Hank Aaron, baseball legend who broke Babe Ruth's Major League home run record, dies at age 86 

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Hank Aaron, baseball legend who broke Babe Ruth's Major League home run record, dies at age 86 

Henry 'Hank' Aaron, the one-time Negro League outfielder who went on to break Babe Ruth's Major League home run record in the face of rampant racis

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Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron, the one-time Negro League outfielder who went on to break Babe Ruth’s Major League home run record in the face of rampant racism, has died at 86.

A cause of death has not been reported, but the Atlanta Braves confirmed that he died in his sleep. 

‘We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,’ Atlanta 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 ‘Hank’ Aaron, the baseball legend who broke Babe Ruth’s Major League home run record in the face of rampant racism, has died at 86

Aaron played for the Negro Leagues' Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 before being discovered by the Boston Braves, who purchased his contract for $10,000

Aaron played for the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 before being discovered by the Boston Braves, who purchased his contract for $10,000

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 to Black Americans that the vaccine was safe. 

Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1934, Aaron played for the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 before being discovered by the Boston Braves, who purchased his contract for $10,000.

The deal would go down in history as one of baseball’s greatest bargains. Aaron quickly became one of the game’s most feared hitters and durable stars.

Without ever reaching the 50-home run mark in any single season, Aaron’s consistency allowed him to surpass Ruth with his 715th home run as a member of the Atlanta Braves in 1974.

However, his pursuit of baseball’s most cherished record was marred by a racist hate mail campaign, which included many death threats from anonymous senders.

Aaron made his last public appearance just 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he received the COVID-19 vaccine

Aaron made his last public appearance just 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he received the COVID-19 vaccine

Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron eyes the flight of the ball after hitting his 715th career homer in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta on April 8, 1974

Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron eyes the flight of the ball after hitting his 715th career homer in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta on April 8, 1974

‘These people feel this is going to be a weak part of me,’ Aaron said in response to the hate mail he received in 1974. ‘They think they’ll upset me with their words or their shouts, that they’ll get me where I can’t do the job. This won’t happen. I don’t like it, but I always do my best. This only makes me more determined.’

Aaron, who was being watched by armed undercover security guards, had a nervous moment following his record-breaking home run on April 8, 1974 when two white fans ran onto the field and approached him as he rounded the bases.

Fortunately, the two men turned out to be fans who simply wanted to shake the baseball legend’s hand.

‘What a marvelous moment for baseball,’ Dodgers announcer Vin Scully said at the time. ‘What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world.

‘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.’

Addressing fans over the Fulton County Stadium PA system, Aaron famously reacted to his accomplishment by saying: ‘I just thank God it’s all over.’

A 25-time All-Star, Aaron won his only World Series and National League MVP award in 1957 as a member of the Milwaukee Braves, and would later be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982.

Following a two-year stint with the Milwaukee Brewers, Aaron retired in 1976 with 755 home runs – a mark that was surprised by San Francisco Giants outfielder and accused steroids user Barry Bonds in 2007. After retiring in 1976, Aaron became a revered, almost mythical figure, even though he never pursued the spotlight.

In 2001, Aaron received the Presidential Citizens Medal from then-President Bill Clinton, and a year later he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President George W. Bush.

He was thrilled when the U.S. elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2008. Former President Bill Clinton credited Aaron with helping carve a path of racial tolerance that made Obama´s victory possible.

‘We’re a different country now,’ Clinton said at a 75th birthday celebration for Aaron. ‘You’ve given us far more than we’ll ever give you.’

Aaron was married twice, first to Barbara Lucas in 1953 and then to Billye Williams in 1973. Aaron pictured with Billye in 2019

Aaron was married twice, first to Barbara Lucas in 1953 and then to Billye Williams in 1973. Aaron pictured with Billye in 2019

Aaron was married twice, first to Barbara Lucas in 1953 and then to Billye Williams in 1973. In addition to Williams’s daughter Ceci, whom he adopted, Aaron also had four children with Lucas: Dorinda, twins Lary and Gary, Hank Jr., and Gaile. (Gary died shortly after birth, according to multiple reports)

‘Henry Louis Aaron wasn’t just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world,’ read McGuirk’s statement. ‘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.’

Off the field, Aaron became a civil rights activist, and was viewed by many as a tragic and inspirational figure for having endured persistent racism over his 23-year career. (Aaron is a 25-time All-Star because, previously, All-Star teams were selected at midseason and after the World Series)

‘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.’

Aaron, who made his debut with Milwaukee in 1954, was famously quiet.

Whereas Giants centerfielder Willie Mays’s outgoing exuberance led him to be nicknamed the ‘Say Hey’ Kid,’ Aaron remained distant with media, fans, and even teammates.

‘I don’t think too many people got a chance to know me through the years, and that was something that was my own doing, because I’m actually kind of a loner, a guy that has stayed to himself,’ Aaron told the he Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006. ‘A lot of people thought they knew me, but they really didn’t.

‘They pretend that they know me, but I travel alone. I do just about everything alone. I have associates, but I don’t have many friends. I would just want to be remembered as somebody who just tried to be fair with people.’

But Aaron wasn’t just fair with people. Thanks to his work with the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, beginning in 1994, the six-foot slugger was also known for being charitable, often contributing college scholarships to underprivileged students.

Admirers typically described him as being gracious in spite of his self-professed shyness.

‘It was just four months ago that an incredibly gracious Hank Aaron took my phone call,’ SNY’s Steve Gelbs tweeted, referring to an interview he did with Aaron about Mets pitcher Tom Seaver’s death. ‘We had never met before, but he was eager to relay stories of his wonderful friendship with Tom Seaver. Hard to believe they’re both gone now. RIP to one of the game’s great players and people.’

‘He was just forever gracious, total class,’ tweeted Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal.

‘Hank Aaron was not only one of baseball’s greatest players, he was also a remarkable American hero, whose perseverance and forbearance in the face of unspeakable racism is a testament to the human spirit,’ tweeted documentary film maker Ken Burns. ‘We will miss him.’

And if Aaron couldn’t win you over with his humble, polite demeanor, there was always his overwhelming ability on the field, which made him a fan favorite in both Milwaukee and Atlanta.

As teammate Joe Adcock once said: ‘Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.’

It’s not just that Aaron was a power hitter, leading the National League in home runs four times.

Aaron was simply a great hitter – period. In fact, if you subtract his 755 home runs, he still has more hits (3,016) than legendary Boston Red Sox slugger Wade Boggs (3,010).

‘Growing up in Georgia one of my childhood idols has passed Henry Aaron thoughts and prayers go out to Billye and the entire Aaron family RIP Mr. Aaron,’ Boggs wrote on Friday.

Aaron batted over .300 a whopping 14 times and still holds MLB records for RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856).

Perhaps more importantly, Aaron inspired generations of players in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Philadelphia Phillies legend Mike Schmidt said Aaron was ‘an unassuming, easygoing man,’ who he ’emulated.’

‘He was one of my heroes as a kid, and will always be an icon of the baby boomer generation,’ Schmidt told The Associated Press. ‘In fact, if you weigh all the elements involved and compare the game fairly, his career will never be topped.’ 

‘Rest in Peace to American hero, icon, and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron,’ Johnson tweeted. ‘I still remember where I was back in the day when he set the record, at that time, to become the home run all time leader. While a legendary athlete, Hank Aaron was also an extraordinary businessman… and paved the way for other athletes like me to successfully transition into business.’

‘Hank Aaron was my childhood hero for what he did on baseball fields,’ wrote MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. ‘Hank Aaron remains my hero for what he did with his life.’  

'America lost an extraordinary soul in @HenryLouisAaron,' said Stacey Abrams, sharing a photo with the baseball legend. 'On the field, he brought power + purpose. In the community, Hank Aaron invested in progress, in people & in dreams. May his wife, Billye, his family and friends find peace in their sorrow, knowing how deeply he was loved.'

‘America lost an extraordinary soul in @HenryLouisAaron,’ said Stacey Abrams, sharing a photo with the baseball legend. ‘On the field, he brought power + purpose. In the community, Hank Aaron invested in progress, in people & in dreams. May his wife, Billye, his family and friends find peace in their sorrow, knowing how deeply he was loved.’

'I first worked with Hank Aaron in a little movie called The Incredible Ida Early,' actress Jackee Harry shared, posting a throwback photo on set for the 1987 flick. 'He captivated us all with his kindness and grace. What a legend. He'll be missed'

‘I first worked with Hank Aaron in a little movie called The Incredible Ida Early,’ actress Jackee Harry shared, posting a throwback photo on set for the 1987 flick. ‘He captivated us all with his kindness and grace. What a legend. He’ll be missed’

David Ortiz said: ‘A legend on and off the ball field… the best to ever do it… RIP Mr Hank Aaron #44’  

‘America lost an extraordinary soul in @HenryLouisAaron,’ said Stacey Abrams, sharing a photo with the baseball legend. ‘On the field, he brought power + purpose. In the community, Hank Aaron invested in progress, in people & in dreams. May his wife, Billye, his family and friends find peace in their sorrow, knowing how deeply he was loved.’

Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson didn’t follow Aaron into baseball, but did take a cue from the Braves slugger when embarking on his own business career.

‘Rest in Peace to American hero, icon, and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron,’ Johnson said. ‘I still remember where I was back in the day when he set the record, at that time, to become the home run all time leader. While a legendary athlete, Hank Aaron was also an extraordinary businessman…’ 

‘I first worked with Hank Aaron in a little movie called The Incredible Ida Early,’ actress Jackee Harry shared, posting a throwback photo on set for the 1987 flick. ‘He captivated us all with his kindness and grace. What a legend. He’ll be missed.’

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