Saturday, February 5, 2011

Baseball Digest Birthdays: Hank Aaron | Baseball Digest

Baseball Digest Birthdays: Hank Aaron | Baseball Digest

I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting on our couch, eyes glued to the television set. Al Downing of the LA Dodgers delivered the pitch and the Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron sent it deep to left-center field. Left fielder Bill Buckner, (yes, that Bill Buckner!) leaped on top of the fence, but the ball easily cleared the wall to the right of the 385-ft sign and landed in the glove of pitcher Tom House in the Braves bullpen. Hank Aaron had just broken Babe Ruth’s career record for home runs with his 715th blast.

Aaron was greeted by a pair of overeager fans as he rounded the bases and was swarmed by his teammates when he reached home plate. Also waiting there was his wife and parents and a throng of photographers. Craig Sager, who was fashionably challenged even then, interviewed Aaron for the raucous Fulton County Stadium crowd of 53,775. It was April 8, 1974 and it seems like yesterday.

Henry Louis Aaron was born (February 5, 1934) in Mobile, Alabama to Herb and Estella Aaron. Hank was one of seven children, including his brother Tommie who would one day become his teammate on the Braves. Aaron and his family picked cotton by day and young Hank played sports when he could. His family couldn’t afford equipment, so Aaron practiced by hitting bottle caps and fashioned bats and balls out of materials he found on the street.

As he grew up, Aaron excelled at sports, prompting him to quit high school to join the Negro Leagues when he was 17. After a year of playing for the Independent League Mobile Black Bears, Aaron helped the Indianapolis Clowns to the 1952 Negro League championship. His performance led to offers from the Boston Braves and New York Giants. Aaron chose the Braves because their offer was $50 higher. Imagine that… Hank Aaron and Willie Mays could have been teammates!

Aaron made the majors with the Braves, who were in Milwaukee by then, in 1954 and finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting after a .280-13-69 season. It was the last time he hit under 20 home runs in a season until his next-to-last year in 1975.

Aaron’s home run record was criticized at times over the years because he never hit more than 50 home runs in a season, played most of his career in a 162 game schedule (not crediting him for his remarkable durability), and sadly, because he is African-American. Racial bias directed towards him was never more evident than when Aaron was approaching Ruth’s home run record.

During the 1973 off-season, Aaron received a large amount of hate mail and death threats, as did members of the media who supported him. Sports Illustrated summed it up best, saying “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?” The public in general was behind Aaron, including Babe Ruth’s widow Claire Hodgson, who denounced the racism.

In December, 1973, the Washington Post’s Paul Attner marveled at Aaron’s soon-to-happen accomplishment and pondered who might possibly break the new record. Click here to read all about it.

In all, Hank Aaron finished with 755 home runs, playing his last two years back in Milwaukee as a member of the American League’s Brewers. (I had the privilege of seeing Aaron tie Babe Ruth’s all-time RBI record against the Yankees at Shea Stadium on April 27, 1975). He hit more than 40 home runs – seven times, drove in 2,297 runs, hit .305 lifetime, was a 25-time All-Star and the 1957 NL MVP (he finished in the top five in voting seven times) when the Braves won their only World Series in Milwaukee. He was an outstanding defender in right field (3-time Gold Glove winner) and base runner (he stole 31 bases in 1962).

Hammerin’ Hank Aaron was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 with the third highest percentage (97.8) of all-time. His post-playing career life has included a number of different positions in the Atlanta Braves organization and he has served as an ambassador for Major League Baseball. When Barry Bonds approached and eventually surpassed his home run record, Aaron carried himself with the same dignity and class that he always had despite some personal reservations regarding accusations against Bonds.

A very Happy 77th Birthday to Hank Aaron.

Also born on this day:

Roberto Alomar (Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1968): Alomar will be joining Aaron in the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 24, 2011. Alomar posted a .300 career average over 17 seasons with a career .814 OPS. He topped 500 doubles, 200 home runs, 1000 RBI (1,134), and stole 474 bases. More notable was his defense at 2nd base, where he won 10 Gold Glove awards. Alomar was a 12 time All-Star and helped the Toronto Blue Jays to back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-1993.

Roger Peckinpaugh(1891-1910): The native of Wooster, Ohio played 17 seasons in the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, Washington Senators, and Chicago White Sox. He won the AL MVP award in 1925, at age 34, when the Senators lost the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. After his acquisition from the Indians, Peckinpaugh served as player-manager for 20 games in New York’s first season where they were known as the Yankees. After retiring as a player, Peckinpaugh managed the Indians for seven years (1928-1993, 1941).

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