Henry Louis Aaron, nicknamed “Hammer” or “Hammerin’ Hank”, was an American professional baseball right fielder who played 23 seasons in Major League Baseball, from 1954 through 1976. Henry Aaron’s death at age 86 on January 22 was news that reverberated around the sports world. The one-time Home Run King was a universally-respected figure and his passing brought reactions from every corner of the country. Henry was a devoted father to Ceci Aaron, Gary Aaron, Dorinda Aaron, Gaile Aaron, Lary Aaron, Hank Aaron, Jr. Aaron’s first marriage was to Barbara Lucas in 1953. They had five children: Gary, Lary, Dorinda, Gaile, and Hank Jr. He divorced Barbara in 1971, and married Billye Suber Williams on November 13, 1973. With his second wife, he had one child, Ceci. Aaron was Roman Catholic, having converted in 1959 with his family. He and his wife first became interested in the faith after the birth of their first child, whom they baptized immediately.
On April 13, Aaron made his major league debut and was hitless in five at-bats against the Cincinnati Reds’ left-hander Joe Nuxhall. In the same game, Eddie Mathews hit two home runs, the first of a record 863 home runs the pair would hit as teammates. On April 15, Aaron collected his first major league hit, a double off Cardinals’ pitcher Vic Raschi. Aaron hit his first major league home run on April 23, also off Raschi. Over the next 122 games, Aaron batted .280 with 13 homers before he suffered a fractured ankle on September 5. He then changed his number to 44, which would turn out to look like a “lucky number” for the slugger. Aaron would hit 44 home runs in four different seasons, and he hit his record-breaking 715th career home run off Dodgers pitcher Al Downing, who coincidentally also wore number 44.
Aaron hit .314 with 27 home runs and 106 RBIs, in 1955. He was named to the NL All-Star roster for the first time; it was the first of a record 21 All-Star selections and first of a record 25 All-Star Game appearances. In 1956, Aaron hit .328 and captured the first of two NL batting titles. He was also named The Sporting News NL Player of the Year. In 1957, Aaron won his only NL MVP Award, as he had his first brush with the triple crown. He batted .322, placing third, and led the league in home runs and runs batted in. On September 23, 1957 in Milwaukee, Aaron hit a two-run walk-off home run against the St. Louis Cardinals, clinching the pennant for the Braves. After touching home plate he was carried off the field by his teammates. It is as of yet the only pennant-clinching walk-off home run in major league history in a non-playoff regular season game. Milwaukee went on to win the World Series against the New York Yankees, the defending champions, 4 games to 3. Aaron did his part by hitting .393 with three homers and seven RBIs.
Aaron himself downplayed the “chase” to surpass Babe Ruth, while baseball enthusiasts and the national media grew increasingly excited as he closed in on the 714 career home runs record. Aaron received thousands of letters every week during the summer of 1973, including hate mail; the Braves ended up hiring a secretary to help him sort through it.
Aaron (then age 39) hit 40 home runs in 392 at-bats, ending the 1973 season one home run short of the record. He hit home run number 713 on September 29, 1973, and with one day remaining in the season, many expected him to tie the record. But in his final game that year, playing against the Houston Astros (managed by Leo Durocher, who had once roomed with Babe Ruth), he was unable to achieve this. After the game, Aaron said his only fear was that he might not live to see the 1974 season.
The Braves returned to Atlanta, and on April 8, 1974, a crowd of 53,775 people showed up for the game — a Braves attendance record. The game was also broadcast nationally on NBC. In the fourth inning, Aaron hit home run number 715 off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. Although Dodgers outfielder Bill Buckner nearly went over the outfield fence trying to catch it, the ball flew into the Braves’ bullpen, where relief pitcher Tom House caught it. While cannons were fired in celebration, two college students  sprinted onto the field and jogged alongside Aaron for part of his circuit around the bases, temporarily startling him. A young Craig Sager actually interviewed Aaron between third and home for a television station, WXLT (now WWSB-Channel 40) in Sarasota. As the fans cheered wildly, Aaron’s parents ran onto the field as well. Braves announcer Milo Hamilton, calling the game on WSB radio, described the scene as Aaron broke the record:
“Henry Aaron, in the second inning walked and scored. He’s sittin’ on 714. Here’s the pitch by Downing. Swinging. There’s a drive into left-center field. That ball is gonna be-eee … Outta here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron! The fireworks are going. Henry Aaron is coming around third. His teammates are at home plate. And listen to this crowd!”