10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History

Henry Aaron learned to play baseball on the streets of Mobile. Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s. Library of Congress

Henry Aaron

Before the steroid era in baseball distorted forever the records of the game, Henry Aaron, known to all as Hank Aaron, was baseball’s all-time leader in career home runs, with 755 over the course of a twenty-three year career in Major League Baseball. Most of his career came before the high salaries ushered in by free agency and long term contracts. Aaron came from a poor family but managed to accrue a fortune of several millions through both baseball and business. Of Aaron’s seven siblings one, his brother Tommie Aaron, played in the Major Leagues with him.

Aaron was born in the poor black section of Mobile known as Down the Bay, the third of the eight children which eventually made up the family. His father worked as an assistant to a boilermaker in the Mobile drydocks and also owned a small tavern. As a small boy the family could not afford baseball equipment, and Aaron made his own bats out of scraps of wood he found or fallen limbs, using bottle caps and other items as targets to hone his batting eye. Aaron batted crosshanded in his youth, mostly because he had nobody to coach him otherwise, and it was the most comfortable swing for him.

When he was eight the family moved to Toulminville, a more middle class neighborhood, and Aaron began playing in neighborhood ballparks, and developed a lack of interest in school as his baseball skills became more refined. He played baseball and football at Central High School (segregated) for two years before moving on to the Josephine Allen Institute, a private school where he concentrated on baseball. In 1951 at the age of 18, Aaron quit school and signed to play with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. He played part of one season for the Clowns before his contract was purchased by the Milwaukee Braves.

Aaron remained with the Braves for most of the rest of his career, and encountered the racism from other players and fans that all of the newly arrived black players experienced, including being forced to eat in separate facilities and not being allowed to stay with the rest of the team in some hotels. In 1966 when the Braves relocated to Atlanta he experienced a repeat of much of the racism directed at him personally and in 1974 as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s career record he felt it yet again, that time including death threats.

Aaron joined the Braves’ front office after he retired as a player and entered into business, acquiring and later selling several automobile dealerships throughout Georgia, and a chain of restaurants across the United States. In 2014 the former little boy who couldn’t afford a baseball gave one away, autographed, to all purchasers of a vehicle at his Hank Aaron BMW dealership in the Atlanta area. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and built a fortune estimated at more than $25 million dollars from his investments and businesses, about what his peak years would have been worth to a major league baseball club today in terms of a year’s salary.