Hank Aaron withstood the deliberate obscurity in baseball’s Negro Leagues and became an American icon by breaking a record that was arguably the most hallowed mark in sports at the time he broke it.
Aaron was stoic and gracious, both as he surpassed Babe Ruth’s lifetime total of 714 home runs amid racially charged death threats and when he saw his own record fall. Because the latter occurred under the taint of Barry Bonds' alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs, Aaron, with his total of 755, still is considered by many people to be the true Home Run King. In any case, in his own unassuming way, he was unquestionably part of baseball’s royalty for the remainder of his life.
Aaron died Friday morning at age 86. His longtime team said he died in his sleep. No cause was given.
He never will be forgotten for the swing that sent home run No. 715 over the leftfield fence at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974. At the time, only 10 years removed from the passage of the Civil Rights Act, baseball still was the consensus national pastime and Ruth’s home run record was something like the game’s holy grail.
The Atlanta slugger, who wore No. 44, launched a pitch from the Dodgers’ Al Downing (who also was wearing No. 44) over the wall and propelled himself forever into baseball and U.S. lore. In the words of Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, describing the scene as it happened: "What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol."
"Hammerin’ Hank," as he became known for his ability to crush baseballs, had come a long way from his youth in Mobile, Alabama, where he was inspired as a 14-year-old after hearing a speech by Jackie Robinson. Like Robinson, Aaron began in segregated baseball and became a superstar in the major leagues. Along the way, he endured discrimination and racial antipathy, which flared as he approached Ruth’s record.
It was so difficult that, when he finally hit that home run during Atlanta's first home game of the 1974 season, his first reaction was not one of elation or jubilation. Instead, he merely said, "I just thank God it’s all over."
Aaron was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2002 by President George W. Bush. During the ceremony at the White House, Bush, a former major-league team owner, said: "Hank Aaron overcame poverty and racism to become one of the most accomplished baseball players of all time . . . By steadily pursuing his calling in the face of unreasoning hatred, Hank Aaron has proved himself a great human, as well as a great athlete."
Willie Mays, 89, another Alabama native who arrived in the big leagues a few years ahead of Aaron and hit 660 big-league homers, said: "He was a very humble and quiet man and just simply a good guy. I have so many fond memories of Hank and will miss him very much."
The climb to the top of the home run list was particularly steady (he hit at least 20 homers in 20 consecutive seasons, a record), unlike that of a visibly bulked-up Bonds, who began hitting home runs at a strikingly rapid pace after the age of 33. Bonds eclipsed Aaron in 2007, and ever since, there has been controversy about the legitimacy of his record.
Aaron remained silent and absent when Bonds reached the brink of history, but he did record a good-natured congratulatory speech that was played on the Jumbotron in San Francisco in front of Bonds and his fans. In it, Aaron said: "Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I’ll move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams."
Bonds addressed the late Aaron directly in his comments Friday: "Thank you for everything you ever taught us, for being a trailblazer through adversity and setting an example for all of us African-American ballplayers who came after you. Being able to grow up and have the idols and role models I did, help shape me for a future I could have never dreamed of."
Aaron could barely have dreamed about all he accomplished in his 23 big-league seasons, starting with Milwaukee, moving with the team to Atlanta in 1966 and finishing back in Milwaukee in 1975 and 1976 as a designated hitter for the Brewers.
His home run total overshadowed many other accomplishments, highlighted by helping Milwaukee win the 1957 World Series (his walk-off home run in the 10th inning had won the pennant) and 1958 National League pennant. He still holds a handful of prominent career records, including most runs batted in (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477), total bases (6,856) and All-Star Game appearances (25). Earlier in that momentous game on April 8, 1974, he broke Willie Mays’ National League record for runs scored.
Aaron won the National League MVP award in 1957 and was a two-time batting champion with a career average of .305. He also led the league multiple times in home runs (four), hits (two), runs (three), doubles (four), slugging percentage (four) and total bases (eight) and ranks third in career hits (3,771).
He was named on 97.8% of the ballots and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, the same year he became a member of the Atlanta front office.
In 1999, Major League Baseball, honoring his 65th birthday, established the Hank Aaron Award, which is presented annually to the best overall offensive player in the American and National Leagues.
All of this arrived without flamboyance or the least trace of self-promotion. Aaron summed up his approach to life and sport during an appearance at the 2014 New York Baseball Writers' Association of America awards dinner: "If a person wants something bad enough, he works very hard for it."
In his 1991 autobiography, "I Had a Hammer," written with Lonnie Wheeler, Aaron was more expansive and reflective: "The way I see it, it’s a great thing to be the man who hit the most home runs, but it’s a greater thing to be the man who did the most with the home runs he hit."
Henry Louis Aaron was born on Feb. 5, 1934, to Herbert and Estella Aaron — both of whom were on the field in Atlanta for his big night 40 years later. Hank’s seven siblings included a brother, Tommie, who ultimately became a big-league teammate.
Herbert was a boilermaker’s assistant and ran a tavern while Estella took care of the family. They moved to the Toulminville section of Mobile when Hank was 8 and he always considered that part of the "luck or fate or chance" that made him a ballplayer. The community was filled with fields and dotted with competition.
A year after Robinson broke the racial barrier in the major leagues, he made an appearance nearby. Aaron skipped shop class to be there.
"That same day," he wrote in the autobiography, "I told my father I would be in the big leagues before Jackie retired."
By the time Aaron was 18, he was on a train to join the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. He quickly became the club’s star attraction as a shortstop and was signed by the Boston Braves and sent to their farm team in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He became the 1952 Northern League Rookie of the Year.
When he was promoted to Jacksonville the next season, he and minority teammates were subjected to taunts, rock-throwing and death threats. Aaron later said he never felt his life was in danger but never took anything for granted, either. None of it prevented him from reaching Milwaukee and the big leagues in 1954 — indeed, while Robinson was still an active player. He earned his spot in the starting lineup in spring training that year when Bobby Thomson broke his ankle.
Aaron credited Mickey Owen, the former Brooklyn Dodgers catcher who managed him during the 1953 winter ball season in Puerto Rico, for putting him on the trajectory that lasted for more than two decades. Aaron was switched from second base to the outfield that offseason — providing the defensive foundation that would win him three Gold Gloves — and did tons of extra hitting with Owen pitching to him in the oppressive heat.
In "I Had a Hammer," Owen recalled that his student had a gift for hitting to all fields, adding, "I said to myself, ‘My God, he looks like Rogers Hornsby.’ "
Three decades later, Aaron joined Hornsby in Cooperstown.
By then, Aaron had ridden crests and valleys. A son died of illness at a young age. His first marriage ended in divorce. But he was running on air on the night of April 8, 1974, so much so that he didn’t remember after the game that two boys had bolted from the stands and run part of the way around the bases with him.
It was all a blur, from the moment Dodgers leftfielder Bill Buckner leaped in vain at the fence — a portion of which was left intact after the club moved next door to Turner Field.
Aaron remained as a front office executive for the Braves for 13 years and owned several car dealerships. At the one that sold BMWs, every buyer received an autographed baseball. Each was signed by a man who would not have traded his life and experiences for anyone else’s.
President Bush quoted Aaron as he introduced him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recalling these words from the star: "When I was in a ballpark, I felt like I was surrounded by angels and I had God’s hand on my shoulder."
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.
Aaron is survived by his wife, Billye, and children Gaile, Hank, Lary, Dorinda and Ceci.