By Lenny Moon
In the modern era of Major League Baseball, it’s difficult to fathom that in the 50s and 60s, some of their premier performers were of African American decent. Carryovers from the Negro Leagues were such stars as Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson (all Hall of Fame members) just to name a few who matriculated over to offer their talents to MLB. Just prior to the 50s, icon Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier when he became the first Black player in the game during the 1947 campaign, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Among the migrants was a 19-year old prospect from the Indianapolis Clowns by the name of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron.
All of the aforementioned Negro League alums were power hitters, great defensive players, excellent base runners and had a certain “swag” to their approach. That was not necessarily the case with Aaron. The Mobile, Alabama native had so mastered the game of baseball that he was sometimes accused of loafing (by baseball broadcasters) or not giving his maximum effort. In reality it was quite the contrary. Part of it could perhaps be attributed to his even keel-type personality that was not necessarily the flamboyant style such as Mays or the charisma of Banks who was tabbed as “Mr Cub” during his illustrious career in the “Windy City”. Another part of the misinterpretation of “The Hammer” was that his knowledge of the game was such that he was usually properly positioned on defense (no requirement for diving catches) and rarely fooled at the plate due to his thorough homework of opposing pitchers and at times made it look easy. Consequently, Aaron skill-set was ranked amongst the best in the game with his less colorful and steady approach.
Aaron’s career trajectory was comprised of consistent productivity that spanned from 1954-1976. He deposited 30 or more home runs (15) times, drove home 90 plus runners (16) times, scored over 100 runs (15) times and batted over .300 on (14) occasions. Of course he’s best known for his 755 career home runs surpassing the previous standard of the 714 established by the immortal Babe Ruth during segregation (Barry Bonds eclipsed Aaron’s record with 762 during the steroid era). All told, “The Hammer” is MLB’s all-time leader in RBI (2297), total base (6856), career extra bases (1477) and career all-star appearances (25). Adding to his mind boggling stats are his 3771 hits and career .305 batting average. “The Hammer” was said to have been reluctant to move back to the south when the Milwaukee Braves uprooted to Atlanta in 1966. Former civil rights activists such as Andrew Young, Dr Martin L. King Jr and others persuaded him otherwise to utilized his high profile to positively impact the community outside of the baseball diamond. He and wife Billye established the Chasing the Dream Foundation where they have awarded hundreds of college scholarships to deserving minority students. Aaron was inducted in the MLB Hall of Fame in 1982.
During the 1974 season, Aaron commanded the attention of the baseball world when he smashed his 715th career home run. I caught up with his former teammate Dusty Baker (currently the Houston Astros skipper) as he reflected on that historic moment. (see video below)