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Hank Aaron, baseball's one-time home run king, dies at 86

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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.

“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 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 on April 8, 1974.

It was a title he would hold for more than 33 years, a period in which Aaron 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.

“With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people,” President Joe Biden said. “But he was unbreakable.”

Former President Jimmy Carter, described Aaron as “a personal hero.”

“A breaker of records and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come," said Carter, who often attended Braves games with his wife, Rosalynn.

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 honour.

“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 very humble and quiet man and just simply a good guy," said 89-year-old Willie Mays, who finished with 660 homers. "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 never begrudged someone — not even a tarnished star — 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.

Bonds praised Aaron “for being a trailblazer through adversity and setting an example for all of us African American ballplayers who came after you.”

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.”

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.

“It’s very offensive,” he once said. “They call me ‘nigger’ and every other bad word you can come up with. You can’t ignore them. They are here. But this is just the way things are for Black people in America. It’s something you battle all of your life.”

After retiring in 1976, Aaron became a revered, almost mythical figure, even though he never pursued the spotlight. He was thrilled when the U.S. elected Obama as its first African American president in 2008. Former President Bill Clinton credited Aaron with helping carve a path of racial tolerance that made Obama’s victory possible.

“You've given us far more than we'll ever give you,” Clinton said at Aaron's 75th birthday celebration.

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 homers in a season (though he did have eight years with at least 40 dingers).

Aaron was a true five-tool star.

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

Aaron also was a gifted outfielder with a powerful arm, something often overlooked because of a smooth, effortless stride that his critics —with undoubtedly racist overtones — mistook for nonchalance. He was a three-time Gold Glove winner.

Then there was his work on the basepaths. Aaron posted seven seasons with more than 20 stolen bases, including a career-best of 31 in 1963.

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.

The Braves made it clear they no longer wanted Aaron, then 40, returning for another season on the field. They offered him a front office job for $50,000 a year, about $150,000 less than his playing salary.

“Titles?” he said at the time. “Can you spend titles at the grocery store? Executive vice-president, assistant to the executive vice-president, what does it mean if it doesn’t pay good money? I might become a janitor for big money.”

Aaron became a designated hitter with the Brewers, but hardly closed his career with a flourish. He managed just 22 homers over his last two seasons, going out with a .229 average in 1976.

Even so, 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.

“I feel like that home run I hit is just part of what my story is all about,” Aaron said.

He was NL MVP in 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in seven games to give Aaron the only World Series title of his career. It also was his lone MVP award, though he finished in the top 10 of the balloting 13 times.

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

Still, Aaron never received the attention he deserved until late in his career. He played in only two World Series. He was stuck far from the media spotlight in Milwaukee and Atlanta. Early in Aaron’s career, the press focused on outfielders like Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, who benefited from playing in the media glare of New York City.

“In my day, sportswriters didn’t respect a baseball player unless you played in New York or Chicago,” Aaron said. “If you didn’t come from a big city, it was hard to get noticed.”

He was much more appreciated with the passing of time.

Aaron was elected to Cooperstown in 1982, his first year of eligibility and just nine votes short of being the first unanimous choice ever to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan and Phil Niekro — Aaron's teammate with the Braves for a decade — all died in 2020, the most Hall of Famers ever to pass away in a calendar year.

Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, 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.

Aaron, who initially hit with a cross-handed style, was spotted by the Braves while trying out for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Leagues team. The Giants also were interested — imagine him in same outfield with Mays — but Aaron signed with Milwaukee, spent two seasons in the minors and came up to the Braves in 1954 after Bobby Thomson was injured in spring training.

Aaron was a full-fledged star by 1957, when he led the Braves to that World Series victory over Mantle’s New York Yankees. The following year, Milwaukee made it back to the Series, only to blow a 3-1 lead and lose to the Yankees in seven games.

Though he played for nearly two more decades, Aaron never came so close to a championship again.

In 1959, the Braves finished in a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers for first in the NL, only to lose a best-of-three playoff to the Dodgers for the pennant. Aaron’s only other playoff appearance came in 1969, when the Braves were swept by New York’s Amazin’ Mets in the inaugural NL Championship Series.

His dearth of October appearances was baseball’s loss. In 17 post-season games, Aaron batted .362 (25 of 69) with six homers and 16 RBIs.

But forever, there was 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. Despite a mighty leap that left him dangling atop the fence, Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner never had a chance. 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."

After retiring as a player, Aaron made amends with the Braves for trading him away. He returned as a vice-president and director of player development, a task he held for 13 years before settling into a largely ceremonial role as senior vice-president and assistant to the president in 1989.

He ventured into business, buying fast food chicken franchises, doughnut shops and an automobile dealership. He also dipped into politics as campaign treasurer for his brother-in-law, David Scott, who was elected to the U.S. House.

Aaron’s younger brother, Tommie, played alongside his brother for parts of seven seasons in both Milwaukee and Atlanta. Though he never had much success, the Aarons hold the record for most homers (768) by a pair of siblings.

Of course, Tommie accounted for just 13 of them. He died of leukemia at age 45 in 1984.

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.”

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and find his work at https://apnews.com

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This story includes research from the late Ed Shearer, a longtime Atlanta sports writer for The Associated Press who covered Aaron’s 715th homer.

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More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Paul Newberry, The Associated Press