April 11, 1975 was a special day for Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball fans.
Milwaukee County Stadium was packed with better than 48,000 spectators who wanted to see the return of Hank Aaron, the all-time career home run leader.
Aaron, who had just turned 41 years old a couple of months earlier, was penciled in as the designated hitter and contributed one hit, one RBI and a walk in the Brewers’ 6-2 win over the Cleveland Indians.
Aaron was back in the city where his major-league career began in 1954 as a 20-year-old with the Milwaukee Braves. He won National League Rookie of the Year with 13 home runs, 69 RBI’s and a .280 batting average. He helped the Braves win two straight pennants in 1957-58. Milwaukee became the talk of baseball after winning the 1957 World Series over the New York Yankees.
Aaron, who finished his career with 755 home runs and induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, died in his sleep Jan. 22 at age 86.
Born into poverty in Mobile, Alabama, his family couldn’t afford baseball equipment, so young Henry would hit bottle caps with sticks to develop the swing that later became one of the most dangerous in baseball.
In 1951, Aaron was signed by the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. He stayed with the team for a few months before the Braves signed him in 1952.
He swiftly worked his way through Milwaukee’s minor-league system, including a stint in Wisconsin with the Eau Claire Bears. As one of the first African-American baseball players in the major leagues, Aaron encountered Jim Crow laws after joining the Jacksonville Braves, another Milwaukee farm team, in 1953. He was not allowed to stay in the same hotels as his white teammates, eat in the same restaurants or drink from the same water fountains. Luckily, Braves manager Ben Geraghty supported Aaron on and off the field, and tried to help him when needed. Aaron would later credit Geraghty with encouraging him to stay in the game despite all the racial cruelty.
After joining the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, Aaron soon became a part of the most dangerous lineup in the National League alongside power-hitting teammates Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, Wes Covington and Del Crandall.
Hammerin’ Hank quickly became a fan favorite by winning the 1957 Most Valuable Player award with a league leading 44 home runs and 132 RBIs. The first-place Braves advanced to the World Series, where Aaron compiled 11 hits, three home runs, seven RBIs and a .393 batting average in a seven-game victory over the Yankees. Aaron’s 30 homers and 95 RBIs helped Milwaukee win its second straight pennant in 1958. This time, in a rematch with the Yankees, New York would win the World Series in seven games.
After that, Aaron would be a dangerous presence in the Braves for several seasons. While the team moved to Atlanta to start the 1966 season, the change of scenery didn’t stop Aaron, who led the National League that year with 44 home runs and 127 RBIs.
As Aaron continued his offensive productivity for the Braves, he was on the verge of eclipsing the 714 career home runs pounded out by Yankees’ legend Babe Ruth. As he drew closer to Ruth’s mark, Aaron started receiving hate mail and death threats from people who did not want a Black man to become the all-time home run hitter.
Aaron continued to do his job on the playing field. In Cincinnati on Opening Day 1974, he hit his 714th home run to tie Ruth.
The Braves traveled to Atlanta for their first home stand of the season against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nearly 54,000 people packed Fulton County Stadium hoping to see the record broken. In the fourth inning against Dodgers’ starter Al Downing, Aaron swung at a pitch that soared over the left field fence into the Braves’ bullpen. The pursuit of Ruth’s record was finally over. Aaron was the home run king.
After the completion of the 1974 season, Aaron had his wish fulfilled to be traded to Milwaukee. Playing for his former Milwaukee Braves teammate, manager Del Crandall, Aaron hit 12 homers and knocked in 60 run as the Brewers’ designated hitter in 1975. He returned the following season and hit 10 home runs before bringing his baseball career to an end with 755 career round-trippers.
While Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s career home run mark in 2007, Hammerin’ Hank is still No. 1 all-time with 2,297 RBIs, 1,477 career extra-base hits and 6,856 total bases. He had 3,771 career base hits, appeared in the All-Star Game 25 times, won two batting titles and three Golden Glove Awards. In August of 1982, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after his name appeared on 97.8 percent of ballots filled out by baseball writers.
Aaron remained an influence in baseball for the remainder of his life. President George W. Bush awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. That same year, Aaron threw the first pitch of the All-Star Game played at Milwaukee’s Miller Park.
He was also inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame for his baseball contributions in Eau Claire and Milwaukee.
For as long as baseball continues to be played, Henry Aaron will always be remembered for his prodigious accomplishments on and off the field.