The Home Run King died “peacefully in his sleep,” his former team confirmed in a release on Thursday. Hank Aaron, known to many as “Hammerin’ Hank,” was 86.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank. 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 Louis Aaron wasn’t just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world. His success on the diamond was matched only by his business accomplishments off the field and capped by his extraordinary philanthropic efforts,” said Terry McGuirk, chairman of the Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s former team who confirmed his death in a release.
The son of a dry dock boilermaker’s assistant and tavern owner went from Mobile, Ala., to semi-pro and the Negro Baseball League before making it to the majors, one of a still few number of Black players at the time. But on his way to breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record with 715 (755 by his retirement) career home runs, he saw the ugly side of the sport and its fans, who threw racism and even threats his way.
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“I didn’t expect the fans to give me a standing ovation every time I stepped on the field, but I thought a few of them might come over to my side as I approached Ruth,” Aaron said in his memoir “I Had a Hammer 1990.” “At the very least, I felt I had earned the right not be verbally abused and racially ravaged in my home ballpark.”
Still, he is remembered as one of the greatest baseball players of all time, playing 21 seasons with the Braves, first in Milwaukee and later in Atlanta, and two with the Milwaukee Brewers before retiring in 1976 with major-league career records in extra-base hits (1,477) as well as two he still holds today in total bases (6,856) and RBI (2,297). A National League MVP, Aaron won a World Series with the team, and the honors kept rolling in: 25 All-Star selections, three Gold Gloves and, in 1982, a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Through his long career, Hank Aaron has been a model of humility, dignity, and quiet competence. He did not seek the adoration that is accorded to other national athletic heroes, yet he has now earned it,” said Georgia congressman Andrew Young.
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If he let his bat speak for him during his baseball career, Aaron let his actions speak once he retired. Though he stayed involved as vice president and director of Player Development and later a senior vice president, his work in support of civil rights earned him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, as well as awards from the NAACP and the International Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
“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.”
Even after his number was retired by the Braves, Aaron stayed in Atlanta, where a section of the road in front of 755 Turner Field is named Hank Aaron Drive. A longtime supporter of the NAACP and other civil rights causes, he also founded the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, which provides funding to programs for underprivileged youth.
“I’ve read some newspapermen saying I was just a dumb kid from the South with no education and all I knew was to go out there and hit,” Aaron said in “Baseball Has Done It,” Jackie Robinson’s 1964 oral history of baseball and racial integration. “Baseball has done a lot for me, given me an education in meeting other kinds of people. It has taught me that regardless of who you are and how much money you make, you are still a Negro.”
Aaron is survived by his wife Billye and their children Gaile, Hank, Jr., Lary, Dorinda and Ceci and his grandchildren, who the Braves said ask for privacy at this time.
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