It is difficult to be elected into the baseball Hall of Fame; it’s a club with only 306 members out of the almost 18,000 players who make up the sport’s major league history. Of those 306 members, 60 are baseball executives, managers, or umpires. Reconciling these numbers and careers becomes even more complicated when it is taken into consideration that much data from the old Negro Leagues is incomplete, undiscovered, or nonexistent. Mathematically, it can be figured that slightly more than 1 percent of all players of record make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Of that number, there is an elite smaller group of baseball’s very best, of which Hank Aaron is a member.
When the 1973 baseball season closed, fans anticipated the 1974 season with more than casual interest. Atlanta Braves’ outfielder Hank Aaron had finished the season with a career total 713 home runs, only two blasts shy of breaking Babe Ruth’s career total. Aaron’s batting had been at a torrid pace—he had hit forty or more home runs in three of the previous five years and had more than one hundred runs batted in during two of those five years. Although he showed no signs of slowing down, his time in baseball was coming to an end, and breaking Babe Ruth’s record would be one of the most significant milestones, not only in Aaron’s career but in the history of the game.
On his path to breaking the home-run record, Aaron was forced to tolerate the insults and hatred of racists who did not want to see a black man at the pinnacle of America’s pastime. In an interview with the Academy of Achievement in September 2013 Aaron stated, “I had many, many, many death threats. I couldn't open letters for a long time, because they all had to be opened by either the FBI or somebody. I couldn't open letters. I had to be escorted.” At his finest hour, Aaron was unable to reflect on his accomplishments because of the potential for danger to him and his family. This did not stop his performance, however.
Aaron tied Ruth’s mark of 714 during the Braves’ 1974 opening series with Cincinnati. The Braves then returned to Atlanta to host the Los Angeles Dodgers, and on April 8, 1974, Dodger pitcher Al Downing threw a fastball that Aaron crushed four hundred feet for home run 715. After a winter of waiting, fans everywhere celebrated the new home-run king, and Aaron was able to put the chase aside and return to the business of baseball.
Although the numbers do not define the man, they do go a long way toward defining one of the best baseball careers ever. Aaron remains among the top ten players in many batting categories, including runs batted in and extra base hits, in which he is first on both lists (2,297 and 1,477, respectively); home runs, in which he is second (755); and hits, in which he is third (3,371). Another honor that is easy to forget is that he also won three Gold Gloves from 1958 through 1960. The winner of so many of baseball’s awards was recognized by the sport again when, in 1999, Major League Baseball created the Hank Aaron Award to honor annually the best hitters from both of the major leagues.
Since his retirement in 1976, Aaron has remained busy in baseball, business, and charity. Baseball historian Bill Johnson describes Aaron’s activity since leaving the field:
After retiring, Aaron returned to Atlanta as vice president of player development for the Braves, and on August 1, 1982, was formally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, although an inexplicable 2.2 percent of the ballots did not contain his name. He also worked for a time for Turner Broadcasting, and opened Hank Aaron BMW in Atlanta. His auto empire eventually grew to multiple dealerships in Georgia, although he sold all but one in 2007, and he expanded his business ventures to include a number of smaller restaurants as well.
Aaron has also made significant contributions to philanthropy through his Chasing the Dream Foundation, created by Aaron and his wife, Billye, and endowed by Major League Baseball and other benefactors. In 2002 Hank Aaron received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
The Academy of Achievement, Hank Aaron interview
Society for American Baseball Research, Hank Aaron article by Bill Johnson