During his professional career, Aaron performed at a consistently high level for an extended period of time. He hit 24 or more home runs every year from 1955 through 1973, and is the only player to hit 30 or more home runs in a season at least 15 times. He is one of only four players to have at least 17 seasons with 150 or more hits.. Aaron made the All-Star team every year from 1955 until 1975 and won three Rawlings Gold Glove Awards. In 1957 he won the National League Most Valuable Player Award, while that same year, the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series. It was Aaron's one World Series victory during his career as a player.
Aaron's consistency helped him to establish a number of important hitting records during his 23-year career. Aaron holds the MLB records for the most career runs batted in (2,297), the most career extra base hits (1,477), and the most career total bases (6,856). He is also in the top five for career hits with 3,771 (3rd) and runs with 2,174 (tied for 4th with Babe Ruth). He also is in second place in at-bats (12,364) and in third place in games (3,298).
To honor Aaron's contributions to Major League Baseball, MLB created the Hank Aaron Award, an annual award given to the hitters voted the most effective in each respective league. He is the last Negro league baseball player to play in the major leagues. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility.
In 1999, editors at The Sporting News ranked Hank Aaron 5th on their list of "Baseball's 100 Greatest Players." That same year, baseball fans named Aaron to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
While he was born in a section of Mobile referred to as "Down the Bay," he spent most of his youth in Toulminville. Aaron grew up poor. He picked cotton on a farm, and to this day people say that strengthened his hands so he could hit more home runs. His family couldn't afford baseball equipment, so he practiced by hitting bottle caps with sticks. Aaron attended Central High School as a freshman and a sophomore. There he played outfield and third base on the baseball team and helped lead his team to the Negro High School Championship both years. During this time, he also excelled in football. His success on the football field led to several football scholarship offers. Aaron turned these down to pursue a career in major league baseball. Although he batted cross-handed (that is, as a right-handed hitter, with his left hand above his right), a somewhat unconventional batting method, Aaron had already established himself as a top power hitter. As a result, in 1949, at the age of 15, Aaron had his first tryout with a MLB franchise. Aaron tried to make the Brooklyn Dodgers; his tryout did not go well, however, and he did not make the team. After the tryout, Aaron returned to school to finish his secondary education. His last two years were spent at the Josephine Allen Institute, a private high school in Alabama. During his junior year, Aaron joined the Mobile Black Bears, an independent Negro league team. While on the Bears, Aaron earned $10 per game.
In 1953, the Braves promoted him to the Jacksonville Tars, their Class-A affiliate in the Sally League. Helped in large part by Aaron's performance on the field, the Tars won the league championship that year. Aaron led the league in runs (115), hits (208), doubles (36), RBI (125), total bases (338), and batting average (.362). He won the league's Most Valuable Player Award and had such a dominant year that one sportswriter was prompted to say, "Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations." Aaron's time with the Tars did not come without problems. He was one of the first five African Americans to play in the league. The 1950s were a period of racial segregation in the United States, especially in the southeastern portion of the country. When Aaron traveled around Jacksonville, Florida and the surrounding areas, he was often separated from his team because of Jim Crow laws. In most circumstances, the team was responsible for arranging housing and meals for its players; Aaron often had to make his own arrangements. The Tars' manager, Ben Geraghty, tried his best to help Aaron on and off the field. Former Braves minor league player and sportswriter Pat Jordan said, "Aaron gave [Geraghty] much of the credit for his own swift rise to stardom."
1953 also proved notable to Aaron off the field. Aaron met a woman by the name of Barbara Lewis. The night he met her, Lewis decided to attend the Tars' game. Aaron singled, doubled, and hit a home run in the game. On October 6, 1953, Aaron and Lewis married.
Before being promoted to the Major League team, Aaron spent the winter of 1953 playing in Puerto Rico. Mickey Owen, the team's manager, helped Aaron with his batting stance. After working with Owen, Aaron was better able to hit the ball effectively all over the field. Previously, Aaron was only able to hit for power when he hit the ball to left field or center field. During his stay in Puerto Rico the Braves requested that Aaron start playing in the outfield. This was the first time Aaron had played any position other than shortstop or second base with the Braves.
In 1957, Aaron won his only NL MVP Award. He batted .322 and led the league in home runs and runs batted in. On September 23, 1957, Aaron hit a two-run walk-off home run in the 11th inning of a game against the Cardinals. The win clinched the Braves' first pennant in Milwaukee, and Aaron was carried off the field by his teammates. Milwaukee went on to win the World Series against the New York Yankees. Aaron did his part by hitting .393 with three homers and seven RBI.
In 1958, Aaron hit .326, with 30 home runs and 95 RBIs. He led the Braves to another pennant, but this time they lost a seven-game World Series to the Yankees. Aaron finished third in the MVP race, but he picked up his first Gold Glove.
During the next several years, Aaron had some of his best games and best seasons as a major league player. On June 21, 1959 against the San Francisco Giants, he hit three two-run home runs. It was the only time in his career that he hit three home runs in a game.
Aaron nearly won the triple crown in 1963. He led the league with 44 home runs and 130 RBI and finished third in batting average. In that season, Aaron became the third player to steal 30 bases and hit 30 home runs in a single season. Despite that, he again finished third in the MVP voting.
On July 31, 1969, Aaron hit his 537th home run, passing Mickey Mantle. This moved him into third place on the career home run list behind Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. At the end of the season, Aaron again finished 3rd in the MVP voting.
The next year Aaron reached two career milestones. On May 17, 1970 Aaron collected his 3,000th hit. This was done in a game against the Cincinnati Reds, the team against which he played his first game. He was the first player to get 3,000 career hits and 500 career home runs. Also during that year, Aaron established the record for most seasons with 30 or more home runs in the National League.
On April 27, 1971, Aaron hit his 600th career home run, the third player ever to do so. On July 31, Aaron hit a home run in the All-Star Game (played at Detroit's Tiger Stadium) for the first time. He hit his 40th home run of the season against the Giants' Jerry Johnson on August 10. This established a National League record for most seasons with 40 or more home runs (seven). He hit 47 home runs during the season, and finished third in MVP voting for the 6th time.
During the strike shortened season of 1972, Aaron tied and then surpassed Willie Mays for second place on the career home run list. Aaron also knocked in the 2,000th run of his career and hit a home run in the first All-Star game in Atlanta. As the year came to a close, Aaron broke Stan Musial's major league record for total bases (6,134).
While many expected Aaron to break Ruth's home run record in 1973, a key moment of the season came on August 6. This was Hank Aaron Day in Wisconsin and the Atlanta Braves played the Milwaukee Brewers in an exhibition game. The guests in attendance included Aaron's first manager with the Braves, "Jolly Cholly" Grimm, his teammate from Jacksonville, Felix Mantilla, Eau Claire president Ron Berganson, and Del Crandall, the catcher for the 1957 World Champion Braves and the current manager of the Brewers.
The only position that the Braves wanted Aaron to play was as the Designated Hitter because the game was held in an American League park. However, at that time the National League prohibited use of the DH even in scrimmages. Due to the fact that National League president Chub Feeney could not be reached, it was left up to the umpire, Bruce Froemming to make a decision. Froemming ignored the rule and allowed Aaron to be the DH for the Braves. Later on, National League officials ignored the infraction.
Although Aaron himself downplayed the "chase" to surpass Babe Ruth, baseball enthusiasts and the national media grew increasingly excited as he closed in on the home run record. During the summer of 1973 Aaron received thousands of letters every week; the Braves ended up hiring a secretary to help him sort through it.
At the age of 39, Aaron managed to slug 40 home runs in 392 at-bats, ending the season one home run short of the record. He hit home run number 713 on September 29, 1973, and with one day remaining in the season, many expected him to tie the record. But in his final game that year, playing against the Houston Astros (led by manager Leo Durocher, who had once roomed with Babe Ruth), he was unable to hit one out of the park. After the game, Aaron stated that his only fear was that he might not live to see the 1974 season.
Over the winter, Aaron was the recipient of death threats and a large assortment of hate mail from people who did not want to see a black man break Ruth's nearly sacrosanct home run record. The threats extended to those providing positive press coverage of Aaron. Lewis Grizzard, then editor of the Atlanta Journal, reported receiving numerous phone calls calling them "nigger lovers" for covering Aaron's chase. While preparing the massive coverage of the home run record, he quietly had an obituary written, scared that Aaron might be murdered.
"Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of thirty-nine, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport...? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball's attic?
Aaron received an outpouring of public support in response to the bigotry. Babe Ruth's widow, Claire Hodgson, even denounced the racism and declared that her husband would have enthusiastically cheered Aaron's attempt at the record.
As the 1974 season began, Aaron's pursuit of the home run record caused a small controversy. The Braves opened the season on the road in Cincinnati with a three game series against the Reds. Braves management wanted him to break the record in Atlanta, and were therefore going to have Aaron sit out the first three games of the season. But Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that he had to play two games in the first series. He played two out of three, tying Babe Ruth's record in his very first at bat off Reds pitcher Jack Billingham, but did not hit another home run in the series.
The team returned to Atlanta, and on April 8, 1974, a crowd of 53,775 people showed up for the game — a Braves attendance record. In the 4th inning, Aaron hit career home run number 715 off L.A. Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. Although Dodgers outfielder Bill Buckner nearly went over the outfield wall trying to catch it, the ball landed in the Braves bullpen, where relief pitcher Tom House caught it. While cannons were fired in celebration, two white college students sprinted onto the field and jogged alongside Aaron as he circled the base paths. As the fans cheered wildly, Aaron's mother ran onto the field as well.
A few months later, on October 5, 1974, Aaron hit his 733rd and final home run as a Brave, which stood as the National League's home run record until it was broken by Barry Bonds in 2006. Thirty days later, the Braves traded Aaron to the Milwaukee Brewers for Roger Alexander and Dave May. Because the Brewers were an American League team, he was able to extend his career by taking advantage of the designated hitter rule. On May 1, 1975, Aaron broke baseball's all-time RBI record, previously held by Ruth with 2,217. That year, he also made the last of his 24 All-Star appearances; it, like his first in 1955, was before a home crowd at Milwaukee County Stadium.
On August 1, 1982 Hank Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, having received votes on 97.8 percent of the ballots, second to only Ty Cobb, who had received votes on 98.2% of the ballot in the inaugural 1936 Hall of Fame election. Aaron was then named the Braves' vice president and director of player development. This made him one of the first minorities in Major League Baseball upper-level management.
Since December 1989, he has served as senior vice president and assistant to the Braves' president. He is the corporate vice president of community relations for TBS, a member of the company's board of directors and the vice president of business development for The Airport Network.
On May 16, 2007, Major League baseball announced the sale of the Atlanta Braves. In that announcement, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig also announced that Aaron would be playing a major role in the management of Atlanta Braves. He will be forming programs through Major League Baseball that will encourage the influx of minorities into baseball.
On February 5, 1999, at his 65th birthday celebration, Major League Baseball announced the introduction of the Hank Aaron Award. The award was set to honor the best overall offensive performer in the American and National League. It was the first major award to be introduced in more than thirty years and it was also the first award named after a player who was still alive. Later that year, he ranked number 5 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
In June 2002, Aaron received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
His autobiography I Had a Hammer was published in 1990. The book's title is a play on his nickname, "The Hammer" or "Hammerin' Hank," and the title of the folk song If I Had a Hammer. Aaron now owns Hank Aaron BMW of south Atlanta in Union City, Georgia, where he gives an autographed baseball with every car sold. Aaron also owns Mini, Jaguar, Land Rover, Toyota, Hyundai and Honda dealerships throughout Georgia, as part of the Hank Aaron Automotive Group. Aaron sold all but the Toyota dealership in McDonough in 2007.
Statues of Aaron stand outside the front entrance of both Turner Field and Miller Park. There is also a statue of him as an 18-year-old shortstop outside of Carson Park in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he played his first season in the Braves' minor league system.
In 2006, a recreational trail in Milwaukee connecting Miller Park with Lake Michigan along the Menomonee River was dedicated as the "Hank Aaron State Trail." Hank Aaron was on hand for the dedication along with Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, who at the ceremony described himself as a boyhood fan of Aaron's.
During the 2006 season, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds passed Babe Ruth and moved into 2nd place on the all-time home run list, attracting growing media coverage as he drew ever closer to Aaron's record. Playing off the intense interest in their perceived rivalry, Aaron and Bonds made a television commercial that aired during Super Bowl XLI, shortly before the start of the 2007 baseball season, in which Aaron jokingly tried to persuade Bonds to retire before breaking the record.
As Bonds began to close in on the record during the 2007 season, Aaron let it be known that, although he recognized Bonds' achievements, he would not be present when Bonds broke the record. There was considerable speculation that this was a snubbing of Bonds based on the widespread belief that Bonds had used performance-enhancing steroids to power his achievement. However, some observers looked back to Aaron's personal history, pointing out that he had downplayed his own breaking of Babe Ruth's all-time record and suggesting that Aaron was simply treating Bonds in a similar fashion. In a later interview with Atlanta sportscasting personality Chris Dimino, Aaron made it clear that his reluctance to attend any celebration of a new home run record was based upon his personal conviction that baseball is not about breaking records, but simply playing to the best of your potential.
After Bonds hit his record-breaking 756th home run on August 7, 2007, Aaron made a surprise appearance on the JumboTron video screen at AT&T Park in San Francisco to congratulate Bonds on his accomplishment:
I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball's career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity, and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.