Hank Aaron, Major League Baseball’s onetime home run king and a civil rights icon, died Friday. He was 86.
The baseball legend “passed away peacefully in his sleep,” the Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s team through his entire 23-year career, announced Friday.
Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record on April 8, 1974, was not just a baseball legend but a hero to many.
“He’s the one man that I idolize more than myself,” the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali once said about Aaron.
While with the Atlanta Braves, Aaron tied Ruth’s mark of 714 homers on April 7. A day later, he slugged No. 715 against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing.
Before and throughout his stoic chase of Ruth’s longstanding record, Aaron was subjected to virulent racism and hate. Death threats were common, and even some teammates and those throughout baseball despised Aaron as he approached their white hero’s record.
Despite beefed up security at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, some fans breached the outfield walls as Aaron trotted around the bases following his record-setting dinger.
Legendary footage shows at least two fans were able to physically greet Aaron as he rounded second base and fireworks exploded in the Atlanta night.
“A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol,” Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who called the game, proclaimed as Aaron’s mother, family and teammates greeted him at home plate.
Aaron retired in 1976 with 755 home runs, a mark that stood until 2007 when he was passed on the list by Barry Bonds. However, many still consider Aaron the home run king since his record was broken during baseball’s “steroid era,” when numerous players were caught or suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, including Bonds.
Born Henry Louis Aaron on Feb. 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama, he was the third of eight children born to Estella and Herbert Aaron, according to biography.com.
Aaron began his Major League Baseball career in 1954 with the Milwaukee Braves (the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966). His biography at the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he earned induction in 1982, noted that he was “a consistent producer both at the plate and in the field, reaching the .300 mark in batting 14 times, 30 home runs 15 times, 90 RBI 16 times and captured three Gold Glove Awards en-route to 25 All-Star Game selections.”
The Hall biography notes that 1957 was arguably Aaron’s best season. He hit .322 that year with 44 home runs and 132 RBI, captured the National League MVP Award, and led the Braves to their first World Series Championship since 1914.
The U.S. Postal Service once honored Aaron for receiving nearly 1 million pieces of mail, more than any non-politician.
On the 25th anniversary of Aaron’s 715th home run, Major League Baseball created the Hank Aaron Award, given annually to the players with the best overall offensive performances in each league.
Though not especially vocal during his playing days, Aaron was a longtime supporter of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, and in 2002 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from President George W. Bush.
“Henry Louis Aaron wasn’t just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world,” the Braves organization said in a statement Friday. “His success on the diamond was matched only by his business accomplishments off the field and capped by his extraordinary philanthropic efforts.”
According to the New York Times, the Baseball Hall of Fame opened a permanent exhibit in 2009 chronicling Aaron’s life. His childhood home was moved on a flatbed truck to the grounds of Hank Aaron Stadium, which was the home of the Mobile BayBears, a former minor league team, and opened as a museum in 2010.
“Through his long career, Hank Aaron has been a model of humility, dignity, and quiet competence,” former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young noted in a statement. “He did not seek the adoration that is accorded to other national athletic heroes, yet he has now earned it.”