“My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
— Hank Aaron
My father, a rabid St. Louis Cardinals fan, listened to virtually all their ball games on the radio from our home in Peoria, Illinois. Occasionally, we would drive the three hours to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play in person.
On one of those trips, the Milwaukee Braves were playing the Cardinals. That day, I arrived at the park a Cardinals fan, like my Dad. By the time I left the park, however, I had been converted into a Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews fan.
It wasn’t so much the game itself that dazzled me, though. It was the Braves’ pre-game batting practice: one pitch after another, I watched as Aaron and his teammate Mathews smashed their balls over the fences. I had never seen ballplayers hit the ball so hard, and I haven’t since. Together, Aaron and Mathews hit the most home runs as teammates, for a combined total 863. Long after Mathews started to slow down, Hank kept smashing baseball records.
Yet no feat would match Aaron’s historic assault on Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 homeruns.
It was a watershed moment for sports history and the making of a civil rights icon.
Neither success story happened overnight.
Henry Louis Aaron, who died at the age of 86, was born on Feb. 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama. He came of age in a nation struggling with segregation, racism and the distant, yet-unrealized dream of a world in which “black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’”
From his early years spent swinging at bottle caps with a broomstick, Hank went on to play semiprofessional baseball. In 1952, he quit high school to join the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. His talent was apparent to the baseball scouts. In fact, after a brief stay as the Clowns’ shortstop, Hank was sold to the Braves for $10,000. After excelling in the Braves’ farm system for several years, Aaron joined the Braves in Milwaukee.
The year was 1954, and it didn’t look like the 20-year-old Aaron would make the team. But then one of the starting outfielders broke an ankle, and Hank was tapped to replace him. From there, Aaron never looked back.