When Hank Aaron passed at the age of 86, he left behind more than a legacy as America’s baseball hero and home run king. He broke color barriers, became a role model for players (not just players of color either) and in the process, inspired generations of youth baseball players.
Much has been written on his stellar career that spanned more than two decades and included 624 doubles, 755 home runs, 2,297 RBI, 2,174 runs, 3,771 hits and 240 stolen bases.
It wasn’t until after his retirement, however, that he realized another goal, also relating to the number 755. But this time, it was impacting children.
To understand that, it’s essential to know that Aaron and his wife Billye were involved in community and charity initiatives following Aaron’s retirement from baseball. Aaron himself continued to lobby for efforts to encourage more young black athletes to stay in baseball and he became the first black American to hold a senior management position in baseball as a front office executive with the Atlanta Braves.
In addition to his support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Aaron and Billye together founded the Chasing the Dream Foundation in 1994, which had the goal of supporting underprivileged youth.
According to 11 Alive, the goal of the foundation was simple. Aaron had chased his dreams on the ball field and became a Hall of Famer. In retirement, he wanted to make sure children without the financial means to chase their own dreams could have the same opportunities he had.
"I think that people can look at me and say, he was a great baseball player but he was an even greater human being," Aaron said in an interview done in 2010.
He took his home run number of 755 and created a goal: he wanted to endow that many children with scholarships, and to see that they received the mentoring they needed to succeed.
"The greatest thing, I know people think that’s that the home runs, 'oh you hit 755 home runs,' but the greatest thing that I feel that the contribution I've made since I've been out of baseball was to helping 755 in my foundation," Aaron said during the 2011 interview.
Not only helping that many, but in the following years, surpassing it to reach hundreds more children.
"Such philanthropists, and not only did they give of their money, but their kindness," said Sharmen Gowens, CEO of the YWCA of Greater Atlanta.
Gowens said Hank and Billye were her neighbors and close friends, but she added that, perhaps most importantly, the pair was always willing and wanting to give back, especially to fund a child's dream or education.
"Countless, countless children out there who are now adults - I'm sure that are where they're now because of Hank Aaron," Gowens said.
"When you think of Hank Aaron, you think of a priceless individual," added Frank Sanchez, the National Vice President of Sports, Entertainment & Alumni Relations with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. According to Sanchez, Aaron sat on the organization's board of governors. In 2007, Major League Baseball, with Aaron's support, invested $2 million to award scholarships every year through Chasing the Dream to Boys and Girls Club members.
And, notes, 11 Alive in this excerpt, Aaron continued his service:
“For Hank, he wanted us to reach every kid possible," Sanchez recalled. "So, there was Hank the baseball advocate, who, when we brought our kids to a game, would open up all doors so our young kids could have the experience. And there was Hank, the advocate of Boys and Girls Club of America as a board person.”
More than 350 children nationwide have received the Boys and Girls Club Chasing the Dream program scholarships over the years. And, notes Sanchez, it was not just baseball hopefuls, or even student athletes in general, who benefitted.
“There are people out here playing the violin because of Hank Aaron. There are young men and women dancing because of Hank Aaron. There are those you’re playing baseball because of Hank Aaron, there are those that went to summer school to get to the next level because of Hank Aaron," Sanchez noted.
Hank and Billye Aaron also gave several large gifts directly to universities in Atlanta and elsewhere over the years, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, like Morehouse and Clark Atlanta.
A Morehouse spokesman estimates the couple had donated $4 million dollars’ worth of scholarships and other gifts. At Clark Atlanta, the couple in 2011 established a $100,000 endowed scholarship through the Chasing the Dream Foundation. They also donated many scholarships to Atlanta Technical College students.
And in the end, the Aarons continued to set an example, lining up for their COVID vaccinations and in the words of USA TODAY, attempting “to reassure Black people, who have well-founded suspicions of an American medical system that has abused and still ignores people of color.”