Black History Month: How Hank Aaron smashed home runs and racial barriers

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Image: Dean Yusuf

Hank Aaron passed away Jan. 22, 2021. He was one of the most iconic baseball players of all time. More importantly, though, Aaron was emblematic of racial and social justice, playing in the South during a time of racial conflict. He revolutionized the game with both his talent and his leadership.

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and signed his first professional contract in 1951, according to his biography. While playing with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, Aaron experienced frequent racism. He recalled in an interview with Total Baseball Encyclopedia that a diner shattered its plates after he and his Black teammates ate with them.

As Aaron excelled at the plate, he eventually received offers from the Giants and Braves of the major leagues, signing with the latter team and debuting in 1954. The franchise was still in Milwaukee at the time, but moved back to Atlanta later in Aaron’s career.

Aaron played at a high level from the very beginning, hitting .280 with a 104 OPS+ in his rookie season. By 1957, though, he was dominant, winning the MVP Award and smashing 44 home runs. Aaron’s career continued to progress into the next decade, where he consistently batted above .300 and was an offensive force for the Braves.

In 1966, the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. Hank Aaron was now the Most Valuable Player of a team rooted in the Deep South.

Death threats rolled in as Aaron continued to shine. The racism reached its peak going into the early 1970s, as Aaron’s home run total approached 714, the record held by the iconic Babe Ruth. Aaron said later that he read the letters. He told Sports Illustrated that they “remind (him) what people are like.”

On April 8, 1974, Aaron broke one of the most iconic career records in baseball history by hitting his 715th career home run. In the middle of the South, a crowd of mostly white people erupted. People stormed the field.

Aaron had set a new precedent for baseball, and a new precedent for America.

After his playing career, he acted as vice president for the Braves organization. He was awarded the Springarn Medal by the NAACP. Aaron also received both the Presidential Citizens Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was a national public figure, even receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in January to set an example for those around him.

Hank Aaron didn’t just set a precedent, he set examples. He will be remembered as a breaker of social barriers, records, and baseballs.