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Hank Aaron dies at 86

Belted 755 HRs, championed social awareness issues by The Associated Press | January 23, 2021 at 2:42 a.m.
Hank Aaron watches his 715th career home run, which broke Babe Ruth’s major-league record, on April 8, 1974. Aaron died Friday morning. He was 86. More photos at arkansasonline.com/123hankaaron. (AP file photo)

ATLANTA -- His name is all over the baseball record book and, indeed, Hank Aaron could do it all.

Sure, he's remembered mostly for dethroning the Babe to become baseball's home run king on the way to 755, but don't forget about the .300 average, or the graceful way he fielded his position, or the deceiving speed he showed on the basepaths.

Yet, when talking about the true measure of the man, there was far more to "Hammerin' Hank" than his brilliance between the lines.

Exuding grace and dignity, Aaron spoke bluntly but never bitterly on the many hardships thrown his way -- from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the ugly, racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America's most hallowed records.

He wasn't hesitant about speaking out on the issues of the day, whether it was bemoaning the lack of Blacks in management positions, or lobbying against putting Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame, or calling on those involved in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal to be tossed from the game for good.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEEEML3aP60]

"He never missed an opportunity to lead," former President Barack Obama said, describing Aaron as an "unassuming man" who set a "towering example."

Right up to his final days, the Hammer was making a difference.

Just 2 1/2 weeks before his death Friday at age 86, Aaron joined civil rights icons to receive the covid-19 vaccine. He wanted to spread the word to the Black community that the shots were safe in the midst of a devastating pandemic.

"I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this," Aaron said. "It's just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country."

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

The Hammer set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBI, 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 on April 8, 1974.

Aaron's death follows that of seven other baseball Hall of Famers in 2020 and two more -- Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton -- already this year.

"He was a very humble and quiet man and just simply a good guy," said 89-year-old Willie Mays, who finished with 660 home runs. "I have so many fond memories of Hank and will miss him very much."

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.

Aaron's career total was surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007 -- though many continued to call the Hammer the true home run king because of allegations that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds finished his career with 762.

Aaron's journey to Babe Ruth's mark was hardly pleasant. He was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth's cherished record of 714.

"If I was white, all America would be proud of me," Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. "But I am Black."

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/123hankaaron/]

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.

Aaron spent 21 of his 23 seasons with the Braves, first in Milwaukee, then in Atlanta after the franchise moved to the Deep South in 1966. 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.

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 home runs in a season .

Aaron was a true five-tool star.

He claimed two National League batting titles. He finished with a career average of .305.

Six feet tall and listed at 180 pounds during the prime of his career, Aaron was hardly an imposing player physically. But he was blessed with powerful wrists that made him one of the game's most feared hitters.

Aaron hit 733 homers with the Braves, the last in his final plate appearance with the team, a drive down the left field line off Cincinnati's Rawley Eastwick on Oct. 2, 1974. Exactly one month later, he was dealt to the Brewers for outfielder Dave May and minor league pitcher Roger Alexander.

His career numbers largely stood the test of time.

Aaron still has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856) than anyone in baseball history.

Aaron also was selected for the All-Star Game 21 consecutive years -- every season but his first and his last.

Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Ala., on Feb. 5, 1934. He headed a long list of outstanding players who came from that Gulf Coast city -- Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Ozzie Smith among them.

He will forever be remembered for that April night in 1974.

Aaron whipped his 34-ounce Louisville Slugger through the strike zone with those powerful wrists. The ball rose higher and higher as the crowd of 53,775 rose to its feet with a collective roar.

Finally, home run No. 715 came down in the Braves bullpen. Atlanta reliever Tom House made the catch at 9:07 p.m. and swiftly returned the ball to Aaron, who was celebrating at home plate with his teammates and parents.

As Aaron rounded second, two young fans sprinted in from right field, startling No. 44 when they patted him on the back before racing back to the stands in left.

"I guess that will always be a part of me running around the bases," Aaron said. "I never had anyone run with me before. They were just kids having a good time."

Dodgers announcer Vin Scully was among those delivering the call on the historic shot.

"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, well aware of the cultural significance. "A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol."

FILE - In this April 8, 1974, file photo Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron hits his 715th career home run in Atlanta Stadium to break the all-time record set by the late Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Joe Holloway, Jr., File)
FILE - In this April 8, 1974, file photo Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron hits his 715th career home run in Atlanta Stadium to break the all-time record set by the late Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Joe Holloway, Jr., File)
Krystal Dixon takes a photo in front of Hank Aaron's home run wall, left from when Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium was demolished, where Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 8, 1974 to break the career home run record held by Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron died Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Krystal Dixon takes a photo in front of Hank Aaron's home run wall, left from when Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium was demolished, where Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 8, 1974 to break the career home run record held by Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron died Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
FILE - In this April 8, 1974, file photo, Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron holds aloft the ball he hit for his 715th career home in Atlanta. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this April 8, 1974, file photo, Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron holds aloft the ball he hit for his 715th career home in Atlanta. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo, File)
FILE-  In this March 29, 2017, file photo, Hank Aaron looks at his new statue in Monument Garden at SunTrust Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, after the unveiling ceremony in Atlanta. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)
FILE- In this March 29, 2017, file photo, Hank Aaron looks at his new statue in Monument Garden at SunTrust Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, after the unveiling ceremony in Atlanta. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)
FILE - Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron sits for a portrait after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, in this Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, file photo. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)
FILE - Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron sits for a portrait after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, in this Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, file photo. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)
FILE - Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron smiles as he is honored with a street named after him outside CoolToday Park, the spring training baseball facility of the Atlanta Braves, in North Port, Fla., in this Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, file photo. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)
FILE - Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron smiles as he is honored with a street named after him outside CoolToday Park, the spring training baseball facility of the Atlanta Braves, in North Port, Fla., in this Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, file photo. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)
Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron (44) breaks Babe Ruth's record for career home runs as he hits his 715th off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing in the fourth inning of the game opener at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Ga., April 8, 1974. (AP Photo)
Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron (44) breaks Babe Ruth's record for career home runs as he hits his 715th off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing in the fourth inning of the game opener at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Ga., April 8, 1974. (AP Photo)
FILE- In this July 14, 1968, file photo, Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron smiles as he looks at the trophy presented him by Braves President Bill Bartholomay, after Aaron hit his 500th career home run in Atlanta. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly, File)
FILE- In this July 14, 1968, file photo, Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron smiles as he looks at the trophy presented him by Braves President Bill Bartholomay, after Aaron hit his 500th career home run in Atlanta. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly, File)
FILE- In this Jan. 14, 2016, file photo, Hank Aaron, left, looks on with wife Billye during a ceremony presenting him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, by the Consul General of Japan at his official residence in Atlanta. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
FILE- In this Jan. 14, 2016, file photo, Hank Aaron, left, looks on with wife Billye during a ceremony presenting him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, by the Consul General of Japan at his official residence in Atlanta. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
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