HAMMERIN’ HANK) (1934–)
Henry Aaron rose from the Negro Leagues and overcame virulent racism to become the greatest career home-run hitter in the history of the major leagues. Currently a vice president with the Atlanta Braves, Aaron was honored at a dinner attended by President Bill Clinton prior to the 1999 season, where it was announced that an annual award given to each league’s best hitter would be named after him. Aaron had come much farther than the distance between Atlanta and his birthplace, Mobile, Alabama.
Henry Aaron began his climb toward greatness while playing with the semipro Mobile Black Bears as a teenager. Bunny Downs, business manager of the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League, signed Aaron to play shortstop in 1952. Aaron did not remain long with the Clowns before coming to the attention of scouts for the Boston Braves and New York Giants. The Giants were not especially impressed, but Braves scout Dewey Griggs recognized the youngster’s potential.
Signed by the Braves, Aaron joined their Northern League affiliate in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to finish out the 1952 season. The next year, he was assigned to the Braves’ Sally League club in Jacksonville, Florida, where he helped integrate the league. He put together an awesome record that year, batting .362 with 208 hits, 115 runs scored, 125 RBIs, 36 doubles, 330 putouts, and 310 assists, all league highs; he also hit 22 home runs and 14 triples. That performance earned him promotion to the Braves, who in the meantime had moved to Milwaukee. When star outfielder Bobby Thomson broke an ankle in spring training, the rookie had a regular job.
The year 1954 was remarkable for Aaron personally and black America in general. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racially separate schools are by their nature unequal, thereby laying the legal foundation for desegregation in education. Prior to 1954, only six major league teams—six years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors—had allowed African Americans to play for them. The Negro Leagues, however, were dying, yielding to the promise of major league opportunities for African Americans. In fact, when Hank Aaron concluded his