Hank Aaron & 715Jason O'Day
It is difficult to find a figure who has had more of a lasting impact on professional sports than Hank Aaron. He followed in the footsteps of another sports giant – Frankie Robinson, whom Aaron idolized. Baseball was his calling, and he left an enduring influence on both the sport and the country.
Hank Aaron first started playing semi pro ball while still in high school, and at age 18 he was playing for one of the last teams in the Negro Baseball League, the Indianapolis Clowns. In 1952, Hammerin’ Hank joined the Boston Braves on his way to playing in his first major league game in 1954 with the Milwaukee Braves. He became the first Black star of a professional sports team in the South when Milwaukee moved to Atlanta in 1966.
There is probably no one in professional sports who became the target of more hate, rage or death threats than Hank Aaron, all because he was an African American who dared to use his talents to break the record of a white man. On April 8th, 1974, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s longstanding record by hitting his 715th homerun. He ended his career with 755 which would stand as the most for over three decades, but that number – 715 – arguably holds more weight and makes a bigger impact than nearly any other statistic in professional sports. And with his accomplishment occurring during major civil unrest throughout the country due to racism, the number 715 is that much more important.
Hank Aaron passed away on Friday, January 22nd, 2021, at the age of 86. He was a sports icon, but more importantly, he was a quiet yet impactful civil rights icon. His work and efforts in the civil rights arena only grew during the years after his retirement from baseball in 1776. He was a longtime supporter of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP. He also co-founded, along with his wife, the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation with a focus on helping children develop their potential.
Aaron, in 2002, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in recognition for his work in philanthropy and humanitarian efforts. In 2005, he received the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award from the NAACP, which also established the Hank Aaron Humanitarian in Sports Award in his honor.
Throughout his professional and personal life, Hank Aaron – along with his family – was on the receiving end of constant and horrible racial abuse and threats. However, while he admitted later the impact it all truly had on him, you wouldn’t have noticed it while he was on the playing field. He handled the ugliness with grace and dignity and has more than earned his rightful place as a civil rights icon and a part of American history.
Rest in peace, Hammerin’ Hank.