Aaron, one of the few black baseball players at the time, broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.
Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity in his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and who graciously left his mark as one of baseball’s greatest all-rounders, has passed away. He was 86 years old.
The Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s longtime team, said he died peacefully in his sleep on Friday. No cause was given.
Aaron’s punching prowess has earned him the nickname “Hammerin ‘Hank,” and his power has been attributed to strong wrists. He was a bit shy and unpretentious and lacked the flair of contemporaries Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
“What a wonderful time for baseball… What a wonderful time for the country and the world.”
RIP Hank Aaron, one of the greatest of all time.pic.twitter.com/kjrvSK19BM
– MLB Vault (@MLBVault) January 22, 2021
Aaron was in the news two weeks ago when he publicly received Moderna’s first dose of COVID-19 vaccine with his wife, Billye, in a bid to send a message to black Americans that injections are safe.
Getting the vaccine “makes me feel wonderful,” Aaron said at the time. “I have no qualms about it, you know. I’m very proud of myself for doing something like this… It’s just a little thing that can help millions of people in this country.
Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record in 1974 when he hit his 715th.
The longtime Milwaukee / Atlanta Braves slugger held the record for most career homers for more than 30 years before Barry Bonds defeated him in 2007. Aaron ended his 23-year career with 755 homers, including an 18-year-old streak where he hit at least 24 every season.
Aaron began his black league career in 1951 with the Indianapolis Clowns, before the Braves won his contract. He made his MLB debut in 1954 and spent the next 21 seasons with the Braves before ending his career with the Milwaukee Brewers (1975-1976).
He appeared in a record 25 All-Star game.
Aaron was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first ballot in 1982. The Braves and Brewers retired his number 44.
But Aaron’s journey to this memorable circuit was hardly pleasant. He was the target of numerous hate mail as he moved closer to Ruth’s cherished record of 714, largely driven by the fact that Ruth was white and Aaron was black.
“If I were white all of America would be proud of me,” Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. “But I am black.”
Bodyguards were assigned in 1973 after Aaron and his family became the target of death threats and other harassment from racists who did not want a black man to break such a sacrosanct record. owned by the charismatic Ruth.
Another black baseball player, Jackie Robinson, who was Aaron’s hero, entered the big leagues in 1947. Yet when Aaron arrived in 1954, the American civil rights movement had not yet picked up speed. Aaron sometimes found himself unable to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his white teammates, some of whom ostracized him.
The race for the home run title left scars on Aaron. In his 1991 autobiography, I Had A Hammer, he described the last days of his quest saying, “I thought I deserved the right to be treated like a human being in the city that was supposed to be too busy to hate.
“In my opinion, the one thing Atlanta was too busy for was baseball. It didn’t seem to care about the Braves, and it seemed like the only thing that mattered about the home run record was that a nigger was about to come off the line and break it.
Aaron played with a fluid and controlled style that made the game so easy that some critics wondered if he was really doing his best. But Aaron was driven by a strong inner desire as he overcame impoverished youth and racial hatred to become one of the greatest and most consistent baseball stars of all time.
Aaron’s profile on the Baseball Hall of Fame website notes that boxing legend Muhammad Ali called Aaron “the one man I idolize more than myself.” He quotes Mickey Mantle as calling Aaron “the best baseball player of my time… He never got the credit he was due”.
It is with great sadness that we share the passing of our home run king, Hank Aaron. pic.twitter.com/ZdRuhqIaet
– Atlanta Braves (@Braves) January 22, 2021