Baseball and civil rights giant Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron has passed away at age 86. He died peacefully in his sleep, according to his family.
Aaron was born on Feb. 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama. He spent several years after leaving the game in the front office of the Atlanta Braves and was involved in philanthropic community service and entrepreneurial pursuits in the Atlanta area.
Aaron’s baseball career began in 1951 with the Indianapolis Clowns of the old Negro American League. After one year in Indianapolis, he was signed by the Milwaukee Braves; he eventually played most of his career with the club.
One of his best seasons was in 1957. The then-right fielder hit .322 with 44 home runs. He won his only Worlds Series while with the Braves, and earned the only MVP of his career.
The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966 and Aaron said that being in the city where so many civil rights leaders lived at the time—including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—made him feel he had not done his part.
“I felt a little ashamed of myself because I was so far back in the sticks—in the woods—that I didn’t know what was going on. It kind of made me start thinking, realizing that, regardless of what I achieved in life, no matter whether it’s baseball, football, basketball, life, lawyers, whatever it may be, that I still had a role to play,” Aaron said.
Aaron later became a real stalwart in the area of U.S. race relations and almost always spoke his mind on the subject, even more so after his career ended.
Aaron wrote one of the chapters in Jackie Robinson’s book, “Baseball Has Done It.” “Baseball has done a lot for me, given me an education in meeting other kinds of people,” he stated. But he added pointedly, “It has taught me that regardless of who you are and how much money you make, you are still a Negro,” wrote Aaron.
More recently, he went on record in a Sports Illustrated article supporting Colin Kaepernick’s stand against police violence and pointing out that he thought the NFL owners were keeping the quarterback off the field. Aaron also chastised Kaepernick’s fellow NFL players for not standing with him.
Breaking records came with a price
“Hank Aaron: Home Run King who defied racism,” read the The New York Times headline announcing his passing.
On a Monday night in the spring of 1974, before an Atlanta home crowd of 53,775 and a large national TV audience anticipating history, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s long-held record of 714 homers. Aaron hit number 715 off left-handed Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Al Downing.
Aaron earned the respect of many with the way he handled the pressure of breaking the legend’s record in a country where some felt the record belonged to White people and should not be broken by a Black player. While getting lots of well-wishes, he also received hate mail and death threats.
“It really made me see, for the first time, a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp,” Aaron recalled.
“I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away,” the Hall of Famer recalled of the challenges he faced as he pursued Ruth’s record.
Aaron left the game with the third-most hits in Major League Baseball history with 3,771 hits. He was fourth all-time in runs scored with 2,174 runs and first in RBI’s with 2,297 and first in total bases with 6.857. He finished with 760 home runs and held the record for Major League home runs until he was passed in 2007 by Barry Bonds, who finished his career with 762.
A statute of Aaron sits in front of the Braves new stadium. Major League Baseball honored the Hall of Famer by awarding the best offensive player in the American and National Leagues with the Hank Aaron Award. President George W. Bush awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.