Became America's Home Run King
In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta, giving the American South its first major league baseball team. That year and the following, Aaron led the league in home runs. Soon baseball fans began to recognize that the slugger had a chance at breaking Babe Ruth's home run record. In July 1968 he had hit his 500th homer, and a year later he took the 3,000th hit of his career.
The more home runs Aaron hit, the more mail he received—and not all of it was fan mail. By the early 1970s Aaron was receiving an estimated 3,000 letters a day, most of it from racists who warned the player against beating Ruth's record. "Dear Henry," read one such letter as quoted by Larry Schwartz of ESPN.com. "You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it."
The experience changed the soft-spoken player, who became more forthright on racial issues. "When people ask me what progress Negroes have made in baseball, I tell them the Negro hasn't made any progress on the field," he said in 1970 according to BaseballLibrary.com. "We haven't made any progress in the commissioner's office.… I still think it's tokenism. We don't have Negro secretaries in some of the big league offices, and I think it's time that the major leagues and baseball in general just took hold of themselves and started hiring some of these capable people."
On June 10, 1972, Aaron hit his 649th home run, tying with Willie Mays for second place in career home runs. His quest for Ruth's record had officially begun, and the following year and a half was the most difficult period in Aaron's life. While many fans cheered him on, others continued to threaten the African American player. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in, and security was tightened at the Braves' ballpark. The 39-year-old player had to travel with Secret Service agents protecting him. Even worse, his college-student daughter had received threats as well. Separated from his teammates, Aaron often slept at the ballpark, in a room reserved for him, so that he did not have to go out into the public. Throughout this period he drew strength from his strong Christian faith and did not waver from his principles of hard work and self-discipline. He ended the 1973 season with 713 home runs—just one shy of tying Ruth's record.
The 1974 baseball season began with much anticipation; fans wondered not if but when Aaron would break Ruth's record. The answer was not long in coming, as Aaron hit a homer in his first at-bat of the season. His eyes teared as he rounded third base; he was now tied for the record. That night, according to Schwartz, he called his mother, saying, "I'm going to save the next one for you, Mom." Four days later, on April 8, 1974, the largest crowd in Braves history (53,775) filled the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Aaron hit the record-breaking homer in the fourth inning, off a fastball from Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. The ball sailed over the left-center field wall and into the Braves bull pen, where it was caught by relief pitcher Tom House. As Aaron rounded the bases, two college students leaped onto the field to run with him before security guards stepped in. Aaron's excited teammates mobbed him at home base, and the crowd went wild.
Aaron's feat came more than two years before his retirement as a major league ballplayer. He hit his last home run as a Braves player, his 733rd, on October 2, 1974. In November Aaron squared off with Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh in a home run contest, beating Oh 10-9 (the Japanese slugger would go on to break Aaron's record, however). By the following season Aaron had been traded to the Milwaukee Brewers; in Wisconsin, he was able to end his career where he began it. He hit his first home run for the Brewers on April 18, and by May 1 he had set another record: baseball's highest-ever RBI (2,212). Aaron took his final at-bat, hitting a single, on October 3, 1976, in Milwaukee County Stadium. He was 42 years old. Six years later he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving 97.83 percent of the votes cast. Only Ty Cobb has received a higher percentage of votes.
Immediately after his retirement, Aaron rejoined the Atlanta Braves—this time as a player-development manager in the team's minor-league farm system. American media mogul Ted Turner, who had purchased the Braves in 1976, had invited Aaron to take the job. Here he helped develop such Braves talent as Tom Glavine and David Justice. It was not long before Aaron was asked to manage the major league team. In 1990 he became a baseball executive, named senior vice president and assistant to the president of the Braves. A budding businessman, Aaron also served as a board member for the Braves and for Turner Broadcasting System (TBS), and as vice president of business development for the CNN Airport Network.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Aaron has been very active in community services and philanthropy; his partner in these ventures is his wife, Billye Aaron (his marriage to first wife Barbara Lucas ended in divorce in 1971). Aaron's 1991 autobiography, I Had a Hammer, made the New York Times bestseller list, while Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, a 1995 TBS documentary about the player's life, received an Academy Award nomination. In 1999, at a celebration marking Aaron's 65th birthday, Major League Baseball introduced the Hank Aaron Award, presented annually to the best hitters in the American League and the National League. Also in the late 1990s, Aaron and his wife established the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, to help boys and girls ages 9 to 12 pursue their dreams. A statue of Aaron, cast in the mid-1990s, graces the courtyard at the entrance to Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves.