Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, who battled racial prejudice and hatred on his way to breaking the major leagues’ career home run record, died Friday morning at the age of 86, the Atlanta Braves announced.
Aaron played 23 seasons in the major leagues, 21 of them with the Braves franchise — first in Milwaukee, where he made his debut in 1954 and then in Atlanta, from 1966 until 1974. He returned to Milwaukee for his final two seasons, joining the Brewers of the American League before retiring in 1976.
As a youngster, he grew up hitting cross-handed and was once advised by an opposing catcher that he should hold the bat with the trademark facing upward so he could see it.
“I didn’t come up here to read,” Aaron supposedly replied, ”I came up here to hit.”
And hit he did.
Born Feb. 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama, Henry Louis Aaron reached the majors at age 20, when he hit .280 with 13 home runs and finished fourth in the National League rookie of the year voting.
He quickly established himself as one of the game’s most dependable sluggers. In his second season, Aaron drove in 100 runs for the first time and made the first of a record 21 consecutive All-Star Game appearances.
He became known as “Hammerin’ Hank,” hitting at least 30 home runs in 15 different seasons and driving in at least 100 runs 11 times.
Yet despite his consistent excellence, the game’s ultimate honors often eluded him. Aaron won only one league Most Valuable Player award and one World Series title, both in 1957 when he led the Milwaukee Braves to victory over the New York Yankees in seven games.
His signature moment came on April 8, 1974, when he broke the most cherished record in baseball history. Tied with the legendary Babe Ruth with 714 career home runs, Aaron hit No. 715 with a fourth-inning blast off Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Al Downing.
Braves radio announcer Milo Hamilton’s call of the record-breaking homer was straight and to the point: “There’s a drive into left-center field. That ball is gonna be ... Outta here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all-time, and it’s Henry Aaron.”
After Aaron rounded the bases, Dodgers announcer Vin Scully described the significance of the home run in a historical perspective.
“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world,” Scully said. “A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron ...”
Scully went on to describe Aaron’s visible sense of relief after the tremendous strain he endured chasing Ruth’s hallowed record.
The racial overtones were impossible to miss. A legendary white player had held the record for more than 50 years, and then just a decade after landmark Civil Rights legislation became law, Aaron was about to pass him.
He received countless letters, almost all of them spewing blatant racial hatred. Many of them using the N-word, often multiple times. Some of them even threatening to kill him. Yet he never outwardly let it affect him or his performance on the field.
Despite the pain they caused, he kept all those letters.
“To remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record,” he told USA TODAY Sports in 2014 on the 40th anniversary of his record-breaking homer. “If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
Next to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947, Aaron’s feat might be the most significant contribution baseball has made to the Civil Rights movement.
“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that he was the perfect man to do it,” said former MLB commissioner Bud Selig, one of Aaron’s closest friends, “representing this sport socially and everything that happened during that time. Henry took a lot of abuse when he broke that record, but he rose above all that.”
Aaron finished with 755 career home runs, holding the record for 40 years until he was passed by Barry Bonds in 2014. However, he has said the home run record wasn’t his most important statistical accomplishment.
Aaron still holds baseball’s all-time record for most runs batted in, with 2,297. He’s said the ability to bring his teammates around the bases to score was more important to him than hitting home runs. He also remains the all-time leader in total bases with 6,856.
On Jan. 5, Aaron got vaccinated against COVID-19 in Georgia, hoping to send a message to Black Americans that the shots are safe.
In 1982, he received baseball’s ultimate honor by being inducted on the first ballot into the Hall of Fame. Aaron was named on 97.8% of the ballots, the second-highest percentage in history at the time behind only Ty Cobb.
In 1999, Major League Baseball created the Hank Aaron Award, given annually to the best offensive player in each league.
Timeline of Hank Aaron’s life and career
1934 — Born on Feb. 5 in a section of Mobile, Alabama, known as “Down The Bay.”
1951 — Signs at age 17 with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, where he plays shortstop and draws the attention of major league scouts.
1952 — Signs with the Boston Braves, turning down a slightly lower offer from the New York Giants that could’ve paired him in the same outfield with Willie Mays.
1954 — Earns a spot in the big leagues with the Braves, who had moved to Milwaukee before the 1953 season. After going 0-for-5 in his debut on April 13, Aaron hits .280 with 13 homers and 69 RBIs to finish fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
1957 — Earns his only NL MVP award, leading the league with 44 homers and 132 RBIs while batting .322. The Braves win the pennant and defeat Mickey Mantle’s New York Yankees 4-3 for what would be the only World Series victory of Aaron’s career. He is one of the standouts of the series, hitting .393 with three homers and seven RBIs.
1958 — Braves repeat as NL champions and again face the Yankees in the World Series. Milwaukee is within one victory of its second straight championship but loses the final three games. Aaron hits .333 with two RBIs in the series.
1963 — Nearly wins the Triple Crown, leading the league with 44 homers and 130 RBIs but losing out on the batting title to Tommy Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers (.326 to .319). Aaron does become only the third player in major league history to make the 30-30 club with a career-best 31 stolen bases.
1966 — The Braves move from Milwaukee to Atlanta, becoming the first major league team in the Deep South at a time when the region is still embroiled in the fight for civil rights.
1968 — Hits his 500th homer against Mike McCormick of the San Francisco Giants on July 14.
One of the best to ever play our game.— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) January 22, 2021
MLB Network mourns the passing of Hank Aaron. pic.twitter.com/SJVCidT8w0
1969 — Makes his final postseason appearance when the Braves win the NL West title in baseball’s first year under a new divisional format. Atlanta is swept by New York’s Amazin’ Mets 3-0 in the inaugural league championship series, even though Aaron hits .357 with three homers and seven RBIs.
1970 — Collects his 3,000th hit against Wayne Simpson of the Cincinnati Reds on May 17, becoming the first player to reach 500 homers and 3,000 hits.
1971 — Hits his 600th career homer off San Francisco’s Gaylord Perry on April 27, joining Willie Mays and Babe Ruth as the only players to reach that milestone.
1972 — Passes Mays for second place on the career homer list, finishing the season with 673 and setting his sights on Ruth’s record of 714.
1973 — Hits his 700th homer off Philadelphia’s Kenn Brett on July 21. Aaron finishes the season one shy of Ruth’s record.
1974 — Despite intense pressure and death threats that required constant security, ties Ruth’s mark on opening day in his first at-bat of the season, going deep off Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham at Riverfront Stadium on April 4.
1974 — Becomes baseball’s new home-run king on April 8 in the Braves’ home opener at Atlanta Stadium. Before a record crowd of more than 53,000 and a national television audience, Aaron hits a 1-0 pitch from Al Downing over the left-field fence for his 715th homer.
1975 — After turning down a front-office offer from the Braves that paid significantly less money, Aaron is traded to Milwaukee to serve as the Brewers’ designated hitter and finish his career where it started. He hits .234 with 12 homers and 60 RBIs and makes the last of his record 25 All-Star Game appearances at County Stadium, lining out to shortstop as a pinch-hitter in the second inning.
1976 — Hits his 755th and final home run July 20 at Milwaukee’s County Stadium off Dick Drago of the California Angels. Aaron retires at age 42 after hitting just .229 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in the final season of his 23-year career.
1977 — Makes amends with the Braves, beginning a long stint in the front office.
1982 — Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot, coming nine votes short of being the first unanimous selection.
1989 — Moves into a largely ceremonial role with the Braves after being in charge of player development.
1999 — Honored by Major League Baseball with the Hank Aaron Award for the top hitter, akin to the Cy Young for pitchers.
2002 — Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, who honors Aaron with the nation’s highest civilian honor for overcoming “poverty and racism to become one of the most accomplished baseball players of all time.”
2021 — Died in his sleep on Jan. 22.
Contributing: Associated Press
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