Hank Aaron is a household name in baseball, one of the most important and influential players in any sport. The reasons for Hank Aaron’s success go far beyond his athletic abilities and talents as a player — for which he is obviously renowned — but to his sportsmanship, his civil rights activism, and for his overall character. Aaron contributed tremendously to the sport of baseball by injecting his values and ideals into the game.
Born Henry Louis Allen, Hank was born in Mobile, Alabama in what has widely been described as a “humble” and economically underprivileged circumstances (“Hank Aaron,” n.d.). Segregation and overt, politically and socially sanctioned racism was a part of life in the America that Hank knew. Hank admitted he was bitten by the baseball bug at a young age, and was already “showing prowess” when he was just four years old (Vascellaro 2). Clearly a child prodigy athlete, Hank Aaron’s family supported his interest in baseball by moving to a rural neighborhood where young Hank had access to the large open spaces needed to practice. Hank played frequently with friends and other baseball enthusiasts at Carver Park, a recreational space specifically designated for the African-American community. One adult who observed the young Hank throwing baseballs commented, “Henry threw a baseball like a man, not a little child,” (Vascellaro 2). Young Henry Aaron practiced with whatever equipment he and his family could find, often makeshift items like using broomsticks for bats and bottle caps for balls (Vascellaro 4). His dedication to the sport therefore started at a very young age, proving the importance of patience and persistence in cultivating the requisite skill sets to succeed in an increasingly competitive playing environment.
Ironically, Aaron’s dedication to baseball got him kicked out of school, as he was “expelled after repeatedly skipping class to listen to the Dodgers games and the exploits of their young second baseman of Jackie Robinson,” (“Hank Aaron Biography,” n.d.). Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball — and the event symbolized Aaron’s rising hopes of playing in the major leagues. Because his segregated school had no baseball team for black students, Henry pursued other sports like football but eventually quit because he did not want to get injured and jeopardize his chances to play on his field of dreams (“Hank Aaron Biography,” n.d.). The first scout to notice Aaron was Ed Scott, who managed the all-black semipro team the Mobile Black Bears. Aaron played shortstop, but not for long — Scott recognized that Aaron’s talents were wasted on such a small arena and he helped Hank get signed to the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns when he turned 18 years old. Aaron would ultimately help the Clowns win the Negro League World Series: he hit five home runs and batted .400 that season (“Hank Aaron Biography,” n.d.).
As teams started integrating around the country, Aaron eventually got his break into the Majors first with the Milwaukee Braves. His major league debut fell on April 13, 1954. He was selected to the All-Star team just a year later — and would be for more than 20 years in a row. By 1963, Hank Aaron would be a league leader, with 44 home runs and 130 RBI, not to mention his .319 batting average and his league-leading base stealing. After the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, Aaron went with them, and it was in Atlanta that Aaron would reach the pinnacle of his baseball career. It wasn’t until April 8, 1974 that Hank Aaron would make history, batting that historic home run that set him ahead of Babe Ruth. According to Bowman, “Aaron still holds the record for RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856),” and his total hits rank him behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. His consistently good playing from year to year is what has earned him the respect of all baseball players and fans (Baseball Hall of Fame).
Segregation was still alive and well when Aaron started playing professional baseball. Even Topps Chewing Gum, the makers of baseball cards, had been discriminately numbering the cards of African-American players to give them artificially low ranks (Regoli, Hewitt, Munoz and Regoli). By the early 1960s, though, the Civil Rights movement had taken root and had a major impact on how Aaron would approach the game of baseball and his role within the sport as a rising star. Aaron became a powerful advocate of equality and promoting the rights of minority players. On the field, he has been called “The Hammer,” or “Hammerin’ Hank,” but Hank Aaron is known off the field as a proponent of civil rights. For example, when he retired from playing, Aaron became the executive vice president for his team the Atlanta Braves, where he “became a leading spokesperson for minority hiring in baseball,” (“Hank Aaron”).
Aaron has also become known for his natural grace and humility, and complete lack of arrogance in spite of his tremendous achievements. When Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, one Georgia congressman stated that Aaron was “a model of humility, dignity, and quiet competence,” (Baseball Hall of Fame). Aaron once turned down the opportunity to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show — which would have earned him considerable fame and remuneration, because he was in the lineup that night (Bowman). Likewise, Bowman claims Aaron “refuses to allow himself the satisfaction of believing that he was indeed the greatest player to ever live.” Aaron never rested on the laurels of his success, always pushing himself to reach new heights, which is why sportsmanship may be his greatest legacy of all. As Aaron himself put it, “Every year, I went to camp feeling that I needed to prove myself. I think in order to continue motivating yourself, you have to think that way,” (Bowman). Aaron is among the most important and influential athletes of all time, in any sport, because of his attitude and approach to athletics as well as his performance.
Baseball Hall of Fame. “Hank Aaron.” Retrieved online: http://baseballhall.org/hof/aaron-hank
Bowman, Mark. “Aaron is Baseball’s Gold Standard.” Retrieved online: http://m.mlb.com/news/article/1952314//
“Hank Aaron,” Biography. N.d. Retrieved online: http://www.biography.com/people/hank-aaron-9173497
“Hank Aaron Biography,” ESPN. N.d. Retrieved online: http://www.espn.com/mlb/player/bio/_/id/17499/hank-aaron
Regoli, Robert M., Hewitt, John D., Robert Munoz and Adam M. Regoli. “Location, Location, Location.” Negro Educational Review; Greensboro55.2/3 (Apr-Jul 2004): 75-90.
Vascellaro, Charlie. Hank Aaron: A Biography. Connecticut: Greenwood, 2005.