Hank Aaron, MLB Homer King From Ruth to Bonds, Dies at 86
(Bloomberg) -- Henry “Hank” Aaron, the Black baseball slugger who broke Babe Ruth’s career home-run mark in an American sports milestone imbued with racial significance and racist insults he never forgot, has died. He was 86.
He died Friday, according to Major League Baseball. No cause was given.
More than a home-run hitter, the man known as “Hammerin’ Hank” also was skilled with the glove, earning a spot on lists of the game’s greatest all-around players. He saw himself as an heir to the civil-rights legacy of Jackie Robinson and aspired to live up to it during his baseball career and after.
His modesty and pride were tested when another slugger, Barry Bonds, surpassed his home-run record in August 2007. Several months later, Bonds was convicted of obstructing justice by making an evasive statement to a grand jury regarding his use of performance-enhancing steroids. The conviction was later overturned.
Some supporters maintained the taint on Bonds made Aaron “the true home run king,” as he was called when the Braves in 2014 celebrated the 40th anniversary of his 715th homer. Asked whether the Bonds controversy made him feel like the “real” record-holder, Aaron told the New York Times in 2011: “I feel like I hit 755 home runs and somebody else broke my record. Whatever people want to say about that is fine, but I don’t think about it too much.”
Reflecting on Aaron’s accomplishments, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said Friday in a statement: “Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone’s list of all-time great players. His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person. Hank symbolized the very best of our game, and his all-around excellence provided Americans and fans across the world with an example to which to aspire.”
Aaron’s association with hitting baseballs over the fence overshadowed his other achievements: a record 2,297 runs batted in, three Gold Glove awards for fielding and a 76% success rate at stealing bases. He was only the ninth player to reach 3,000 hits, and his 6,856 total bases is a record that may never be broken.
Though he never hit more than 47 home runs in one season, his consistency was astonishing: during his 23-year major league career, he hit an average of 37 homers per season. At age 35 he had 510 four-baggers to his name, a prodigious number yet still more than 200 from Ruth, whose record of 714 was set in 1935 and widely described as unassailable as late as 1970.
With blast No. 649, on June 10, 1972, Aaron passed Willie Mays on the all-time list, second only to Ruth. He began traveling with a bodyguard and registering at hotels under false names, due to the death threats and hate mail he received.
“Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies,” one letter read. “I will be going to the rest of your games and if you hit one more home run it will be your last. My gun is watching your every Black move.”
Aaron kept some of the hate mail, as a reminder of what he went through.
“The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst,” he wrote in “I Had a Hammer,” his 1991 memoir. “I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.”
Former President Barack Obama said in a statement, “Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. Those letters changed Hank, but they didn’t stop him. After breaking the home run record, he became one of the first Black Americans to hold a senior management position in Major League Baseball.”
Aaron finished the 1973 season with 713 homers, one shy of Ruth. He tied Ruth in his first at-bat of the 1974 season, on April 4, in Cincinnati. “The record they said that couldn’t be reached has just been reached by Henry Aaron,” said Braves’ broadcaster Milo Hamilton.
Four days later -- April 8, 1974 -- in front of the home crowd in Atlanta, Aaron broke Ruth’s record, hitting home run 715 against Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Aaron sprinted around the bases, joined at one point by two teenagers, both white, who had jumped from the stands.
“What a marvelous moment for the country and the world,” Dodgers’ announcer Vin Scully told listeners. “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”
During an impromptu on-field ceremony, Aaron said, “I would like to say to all the fans here this evening that I just thank God it’s all over.”
Following that season the Braves traded Aaron to the Milwaukee Brewers, enabling Aaron to spend his final two years in the city where his Major League career had begun. He hit 22 home runs in those two years, retiring with 755.
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility. In his speech, he paid tribute to Robinson and Roy Campanella, the first Black players to receive the honor.
“They proved to the world that a man’s ability is limited only by his lack of opportunity,” Aaron said.
Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig, said Friday in a statement: “Aaron was beloved by his teammates and by his fans. He was a true Hall of Famer in every way. He will be missed throughout the game and his contributions to the game will never be forgotten.”
Henry Louis Aaron was born on Feb. 5, 1934, in the segregated port city of Mobile, Alabama, the third of eight children of Herbert Aaron and the former Estella Pritchett. His father had moved at 19 from rural Camden, Alabama, and become a riveter with the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company.
Central High School had no baseball team -- “none of the Black schools did,” Aaron wrote -- so he played on its fast-pitch softball team. At the time, he batted cross-handed -- left hand on top, even though he was a right-handed hitter.
He played with the Mobile Black Bears in 1951 and the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League in 1952, as a shortstop. A scout for the Boston Braves, Dewey Griggs, noticed his cross-handed style and suggested he reverse his hands on the bat. The next time up, Aaron hit a home run.
He signed with the Braves and played for their minor-league teams in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Jacksonville, Florida. On April 13, 1954, the 20-year-old Aaron made his big-league debut playing outfield for the Braves, who had relocated to Milwaukee the previous year.
He hit 27 home runs in 1955, which was the first of 21 consecutive years he was named an All-Star. He led the league in hits with 200 in 1956 and in home runs with 44 in 1957, when he was named National League Most Valuable Player.
He was the star of the 1957 World Series with 11 hits, including three home runs, as his Braves defeated the New York Yankees in seven games. It would be Aaron’s only title.
Sportswriter William Barry Furlong in 1958 took note of Aaron’s “supple, powerful wrists,” measuring almost eight inches around, which “allow him to ‘crack’ the light bat like a buggy whip, instead of taking the mighty, and frequently futile, swing of a Ruthian slugger.”
The Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta at the start of the 1966 season, returning Aaron to the Deep South. He and another Black Braves player, Lee Maye, said they feared racial discrimination in Georgia.
Aaron “was famous and accomplished and angered that in the South all he had produced could be taken away by a teenage store clerk or an average housewife, just because they were white and he was not,” Howard Bryant wrote in his 2010 book, “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron.”
Aaron’s final post-season appearance came in 1969, when the Braves faced the New York Mets in the National League playoffs. Though the Braves lost, Aaron starred, with three home runs and two doubles in 14 at-bats.
In 1972, he signed a three-year contract worth $600,000, making him the highest-paid player at the time.
With his first wife, the former Barbara Lucas, Aaron had four children -- Dorinda, Hank Jr., Gaile and Lary. Another child, Gary, who was Lary’s twin, died in infancy. That marriage ended in divorce in 1971.
In 1973, Aaron married the former Billye Williams and adopted her daughter, Ceci.
In retirement, Aaron served as an executive with the Braves and formed a charitable foundation that awards scholarships to underprivileged youth.
He also saw another record of his broken. Aaron was first, alphabetically, in the long roster of all-time big-league players until 2004, when that distinction was claimed by a player named David Aardsman.
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