The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hank Aaron’s legacy isn’t only home runs, it’s about the power of determination

The Black baseball player didn’t let poverty or racism deter him from becoming among the sport’s best.

Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves tips his cap to the crowd July 21, 1973, in Atlanta, Georgia, after hitting 700th career home run. He was edging close to Babe Ruth’s home-run record, and the chase led to Aaron receiving thousands of racist letters threatening his family. (Anonymous/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Hank Aaron died last week. Aaron not only was a great baseball player. He was also an incredible story of determination.

Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 5, 1934. At that time, Southern states, including Alabama, were segregated. That means White people made laws that forced Black people such as Aaron to live separate lives. For example, African Americans had to attend separate schools, use separate water fountains and play on separate sports teams.

Aaron grew up poor. His parents could not afford regular sports equipment, so Aaron played baseball by hitting bottle caps with a broomstick. Try it some time. It’s really difficult.

In addition, Aaron had no one to show him how to hold a bat. So he hit “cross-handed.” That means when he was batting right-handed, Aaron placed his right hand at the bottom of the bat handle and his left hand on top instead of the opposite (and traditional) way.

Still, Aaron was a baseball and football star in high school. He also played on several semipro baseball teams in the Mobile area as a teenager, although his mother wouldn’t let him travel out of town with one of the teams.

At age 17, Aaron (still hitting cross-handed) signed a professional baseball contract with the Indianapolis Clowns, a team in the Negro Leagues. In the early 1950s, Major League Baseball (MLB) teams did not allow many African Americans to play, so Black players had their own leagues and teams.

100 years ago, Black baseball players got a league of their own

The Clowns played serious baseball but would also do tricks and fool around to entertain the crowds, as the Harlem Globetrotters do on the basketball court.

MLB scouts soon recognized Aaron’s talent. In 1952, he signed a contract with the Boston Braves (later the Milwaukee and now Atlanta Braves). After excelling in the minor leagues (he no longer batted cross-handed), Aaron played his first season for the Braves in 1954.

Aaron quickly became a star. He led the Braves to a World Series championship in 1957 and was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

Aaron played 23 seasons and was, at the time, among the career leaders in many important offensive categories. He was first in “runs batted in” and total bases, third in hits and fourth in runs scored.

The most famous record Aaron set, however, was when he broke Babe Ruth’s for most career home runs. It should have been a happy time for Aaron, but some people did not like a Black player aiming to break a record held by a White player. As Aaron approached breaking the record, some people wrote him terrible letters threatening him and his family.

When other people found out about the hate-filled letters, some fans, including kids, sent Aaron kind, encouraging letters. It is estimated that Aaron received 930,000 pieces of mail by the end of 1973. He endured all the hate and pressure and broke Ruth’s record on April 8, 1974. Aaron’s story makes him a baseball legend and an American hero.

Read more Score columns:

Jackie Robinson was a towering figure in American history

Kenny Washington paved way for black players in pro football

Baseball’s Jackie Robinson wasn’t the only black athlete to make sports history