ATLANTA (NewsNation Now) — American baseball legend Henry “Hank” Aaron, who became one of the sport’s most iconic figures after beating out Babe Ruth’s home-run record, has died, the Atlanta Braves confirmed on Twitter Friday. He was 86.
Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934, and briefly played in the Negro Leagues and minor leagues during his youth. Aaron made his MLB debut in 1954 — at age 20 — starting his more than two-decadelong career with the Milwaukee Braves, now known as the Atlanta Braves.
Aaron topped Babe Ruth’s 714 career home-run record in 1974, and ultimately finished his career with a total of 755, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Aaron retired in 1976, and his home-run record stood until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007.
Aaron was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. His profile on the hall’s website notes that boxing legend Muhammad Ali called Aaron “the only man I idolize more than myself.” It quotes Mickey Mantle as calling Aaron “the best baseball player of my era. … He’s never received the credit he’s due.”
MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred, Jr. issued a statement, saying that Hank “symbolized the very best of our game.”
“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,” Manfred wrote. “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.”
President Barack Obama said in a statement Aaron was one of the strongest people he’s met. Read the full statement below.
Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.
Whenever Michelle and I spent time with Hank and his wife Billye, we were struck by their kindness, generosity and grace—and were reminded that we stood on the shoulders of a previous generation of trailblazers.
A child of the Jim Crow South, Hank quit high school to join the Negro League, playing shortstop for $200 a month before earning a spot in Major League Baseball. Humble and hardworking, Hank was often overlooked until he started chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record, at which point he began receiving death threats and racist letters—letters he would reread decades later to remind himself “not to be surprised or hurt.”
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. And for the rest of his life, he never missed an opportunity to lead—including earlier this month, when Hank and Billye joined civil rights leaders and got COVID vaccines.
Today, 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.President Barack Obama
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey tweeted her condolences saying, “He inspired many young boys and girls to pursue their dreams and pursue excellence in whatever they do.”
Earlier this month, Aaron had gotten vaccinated against COVID-19 in Georgia, alongside former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and other civil rights leaders. They hoped to send a message to Black Americans in particular that the shots are safe.
Getting vaccinated “makes me feel wonderful,” Aaron told The Associated Press. “I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this. … It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”
President Joe Biden released a statement Friday evening:
When I watched Henry Aaron play baseball, I knew I was watching someone special. It wasn’t just about watching a gifted athlete master his craft on the way to a Hall of Fame career as one of the greatest to ever play the game. It was that each time Henry Aaron rounded the bases, he wasn’t just chasing a record, he was helping us chase a better version of ourselves.
With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people. But he was unbreakable. He stemmed the vicious force of white supremacy, in death threats, hate mail, and in hardened hearts. What I deeply admired and respected about him is that each time he rounded those bases — an astonishing 755 trips home — he melted away more and more of the ice of bigotry to show that we can be better as a people and as a nation.
Henry Aaron became, in the words of President Carter, “the first Black man for whom white fans in the South cheered.” It was not only his bat, but his character that won over those hearts and minds. For generations of athletes and civil rights advocates who followed, he showed how to be proud and be unafraid to stand up for what is right and just.
Jill and I count ourselves among the many millions of Americans who are grateful for the memories he gave us and our families. As a nation, we will still chase the better version of ourselves that he set for us. As we do, we mourn his passing and send our prayers to his beloved Billye, their children and grandchildren, and the entire Aaron family.
God bless, Henry “Hank” Aaron, an American hero.Statement of President Joe Biden on the Passing of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron
Nexstar Media Wire, Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.