Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, the Hall of Fame slugger whose 755 career home runs long stood as baseball’s golden mark, has died. He was 86.
“Our family is heartbroken to hear the news of Hank Aaron’s passing,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement on behalf of the Aaron family. “Hank Aaron was an American icon and one of Georgia’s greatest legends. His life and career made history, and his influence was felt not only in the world of sports, but far beyond — through his important work to advance civil rights and create a more equal, just society. We ask all Georgians to join us in praying for his fans, family, and loved ones as we remember Hammerin’ Hank’s incredible legacy.”
The Atlanta Braves said in a release that Aaron died peacefully in his sleep.
One of the sport’s great stars despite playing for the small-market Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves throughout a major league career that spanned from 1954 to 1976, Aaron still holds major league records for RBIs (2,297), total bases (6,856) and extra-base hits (1,477), and he ranks among MLB’s best in hits (3,771, third all time), games played (3,298, third) and runs scored (2,174, fourth).
But it was Hammerin’ Hank’s sweet home run swing for which he was best known.
A 6-foot, 180-pounder, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run mark less than a week into the 1974 season, slugging his record 715th off Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Al Downing in the fourth inning as 50,000-plus fans celebrated in Atlanta. In one of baseball’s iconic moments, Aaron trotted around the basepaths — despite briefly being interrupted by two fans, including a young Craig Sager — and ultimately touched home plate, where teammates hoisted him and his parents embraced him.
Aaron went on to play two more seasons and finished with 755 career home runs, a mark that stood as the major league record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said in a statement. “He was a beacon for our organization first as a player, then with player development, and always with our community efforts. His incredible talent and resolve helped him achieve the highest accomplishments, yet he never lost his humble nature. Henry Louis Aaron wasn’t just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world. His success on the diamond was matched only by his business accomplishments off the field and capped by his extraordinary philanthropic efforts.
“We are heartbroken and thinking of his wife Billye and their children Gaile, Hank, Jr., Lary, Dorinda and Ceci and his grandchildren.”
Despite allegations that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs, Aaron never begrudged someone eclipsing his mark. His common refrain: More than three decades as the king was long enough. It was time for someone else to hold the record.
Aaron finished his career with a host of accolades. He was the National League MVP in 1957 — the same year the Braves won the World Series — a two-time NL batting champion (1956, ’59), a three-time Gold Glove winner in right field (1958-60) and a record 25-time All-Star.
He finished his career back 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.
Aaron was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, receiving 97.8% approval in his first year on the ballot. In 1999, MLB created the Hank Aaron Award, given annually to the best hitter in both the AL and NL.
“Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone’s list of all-time great players,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person. Hank symbolized the very best of our game, and his all-around excellence provided Americans and fans across the world with an example to which to aspire. His career demonstrates that a person who goes to work with humility every day can hammer his way into history — and find a way to shine like no other.”
Off the field, Aaron was an activist for civil rights, having been a victim of racial inequalities. Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, and didn’t play organized high school baseball because only white students had teams. During the buildup to his passing of Ruth’s home run mark, threats were made on his life by people who did not want to see a Black man break the record.
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 a considerable loss for the entire city of Atlanta,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement. “While the world knew him as ‘Hammering Hank Aaron’ because of his incredible, record-setting baseball career, he was a cornerstone of our village, graciously and freely joining Mrs. Aaron in giving their presence and resources toward making our city a better place. As an adopted son of Atlanta, Mr. Aaron was part of the fabric that helped place Atlanta on the world stage. Our gratitude, thoughts and prayers are with the Aaron family.”
After he retired, Aaron joined the Braves as an executive and hoped more Black players could find that type of work after their playing days were finished.
“On the field, Blacks have been able to be super giants,” he once said. “But once our playing days are over, this is the end of it and we go back to the back of the bus again.”
Aaron was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.