ATLANTA (AP) — Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and gracefully left his mark with 755 homers and a legacy as one of baseball’s greatest all-around players, died Friday. He was 86.
The Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s longtime team, said he died peacefully in his sleep. No cause was given.
Aaron made his last public appearance just two-and-a-half weeks ago, when he received the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he wanted to help spread the word to Black Americans that the vaccine was safe.
“I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” he said. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”
“Hammerin’ Hank” set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBIs, 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.
It was a title he would be hold for more than 33 years, a period in which the Hammer slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America’s most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Ali or Jordan.
Former presidents quickly weighed in with condolences.
“One of the greatest baseball players of all time, he has been a personal hero to us,” said Jimmy Carter, speaking for himself and former first lady Rosalynn Carter, a couple who often attended Braves games. “A breaker of records and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come.”
George W. Bush, a one-time owner of the Texas Rangers, presented Aaron in 2002 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“The former Home Run King wasn’t handed his throne,’” Bush said in a statement Friday. “He grew up poor and faced racism as he worked to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him.”
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 true Hall of Famer in every way,” said former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, a longtime friend. “His contributions to the game and his standing in the game will never be forgotten.”
On April 8, 1974, 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 finished his career with 755, a total 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 tarnished career with 762, though 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 crown.
Besides, no one could take away his legacy.
“I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Aaron said, summing it up better than anyone.
Hank Aaron’s survivors include his wife, Billye, and their daughter, Ceci. He also had four children from his first marriage to Barbara Lucas — Gail, Hank Jr., Lary and Dorinda.
Long after his career was over, Aaron acknowledged that today’s athletes are bigger, stronger and more fit.
Still, he would have been a success in any era.
“I may not have hit 70 homers in a season,” Aaron once said, “but I would have been up there.”