Hank Aaron, the baseball Hall of Famer, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest players ever to step onto the field, died Friday (Jan. 22) at the age of 86. His daughter confirmed his passing to Atlanta station WSB-TV, but the cause of death is unclear.
Aaron, a right fielder who played most of his career with the Atlanta (and Milwaukee) Braves, is best known as the man who hit 715 home runs in 1974 to break the Babe Ruth’s longstanding record set with the New York Yankees. That record stretched to 755 home runs and was only surpassed in 2007 by San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds.
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Known as “Hammerin’ Hank,” Aaron is regarded along with others like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe and Willie O’Ree as one of the league of Black athletes in history who not only performed far above and beyond the demands of their individual sports, but also faced down the explicit racism that confronted them throughout their lives.
Ali once called Aaron, “the only man I idolize more than myself.”
Henry Louis Aaron was born into poverty in Mobile, Ala., in 1934, the third of eight children. He started at the segregated Central High School, where he played baseball and football and excelled at both. But by his junior year, he moved on to the private Josephine Allen Institute, which also had a baseball team.
But by 1951, Aaron had left school for an opportunity with the Indianapolis Clowns. On the Negro Leagues team, he briefly played shortstop and was a cleanup hitter before being traded to the Boston Braves, which sent him to play as a minor leaguer. But soon the team moved to Milwaukee and Aaron played there as one of the emerging class of Black players who had followed Robinson into Major League Baseball, many of whom had come from the Negro Leagues.
Robinson was one of his role models and years after he retired, he remembered watching what he experienced.
“He had to be bigger than the Brooklyn teammates who got up a petition to keep him off the ballclub,” Aaron wrote in TIME magazine in 1999. “Bigger than the pitchers who threw at him or the base runners who dug their spikes into his shin, bigger than the bench jockeys who hollered for him to carry their bags and shine their shoes, bigger than the so-called fans who mocked him with mops on their heads and wrote him death threats.”
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He spent his most amazing years with the Braves, and by his fourth season with them, he had 44 home runs and 132 RBIs, winning the season’s MVP award. In 1957, he helped the team win a World Series, its first since its move to Milwaukee.
In 1965 the team moved again to Atlanta, and it was there that the drive toward breaking Ruth’s record began. On April 8, 1974, he did just that on a 1-0 pitch from L.A. Dodgers pitcher Al Downing, swatting the ball over the wall at Fulton County Stadium.
But the air of racism was thick at the time with many baseball fans incensed that Aaron, a Black man would dethrone a white baseball king. He said he had to have a bodyguard, send his kids to a private school and his daughter got constant threats.
“It was a horrible moment for me to try to break the record, really,” Aaron told New York newspaper Newsday in 2019. “The police were saying all of these probably are crank letters, but some of them maybe were for real. The team stayed at one hotel and I stayed at another. I sometimes had to sleep in the ballpark by myself. I had to slip out of back doors of ballparks.’’
But his former teammate, outfielder Dusty Baker, who now manages the Houston Astros, told the newspaper that Aaron did not let it deter him. “He’s a strong man. A strong black man. This made him stronger and more determined and he concentrated harder. It wasn’t only playing against Babe Ruth, he was playing against parts of America.’’
His final home run with the Braves came in October of 1974, The next season he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, where he spent the remainder of his career. In the 1975 season, he made the All-Star team, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame website. It was a rarity for a player who was now 41.
But his two final years forever established him in the baseball record books. He ended his baseball career, retiring in 1976 with 3,771 hits and 755 home runs. His number, 44, was retired by the Brewers in 1976 and by the Braves in 1977. He was the first player to have his number retired by two teams.
He still leads baseball at 2,297 RBIs and 6,856 total bases. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982 with a career batting average of .305.
In his post baseball career, Aaron remained active in the sport and became the Braves senior vice president and assistant to the president. He also served as a member of TBS’ board of directors.
Along with his wife Billye, was vocal in civil rights and political issues. In 2002, Aaron was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his philanthropic and humanitarian works by President George H.W. Bush. He was awarded the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 by The NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The organization also established the Hank Aaron Humanitarian in Sports Award in his honor.
Aaron will always be remembered as one of the sports greats who broke down the walls of racism, simply by continuing to play the game, despite the obstacles faced on the field by the athletes or by those facing bigotry in the streets.
In a 1999 interview with HistoryNet.com, he recounted how Black baseball players made such a monumental difference in the Civil Rights Movement.
“This country was infested with segregation on all fronts, no matter what it was—baseball, all walks of life,” he said. “You couldn’t go somewhere to take a drink of water from a fountain. All these areas were affected. So we needed a hand in everything, and baseball did a tremendous job of breaking down some of those barriers.”
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