For three decades the baseball player Hank Aaron, who has died aged 86, held the record for hitting more home runs – 755 – than anyone in major league history, and will be remembered in particular for No 715, which broke Babe Ruth’s career record.
America had invested the number 714 with mythic significance, and Aaron discovered that many people resented a less charismatic figure relegating a legend to second place – especially when that man was black. When he ended the 1973 season one short of Ruth’s record, Aaron was receiving as many as 3,000 letters a day, many of them spewing racist hatred, including death threats. “This changed me,” he said. “The letters remind me not to be surprised or hurt. They remind me what people are really like.”
At the beginning of the 1974 season his team, the Atlanta Braves, opened up their campaign away from home with a three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds. The Braves owner, Ted Turner, who wanted Aaron to beat the record at home in front of his own fans, tried to prevent him from playing, but the baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered Aaron to play in at least two of the Cincinnati games. In the first one, with his debut swing of the season, he hit a home run off the Reds pitcher Jack Billingham and brought himself level with Ruth.
But it turned out that Aaron had privately promised his mother that she would see him break the record in Atlanta, and so he made sure there was no homer in the following match. At the next available home game, on 8 April, in front of a record crowd of 53,775, he hit a ball from Al Downing over the left field fence. As the spectators went wild and Aaron circled the bases, two white fans charged the field, but simply congratulated him before being pulled away by concerned police.
With Ruth’s record gone, Aaron went on to hit another 40 home runs before retiring in 1976, having had one of the longest and most consistent careers in baseball. While Ruth amassed his home runs with best seasons of 60, 59 and 54 (twice), Aaron never hit more than 47, but homered 30 or more times in a record 15 seasons, and hit at least 20 in 20 consecutive years. Where Ruth succeeded or failed on a grand scale, often twisting himself into a pretzel when his 40 ounce bat missed the ball, Aaron’s power was generated by exceptionally quick, strong wrists, whipping a 34 ounce bat across the strike zone. If Ruth played on an operatic scale, Aaron was the jazz improviser who never hit a false note.
“Trying to sneak a fastball past Aaron is like trying to sneak sunrise past a rooster,” declared the pitcher Curt Simmons. A prodigious self-improver, he always played within his limits. “Like a pool hustler, he never tries the impossible shot,” said the sportswriter Jim Murray. “He is Mr Percentage.” Aaron’s official nickname, Hammerin’ Hank, which fitted him like a double-knit baseball uniform, was created by the Atlanta Braves’ PR department, yet still carried the connotation of a workmanlike performance.
Aaron came by his work ethic the hard way. He was born in Mobile, Alabama, to Estella (nee Pritchett) and her husband, Herbert, who was a rivet bucketer in the local shipyards, whenever work was available. Although segregated, Mobile’s sports recreation programmes, funded by the Senior Bowl gridiron game, reached children of both races. Thus, though he was a high school football star, Aaron’s early baseball experience came in city sandlot leagues and playing softball, where he developed an unorthodox cross-handed grip which, paradoxically, may have aided in giving his wrists their strength.
In 1950, after seeing Jackie Robinson play in an exhibition, Aaron told his father he would play major league baseball before Robinson retired. He began playing semi-pro on Sundays for the Mobile Bears, and in a 1951 game he so impressed the touring Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League (on its last legs since major league baseball had integrated) that they offered him a contract of $200 per month. In 1952, three weeks before graduating from high school, he reported to his new club, where legend says they changed his cross-handed grip and he hit the next pitch over the fences.
Soon he was pursued by two major league clubs, New York Giants and the Milwaukee Braves. He chose Milwaukee, who offered him $50 a month more, not knowing the team also paid the Clowns’ owner Syd Pollock $10,000 as a transfer fee. Pollock gave Aaron a cardboard suitcase as a parting gift.
Sent to develop with their farm team in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Aaron was voted all-star shortstop despite playing only half a season. The next year, assigned to Jacksonville, Florida, he and four other black players became the first non-whites to appear in the South Atlantic (Sally) League. Playing second base, he had an exceptional season. “He led the Sally in everything except hotel accommodations,” wrote one northern sportswriter. He also met a business student, Barbara Lucas, who became his first wife.
Apprenticeship over, Aaron moved up into the Milwaukee Braves’ outfield the following spring, when Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding. However, his rookie major league season ended early, as he, too, broke an ankle on a slide. In 1957, though, Aaron won the National League’s most valuable player award, hit 44 home runs, including one that clinched the National League championship, and played a crucial role in Milwaukee’s World Series triumph over the New York Yankees with three more homers. The Braves returned to the Series in 1958, but lost the rematch with the Yankees.
In 1966 the Braves franchise moved to Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, a park so hitter-friendly it was known as “the launching pad”. It was a time when Atlanta was turning itself into a “big-league” city, and Aaron played a huge part in helping overcome its segregationist past. Having broken the 40 home run mark five times in his 12 seasons in Milwaukee, he did it four times in only eight years at Atlanta, and began to realise that if he kept himself in good physical condition then Ruth’s record was within reach.
Aaron attributed the breakup of his first marriage to internalising the pressure of chasing Ruth’s record. He married his second wife, Billye Suber Williams, a talk-show host, in 1973. After the 1975 season the Braves traded him back to Milwaukee, now home to the Brewers. After two indifferent seasons he retired, joining the Braves’ front office. Although he was never successful as a baseball executive, he became an important figure in Turner’s many enterprises, and also ran a number of his own businesses, including fast-food outlets in Milwaukee and Atlanta.
As a vice-president of Turner Broadcasting, Aaron responded quickly when Bill Watts, who had been hired to run Turner’s pro-wrestling operations, was shown to have made racially insensitive remarks in the wrestling press. They were brought to Aaron’s attention, and Watts left. I met Aaron when he worked for Turner. His handshake was as formidable as his batting wrists would have you imagine, and he projected quiet strength, as well as the sense of someone who had seen enough to not suffer fools gladly.
Aaron had his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, published in 1991. He never relished playing the hero, but also never shied away from the role. “I keep going down the road the same way I always did,” he said. “Some people might decide I’ve had enough controversy in my time.”
In 2007 his home run record, which had stood for 33 years, was finally beaten by Barry Bonds, who finished his career with 762 homers, but who is regarded by many as a usurper, due to his confessed use of steroids.
Aaron is survived by Billye and by five children, Gaile, Hank Jr, Lary, Dorinda and Ceci.
Hank (Henry Louis) Aaron, baseball player, born 5 February 1934; died 22 January 2021