In 1999 Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced the creation of "The Hank Aaron Award", initially to honor the 25th anniversary of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's career home run record. It has since been awarded to the best overall hitter in the National and American Leagues, establishing itself as a fitting tribute to a man arguably recognized as baseball's most complete performer, and premier example of the definition of the games five tool player (hit, hit with power, field, throw, run).
Born in Mobile, Alabama on February 5, 1934, Hank Aaron never played high school baseball and began his playing career in semi-pro ball before moving on to the Negro Leagues to play shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns, where his talent and ability were quickly noticed. "He's a natural born ballplayer. God done sent me something," said Clowns Manager Buster Haywood. While trying out for the Clowns, Aaron was scouted by the Boston Braves Dewey Griggs and eventually the Braves won out over the Giants for his services. In 1952 he was named the Northern League's Rookie of the Year, despite playing in just 87 games, batting .336. The following year he was promoted to the South Atlantic League (that circuit's first African-American player) and earned Most Valuable Player honors by winning the batting title (.362), and leading the league in runs batted in (125), runs (115) and hits (208).
Aaron began his major league career in 1954 (he was the last Negro League player to play in the major leagues) when a spring training injury to Bobby Thomson opened up a spot on the Braves roster. After going 0-5 in his debut on April 13, he settled in and connected for his first career home run off Vic Raschi ten days later. He finished the season with a respectable .280 average. In 1955 he blossomed into one of the game's best players batting .314 with 27 home runs and 106 runs batted in. He won his first of two National League batting titles in 1956 with a .328 mark and reached the 200 hit plateau for the first time. It all came together for Aaron and the Braves in 1957 as Milwaukee won the NL pennant (with Aaron homering to clinch it.) Hank claimed the Leagues MVP Award and just missing out on winning the Triple Crown, leading in HR (44) and RBI (132), while finishing third in batting with a .322 average. Then it was on to the World Series, Aaron's first appearance on the national scene, and the now star player didn't disappoint. Playing against a superstar he was to be compared with in future years, Mickey Mantle, Hank responded with a .393 average, three home runs and seven RBI as the Braves upset the mighty Yankees in seven games to claim baseball's world championship. 1958 saw the Braves once again win the pennant, but despite another fine World Series performance by Aaron (he batted .333), Milwaukee fell to the Yankees in a seventh and deciding game.
By this time Hank was posting, season after season, the consistent great numbers that were to become his trademark. Another batting title was won in 1959 (.355), and he also led the league in slugging (.636) and had his only lifetime three home run game versus the Giants. As his career moved into the sixties he again just missed winning the Triple Crown in 1963 with league leading totals in HR (44) and RBI (130), while settling for third in batting average (.319). That year he also joined baseball's exclusive 30/30 club (30 home runs, 30 stolen bases) by stealing 31 bases. Keeping himself in peak physical condition, a typical Aaron season for 19 years was to average 33 HR, drive in and score 100 runs or more, and hit .300. Hank often attributed his remarkable consistency to something Jackie Robinson had said to him early in his career. "He said, baseball was a game you played every day, not once a week," said Aaron speaking of Robinson. While many times being overlooked by fans and media when compared to other flashy stars in the 1960's, such as Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, Aaron was often given his due praise from his competitors. Once after Dodger Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had struck out young Brave's hitting star Rico Carty three times in one particular game, the shook up youngster confronted Koufax. "You mad at me, Koufax?" asked Carty. Sandy replied "Young man, I don't even know you, but as long as you're hitting in front of Henry Aaron, you're going to have a tough time with me." In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta and Hank didn't disappoint his new fans as he clubbed 44 HR and drove in 127 runs. 1969 saw baseball introduce divisional play and Aaron and the Braves were the first winners of the National League's Western Division. Hank put up his usual consistent great numbers for the season and, despite his team being swept by the eventual World Champion Mets, he homered in all three games of the first National League Championship Series, and batted .357 with seven RBI against the young, hard throwing New York pitching staff.
Continued success came to Hank Aaron in the 1970's as he collected his 3000th hit (the first player with 500 home runs to do so) in 1970, attained career highs with a .669 slugging percentage and 47 HR in 1971, and accumulated his 2000th lifetime RBI in 1972. His career home run total reached 639, moving him to third on the all time career HR list behind Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. He was now a clear threat to break what many thought was the insurmountable Ruth total of 714 career HR. "As far as I'm concerned, Aaron is the best ball player of my era…He is to baseball of the last 15 years what Joe DiMaggio was before him," said Mickey Mantle in 1970. While chasing the Ruth mark Aaron continued to speak out and seek racial equality in baseball. He often criticized the game for not having a minority manager and minorities in front office positions. "On the field, Blacks have been able to be super giants. But, once our playing days are over, this is the end of it and we go back to the back of the bus again." said Hank. Sadly, the speaking out and the color of his skin deemed Aaron undeserving of Ruth's hallowed record to many, who showered him and his family with insults at games and death threats through the mail. Hank persevered and, after slamming 40 HR at the age of 39 in 1973, he stood on the threshold of breaking a record few thought would ever be broken.
As if he didn't have enough distractions in his pursuit of Ruth's mark, Aaron faced another controversy as the Braves announced at the start of the 1974 season that Hank would not play in any of the games of the their opening series against the Reds in Cincinnati in hopes of Aaron tying and breaking the record in Atlanta the following week. Then MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened and ordered the Braves, "in the best interests of baseball", to play Aaron in at least two of the three games versus the Reds. So Hank was in the lineup for the opener against the Reds on April 4. 1974 and rose to the occasion in the first inning, lining a Jack Billingham pitch over the left field fence to join the Babe at 714. Aaron played one of the other two games in Cincinnati and did not homer, so the stage was set for the record breaker to be hit at home. On Monday night, April 8, 1974, against the Dodgers before a National TV audience, in the bottom of the fourth inning, Hank stroked a 1-0 Al Downing pitch over the left field fence for his 715th career homer and baseball history was made.
Aaron finished 1974 with just 20 home runs and after the season was traded to the American League's Milwaukee Brewers, enabling him to finish his career in the city he had helped bring many baseball memories. His playing days ended after the 1976 season and along with his all time total of 755 home runs he holds Major League lifetime marks for runs batted in (2,297), extra base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856). He ranks second in at bats (12,364) and intentional walks (293), is third in runs (2,174 tied with Ruth), games (3,298), and hits (3771), fourth in sacrifice flies (121), and ninth in doubles (624). He hit .300 or better in 14 seasons (winning two National League batting titles), led the NL in hits twice, won three NL home run crowns (and tied for a fourth), slugged 40 HR's or more eight times, hit 20 or more homers 20 consecutive years, drove in 100 runs on 11 occasions (leading the NL four times), led the NL in slugging percentage four seasons, never struck out 100 times in a year, scored 100 runs in 13 seasons (topping the NL three times), and won three Gold Gloves.
After his retirement as an active player in 1976, Hank Aaron returned to Braves in the front office capacity of Vice President of Player Development. His overseeing of young talent such as former NL MVP Dale Murphy was instrumental in the Braves winning the NL Western Division in 1982. Since 1989 he has served the Braves as Senior Vice President and Assistant to the President. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982 and was named to Baseball's All-Century Team in 1999.
Hank Aaron and Lonnie Wheeler, I had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, Sagebrush Education Resources, 1992
Jane Leavy, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, Harper Collins Publishers, 2002
Atlanta Braves Media Guide, 2004