What the Scouts Saw
By Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM
Compared to today’s MLB players, Hank Aaron took a very unusual and extremely difficult route to the big leagues. Born in 1934 in Mobile, AL, Hank was 13 years old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB. He grew up in a 3-bed room home with 7 siblings during the Great Depression.
Having never played any form of organized baseball, including high school baseball, his first encounter with a MLB franchise was a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949 when he was 15-years old. The Dodgers passed on the skinny, right-handed shortstop who batted cross-handed (he hit with his left hand above hit right instead of below it).
During his junior year in high school, Aaron joined the Prichard Athletics, an independent Negro league team, followed by the Mobile Black Bears, another Negro league team. While on the Bears, he earned $3.00 per game, which was a dollar more than he got from the Athletics.
In 1951, at age 18, he signed a contract with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League. The 6-foot, 180-pound shortstop played for the Clowns for 3 months, hit .366, earned $200 per month and was given $2.00 per day for meal money. Later he reported that the $2.00 per day meal money allowed him to wash his clothes every day, which was important because he didn’t have a second change of clothes.
As a result of his standout play with the Clowns, he received two offers from MLB teams via telegram; one from the New York Giantsand the other from the Boston Braves. Years later, Aaron said, “I had the Giants’ contract in my hand. But the Braves offered 50 dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – 50 dollars.”
In June of 1952, the Clowns sold his contract to the Boston Braves for $10,000. He played second base and played so well that he was named the 1952 Northern League Rookie of the Year. He later said, “It wasn’t too much of a transition from playing the type of baseball we played in the Negro League to playing professional baseball. The biggest difference was that I was making $600 per month instead of $400 a month and getting $3.00 a day meal money instead of $2.00 a day.”
He moved to the outfield and made his MLB debut in March of 1954 at the age of 20; just 2 years after signing a minor league contract and never looked back. The attached scouting report said that he had the potential to make it to the big leagues in 4 to 5 years, but he made it in 2. It also said that he was a fast runner, good fielder and a good hitter with fair power. His strongest asset was his all-around athletic ability and his weakness was that his experience was limited to 3 months with the Indianapolis Clowns. The Braves took a chance based on his athleticism and his ability to hit.
A MLB team signed him despite that the fact that he had never played high school baseball and his only experience in organized baseball was 3 months with the Clowns. He made it to the Big Leagues at age 20 with just 2 years of minor league experience and he made it to the Hall of Fame with dignity and grace despite open racism and threats against his life.
The Braves’ scout that signed him, Dewey Griggs, saw something in Aaron’s raw talent, but there is no way that he could have projected that a skinny, 18-year-old who taught himself to hit by swinging at bottle caps with a broomstick would become a Hall of Fame player.
Hank Aaron is proof that a player with talent who works hard and accepts personal responsibility for his success and failure can succeed despite extreme circumstances beyond his control.
When explaining how he overcame hardships and limitations, Aaron said, “When you don’t have a lot, you take it upon yourself to learn how to do things, to discover what you are capable of. I never thought that I was developing some kind of talent by hitting bottle caps. It’s just what we had available. My friend would pitch bottle caps to me, or I would toss them up myself, and we would do it all day long. Some say that bottle caps gave me the eye to hit a baseball. I feel like God gave me the eye to do some of the things I did in baseball, and I took it upon myself to learn how to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. I always believed that no matter what happens, you have to be the best that you can possibly be.”
Aaron struck out in only 11% of his Major League at bats (1,382 Ks in 12,364 AB). In 23 Major League seasons, he never struck out more than 100 times in a season. Was it the bottle caps or his hard work, focus and dedication that helped him maximize his potential?
Hank Aaron had talent and a love for the game. He once said that he learned to love the game by listening to it on the radio and that he wanted to play so bad that he would have played in the Negro Leagues for free. He had qualities that no scout in the 1950’s could have seen or put on a scouting report, especially after having seen him play only 3 games with the Clowns. It would be impossible, even using today’s advanced scouting methods, analytics and performance metrics to project that any player, especially one with almost no actual experience in the game would achieve what he did:
- 23-year Major League Seasons (Milwaukee Braves (1954-1965), Atlanta Braves (1966-1974), Milwaukee Brewers (1975-76)
- 25 time All-Star (MLB record)
- 3 Gold Gloves (1958, 1959, 1960)
- National League MVP (1957)
- 2 Time NL Batting Champion (1956 and 1959)
- 4 Time NL Home leader (1957, 1963, 1966, 1967)
- 3,298 Games played
- 12,364 At Bats
- 3,7771 Hits
- 2,714 Runs
- 755 Home Runs
- 1,477 Extra Base Hits (MLB record)
- 2,297 RBI (MLB record)
- 6,856 Total Bases (MLB record)
- Career Batting Average .305
- 17 seasons with 150 or more hits
- First Ballot Hall of Fame (1982)
- Presidential Medal of Freedom (2002)
Hank Aaron’s younger brother, Tommie, followed in his footsteps and played 7 years in the Major Leagues; 3 with the Milwaukee Braves (1962, 1963, 1965) and 4 with the Atlanta Braves (1968-1971). Hank and Tommie were Braves teammates during parts of 4 seasons. After retiring, Tommie, worked as a Minor League manger (1893-1978) and Major League coach (1979-1984) for the Braves.
For more information on Hank Aaron’s life in and out of baseball, see: I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron and Hank Aaron: A Tribute to The Hammer 1934-2021.