Obituary: Hank Aaron (1934-2021)

RIP to Hank Aaron, simply one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game. His family announced that he died on January 22 at the age of 86. Aaron’s death sent shockwaves through the entire baseball community and beyond. There aren’t many people whose passing can elicit strong, heartfelt statements from the likes of Willie Mays, Barack Obama, Stephen King and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Aaron played for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (1954-74) and Milwaukee Brewers (1975-76).

President Joe Biden issued a statement that read in part: “When I watched Henry Aaron play baseball, I knew I was watching someone special. It wasn’t just about watching a gifted athlete master his craft on the way to a Hall of Fame career as one of the greatest to ever play the game. It was that each time Henry Aaron rounded the bases, he wasn’t just chasing a record, he was helping us chase a better version of ourselves.

“With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people. But he was unbreakable. He stemmed the vicious force of white supremacy, in death threats, hate mail, and in hardened hearts. What I deeply admired and respected about him is that each time he rounded those bases — an astonishing 755 trips home — he melted away more and more of the ice of bigotry to show that we can be better as a people and as a nation.”

A teenaged Hank Aaron leaves Mobile, Ala., in 1952 to chase his dream of playing baseball.

Others followed suit. Dusty Baker: “Hank Aaron was the most important influence on my life, next to my Dad. He was the best person that I ever knew, and the truest, most honest person that I ever knew. He taught me how to be a man and how to be a proud African-American.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson: “He rode on the people’s shoulders as we looked upon him in adoration. A hero.”

Freddie Freeman: “The word that keeps coming to me when I think about Hank Aaron is Love. He was the epitome of it. Every conversation and every meeting you had with him he made you feel loved.”

Former President Jimmy Carter: “One of the greatest baseball players of all time, he has been a personal hero to us. A breaker of record and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come.”

The Atlanta Braves: “Hank Aaron was a beacon for the Atlanta Braves organization first as a player, then with the front office, and always in the community… His success on the diamond was matched only by his accomplishments off the field and capped by his extraordinary philanthropic efforts. The Atlanta Braves organization offers its deepest condolences to Billye, their children and their grandchildren.”

Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Ala., on February 5, 1934, one of eight children of Estella and Herbert Aaron. Unlike other African-American athletes who were fortunate to grow up in areas where racism wasn’t a serious problem, Aaron and his family had to deal with it on a regular basis. He recalled times when the Klan marched down the street, and Aaron’s mother would make the children hide under beds in the house to be safe. Like many African-American children of his age, he loved baseball but never thought about playing it professionally until Jackie Robinson came along. Robinson provided inspiration for a young Henry and his younger brother Tommie, who had a seven-year career of his own in the majors.

Hank Aaron as a member of the Jacksonville Braves. Source: Lexington Leader, September 1, 1953.

Aaron couldn’t play baseball at Josephine Allen Institute in Mobile because the high school didn’t have a baseball team. He made due with softball and football, but baseball was his first love. He left Mobile in 1952 to find his way into organized ball. He ended up with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. They were a barnstorming comedy team, touring with a comedian named King Tut, but when it came time to play, they played hard. At the time, Aaron was a skinny shortstop who had a cross-handed swing, meaning that the right-handed batting Aaron had his left hand over his right when he gripped a bat. That’s the opposite of how batters hold the bat, but it didn’t stop him from hitting. The Clowns fixed his grip, and by early June, Aaron was hitting .427 and led the league with 18 runs scored, 32 hits, 7 doubles, 5 home runs, 56 total bases and 26 RBIs.

For more information about Aaron’s earliest days in baseball, check out the “Storied” video about him from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s Bob Kendrick.

The Boston Braves became very interested in the 18-year-old future star and signed him. Aaron joined the Eau Claire Bears in mid-June of 1952, as the Braves paid $10,000 for his contract. Reports vary as to how that money changed hands. Some state that Aaron got the money, while others reported that the Clowns sold his contract to the Braves. If Indianapolis got any money out of the deal, it was a rarity, as major-league teams routinely pillaged Negro Leagues rosters without financial compensation. That practice was one of the factors that eventually led to the demise of the Negro Leagues.

In one of his last games with the Clowns, the Herald-Press of St. Joseph, Mich., wrote about Aaron in a story that had the headline, “Local Fans May Hear of Aaron Again.” (They nailed that prediction.) “I’m not a long-ball hitter, but I manage to turn plenty of ordinary singles into doubles,” Aaron said of his abilities.

By the time the Northern League season had ended in late August, Aaron was the obvious choice for the Rookie of the Year. In 87 games, he batted .336 with 9 home runs for Eau Claire. He was the third African-American player and first infielder to win the George Treadwell-Duluth Dukes Memorial Award (named after the manager and members of the Duluth team who died in a 1948 bus crash). When the season had ended, Aaron returned to the Clowns for their fall barnstorming tour, on loan from the Braves. He hit so many home runs upon his return that an October 8 game between the Clowns and Birmingham Black Barons was advertised as, “Hammerin’ Hank Aaron will lead the Indianapolis Clowns against the Birmingham Black Barons at Caswell Park in the final game of the season for the two clubs.” That nickname stuck.

In 1953, the newly relocated Milwaukee Braves moved Aaron to the Jacksonville Braves of the Sally (South Atlantic) League. It was the first year that African-American ballplayers played in the Sally League, and Aaron was one of five black ballplayers in the league. Once again, Aaron mauled opposing pitching, batting .362 with 22 home runs, and was the runaway choice for Most Valuable Player.

Hank Aaron is carried off the field after breaking his ankle in his rookie season with the Braves. Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, September 8, 1954.

“The color barrier has been broken, there’s no doubt about that,” said Sally League president Dick Butler. Not that it was entirely welcomed. Fans in Augusta, Ga., threw rocks at Horace Garner, another ex-Clown and a teammate of Aaron in Jacksonville. Aaron himself was booed by the home crowd until he hit enough 400-foot home runs to shut them up. He was selected to the All-Star team, but he was spiked on the foot during a rundown and had to miss the All-Star Game.

Jacksonville manager Ben Geraghty was one of the first people to notice Aaron’s particular gifts when he said, “He has the greatest pair of wrists I’ve ever seen on a young ballplayer.” That compliment would be repeated through Aaron’s career. Those wrists enabled him to get good contact on the ball, regardless of where it was thrown, and shoot line drives all over the park.

Aaron came to the 1954 Braves training camp with two excellent minor-league seasons, but it took outfielder Bobby Thomson breaking an ankle in order for him to crack the lineup. With Thomson out for an extended time, Braves manager Charlie Grimm put Aaron in the starting lineup. Though he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about it. Infielder Johnny Edwards, in the video below (around the 3:15 mark). “Charlie Grimm went into the dugout and saw Henry, but he didn’t call him ‘Henry,’ He just said, ‘Hey you, you’re in right field,'” Edwards recalled. Aaron promptly hit home runs in his first two at-bats, and he didn’t let up once the season started. He remained in the outfield for the majority of his career, though he occasionally returned to second or third base in emergency situations.

By July, Grimm had learned the name of his new outfielder. “I don’t know what we would have done without Henry,” the manager said, “Aaron is a remarkable kid. He hopped from Class A to the majors in his second full season and made it… rather big.”

All Aaron did in his rookie campaign was slash .280/.322/.447 and hit 13 home runs while driving in 69 in 122 games. After going hitless against Cincinnati in his MLB debut on April 13, Aaron singled and doubled in his second game against St. Louis two days later. His first career home run came in St. Louis on April 23 and was surrendered by Vic Raschi. His season came to an end on September 5 when he fractured his own ankle while sliding into third base with a triple. The injury limited him to 122 games, but he still finished in fourth place in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Wally Moon, Ernie Banks and teammate Gene Conley.

Aaron wouldn’t hit lower than .280 again until 1966, and he wouldn’t play in fewer than 130 games until 1972. One of the remarkable things about Aaron was his amazing durability. He spent most of the next 15 years in the lineup, hardly ever taking a day off. The Braves, meanwhile, were building up a monster lineup that included sluggers Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock.

Aaron broke the .300 plateau in 1955 with a .314 average and topped 20 homers for the first time by knocking out 27 long balls. He also led the NL with 37 doubles and topped 100 RBIs for the first time with 106 runs batted in. Aaron was named to the All-Star team for the first time in his career. Counting those four seasons (1959-62) where the league held two All-Star Games, Aaron made 25 straight All-Star teams in his 23-year career. In the 1955 game, Aaron reached base in all three of his plate appearances, drawing a walk off Whitey Ford and getting two singles and an RBI off Frank Sullivan.

Aaron’s success in the All-Star game was noted by the Alabama newspapers, who praised “our own” Henry Aaron. The Alabama Citizen of Tuscaloosa quickly pointed out the fact that city parks in Alabama and other facilities that could develop the next great athletes were closed to African-American youth.

“It is amusing that they [the white leaders of the cities and state] are so quick to jump at an opportunity to say ‘our own’ but pathetic that there is nothing, absolutely nothing being done toward the developing of ‘our own,'” the paper wrote. “It would be well for ‘City Fathers’ throughout our fair state to start contributing to the future Henry Aaron and their likes, then truly you would be right in saying ‘our own.'”

Aaron, meanwhile, was alternately being praised in the press and chided for his naiveté. He received a telegram in March of 1955, crumpled it up and threw it out. When asked about it, Aaron (as the papers related the story) told his teammates that he was being fined $50 for playing ball without permission. “Hey Henry, that’s no gag,” a teammate explained. “That’s from Ford Frick.” “Ford Frick, who he?” Aaron asked as his teammates burst into laughter. Frick did fine Aaron and other Braves players for working out before the official start of spring training. Aaron later explained that he knew what the telegram was about, because he’d already been notified of the fine. The story stuck, though. Add to that some rather basic answers he gave about his hitting approach, and he was being made to sound like a bit of a country bumpkin, who was just naturally gifted at baseball.

It couldn’t have been further from the truth, and nobody bothered to look into Aaron’s life to account for his quiet demeanor and short answers. He was barely 21 years old and grew up in one of the most racist states in the country, and there he was, surrounded by older white men and playing a game not ten years removed from segregation. It would have been a scary time in a young man’s life, and keeping to himself would have been the safest choice. Aaron would find his voice and speak out boldly in the civil rights arena, but 1955 in Major League Baseball was not a safe time for it.

Even if he couldn’t say something, others used his example to get their point across. The Capital Times of Madison, Wis., ran a photo of Lew Burdette with his arms around Aaron and Adcock. Adcock went to the segregated Louisiana State University, and Burdette had a similar education in West Virginia. Yet they were friendly with Aaron (Adcock was one of Aaron’s biggest boosters, in fact), because Aaron’s success made the team better and made them all more money. “In a dollar-worshipping society, such as ours, the most effective way of eliminating discrimination is to provide the Negro with economic power,” the Times wrote. “That is why we say that the fight for justice for the Negro should be concentrated on the economic front to end the discrimination in trade unions and in professional training.”

The Braves kept finishing just shy of first place, and Aaron kept developing into one of the game’s best all-around players. He had 200 hits in 1956 to lead all of baseball and won his first batting title with a .328 average. In the offseason, he and a group of African-American major leaguers had an exhibition series in the South with a group of Negro League All-Stars. Attendees to the games had the chance to see a dream team outfield of Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson, along with the likes of Gene Baker, Elston Howard, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson and Sad Sam Jones.

The Milwaukee Braves finally captured the National League pennant in 1957, and Aaron had one of the finest seasons of his career. He led the NL with 118 runs scored, and his 44 home runs and 132 RBIs were tops baseball. He also slashed .322/.378/.600. He won the only NL MVP Award of his career (though he finished in third place in six other seasons). The Braves put away the second-place Cardinals with a 4-2 win on September 23 to clinch the pennant, and it was Aaron’s 2-run homer in the 11th inning that won the game. “It was the first time in my life I’ve ever really been excited,” Aaron said of the 400-foot blast.

The Braves were underdogs against the powerhouse Yankees in the World Series but prevailed in seven games to win the championship. Aaron rose to the occasion by hitting .393 with a triple and 3 home runs, driving in 7 runs and scoring 11 times. He got a hit in every game and homered off Don Larsen, Tom Sturdivant and Bob Turley. His hometown of Mobile held “Henry Aaron Day,” and city officials presented its native son with the keys to the city — the first time such a thing had been done for an African-American. In a racially divided city, it was a unifying event for all its residents.

The Braves and Yankees met again in the 1958 World Series. Aaron’s power dipped to 30 homers and 95 RBIs that year, but he still hit .326 in the regular season. The Yankees won in seven games in the Series rematch. Aaron batted .333, but the Yankees pitchers kept him from going deep, and he drove in just 2 runs. After the season, Aaron finished third in the MVP vote again, but he did pick up a Gold Glove for his work in right field — the first of three straight season he would be recognized for his defense.

By then, Aaron had gained enough confidence in himself that he was working as a PR person for a Milwaukee brewery in the offseason. He was also willing to talk about those early stories that made him out to be a simpleton.

“They were a lot of baloney, those stories, but I let them ride,” he explained. “They had already been printed, so what good was it to deny them?

“A lot of people think I’m a dummy. I’m not dumb when it comes to hitting. I do a lot of thinking about it. I keep it up here,” he said, tapping the side of his head. He also refuted the old reports that he didn’t know who any of the NL pitchers were. “I study pitchers all the time, and when I find one giving me trouble, I study him extra. I want to know how he’s getting me out, and what I can do about it.”

The Braves didn’t make any return trips to the postseason for a decade or so, but Aaron kept demonstrating his dominance. Though the home runs are how he is remembered, Aaron had multiple tools. He won his second batting title in 1959 with a .355 batting average, which was best in baseball. He was a constant run producer, picking up between 120 and 130 RBIs each season between 1959 and 1963. He led the NL in RBIs twice during that span. He played any outfield position he was asked and did it well, though right field was by far his best spot. Though speed wasn’t necessarily his strong suit, he had nine straight seasons of double-digit stolen bases, starting in 1960. He peaked with 31 steals in 1963.

“They don’t pay big money for stealing bases like they do for hitting, but they do pay off for winning ballgames,” Aaron said when asked about his burst of speed. “And a stolen base here and there can win you some ballgames.” New Braves manager Charlie Dressen was willing to give Aaron more of a chance to run than former manager Fred Haney, who didn’t want to risk injuring his main offensive weapon.

There were always the home runs, though. He slammed 40 of them in 1960 and then 45 in 1962. He settled a score with the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale on June 20, 1960. He hit his 14th home run of the season off Drysdale in the second inning of a game and spent his next at-bat dodging fastballs. The third time he came to bat, Drysdale gave him a pitch to hit, and Aaron launched home run number 15.

Aaron continued his league-leading productivity in 1963 with 44 home runs, 130 RBIs and 121 runs scored. His .319 batting average left him third in the league in hitting, behind batting champ Tommy Davis and Roberto Clemente. It was one of three times in his career that he led the National League in two of the three Triple Crown categories.

Aaron’s 100th career homer came on August 15, 1957, against Cincinnati’s Don Gross. Number 200 was the second of two homers he hit on July 3, 1960, against Ron Kline of the Cardinals. His 300th home run on April 19, 1963 came off Roger Craig of the New York Mets. It was his tenth season in the major leagues, and there were plenty of players, like Sandy Koufax, who considered him the best hitter in baseball. Still, his incredible production was so strong, year after year, that he almost became overlooked. If he hit .279, as he did in 1966, people might question what’s wrong with Henry Aaron — even if he still homered 44 times and drove in 127 runs.

Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, from the early 1970s.

Home run 368, on May 2, 1965, gave him and teammate Eddie Mathews 746 for their career. That broke a record between teammates, previously held by Duke Snider and Gil Hodges of the Dodgers. He tagged Belinsky again on April 20, 1966, for number 400. He was the twelfth player in baseball history to reach that mark, and he was 32 years old. “I don’t think the Babe ever hit one as far as Henry hit that one,” marveled Braves manager Bobby Bragan.

The Braves had moved to Atlanta in 1966, and while the team was somewhat disorganized — Bragan would be replaced by Billy Hitchcock as manager before the season was over — there was a strong team in the making. Aaron and Mathews were veterans by now, and younger players like Rico Carty and Joe Torre were making their presence felt. The pitching staff was a bit of a mess, but the Braves had a reliever named Phil Niekro who threw a wicked knuckleball and would start a historic run in the starting rotation soon.

Aaron had spent his career being compared to Willie Mays. He then had to deal with comparisons to Pittsburgh right fielder Roberto Clemente. Clemente had the stronger arm and could put up eye-popping offensive numbers of his own. Aaron made his case that he wasn’t washed up, in Pittsburgh, by smashing two home runs, singling twice and driving in 4 runs in a 7-2 win on May 21, 1967. Oh, and he threw out Clemente, who tried to advance from first to third on a single.

“I’m still around,” he said afterwards in the locker room. “Just wanted to let some people know that when you’re second best, you have to try a little harder, don’t you?”

Aaron’s 500th home run was the first milestone homer he hit in front of a home crowd. It came on July 14, 1968, off San Francisco’s Mike McCormick. Aaron said he was glad to have hit it off a talented pitcher like McCormick, who was the reigning Cy Young Award pitcher. Clete Boyer, whose locker was next to Aaron’s, was unimpressed.

“What do you guys think you’re doing, don’t be hanging around my locker,” said the third baseman upon seeing the crowd of reporters. “Oh, 500th, huh? Well, he’s still got 215 to go. I’m only [374] behind Aaron myself. I have 126.”

Aaron was the eighth player to pass 500 home runs. Grateful Braves fans honored him with Hank Aaron Night on August 23 in Atlanta, presenting him with a new car, television sets and a shotgun, among many other gifts. He then hit a 3-run homer to beat Philadelphia 6-0.

After a decade of poor finishes, Atlanta stormed back into contention in 1969, and Aaron hit an even .300 with 30 doubles and 44 homers, driving in 97 runs. He had gained some weight to increase his strength, so he wasn’t stealing as many bases anymore. But his power, plus Neikro’s 23 wins, led the Braves to the top of the NL West Division. They faced the New York Mets in the first ever NL Championship Series and lost three straight. Aaron hit .357 and slugged 1.143 in the series, with 5 hits — 2 doubles and 3 home runs. He homered in each game, off Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry, in a losing effort.

Aaron had already surpassed Mickey Mantle to move up to third place in baseball’s all-time home run list. Only Willie Mays was between him and Ruth, and Mays was starting to slow down. “I should have a couple of good years left anyway,” Aaron said in August of 1969.

Aaron didn’t mention Babe Ruth by name much, or the number 714. He signed a two-year contract prior to the 1970 season and said, “I’m gonna do the best job I can to fulfill it, and after that it all depends on how close I am to certain things. That’s the only reason I would continue to play after that.”

Aaron’s next milestone was getting his 3,000th hit, and that came on May 17, 1970, in Cincinnati. Read the SABR report of the game here. Of all things, it was an infield grounder up the middle that Aaron legged out for a hit. Cincinnati rookie starter Wayne Sampson had tried to jam him with an inside fastball. “If he hits like that now, how’d he hit 10 years ago?” he asked. Hit number 3,001 was a 2-run homer later in the game, which was number 570 for his career.

Aaron reasoned that he needed a 50-home run season to get close to Ruth. He ended 1970 with 38 and a rare sub-.300 average of .298. In his age 37 season of 1971, he let loose with one of his best years yet. He set a career high with 47 home runs, drove in 118 runs for the second straight season and brought his batting average all the way up to .327. It was also the first season that he returned to the infield, as he took over first base and surrendered the outfield to youngsters Ralph Garr, Sonny Jackson and Mike Lum. That power surge led to home run number 600, on April 27 against Gaylord Perry of the Giants.

Hank Aaron holds up the 715th home run ball.

The Atlanta Constitution ran an article on April 9, 1971, with the headline of “Let Babe’s Record Stand, Fans Urge Aaron.” Aaron had begun talking openly about breaking the record, and not all the baseball fans felt that he should. They wrote him letters saying as much. “They are not vicious letters,” Aaron said. “But there are a lot of people who don’t want me to challenge Babe Ruth. I’ve received quite a few letters. They don’t want anybody to bother Babe’s records.”

The letters would of course continue, and they would take on a much darker and racist tone the closer an African-American man came to breaking the immortal Ruth’s record.

Aaron’s batting fell to .265 in 1972. He still homered 34 times, but he played in just 129 games. He did make the All-Star team, even though the All-Star Game was typically not a great place for him. He was batting under .200 in All-Star Games entering the ’72 Summer Classic, which was held in Atlanta. He connected off a Gaylord Perry spitball (his words, not Perry’s) for a home run that put the NL on top. The adoring fans demanded and got three curtain calls from Aaron. The American League would come back before Joe Morgan broke a tie with a 10th inning RBI single to lead the NL to a 4-3 victory. Morgan got the MVP Award, but Aaron stole the show.

To this point, Aaron had been creeping up on Mays in the home run race. Mays had joined the New York Mets in 1972 and was winding down his career. He hit his 648th homer on May 21, 1972, and he then went more than a month before his next bomb. Aaron, meanwhile, hit number 648 on May 31 and passed Mays for good on June 10 when he hit 649 off Wayne Twitchell of the Phillies. Now there was nobody ahead of him except for Ruth, and he was 66 away from history.

The Philadelphia Phillies and Ken Brett were the victims of #700, on July 21, 1973. Breaking the home run record was a matter of when, not if, by this point. But, as Mantle and Maris and Mays had learned, the ghost of Babe Ruth would not be defeated easily. Everywhere he went, Aaron was hounded for his time — reporters asking the same questions, fans wanting autographs or pictures — and those were the things that people knew about at the time. The other things, like the death threats against him and his family and the boxes of hate mail, that was something he didn’t share willingly. There was a syndicated article detailing random fans who would go up to Aaron, throw an arm around him and tell a buddy, “Okay, go ahead and shoot!” Then the friend would take a picture. Now imagine what that sounded like to someone getting death threats on a daily basis.

If the daily grind took its toll on Aaron, he didn’t let it show up in the box scores. He hit .301 in 1973, topping .300 for the 14th and final time of his career. He hit 40 home runs, ending the season at 713. That left him (and the rest of the baseball world) an entire offseason to think about tying and surpassing Ruth’s record.

According to this article in USA Today, Aaron received about 3,000 letters a day, amounting to a million in a year, in ’73. The Postal Department gave him a plaque. The Braves hired a secretary to sort the letters. Aaron kept some of the hate mail, publishing a few in his autobiography. He read them all his life too, as a reminder of where the country was and how far it still had to go.

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The Braves opened the 1974 season on the road in Cincinnati. The team wanted to sit Aaron for the series, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn insisted that he play two games. Aaron started on Opening Day, April 4, and tied Ruth in his first at-bat in the first inning. He belted a 2-run homer off Jack Billingham for number 714. Imagine being stuck in traffic or still finding your seat and missing history.

Aaron sat the next game and was hitless in the third game, so the Homer Watch headed to Atlanta. It was April 8 against the Dodgers, with the Braves down 3-1 in the bottom of the fourth inning and a runner on second base, when Hank Aaron teed off against Al Downing to tie the game and break the unbreakable record. Seven hundred fifteen home runs.

“I just thank God that it’s all over with,” Aaron said at the end of a ceremony given in his honor. Truer words were probably never spoken. The toll that the chase had taken left emotional wounds that likely never healed. He must have been mentally and physically exhausted — and Aaron still had the whole of 1974 ahead of him to play. He got through it — it wasn’t a good year by Aaron’s standards, but he still had 20 home runs and hit .268 in 112 games.

Aaron, with the record behind him, was more willing to talk freely about civil rights in and outside the game. “Babe Ruth’s record was one thing. What was more important to me, what I wanted to prove to everybody, was that a black player can play ball and function well under extreme pressure. That was what I always had in the back of my mind,” he told columnist Milton Richmond near the end of the ’74 season.

“I don’t think baseball has moved as far as it should have since Jackie Robinson’s time,” he continued. “There’ve been four managerial changes so far this year, and a black man wasn’t considered for any of them. To be absolutely honest about it, I wouldn’t like to manage. But I know other blacks in baseball who would, and could.

“I’m only going by the facts. We don’t move fast enough in this game. We blacks have shown talent, we’ve been giants on the field, and that’s the end of it.”

Aaron’s second wife, Billye, was an Atlanta talk show host and was active in civil rights causes. She was a supporter of the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund, and her involvement may have encouraged Aaron to lend his voice to those causes as well. He was a long way from being the teenager who had just left the family home, and he was unafraid to speak out.

Aaron had considered retiring and taking a job that was waiting for him in the Atlanta Braves’ front office. At points in the season, it seemed like a sure deal. However, he finished the ’74 season strong and felt certain he still had more left in him. The Braves, though, had committed to a youth movement, and Aaron didn’t fit in their plans. He requested a trade, and the logical place was Milwaukee, where his career started. The Brewers were an American League team, so he would be able to serve as a designated hitter. The only downside was that being traded out of the National League meant that he fell 30 hits shy of breaking one more milestone — Stan Musial’s 3,630 hits, the most ever hit by a National Leaguer at the time.

The trade took place in November 1974. Aaron went to the Brewers in exchange for outfielder Dave May and minor-leaguer Roger Alexander. Aaron spent two seasons back in Milwaukee. He couldn’t hit like he used to and hardly ever played in the field. But he added 22 home runs to his career total to finish with 755. He also added 95 RBIs to make him the all-time leader in that category as well, with 2,297.

When Hank Aaron retired after 1976, he had a slash line of .305/.374/.555 across 23 seasons. The 755 home runs was a number that generations of baseball fans knew by heart, but he also had 624 doubles and 98 triples among his 3,771 base hits. He also stole 240 bases and was thrown out just 73 times. Forty-five years after his retirement, Aaron is third all-time in games played (3,298), second in at-bats (12,364), fourth in runs scored (2,174), third in hits, first in total bases (6,856), first in extra-base hits (1,477) and, yes, second in home runs. When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, it was with 97.8% of the votes.

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Aaron held down a number of jobs in the Braves’ front office, and it wasn’t a ceremonial title. He had a tremendous wealth of baseball knowledge and business acumen, with a line of successful car dealerships in Atlanta among his business ventures. He worked in player development and community relations with the Braves and served as an overall goodwill ambassador. He was a beloved baseball icon and a member of the Braves family, and one can hope that his positive experiences later in life helped to soothe at least some of the hurt that he endured in his life.

Aaron did not lose any of his fire even as he eased into the role of senior statesman. He lamented the declining numbers of black ballplayers in Major League Baseball. He spoke about social injustices where he saw them and defended Colin Kaepernick when the quarterback was blackballed from the NFL for protesting police violence against African-Americans.

“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in this country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts,” he said of the changing face of racism.

In 1995, the Aarons launched the Hank and Billye Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, a non-profit organization that gave full or partial scholarships to students. Through that and other good works, Atlanta Technical College renamed its academic building after him in 2020. MLB renamed its Elite Development Invitational to the Hank Aaron Invitational in 2019. That program is designed to encourage high school students of all ethnic backgrounds to play the game. He attended the inaugural event in Vero Beach, Fla. There were 44 students selected, as well as a group of former players like Brian Jordan, Jerry Royster and Marvin Freeman, who were the coaches. When Aaron entered the room, they all acted the same: star-struck.

“It fills my heart, really makes me feel proud,” Aaron said.

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41 thoughts on “Obituary: Hank Aaron (1934-2021)

  1. Fine article. Ben Geraghty–one of the greatest managers in Minor League Baseball history–HA often praised him for supporting HA. Also, BG very good at anticipating situations during a game before they happened. HA joined none other than Bob Feller in opposing Pete Rose’s being elected to the H of F–both stated that Rule 21 prohibited gambling, and that was that. Also, HA strongly and correctly condemned the actions of the Houston Astro players for participating in the fairly recent cheating scandal. Said those players should be banned from baseball–period. 2 more examples of HA’s courage.

    Liked by 1 person

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