(CNN) — Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, the Baseball Hall of Famer who broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in the face of racism and became a revered ambassador to the game, has died. He was 86.
His longtime team, the Atlanta Braves, said in a statement that Aaron “passed away in his sleep.” The cause of death was not disclosed.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk said in a statement. “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. His success on the diamond was matched only by his business accomplishments off the field and capped by his extraordinary philanthropic efforts.”
Aaron’s incredible power-hitting achievement came in the face of hate and death threats from people who did not want a Black man to claim such an important record.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred Jr. called his friendship with Aaron “one of the greatest honors of my life” and praised “Hank’s impact on our sport and the society.”
“Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone’s list of all-time great players,” Manfred said in a statement.
“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. His career demonstrates that a person who goes to work with humility every day can hammer his way into history — and find a way to shine like no other.”
Illustrious career highlighted by 755 home runs
Aaron, known as “Hammer” or “Hammerin’ Hank,” was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 following an illustrious MLB career highlighted by 755 home runs — a career record that stood for more than three decades. Aaron famously broke Ruth’s longstanding home run record on April 8, 1974, hitting his 715th homer at home in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As he was chasing Ruth’s record, Aaron was taunted daily at ballparks, received threats on his life and was sent thousands of pieces of racist hate mail. He said he didn’t read most of the mail but kept some as a reminder.
“There were times during the chase when I was so angry and tired and sick of it all that I wished I could get on a plane and not get off until I was someplace where they never heard of Babe Ruth,” he wrote in his “I Had a Hammer” autobiography.
“But damn it all, I had to break that record. I had to do it for Jackie (Robinson) and my people and myself and for everybody who ever called me a (N-word).”
Legendary baseball announcer Vin Scully acknowledged the importance of what Aaron did during his play-by-play of the game for the Dodgers, calling it a “marvelous moment for baseball … 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, and it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron,” Scully said as Aaron was mobbed by his teammates and family at home plate.
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Aaron grew up in the 1930s and ’40s deep in the heart of the segregated South — an African-American man without access to organized baseball teams, fields or equipment.
Former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, who has been friends with Aaron since 1965, said the hate and threats throughout the slugger’s life “rolled off his back like water off a duck’s back.”
“It says a lot about the way his mother and father raised him,” Young told CNN Friday. “He was a child of the South, he was a child of racism, but he never let it bother him publicly. He never let it slow him down or change his focus in life.”
Aaron joined Young and other African American leaders at Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine earlier this month to receive the coronavirus vaccine. The event was part of a campaign to encourage confidence in the vaccine in communities that have struggled with America’s history of racism in medical research.
Tributes across the world of sports and politics
Reaction to Aaron’s death and remembrances poured out on Friday from the world of sports and politics.
“Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” former President Barack Obama said on Twitter. “Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to the Aaron family and everyone who was inspired by this unassuming man and his towering example,” he said.
“The former Home Run King wasn’t handed his throne,” former President George W. Bush said in a statement.
“He grew up poor and faced racism as he worked to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him. Henry Louis Aaron was a joyful man, a loving husband to Billye, and a proud father.”
Former President Jimmy Carter said the death of their “dear friend” saddened him and his wife, Rosalynn.
“One of the greatest baseball players of all time, he has been a personal hero to us,” Carter said. “A breaker of records and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come.”
Aaron’s friend and former Braves teammate, Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, said Aaron had been the most important influence on his life, next to his father.
“He was the best person that I ever knew, and the truest, most honest person that I ever knew. He taught me how to be a man and how to be a proud African-American,” Baker said in a statement posted to Twitter.
“He taught me how important it was to give back to the community, and he inspired me to become an entrepreneur. Hank impacted my life, my family and my world, both on and off the field. He was a great man,” he said.
Scully tweeted that Aaron “meant so much more to baseball and the country than just being one of the game’s top home run hitters. He truly was a very special man.”
The Chicago Cubs tweeted: “A baseball legend who transcended the sport.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement that “Mr. Aaron was part of the fabric that helped place Atlanta on the world stage.”
Bottoms told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Atlanta residents’ hearts were broken.
“Hank Aaron, for as big as he was on the world stage, this was our hometown hero,” she said.
Bottoms said she saw Aaron with his wife the day she took her mother to get her vaccine at Morehouse.
“They are out and about in our community. Huge philanthropic presence in our community and just salt of the earth people,” Bottom said.
“Rest in Peace to American hero, icon, and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron,” basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson tweeted.
“We will miss you,” Bernice King, the youngest child of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote. “Your leadership. Your grace. Your generosity. Your love. Thank you, #HankAaron.”
Hate intensified as Aaron chased Ruth’s record
Aaron’s Alabama childhood was marked by an obsession with baseball. He was kicked out of high school when he cut too many classes to listen to Brooklyn Dodgers games on a pool hall radio.
When Aaron’s hero Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to integrate Major League Baseball, came to Mobile in 1948, Aaron cut class to hear the Dodger speak at a drugstore. Later that day, he told his father that’s what he wanted to do with his life.
Robinson, Aaron wrote in his autobiography, “gave us our dreams.”
“When I was growing up in Mobile, Alabama on a little dirt street, I remember my mother about 6 or 7 o’clock in the afternoon,” Aaron told CNN in 2014. “You could hardly see and I’d be trying to throw a baseball and she’d say, ‘Come here, come here!’ And I’d say, ‘For what?’ She said, ‘Get under the bed.'”
His family would hide under the bed when “the KKK would march by, burn a cross and go on about their business and then she (my mother) would say, ‘You can come out now.’ Can you imagine what this would do to the average person? Here I am, a little boy, not doing anything, just catching a baseball with a friend of mine and my mother telling me, ‘Go under the bed.'”
After leaving high school, Aaron played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League.
Years later, with a Class A team based in Jacksonville, Florida, Aaron wrote that the mayor advised him that he should “suffer quietly” when he heard racist shouts from fans.
Fans hurled rocks. They mocked the black players by wearing mops on their heads, and throwing black cats onto the field. The FBI investigated death threats. The players knew to ignore the hate, but “we couldn’t help but feel the weight of what we were doing,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography.
That hate only intensified when he chased the home run record of the venerable Sultan of Swat, as Ruth was known. Hate mail poured into the Braves stadium. The FBI also investigated several death threats and kidnapping plots against Aaron’s children. An armed guard started accompanying Aaron.
“I’ve always felt like once I put the uniform on and once I got out onto the playing field, I could separate the two from say an evil letter I got the day before or an event 20 minutes before,” Aaron told CNN. “God gave me the separation, gave me the ability to separate the two of them.”
He was the first player in an exclusive club
Aaron shone brightly on the baseball diamond. He had 3,771 hits over 23 big league seasons, a milestone he would have still achieved without any home runs, according to the Braves. On May 17, 1970, Aaron became the first player in history in the 3,000-hit, 500-home run club.
The 1957 National League MVP led Milwaukee to a World Series victory that year. He was an All-Star a record 25 times.
He was one of baseball’s most consistent hitters with a .305 career batting average. He batted .300 mark 14 times, hit 30 home runs in a season 15 times, and drove in 90 runs 16 times. He also won three Gold Glove Awards playing primarily in right field.
Aaron held baseball’s career home run record until he was passed in 2007 by Barry Bonds, whose feat was tarnished by a steroid scandal. Bonds finished his career with 762 homers.
Aaron remains baseball’s all-time leader in RBI’s with 2,297 and total bases with 6,856. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year eligible.
In 1999, MLB created the Hank Aaron Award, given every year to the best hitter in both the American and National Leagues.
Aaron worked in the Braves front office since retiring from his playing career in 1976 — most recently as a senior vice president, according to the Braves. He founded the Chasing the Dream Foundation, a charity for children, in 1995. He served on the board of the NAACP and was a benefactor of the Morehouse School of Medicine.
“A little bit of Hank Aaron rubs off on you when you get to meet him,” Young said. “His personality was always calm and cool and deliberate.”
Besides his wife, Billye, Aaron is survived by his five children, Gaile, Hank Jr., Lary, Dorinda and Ceci, according to the Braves organization.