Hank Aaron, Baseball’s Legendary Slugger, Dies At 86

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Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET

ATLANTA, Ga. (NPR) — Hank Aaron, seen as a hero for shattering Babe Ruth’s home run record and also for his longtime advocacy for civil rights, has died. “Hammerin’ Hank” was 86. The Atlanta Braves confirmed his death on Friday.

“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,” Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said.

Because of his skill and power at the plate — Aaron batted in more than 100 runs in a season in three decades — Major League Baseball named its award for the best offensive player after him.

Aaron started his career in 1954, playing for the Milwaukee Braves. The franchise moved to Atlanta for the 1966 season, and that’s where Aaron broke Ruth’s hallowed record by hitting his 715th home run in 1974.

In his call of Aaron’s history-making hit, sportscaster Vin Scully said, “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.”

“A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol,” Scully added. “And it is a great moment for all of us – and particularly for Henry Aaron.”

Scully noted that in addition to his Braves teammates, Aaron’s mother and father ran to meet him at home plate.

Known for his stoic public demeanor — and also for being a proud competitor — Aaron faced immense pressure as he strove to surpass Ruth’s hallowed home run record that dated to the 1930s. He also faced a racial backlash.

As a Black man who was threatening to put his name above the iconic Ruth in the record books, Aaron received enough hate mail and threats that his family was protected by the FBI.

“Y’know it wasn’t a very happy time,” his Atlanta teammate and friend Dusty Baker told NPR in 2007. “It wasn’t nearly as happy as it should’ve been.”

When Aaron headed to the plate where he would make history, Baker recalled him saying, “I’m tired of this, I’m gonna get it over with.”

Legendary baseball player Hank Aaron has died at the age of 86.
Legendary baseball player Hank Aaron has died at the age of 86. [Hulton Archive | Getty Images]
In addition to his phenomenal ability on a baseball field, Aaron was famous for advocating for civil rights. He often used his own life story — he went from being born poor in the South to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom — to discuss the challenges of overcoming racial inequality.

“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country,” Aaron said in 2014. “The bigger difference is that back then, they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”

Aaron began his pro career in the Negro League. When he joined the Braves organization, he played for a minor league team in Florida, becoming one of the first Black players to break the color barrier in the South.

Aaron retired in 1976, after hitting 755 home runs during his pro career. That mark stood for more than 30 years, before Barry Bonds set a new record. Bonds finished his career with 762 home runs.

Aaron hit .305 over his career, accounting for 2,297 runs batted in and 6,856 total bases — both of which remain all-time records. After his retirement, the widely respected player became an executive for the Atlanta Braves.

His death comes as the Braves organization and its fans are mourning the loss of Don Sutton, who became a longtime announcer for the team after a Hall of Fame pitching career.

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