No. 14: Hank Aaron
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"For me he was the toughest out. Everybody else, I had a plan. It may not work, but I knew what I was going to try and do that day. But Henry, I just never, never figured out what I was going to do," says Sandy Koufax about Hank Aaron on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, Oct. 29, 10 p.m. ET and Sunday, Oct. 31, 8 a.m. ET).
Aaron, whose 755 home runs and 2,297 runs batted in are the most in major league history, was voted No. 14 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
April 8, 1974 -- Aaron was 15 months old when Babe Ruth hit the last of his record 714 homers. Thirty-eight years later, in the summer of '73, Aaron's chase to beat the Babe heated up. So did the mail. He received more than an estimated 3,000 letters a day.
Unfortunately, much of it was hate mail, including death threats, sent by racists. The year ended with Aaron at 713 homers.
Hammerin' Hank was determined not to let the threats distract him from his quest. On his first swing of the 1974 season, he tied Babe's record in Cincinnati. Tonight at Atlanta Stadium, 53,775 fans - the largest crowd in Braves history - came out to witness history. Aaron didn't disappoint them.
In the fourth inning, on his first swing of the evening, he ripped a fastball from Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Al Downing into the Braves bullpen, where it was caught by reliever Tom House. To everyone's relief, there were no shots fired from the crowd, nobody out to kill Aaron for besting Ruth - just cheers and adulation.
As Aaron rounded second base, two college students appeared and ran alongside him. He was mobbed by his teammates when he reached home plate.
Baseball had a new home-run king.
Odds and ends Aaron grew up in Mobile, Ala., as a reserved kid who rarely got into trouble and had few friends.
Aaron credits his hauling ice as a 16-year-old for developing his wrists. He worked from 6 a.m. until 1 p.m. - for $2.25 a day.
After his numerous errors at shortstop and second base in the minors, the Braves moved Aaron to the outfield. He was dispatched to a winter-league team in Puerto Rico after the 1953 season.
In his major league debut in 1954 against the Reds, Aaron went 0-for-5, with two strikeouts.
Aaron wore No. 5 as a rookie, before he switched to No. 44 in 1955.
Even though he led the National League with 200 hits and a .328 batting average in 1956, he was pictured backward - hitting left-handed - on his 1957 baseball card.
Aaron's 1,000th hit was a single off Koufax in 1959. At 25, he was the second youngest to reach that plateau.
In 1963, Aaron was a 30-30 man, with 44 homers and a career-high 31 steals. He finished with 240 thefts in his career.
After the Braves clinched the N.L. West in 1969, Aaron celebrated with his teammates. Somehow, he got home, but he didn't have a key. With the door locked, he tried breaking in through a window, and severely gashed his hand. Despite the injury, he batted .357 with three homers and seven RBI in 14 at-bats as the Braves were swept in three games by the Mets.
Tommie Aaron played with his older brother on the Braves in parts of seven seasons between 1962 and 1971.
On May 17, 1970, Aaron was the first player to compile 500 homers and 3,000 hits with an infield single off Cincinnati's Wayne Simpson at Crosley Field, where Aaron made his major league debut. At the time, only one other player had ever gotten 3,000 hits and 200 homers - Stan Musial (475 homers, 3,630 hits).
Aaron appeared in an early '70s Wheaties commercial in which he had trouble fielding balls and batting because he didn't eat the cereal.
In 1972, Walter Cronkite announced that Aaron had just become the highest paid player in baseball when he signed a three-year contract for $200,000 a season.
The Braves and Aaron would have liked Hank to sit out the first three games of the 1974 season, so he could tie and break the record at home. But Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered the Braves to play Aaron twice in Cincinnati. Kuhn did not attend the game when Aaron hit No. 715.
Aaron was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Dave May and pitcher Roger Alexander on Nov. 2, 1974.
Aaron's 755 homers came off 310 pitchers. Don Drysdale was his most frequent victim (17). Aaron hit his most homers in the first inning (124) and July was his most productive month (152). Exactly 400 homers were solo shots. Only once did he hit three homers in a game, in San Francisco on June 21, 1959.
Among Aaron's major league records is a dubious one - grounding into 328 double plays.
In 1982, he came within nine votes (out of 415) of being the first player to be unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Aaron has always been a frequent critic of baseball for not hiring more African-Americans as managers or in significant front-office positions.