MLB Breaking News: On the morning of January 22, 2021, baseball legend Hammerin’ Hank Aaron passed away at the age of 86. Aaron made many contributions to baseball and to the United States of America in the 23 seasons he played and after his playing days.
Many people who affected the game of baseball passed in 2020, and now one more legend has gone to join them in the Field of Dreams.
MLB Breaking News: Remembering Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron was born in 1934 in Mobile, AL. He had seven siblings and grew up in a poor family. Much like the stories of players you hear coming out of Latin American countries, his family could not afford baseball equipment, so he practiced by hitting bottle caps with sticks and crafted bats and balls out of materials he gathered on the streets.
Aaron’s high school did not have a baseball team, and his playing career began with the semi-pro, all African-American team the Mobile Black Bears. At 17 years old, Aaron signed with the Negro League team the Indianapolis Clowns, however, Aaron’s stint with the Negro leagues only last 26 games in which he had a batting average of .366, five home runs, 41 hits, and nine stolen bases.
Up until Aaron signed with the Braves on June 12, 1952, he had played his entire career batting cross-handed, meaning as a right-handed hitter he placed his right hand below his left instead of the other way around. It wasn’t until a Braves scout recommend he do otherwise that he changed:
“One day, I batted that way during batting practice before a game in Buffalo, and the Braves had sent a scout to watch me. The scout walked over to me, told me to take my right hand and put it over my left. I did it and hit two home runs that day and I never looked back.”https://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/19/30-seconds-with-hank-aaron/
The Beginning of a Braves Legend
In 1952 Aaron was assigned to the Eau Claire Bears, a Braves minor league affiliate in Wisconsin. In 87 games he accumulated 116 hits, nine of them home runs, and had an OPS of .829. This would earn Aaron a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection for the Northern League and a promotion the next year to the Jacksonville Braves in Florida.
Jacksonville, and the South in general, was not a kind place for people of color in 1953, and Aaron was regularly separated from his team due to Jim Crow laws. Still, in the face of systemic racism and with a background much different than most of his teammates, Aaron went on to win the Southern League MVP. In 137 games he collected 208 hits (36 doubles, 14 triples, and 22 home runs) which gave him a stellar .951 OPS.
In the winter of 1953, Aaron played in Puerto Rico, where manager Mickey Owen helped Aaron learn to hit to all parts of the field, and transitioned him to the outfield. This would result in an invitation to spring training with the Milwaukee Braves.
During his tenure with the Milwaukee Braves, Aaron quickly rose to stardom. He won the National League MVP, the home run title, and the World Series in 1957. He was the NL batting champion in 1956 and ‘59 and led the league in RBIs in 1957, ‘60, and 63.
In 11 seasons in Milwaukee, Aaron played 1806 games and hit 398 home runs. He accumulated the 3rd most fWAR during those seasons (83.3), only behind Mickey Mantle (89.3) and Willie Mays (110.0), and had the fourth-best wRC+ (155), only behind Willie Mays (165), Mickey Mantle (179), and Ted Williams (187).
In 1966, the Braves organization moved to Atlanta, GA. Being at the end of the Civil Rights Movement, Hank Aaron became a figure of unity in the city of Atlanta and across baseball fans in the southern United States. Aaron made the fans love him by the amazing performances he left on the field.
His tenure in Atlanta saw no lull of the pitcher’s nightmare that was Hank Aaron. In those eight seasons, Aaron accumulated 52.8 fWAR, second only to Carl Yazstrzemski’s 55.4, and again held the fourth-best wRC+ of 157, only behind Frank Robinson (159), Willie McCovey (162), and Dick Allen (166).
Hank Aaron hit 335 home runs during his time in Atlanta, but the one that is remembered the most happened on April 8, 1974. During the 1973 season, all the talk was about Hank Aaron chasing Babe Ruth’s career home run record. Aaron attempted to downplay it, but the media ran with the story and it resulted in Aaron receiving so much fan mail, the Braves had to hire him a secretary just to sort through it all. Aaron even received a plaque from the USPS for receiving more mail than any other person, not including politicians.
All of the fan mail wasn’t positive, however. Aaron received hate mail and even death threats leading up to the record-breaking home run, but the public would have to wait until the start of the 1974 season to witness history:
The legendary broadcaster, Vin Scully, encapsulated the historic moment with a perfect quote:
“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.”
The last two years of Aaron’s career were spent back in Milwaukee, but this time for the Brewers who became part of Major League Baseball in 1969.
Heroes Get Remembered, Legends Never Die
From 1954 to 1976, Aaron was a 25-time All-Star in just 22 years (MLB used to have two All-Star games a year), and solidified himself as the home run king. In his 22 seasons, he hit 755 home runs, 119 more than the second-place Willie Mays.
In 1976, Aaron received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, which is awarded annually for outstanding achievement by an African-American. The only other athlete to win this award was Jackie Robinson in 1956.
In 1982, Hank Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. His number would go on to be retired by both the Braves’ and Brewers’ organization.
In 1999, Major League Baseball created the Hank Aaron Award, which is awarded to the top offensive player in each league. In almost a sort of poetic justice, the 2020 National League Hank Aaron Award was given to Atlanta Brave Freddie Freeman.
Although Barry Bonds surpassed Aaron’s home run record in 2007, Hank Aaron will always be remembered as the Home Run King. A man so influential during his time on earth, the great Muhammad Ali said Hank Aaron was “The only man I idolize more than myself.”
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