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Hank Aaron

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.

Career Statistics

ATL: Atlanta Braves; MIL: Milwaukee Braves; MIL-B: Milwaukee Brewers.
1954 MIL .280 122 468 58 131 13 69 28 39 2
1955 MIL .314 153 602 105 189 27 106 49 61 3
1956 MIL .328 153 609 106 200 26 92 37 54 2
1957 MIL .322 151 615 118 198 44 132 57 58 1
1958 MIL .326 153 601 109 196 30 132 59 49 4
1959 MIL .355 154 629 116 223 39 123 51 54 8
1960 MIL .292 153 590 102 172 40 126 60 63 16
1961 MIL .327 155 603 115 197 34 120 56 64 21
1962 MIL .323 156 592 127 191 45 128 66 73 15
1963 MIL .319 161 631 121 201 44 130 78 94 31
1964 MIL .328 145 570 103 187 24 95 62 46 22
1965 MIL .318 150 570 109 181 32 89 60 81 24
1966 ATL .279 158 603 117 168 44 127 76 96 21
1967 ATL .307 155 600 113 184 39 109 63 97 17
1968 ATL .287 160 606 84 174 29 86 64 62 28
1969 ATL .300 147 547 100 164 44 97 87 47 9
1970 ATL .298 150 516 103 154 38 118 74 63 9
1971 ATL .327 139 495 95 162 47 118 71 58 1
1972 ATL .265 129 449 75 119 34 77 92 55 4
1973 ATL .301 120 392 84 118 40 96 68 51 1
1974 ATL .268 112 340 47 91 20 69 39 29 1
1975 MIL-B .234 137 465 45 109 12 60 70 51 0
1976 MIL-B .229 85 271 22 62 10 35 35 38 0

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.

Where Is He Now?

Aaron lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is one of the city's most successful entrepreneurs. He owns several car dealerships, as well as 18 Krispy Kreme doughnut franchises. Throughout his business career, Aaron has held to his philosophy to help other African Americans succeed. "No matter how much success that one may achieve, there's always one of us back there that needs a little help," he told Smiley of NPR. "When I opened up my BMW dealership, I didn't have the experience of being a general manager. But there was somebody back there that was black that needed to have a chance to move up, and if I didn't give him a chance, then nobody else would. And that's what I did."

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Famous Sports StarsBaseballHank Aaron Biography - Played In Negro League And Major League, Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Hank Aaron: Chasing The Dream - SELECTED WRITINGS BY AARON: