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Striving in Baseball and Civil Rights

On January 22, 2021, baseball Hall of Famer Henry “Hank” Aaron died at the age of eighty-six. Aaron began his professional career with the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 as an eighteen-year-old. His Major League Baseball debut came with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954. He played nearly his entire career with that franchise. In Milwaukee’s 1957 World Series victory over the New York Yankees, Aaron hit for a .393 average, including three homers. Hammerin’ Hank was an All-Star twenty-five times and retired with 755 home runs. Chicago Cubs fans remember him as menacing Cubs’ pitching at Wrigley Field where Aaron’s fifty homers were his top at any opposing ballpark.

For all his achievements on the field, Hank Aaron should also be remembered for his work for racial justice and civil rights. When the Braves relocated from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, Aaron became the star of the first MLB franchise in the South. He endured constant racism and an extraordinary amount of death threats as he neared Babe Ruth’s home run record in the 1970s, which he broke in 1974. That year, he set a Guinness world record for most letters received by a private citizen, but many of the letters were classified as hate mail.

After his playing career, Aaron became known for his philanthropy and used his platform to draw attention to civil rights issues. The NAACP established the Hank Aaron Humanitarian Award in Sports in his honor, and in 2001, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his philanthropy and humanitarian endeavors.

Locally, Aaron occasionally collaborated with Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. and his Chicago-based Operation PUSH Coalition (now the Rainbow PUSH Coalition), an organization that grew out of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket. They had met in the late 1960s as each gained prominence in their respective professions. Aaron is pictured here at an Operation PUSH annual conference in suburban Rosemont, Illinois, in 1987 when he spoke about racial justice in the MLB.

See more images of Hank Aaron from our Chicago Sun-Times photography collection.

Operation PUSH Convention featuring Jesse Jackson, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson’s daughter, and others speaking on equality in sports at the O’Hare Sheraton Hotel, 6501 Mannheim Road, Rosemont, Illinois, June 29, 1987. Chicago Sun-Times collection, CHM. Clockwise from top left: ST-15001288-0025, ST-15001288-0062, ST-15001288-0020, ST-15001288-0053. 

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