowns win the 1952 Negro League World Series. As a result, after playing in only 26 official Negro League games, Aaron received offers from two MLB teams, the Boston Braves and the New York Giants.
“I had the Giants' contract in my hand. But the Braves offered 50 dollars a month more,” Aaron recalled years later. “That's the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates—50 dollars."
Despite maintaining an extremely high standard of play with the Braves’ minor league affiliates, winning the Rookie of the Year Award and the Most Valuable Player Award in successive years, Aaron, like many African-American baseball players of his time, was an undeserved victim of racism and segregation.
Traveling through the southeastern portion of the country, particularly around Jacksonville, Florida, Aaron was frequently separated from his team because of the Jim Crow laws. As a result, he often had to make his own housing and meal arrangements when the team shouldered the responsibility for his white teammates.
Encouraged by his brother, Herbert Jr., Aaron remained steadfast in his pursuit of playing in the major leagues, an opportunity he received on April 13, 1954. Aaron went hitless in five at-bats against the Cincinnati Reds.
In his rookie season, Aaron hit .280 with 13 home runs and 69 RBI’s. Aaron wouldn’t match or fall below these totals, in all three categories, until 1975, his 22nd season in the majors.
From 1955-1975, Aaron made a record-tying 21 All-Star appearances and won three consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1958-1960), while winning the National League MVP Award and a World Series Championship in the same year (1957).
Throughout this span, Aaron’s home run hitting prowess would gradually inch him closer to shattering the most hallowed record in professional sports, MLB’s all-time home run record held by Babe Ruth since 1935.
With Aaron one homer short of tying Ruth’s record leading into the offseason in 1973, a growing contingent emerged who didn’t want to see the day a black man surpass “The Babe” on the all-time home run list.
In the winter of 1973, Aaron was the unfortunate recipient of a cavalcade of hate mail and death threats. Even media members who provided positive coverage weren’t spared, called “nigger lovers” for chronicling Aaron’s chase.
But much like his experiences growing up in Alabama and playing in the minor leagues, Aaron pressed forward, and on April 8, 1974, in front of a 53,775 people in Atlanta, Aaron hit career home run number 715 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully captured the moment eloquently and poignantly:
"What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron…and for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months."
“Hammerin’ Hank” would retire two seasons later with a .305 batting average, 755 home runs, 2,297 RBI’s, and 3,771 hits on his ledger, clearly warranting induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility on August 1, 1982.
In 1999, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Aaron surpassing Babe Ruth's career home run mark, and to honor Aaron's contributions to baseball, MLB created the “Hank Aaron Award,” an annual award given to the hitters voted the most effective in each respective league. That same year, baseball fans named Aaron to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
Not bad for a kid born on this day, February 5, in 1934.
Happy birthday, Mr. Aaron.