January 22, 2021 - 7:51 am
Updated January 22, 2021 - 9:47 am
ATLANTA — Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and gracefully left his mark as one of baseball’s greatest all-around players, died Friday. He was 86.
The Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s longtime team, said he died peacefully in his sleep. No cause was given.
Aaron made his last public appearance just 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he received the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he wanted to help spread the to Black Americans that the vaccine was safe.
“I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” he said. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”
“Hammerin’ Hank” 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.
It was a title he would be hold for more than 33 years, a period in which the Hammer 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.
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 was beloved by his teammates and by his fans,” said former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, a longtime friend. “He was a true Hall of Famer in every way. He will be missed throughout the game, and his contributions to the game and his standing in the game will never be forgotten.”
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.
The Hall of Famer finished his career with 755, a total 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 tarnished career with 762, though Aaron never begrudged someone 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 record.
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.
He wasn’t on hand when Bonds hit No. 756, but he did tape a congratulatory message that was shown on the video board in San Francisco shortly after the new record-holder went deep. While saddened by claims of rampant steroid use in baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Aaron never challenged those marks set by players who may have taken pharmaceutical short cuts.
Besides, he always had that April night in 1974.
“Downing was more of a finesse pitcher,” Aaron remembered shortly before the 30th anniversary of the landmark homer. “I guess he was trying to throw me a screwball or something. Whatever it was, I got enough of it.”
Aaron’s journey to that memorable homer was hardly pleasant. He was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth’s cherished record of 714, much of it sparked by the fact Ruth was white and Aaron was Black.
“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 its first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2008. Former President Bill Clinton credited Aaron with helping carve a path of racial tolerance that made Obama’s victory possible.
“We’re a different country now,” Clinton said at a 75th birthday celebration for Aaron. “You’ve given us far more than we’ll ever give you.”
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).
But it can be argued that no one was so good, for so long, at so many facets of the national pastime.
The long ball was only part of his arsenal.
Aaron was a true five-tool star.
He posted 14 seasons with a .300 average — the last of them at age 39 — and 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 base paths. Aaron posted seven seasons with more than 20 stolen bases, including a career-best of 31 in 1963 when became only the third member of the 30-30 club — players who have totaled at least 30 homers and 30 steals in a season.
To that point, the feat had only been accomplished by Ken Williams (1922) and Willie Mays (1956 and ‘57).
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.
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt described Aaron as “an unassuming, easygoing man, a quiet superstar, that a ’70s player like me emulated.”
“He was one of my heroes as a kid, and will always be an icon of the baby boomer generation,” Schmidt said. “In fact, if you weigh all the elements involved and compare the game fairly, his career will never be topped.”
Aaron hit 733 homers with the Braves, the last in his final plate appearance with the team, a liner 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. He ranks second in at-bats (12,354), third in games played (3,298) and hits (3,771), fourth in runs scored (tied with Ruth at 2,174) and 13th in doubles (624).
“I feel like that home run I hit is just part of what my story is all about,” Aaron said.
While Aaron hit at least 20 homers in 20 consecutive seasons, he was hardly swinging for the fences. He just happened to hit a lot of balls that went over the fence.
Through his career, Aaron averaged just 63 strikeouts a season. He never whiffed 100 times in a year — commonplace for hitters these days — and posted a career on-base percentage of .374.
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.
His only regret was failing to capture the Triple Crown. Aaron led the NL in homers and RBIs four times each, to go with those two batting crowns. But he never put together all three in the same season, coming closest in 1963 when he led the league in homers (44) and RBIs (130) but finished third in hitting (.319) behind Tommy Davis of the Dodgers with a .326 average.
“Other than that,” Aaron said, “everything else was completed.”
Making his accomplishments even more impressive, Aaron didn’t put up his numbers in an era of gaudy offense and watered-down pitching. He faced Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton on a regular basis.
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 during a 1999 interview. “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.
In 1999, baseball began honoring its top hitter with the Hank Aaron Award, akin to the Cy Young for pitchers. Three years later, a nationwide vote named Aaron’s No. 715 as the second-most memorable moment in baseball history, eclipsed only by Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.
Also in 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Bush praised Aaron for overcoming “poverty and racism to become one of the most accomplished baseball players of all time.”
“He might be the greatest player of all time,” said the late Tony Gwynn, a fellow Hall of Famer. “Just look at his numbers. Everybody characterizes him as a home run hitter because he’s held that record so long. But he was a great baserunner, a great defender, a great player period.”
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.
Life was hard for African-Americans in the segregated South.
Baseball was a way out.
“You could say that God kind of had his hands on me, directing me on the right path,” Aaron said in a 2018 interview. “I don’t know any other way I would have gotten out of Mobile, Alabama except for baseball.”
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’s debut was hardly glowing: he struck out twice and hit into a double play while going 0-for-5. His first homer came before April was done, against Vic Raschi. By season’s end, the rookie had put up promising numbers: 13 homers, 69 RBIs, a .280 average.
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 postseason games, Aaron batted .362 (25 of 69) with six homers and 16 RBIs.
In the early 1970s, as the Braves tumbled toward a period of futility that would largely last for two decades, Aaron’s steady, sustained excellence suddenly put him in range of the Bambino.
No. 600 came early in the ‘71 season.
No. 700 followed in ‘73.
“It was some of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen,” recalled former teammate Dusty Baker, who was watching from the on-deck circle when Aaron hit 715. “The way he set up pitchers, the way he was patient. His concentration level was beyond compare. If he was supposed to hit a ball hard, he didn’t miss it.”
The antithesis of Aaron in more than skin color, Ruth was a bombastic slugger who once hit 60 homers in a season, many of them towering shots that were worthy of their own word.
The Babe launched the last of his 714 homers in 1935, leaving a career mark that many felt would never be broken — or, if it was, surely by a player capable of spectacular feats, someone such as Mays or Mantle.
However, those two were gone when Aaron came to bat on a chilly April night, facing a left-hander on the downside of his career. Downing walked Aaron the first time up, the bat never leaving his shoulder.
On his way to the plate in the fourth inning, Aaron had a few words for Baker.
“He told me he was tired and he wanted to get it over with right now,” said Baker, who now manages the Houston Astros.
Aaron took ball one in the dirt, then swung at a breaking ball that didn’t break much. He 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, it came down in the Braves bullpen. Despite a mighty leap that left him dangling stop 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.
“I know that was the highlight of my baseball career,” House said three decades later. “I know that’s a bad statement for a pitcher to make. But I got to play a very small part in a very historic moment.”
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.
“There’s a high drive into deep left-center field,” Scully bellowed. “Bucker goes back to the fence — and it is gone.”
Scully remained silent for nearly 30 seconds as Aaron rounded the bases. Finally, the announcer piped up again.
“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. It is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”