Hank Aaron, Baseball’s Home Run King Who Defied Racism, Dies at 86

After beginning the 1952 season with the Clowns, Aaron was signed in June by the Braves, who were in their last season in Boston. They assigned him to play for their farm team in Eau Claire, Wis., and he was named the Northern League’s rookie of the year that season.

He was promoted in 1953 to play second base for the Jacksonville, Fla., team of the South Atlantic League, or the Sally League, becoming one of the circuit’s first five Black players.

Now he was back in the Old South.

“The whites used to yell from the stands and call us alligator bait,” Felix Mantilla, an infielder from Puerto Rico who roomed with Aaron at Jacksonville and later joined him in Milwaukee, told Howard Bryant in “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron” (2010). “Jacksonville wasn’t so bad. But places like Columbus and Macon, those places were wicked.”

Aaron led the Sally League in hitting and was voted its most valuable player. But he was a poor infielder, so he learned to play the outfield in Puerto Rican winter ball and in 1954 earned a trip to spring training with the Braves, who were in their second season in Milwaukee.

When outfielder Bobby Thomson, newly acquired from the New York Giants (less than three years after his celebrated pennant-winning homer at the Polo Grounds), broke an ankle during the exhibition season, Aaron took his place.

He hit his first major league home run on April 23, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, off the Cardinals’ Vic Raschi, the former Yankee standout. Thomson returned in July, but Aaron remained a regular until he, too, broke an ankle early in September. He finished with 13 home runs and a .280 batting average.

Aaron emerged as a star in 1955, hitting .314, and he won his first batting title the following season, batting .328. When he was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1957, he came close to capturing the batting triple crown, leading the league in home runs (44) and runs batted in (132) and finishing in a tie for third place in hitting with a .322 average.

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