Ken Burns Classroom

Hank Aaron

Born in 1934, Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, nicknamed “the Hammer” and “Hammerin’ Hank,” is widely regarded as one of baseball’s great icons, among the best hitters in the history of the sport. From 1954–1976, he played as an outfielder, for the Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers, setting several slugging records for nearly 23 years.

Hank was the third of eight children born to Estella and Herbert Aaron in a poor black section of Mobile, Alabama known as “Down the Bay.” He showed an early affinity for sports, excelling at baseball and football. In 1951, forgoing his high school diploma, Aaron left school to play briefly in the Negro Baseball League. By June of 1952, after leading his team to the Negro League World Series, he was recruited by the Milwaukee Braves for one of their farm teams. In 1954 he played his first game in majors and, in 1957, took home the National League MVP award, earning 44 home runs, 132 RBIs, and a .328 average.

In the ensuing years, Aaron consistently hit between 30 and 40 home runs per season, steadily chipping away at Babe Ruth’s all-time career record of 714—a race that the media highlighted and Aaron himself downplayed. He received thousands of letters weekly—prompting the Braves to hire a secretary to help him sort through the mail—including death threats from those who did not want to see Ruth’s record surpassed—especially, in some cases, by an African American.

At the close of the 1973 season, Hank Aaron was one run shy of tying Babe Ruth’s record. On opening day in 1974, in Cincinnati, Ohio, he tied the record at 714. On April 8th at 9:07pm, at home in Atlanta, Aaron made Major League Baseball history, producing his 715th career home run. He would add 40 more over the ensuing three seasons, leaving the sport with 756 home runs, 2,297 RBIs, 1,477 extra base hits, 6,856 total bases, and most years with more than 30 or more home runs (15)—records that continue to stand the test of time. Aaron would hold the home run record for two decades, bowing finally to Barry Bonds on August 7, 2007.

After retiring from the field, Aaron joined the Atlanta Braves management, where he has been a leading spokesperson for minority hiring in baseball. He was elected to the MLB Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility. In 2002, for his work both on the field and off, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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