×

All-time baseball great Hank Aaron dies at age 86

The Milwaukee Braves’ Hank Aaron is carried off the field on Sept. 23, 1957, by teammates after they won the National League pennant with a 4-2 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals in Milwaukee. (AP file photo)

ATLANTA — Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and gracefully left his mark with 755 homers and a legacy as one of baseball’s greatest all-around players, died Friday. He was 86.

The Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s longtime team, said he died peacefully in his sleep. No cause was given.

Aaron made his last public appearance just 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he received the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he wanted to help spread the word to Black Americans that the vaccine is safe.

“Hammerin’ Hank” set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.

But the Hall of Famer will be remembered for one swing above all others, the one that made him baseball’s home-run king.

Major League Baseball's all-time career home run record holder Hank Aaron laughs as he shows off the newly unveiled "Hank Aaron Award" during a news conference in Atlanta on April 8, 1999. Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record and gracefully left his mark as one of baseball's greatest all-around players, died Friday. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves, Aaron's longtime team, said he died peacefully in his sleep. No cause was given. (AP file photo)

It was a title he would hold for more than 33 years, a period during which the Hammer slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America’s most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Ali or Jordan.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who often attended Braves games, described Aaron as “a personal hero.”

George W. Bush, a one-time owner of the Texas Rangers, presented Aaron in 2002 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“The former Home Run King wasn’t handed his throne,” Bush said. “He grew up poor and faced racism as he worked to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him.”

On April 8, 1974, before a sellout crowd at Atlanta Stadium and a national television audience, Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record with No. 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But Aaron’s journey to that memorable homer was hardly triumphant.

He was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth’s cherished record of 714 — much of it sparked by the fact that Ruth was white, Aaron was Black.

Aaron was shadowed constantly by bodyguards and forced to distance himself from teammates. He kept all those hateful letters, a bitter reminder of the abuse he endured and never forgot.

“This is just the way things are for Black people in America,” he once said. “It’s something you battle all of your life.”

Aaron spent 21 of his 23 seasons with the Braves — first in Milwaukee, then in Atlanta after the franchise moved to the South in 1966. He finished his career in Milwaukee, traded to the Brewers after the 1974 season when he refused to take a front-office job that would have required a big pay cut.

While knocking the ball over the fence became his signature accomplishment, the Hammer was hardly a one-dimensional star. In fact, he never hit more than 47 homers in a season (though he did have eight years with at least 40 dingers).

But it can be argued no one was so good, for so long, at so many facets of the national pastime.

He posted 14 seasons with a .300 average, the last of them at age 39, and claimed two National League batting titles.

Newsletter

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
   

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today