In my view, Henry Aaron was, quite simply, one of the best baseball players ever to play the game. He was what is known as a “five tool player.” That is, he could hit, hit for power, run, field and throw. He was aptly known as “Hammerin Hank” or simply the “Hammer.”
In my 65 years of following the sport he was one of the best ballplayers I ever saw (slightly behind only Willie Mays). I am not the only one who holds such an exalted opinion. In 1999 The Sporting News , the unofficial “bible” of the sport, ranked him fifth on its list of the “100 Greatest Baseball Players.” Can you guess the names of the top four? See the answer below. That same year Hank was named to the “All Century” team by a panel of baseball experts.
More than any other sport baseball is measured by statistics. If you are not familiar with Hank’s accomplishments or you question his exalted ranking, just take a look at the following. 755 homeruns (2nd all-time), 2,297 RBIs (1st), 3,771 hits (3rd), 2,174 runs 4th), 6,856 total bases (1st) and 25 all-star games (1st). And, to top it off he was a superb fielder. Like I said above, truly a five-tool player. Remarkable. Truly remarkable. Moreover, throughout his long career not a hint of bad behavior or scandal as we see with so many other professional athletes.
Hank exhibited a quiet, laid back personality and playing style. He was not a flamboyant or controversial ballplayer as were so many other of the superstars of the sport. He wasn’t larger than life like Babe Ruth; he wasn’t mean and aggressive like Ty Cobb, who was known to spike opposing players and fight with anyone, even his own teammates; his baseball cap didn’t fly off his head whenever he pursued a fly ball nor did he employ a unique “basket” catch like Willie Mays; and he didn’t feud incessantly with sportswriters like Ted Williams. He just went about his business quietly and consistently, day after day, year after year. In fact, despite his exceptional talent and achievements one could make a case that throughout much of his career he was actually underrated and underappreciated by the casual fan.
The main focus of this piece, however, will not be on Hank’s baseball achievements. His record speaks for itself. The primary focus will be on the prejudices he had to endure, particularly as he pursued what was probably the most hallowed record in the sport at the time.
Henry Louis Aaron was born on February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. This was the Deep South in the midst of the “Jim Crow” era. He had seven siblings, one of whom, Tommie, also made it to the major leagues. The family was very poor. Money was scarce. Henry’s father worked as a boilermaker’s assistant and ran a tavern.
Racial slurs were commonplace, virtually a way of life. At times, they manifested themselves subtly, such as the times that Hank observed his father having to yield his place in line in stores in favor of a white person. Other times it would be a matter of life and death as exhibited by the times the family had to hide under their beds in fear whenever the KKK was marching in their neighborhood.
Henry always related how, as a youngster, he would make his baseball equipment out of materials he would find lying around on the street. For instance, he would practice batting by hitting bottle caps with sticks. For some reason, he began hitting cross-handed. Like most Black youths he idolized Jackie Robinson and no doubt fantasized about following in his footsteps. His high school did not have a baseball team, so he began playing on semipro teams, such as the Mobile Black Barons, as a teenager. He excelled to such an extent that at the tender age of 15 he had a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. They didn’t sign him, so he returned to high school.
In 1951 at the age of 17 he signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League as a shortstop for the princely sum of $200/month. Henry’s experiences with racism continued when he began to play professionally. In addition to the many indignities suffered while seeking lodging, restaurants and bathrooms throughout the South, Henry recalled one particular incident when the Clowns were in Washington, DC. The team had eaten in a restaurant, and when they had finished the meal they could hear the kitchen help smashing all of their dishes so no one else would have to eat from them. What made that worse, Henry thought, was that if a dog had eaten off those plates they would merely have washed them and reused them.
When he played in Jacksonville Hank and his teammates of color were frequently subjected to taunts, rock and bottle throwing, and racial slurs. Then, there was the time when his first big league manager, Charlie Grimm, nicknamed him “Stepin Fetchit.” Grim, a baseball lifer from St. Louis was nicknamed “Jolly Cholly,” but he wasn’t being so jolly in that case. At the time, Aaron was a shy rookie, so he just “took” the slur.
Henry came very close to being in the same outfield with Willie Mays on the NY Giants. After a standout season with the Clowns he received offers from both the Braves and the Giants. Ultimately, he signed with the Braves because they offered $50 more. Fifty dollars! Just think of how baseball history changed because of a measly $50.
Henry got his big break due to one of those twists of fate that seem to occur from time to time not only in sports but in life as well. In 1954 despite a standout minor league season the previous year Henry seemed destined to spend another year in the minors as the Braves had an established outfield and no room for him. Then, fate intervened. Leftfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle during a spring training game. Henry took his place, and the rest is history. So began one of the most outstanding careers in baseball history.
Things were not too bad in Milwaukee. But, as soon as the team relocated to Atlanta, it was a different story. Even in the 1960’s Atlanta was very much a southern town with southern attitudes towards race. The racial taunts and slurs began right away. His wife would hear them in the stands. Hank always said he actually preferred to play on the road.
However, the foregoing was merely a prelude, an appetizer for what was to come later when Henry approached Ruth’s homerun record. Henry had his usual stellar season in 1973, and he ended the year one homer shy of Ruth’s record. It was obvious that he would break the record in 1974. It was just a matter of when. During the off-season the hate mail, which had been brutal, accelerated. For example, one “fan” sent the following letter: “You are not going to break his [Ruth’s] record if I can help it. Whites are far more superior than N…..s. My gun is watching your every black move.” There were boxes and boxes of letters similar to that one. Hank always said the path to breaking the homerun record, which should have been joyful, was “filled with anguish.” Hank kept many of the letters and stored them in his attic. Jim Auchmutey, former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recalled for years Hank would occasionally read some of them as if to remind himself of the torment he suffered. There was concern in some quarters that Hank would not live to see the 1974 season. I can only imagine the stress, tension and pressure Hank and his family endured as they waited for the 1974 season.
The fear was real, very real. The FBI was investigating. Hank had bodyguards, as did his family members. Law enforcement officers characterized the letters as “cranks.” Perhaps, most of them were, but who really knew. It only takes one. Hank’s family was also affected. He had to send his children to private schools. His college-age daughter was afraid to leave her dorm. Often, Hank had to stay in a separate hotel from the rest of the team. Sometimes, he slept at the ballpark. All in all, it was an extremely stressful time, which makes the fact that he was able to concentrate on his baseball and break the record even more remarkable.
Many of his former teammates recalled how it was. For example, Davey Johnson was taken aback by all the racial hate. “We [the Braves] didn’t see color. We saw talent. As a ballplayer you never see color. You see talent and teammates.” Frank Tepedino remembered “he never made anything out of it [the pressure]. He kept everything to himself.” Dusty Baker recalled how he would watch Hank open his mail. “I could see when he got a bad letter. He would drop it and go into the trainer’s [room].” He coped by being a “strong man.” The situation made him even “stronger and more determined, and he concentrated harder.” Another supporter was Claire Hodgson, Ruth’s widow. She denounced the racism and made a point to say that Babe would have “enthusiastically cheered” Hank’s pursuit of the record.
Finally the 1974 season began, and another issue arose. The Braves were to open the season with three games in Cincinnati. The organization wanted Hank to sit out those games so he could break the record at home. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened and ruled he had to play in at least two of the three games. As most fans know, he did play and fortuitously hit only one homer to tie the record giving him the chance to break it at home, which he did.
Hank broke the record on a Monday night, April 8, 1974, at Fulton County Stadium before the hometown fans in a game that was televised nationally. He hit it in his second at-bat. The bullpens were located just over the leftfield and rightfield walls. I remember that all the players in those bullpens were lined up with their gloves on in anticipation of catching the milestone homer. Do you remember the name of the pitcher? Do you remember who caught it? See below.
I also remember that young two fans jumped out of the stands to join Hank in his homerun trot. Their intentions were not clear. Were they planning to congratulate him or attack him? No one knew for sure. Supposedly, Hank’s bodyguards, sitting in the stands next to his family, were ready to draw their guns and shoot, but they merely wanted to celebrate with Hank. The great Vin Scully “called” the shot on tv. His post-homer description of the moment was priceless. He said, “What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Hank was the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Additionally, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility, with 97.8% of the votes. Upon his retirement he worked as an executive in the Braves’ front office for many years.
Sadly, due to the foregoing Hank always said he got “no enjoyment at all” out of pursuing and breaking the record. That, I think, was a shame. On the positive side, as time has gone on the country’s attitude toward minorities in general and Hank, in particular, have changed for the better. Even Hank acknowledged that “people respect me more now than they did even 20 years ago.” Even though his record has since been broken many people, including former commissioner Bud Selig, still consider him the “rightful recordholder.”
In his later years Hank suffered from arthritis, and in 2014 he underwent a hip replacement. Hank died in his sleep on January 22, 2021.
Rest in peace, Hammer . You carried yourself with dignity and class, and you will be sorely missed.
Quiz answers: #1. Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson. Hard to quibble with those choices.
2. Al Downing
3. Tom House