Hank's Giving: Henry Aaron's Legacy continues off the field

Written by: Matt Rothenberg

Growing up in Mobile, Ala., during the Jim Crow era, Hank Aaron and his siblings faced many obstacles, yet they found a way to persevere.

Those challenges continued as Hank and his brother Tommie signed contracts with the Braves and climbed the ladder to the major leagues. As Hank surpassed Babe Ruth to become baseball’s home run king in 1974 and was later elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, there were many people he could look back upon as having helped him reach the sport’s pinnacle.

Years after his playing career ended, Aaron still recognized that there are many young people who need that helping hand to give them a boost in their lives. With that, he and his wife Billye began the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation in 1994. More than 20 years later, the Aarons’ foundation has awarded hundreds of scholarships to underprivileged youth from across the United States, enabling them the assistance necessary to help fulfill their dreams.

“Our intent was to encourage youngsters to dream a dream and then do what we could to help that dream take root and grow,” Billye Aaron told a crowd at Alabama’s Tuskegee University in 2003. “Henry had the feeling that we need to reach youngsters at an early age before their attention is diverted by the communities in which they live. If they focus, if they have talent, they can certainly achieve. If they do not become stars, they can certainly become good citizens.”

Initially, the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation set out to award scholarships to 755 recipients, a number equal to Aaron’s major-league home run total. That has since been far surpassed.

When Hank Aaron retired from the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976 – in the same city he began his big career – the Hank Aaron Youth Fund was established as a tribute to the man, as well as a way to assist Milwaukee-area youngsters. The fund, which provides scholarships in Aaron’s name through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, also works in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. Children who come from lesser means are encouraged to use the funds to develop talents and skills which may help them pursue their dreams.

In 2009, the parent organization – the Boys & Girls Clubs of America – partnered with Major League Baseball to create the “44 Forever” program. This initiative, which runs in perpetuity, received an endowment from MLB and is administered by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Forty-four members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America receive scholarships worth up to $2,500 apiece. The individuals come from all over the United States and are known as “Dream Chasers.”

Another area of the Aarons’ commitment to helping the youth of America comes in the endowed “4 for 4” scholarship. The first endowed scholarship came in honor of Commissioner Bud Selig and was given to a deserving recipient at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Selig’s alma mater.

Hall of Famer Hank Aaron (front, center) celebrates with the first recipients of college scholarships from the "4-for-4" program as part of his Chasing the Dream Foundation on June 5, 2010 in front of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. (Milo Stewart, Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Students from underrepresented groups, who show financial need, may apply for the scholarship. Those who have been a part of Boys & Girls Club programs in Milwaukee receive preference during the application process. It is expected that a total of 12 scholarships, that sum being the same number of times Aaron went 4-for-4 in a game, will be available at colleges and universities throughout the nation.

“Billye and I have been blessed with a great many friends who were there for us during our lives and now join us in our efforts to help young people become more than even they can imagine,” Hank Aaron said. “It is so rewarding to know that children will continue to benefit from 44 Forever and 4 for 4 long after we are gone. We hope they will remember us for this work, not just for the records I set on the field.”

Billye Aaron added that the 4 for 4 program was “a natural choice to extend our support to dream chasers new and old.”

The Aarons’ philanthropic efforts also extend to medicine, as they recently donated $3 million to the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. The money will go toward expanding existing buildings and creating the Billye Suber Aaron Student Pavilion.

“We are happy to partner in creating a facility that welcomes and educates the next generation of doctors, health care professionals and leaders for the communities we hold so dear,” Hank Aaron said. “It is fitting that the pavilion holds my wife’s name because of her long-held commitment to education and this dedicated school’s special place in her heart.”

The Aarons’ generosity extends to Cooperstown as well. Hank Aaron has pledged his entire collection of baseball artifacts to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – while encouraging others to do the same to preserve the game’s history.

“It’s the proudest moment of my life,” said Aaron, “to give everything to the Hall of Fame.”

In this season of giving, Hank Aaron and dozens of other Hall of Famers are among those leading the pack in making positive contributions to communities and individuals across the country.

Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

More on Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream

Henry Aaron hits home run No. 715

On April 8, 1974, Aaron’s fourth-inning home run gave him number 715.

Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream

Henry Aaron hits home run No. 715

On April 8, 1974, Aaron’s fourth-inning home run gave him number 715.

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