The U.S. was just beginning to recover from the Great Depression in February, 1934 when Herbert and Estella’s third child, Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron, was born. The Aaron’s lived in a poor, black section of Mobile, Alabama known as “Down by the Bay”. Herbert worked at the shipyard and owned a tavern. The family moved to the middle-class Toulminville neighborhood when Hank was 8 years-old and eventually expanded to eight children. As the family grew, so did the need for more money.
For his part, Hank worked at whatever jobs he could find, earning money to help out financially. His real passion, however, was sports. He played football, but baseball was his true love. He spent as much time as possible playing ball in the neighborhood. School was a low priority for Hank as he was convinced from an early age that he could become a ballplayer. As a Junior, he transferred from the segregated public high school to a private school – the Josephine Allen Institute – because they had an organized baseball team.
There was no mistaking the fact that Hank was a talented baseball player. He was noticed by Ed Scott, the manager of the Mobile Black Bears – an all-black semipro team. Hank’s talent was so obvious, Scott brought him to the attention of McKinley “Bunny” Downs of the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns. Downs signed him to a contract as soon as Hank turned 18.
Aaron’s idol, Jackie Robinson, had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB), yet segregation and racism remained all too common. Once, as the Clowns were finishing a team meal in Washington D.C., there was no mistaking the sound of dishes being smashed in the kitchen, because blacks had eaten off the plates. That act made an indelible impression on the teenager and his teammates. The irony that they were in the capital of the ‘land of the free’ was not lost on the team.
Hank’s performance was head turning. The owner of the Clowns was so impressed that he convinced the Boston Braves of MLB to come scout his player. One line from the scouting report stood out: “This boy could be the answer!” The organization signed Aaron and assigned him to their minor league team, the Eau Claire Bears of the Northern League. It was the first time Aaron had ever played on an integrated team. He went on to earn Rookie of the Year honors. He then returned briefly to the Clowns, leading them to the Negro League World Series Championship.
By 1954, Aaron made the major league team roster of the Milwaukee Braves – the team had relocated from Boston. He hit his first major league home run on April 23, ten games into the season. The following year, 1955, he was elected to his first All-Star game. In 1957, he helped lead the Braves to the World Series Championship, beating the New York Yankees in seven games.
Hank Aaron went on to play twenty-three years in the major leagues – all but two with the Braves. He still holds the record for the most career runs-batted-in (2,297), extra base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856). Without doubt, however, Hank ‘the Hammer’ is best known for breaking what many considered to be a record that would never fall – Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. Break it he did – on April 8, 1974, in Atlanta (the Braves had relocated again) versus the Los Angeles Dodgers. Aaron is in the Baseball Hall of Fame and has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This stratospheric success was only possible because Hank Aaron is a fearless brand.
Fearless Brands combine talent with determination, resilience, and heart to achieve stratospheric success
There’s no denying Hank Aaron’s physical talent. What is less obvious are his intangible traits – the ‘secret sauce’ of his success if you will. Even though Jackie Robinson had broken the racial barrier in the majors, the path for other African-Americans remained tumultuous. At no point was this fact more obvious than when Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth’s home run record.
Aaron finished the 1973 season one home run shy of the record. During the off-season, Aaron received death threats against he and his family. The Braves organization received threats. The hate and vitriol – driven by the reverence fans had for Babe Ruth – was brought to this frightening level because Aaron was black. For their part, the Braves’ organization was not going to play Aaron in 1974 until the Braves played in Atlanta – they wanted the record broken in front of the home fans. MLB actually mandated that they play Aaron for at least two of three away games.
In spite of the massive amount of distractions – threats and the resulting fear, global attention, and the actual competition, Hammering Hank broke the record. He went on to hit a total of 755 home runs, a record that stood for 33 years.
There’s much to learn from Hank Aaron about building a fearless brand – about life:
Embrace your dreams – Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron knew from a very early age dreamed of being a ballplayer. He never let go of that dream, even in the face of adversity that most of us will never experience. His dream – his passion – drove his actions. Aaron is one of countless people who prove the power of embracing our dreams. Find your dream. Believe in it. Act on it. Live it.
Stay true to your ideals – Aaron had the concentration, resilience, and character to excel in spite of distractions and racism. Yet he never lost sight of those issues. He spoke openly about the racial inequality in MLB. Regarding the lack of black managers and front office personnel, Aaron once said: “On the field, blacks have been able to be super giants. But, once our playing days are over, this is the end of it and we go back to the back of the bus again.” Aaron used his character and his baseball legacy as a platform to push for change. Change is happening, perhaps slowly to some, but Aaron’s efforts have yielded results.
Encourage others – Some might want to keep their records stand forever – not Hank Aaron. “I’m hoping someday that some kid, black or white, will hit more home runs than myself. Whoever it is, I’d be pulling for him.” That kid finally came along. Many expected Aaron to diminish Barry Bond’s home run total due to the allegations that he used of performance enhancing drugs. Not Aaron’s style. Instead, this was his message: “I move over now,” he said, “and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historic achievement.” It’s important to realize that our accomplishments aren’t diminished when others achieve success. Be gracious. Be supportive.
Hank Aaron is a sports icon, a man of character, and a fearless brand. None of us will ever achieve the success he has – and that’s just fine. We can achieve the success of our dreams. We are more likely to do so if we learn the life lessons, personal brand building, and strength of character that Hank Aaron exhibits.