Black History Month essays: Local eighth graders honor the legacy of Hank Aaron |

Black History Month essays: Local eighth graders honor the legacy of Hank Aaron

Remembering the persistence and the quiet strength of baseball’s true home run king

Audrey Crowley and Maizy Douglas
Special to the Daily
Hank Aaron holds the ball he hit for his 715th career home run on April 8, 1974, in Atlanta Stadium against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Bob Daugherty/AP

February is Black History Month, and to celebrate and honor generations of African Americans who persevered through discrimination, students in Sophia Sopuch’s eighth grade English classes at Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy studied Hank Aaron. Sopuch had her students write essays on baseball’s one-time home run king, who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974 and finished his career with 755, a mark that stood for more than 33 years. “His recent passing sparked interest in my students when giving input on who they wanted to study,” Sopuch wrote of the assignment. “The students felt he was important to look at because he stood up against racism, specifically the onslaught of hate mail he received on a daily basis. I also believe that his perseverance and athleticism was something that the student athletes here at VSSA can understand.” To highlight their work, the Vail Daily is publishing essays by Audrey Crowley and Maizy Douglas.

Taking your best swing

By Audrey Crowley

As many legends have shown us, it’s always important to try your hardest no master the challenges thrown at you. Hank Aaron is a prime example of overcoming obstacles to perform at the top of his sport.

Hank Aaron was born on Feb. 5, 1934, in Mobile Alabama, and was the third of eight children. Living in Alabama as an African American was a very difficult task and was probably why Hank was the person that he grew up to be. Aaron was an inspirational person in more than one way; for starters, he was a record-smashing baseball player, an activist, and a truly resilient man.

Audrey Crowley

Life in Alabama was not easy for Hank, or his family, but from a very young age, Hank knew one thing and one thing for sure — that he was going to become a baseball player. After his father took him to a speech given by Jackie Robinson, Hank knew that baseball was the thing for him and that he would try his best to make a career out of it.

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As soon as Hank could, he began to work toward his dream and tried to make it become a reality. At the age of 15, Hank started to play semi-pro for the Mobile Black Bears (which was an all-Black team) and people were beginning to recognize his abilities on the baseball field. Shortly after, Aaron was signed to the Indianapolis Clowns which was part of the Negro Baseball League and he even led his team to the Negro League World Series. At this time, baseball was still mostly segregated, which meant that the white men played in one league and the African American men played in another.

After Aaron’s Negro League World Series appearance, his baseball career took off. He was signed to the Milwaukee Braves where his long and legendary career in Major League Baseball began. In 1954, Aaron was called upon to make his first Major League appearance, playing as a left fielder to fill in for Bobby Thompson, who at the time was injured. Despite going 0-for-5 in his first Major League appearance, Aaron was determined to keep his spot in the majors. After this slow start to his career, Aaron began to play better and in the 1955 season he made his first of 24 All-Star appearances where he batted .314 with 27 home runs!

Despite Hank’s amazing stats, it wasn’t until 1973 that he was thrown into a national spotlight and this was because he was about to break one of the baseball’s most precious marks: Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. On April 8, 1974, Aaron flew a pitch from Dodgers pitcher Al Downing into the left field bullpen giving him a record-breaking 715 career home runs. Even after breaking the record, Hank continued on full steam ahead. He ended his career with 755 home runs, 2,297 RBIs, and a total number of bases being 6,856 (these are all still current records).

Atlanta Braves outfielder Hank Aaron swings a bat at home plate during spring training in March 1974.
AP file photo

Even though Aaron was a phenomenal baseball player, he received less recognition than other players because he was a Black man. Throughout his amazing career, he received hate mail, death threats, and plans to hurt his family just because people were threatened by the fact that an African American could smash records and was more successful than they were.

Despite the negativity Aaron was receiving when he broke Ruth’s record, fans shockingly gave him a standing ovation. As Vin Scully said, “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.” By breaking this insane record, Aaron swayed the hearts of racists and showed the world that African Americans should be treated the same as everyone else because they have just as much potential to be a legend as any white person does.

Hank’s amazing career and personality have influenced Black and white athletes as well as influential people for generations. Andrew Young, an American politician, once said, “Through his long career, Hank Aaron has been a model of humility, dignity, and quiet competence. He did not seek adoration that is accorded to other national athletic heroes, yet he has now earned it.”

Not only do politicians respect Aaron but Muhammad Ali has stated “The only man I idolize more than myself.” Not only did people in the 1970s respect Aaron but the Christian Yelich, the National League MVP in 2018, has called Aaron “a legend on and off the field.” All of these quotes show just how much everyone respected Aaron not only for his amazing baseball skills but his overall attitude as a person. Aaron really showed the world that you are not remembered by your accomplishments but your attitude on your way to achieving your goals.

Unfortunately, Aaron passed away on Jan. 22, 2021, at the age of 86. Aaron was incredibly good at what he did, he stood up for what he believed in, and he never gave up no matter how many people tried to put him down. Because of the resilience he showed throughout his life, he will never be forgotten and will live on in the hearts and minds of many people for years to come. “In playing ball, and in life, a person occasionally gets the opportunity to do something great,” Aaron once said. “When the time comes, only two things matter: being prepared to seize the moment and having the courage to take your best swing.”

Hank Aaron looks over his shoulder during a news conference in New Orleans on Monday, April 1, 1974, during his chase to eclipse Babe Ruth’s home-run record.
AP file photo

Hank Aaron’s Legacy

By Maizy Douglas

“My motto was to always keep swinging,“ Hank Aaron said. ”Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.” Throughout history, there have been many influential people that stood up for what they believed in. Hank Aaron is one of them. Aaron grew up in the middle of segregation which made things very hard for him. After his childhood, he still faced issues because of his skin color. Aaron received many death threats and those threats made him stronger. He became a famous baseball player and after his career, he still helped the baseball community.

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, with eight other siblings. During this time, segregation was still happening in the United States, especially in Alabama. In Mobile, the whites and African Americans lived in separate areas. Aaron lived in the part of town called Down the Bay and most people who lived there did not have much money.

Maizy Douglas

At the age of 8, Aaron moved to a new neighborhood called Toulminville. This is where Aaron found his love for baseball. He played for his high school team and then he transferred to a private school to play baseball. Even after that, he kept going and started playing for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League. During this time, baseball was largely separated between Black men and white men. There were two different World Series, one for the white teams and one for the black teams. In 1952, Aaron took his team to win the World Series of the Negro League. Aaron was then signed on to join the Milwaukee Braves and that is where his baseball talent began to flourish, but as Aaron’s talent grew, so did his obstacles.

Hank Aaron holds up the ball after throwing out the ceremonial last pitch to former Manager Bobby Cox after a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers and the Braves at the final game at Turner Field on Oct. 2, 2016, in Atlanta.
AP Photo/John Amis

Aaron was now introduced to a whole new world of hatred. Many people were not happy that a black man had joined the major leagues. He received hate mail every day and it mostly consisted of people telling him that he should not be able to play because of his skin color. The letters then turned into death threats as Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s career record of home runs.

Some of the letters said, “you black animal, you will die in one of those games.” Another letter said “ Dear N—– Henry, You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it. … Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. My gun is watching your every black move.”

After a while, the hate mail got so out of hand that Aaron not allowed to open his letters and the team had to hire a secretary to sort the hate mail from fan mail. One of Aaron’s teammates quotes, “As close as we were, he would never ever let us know. But he didn’t have to tell us. I would see him drop the letter on the floor, he would go to (the) training room, and I’d pick it up and read it. I couldn’t believe what was being said to him, but Hank was never scared. But we sure were.” Aaron was affected by the letters in many different ways. He once said, “There’s no way to measure the effect those letters had on me, but I like to think every one of them added another home run to my total.” In the end, Aaron knew that he had the right to play baseball no matter what anyone else said.

Even after all the hate Aaron received, he still managed to push through and break more records. Aaron played 23 seasons of Major League Baseball (1954-76). Most of the time he played for the Braves, and at the end of his career, he played for the Brewers. Aaron was mostly known for hitting the ball extremely well — this is why he had the nickname Hammerin’ Hank. When he was not hitting, Aaron played in the outfield. No matter what team Aaron played for, he gave 100% to each team.

It is obvious that Aaron was one of the best baseball players ever. Aaron’s jersey number was 44 and after he left the Braves and the Brewers his number was retired. Aaron set multiple records that still have not been beaten to this day. These records include most runs batted in (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856). He is also in the top five for hits (3,771) and runs (2,174). The biggest record Aaron broke was the most career home runs. Aaron took this title from Babe Ruth on April 8, 1974. Some fans were very excited for him while others not so much. Aaron did not just break records but he also got many awards. Some of these awards include being the Most Valuable Player in the National League (1957), three Gold Glove awards, and being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

In 1976, Aaron retired from baseball but he really never left the sport. Aaron went back to the Braves as an executive coach. He served as a vice president of player development and was then promoted to senior vice president of the club. After Aaron’s coaching days were over, he settled down with his family and started a foundation called Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream. This foundation gave out grants and scholarships to kids to help with youth development.

Hank Aaron influenced many different people in his lifetime. From his hometown to all the states he traveled to, he made an impact. Aaron tried to do everything in his power to make sure that no one would ever have to go through all the hatred he experienced. Hank made sure no one ever felt like they were less.

Even at the lowest points in Aaron’s life, he continued to strive to be the better man. He did not let anything stop him from being the best at baseball. Even after he was retired, he continued to help the baseball community. We lost this legend on January 22 of this year. Even though he is gone, everyone around the world can feel his impact. Aaron was not just a baseball player, even though he was extremely good. He also persevered through racism and broke racial barriers. He will forever be remembered and his kindness will continue to spread throughout his foundation.

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