An enduring legend who changed the face of baseball forever when he shattered Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974 (a record he would hold for 33 years), Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer Henry “Hank” Aaron died Friday morning, aged 86.
Following in Jackie Robinson’s footsteps, Aaron climbed his way from the “Negro leagues” — a collection of professional baseball leagues comprising of African Americans — to the pinnacle of Major League Baseball, smashing records left and right while enduring torrents of racial abuse as he cemented his place among baseball’s greats.
Though no cause of death was mentioned, Braves chairman Terry McGuirk confirmed Aaron’s death in a statement Friday.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” McGuirk said. “He was a beacon for our organization first as a player, then with player development, and always with our community efforts. His incredible talent and resolve helped him achieve the highest accomplishments, yet he never lost his humble nature. Henry Louis Aaron wasn’t just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world.”
Aaron truly was an icon — and a few of his greatest career highlights, performed often in the face of the vicious racial tensions of the Civil Rights era, testify to his place in the pantheon of baseball legends.
April 13, 1954 — Major League debut
Determined to be a baseball star from a young age, Aaron spent barely a month with the Negro league Indianapolis Clowns before major league scouts realized his potential, according to ESPN. When he signed with the then-Boston Braves in 1952, his talent was clear — and an injury to outfielder Bobby Thomson gave him his big break to start for the Milwaukee Braves on April 13, 1954 (the Braves had moved to Milwaukee in 1953). His first major league homer would come 10 days later against the St. Louis Cardinals — and he never looked back.
October 10, 1957 — The World Series
Aaron would only win one World Series in his storied career, achieving that ultimate goal in the 1957 World Series. Only three years after making his major league debut, Aaron smashed in three home runs and hit .393 over seven games to seal one of the greatest seasons of his life with a trophy as the Braves trounced the Yankees and won the second World Series in their history. Throughout that historic season, he tallied 44 home runs, 132 RBIs and 369 bases, winning the NL MVP award for the only time in his career.
July 14, 1968 — 500 dingers and counting
As the 1960s went by, Aaron’s competition with other greats of the time like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle started to take shape as his hitting prowess increased, but according to ESPN, many people thought Mays would end up more likely to threaten Ruth’s home run record. But when Aaron nailed a home run off Giants pitcher Mike McCormick over the Atlanta Stadium left-field wall to reach his 500th home run (the Braves had moved to Atlanta in 1966), the seminal achievement of his career began to loom on the horizon. By 1971, his tally would be at 639, and eyes around the nation began to turn to the star from Mobile as he marched toward Ruth’s record.
April 8, 1974 — Aaron surpasses Babe Ruth as the greatest home run hitter in baseball history
There can be no question — April 8 wasn’t just the greatest moment of Aaron’s career. It ranks as one of the greatest moments in baseball, no — sports — history. Receiving regular death threats from baseball fans furious that Aaron, a black star, could surpass Ruth’s legacy, Aaron edged ever closer to Ruth’s record of 714 home runs as racial turmoil continued to divide the country. He equaled it on April 4, with Vice President Gerald R. Ford congratulating him after the game. Then the fateful moment came — a home matchup against the Dodgers. Aaron slammed a 400-foot homer over the wall of Atlanta Stadium, sending the fans into raptures and an 11-minute standing ovation, according to The New York Times. Aaron didn’t just pass Ruth’s record that day. He solidified his place as one of the greatest baseball players ever to play the game.
July 20, 1976 — No. 755
Aaron moved back to Milwaukee after the 1974 season to play for the Milwaukee Brewers, and his career would gradually draw to a close over the next few years. He sent one last home run (his 755th, to be exact) hurtling into the stands in 1976 and retired later that year, completing one of the greatest careers in baseball history. Aaron’s record of 755 homers would be passed by Giants star Barry Bonds in 2007, but in many baseball fans’ eyes, Bonds’ steroids scandal leaves Aaron’s record intact to this day.
August 1, 1982 — Entry into the Hall of Fame
Six years after his retirement, Aaron was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving the second-highest voting percentage ever at the time, with his 97.8% of votes only ranking behind Ty Cobb’s 98.2% when he was inducted. Regardless of Bonds’ status as the record holder, Aaron’s Hall of Fame career still stands today as an example of determination in the face of adversity, and his consistency (hitting at least 20 home runs in 20 consecutive seasons, according to the Associated Press) earned him an undeniable place in baseball legend. In 1999 the MLB created the Hank Aaron award to honor the top hitter in each league, and in 2002 President George W. Bush honored Aaron with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, testifying to Hammerin’ Hank’s monumental contribution to American sports history.
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