Jan. 22, 2021 — Henry “Hank” Aaron, whose dramatic chase of the Major League home run record in 1974 made him a baseball legend, died Friday at his home in Atlanta.
The Atlanta Braves, his former team, announced Aaron’s death at age 86. He died in his sleep, The Associated Press reported, and no cause of death was immediately released.
Aaron, born in Mobile, AL, during Jim Crow, was last seen in public on Jan. 5, when he and former U.N. Ambassador and civil rights leader Andrew Young and former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan received COVID-19 vaccinations together in Atlanta.
Aaron’s greatness came not just on the baseball field, where he set records for career home runs, runs-batted-in, extra-base hits, and total bases. He also became a symbol of dignity and grace as he battled fierce racism in his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs.
As he neared Ruth’s mark, Aaron faced death threats from white people who objected to a Black man holding such a revered record. But Aaron never showed anger, or fear. He just kept hitting home runs.
Aaron’s professional career began in 1951 when she signed as a 17-year-old with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. He was later offered roster spots by both the New York Giants and the then-Boston Braves. While the Giants offer was for a higher-rated league, Aaron signed with the Braves and the extra $50 a month the team offered.
The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966.
“Honestly, I was scared coming to a high-profile city like Atlanta,” Aaron told WSB-TV/Channel 2 in an earlier interview. “Knowing that Dr. King was here, Andy Young and some of the other great civil rights leaders that made their home here, and I’m coming from Milwaukee where there was no activity at all. … It makes you start thinking about what it is, what can you do, what role you can play. And makes you feel like you kind of shortchanged everybody really, you didn’t do your job.”
Aaron was aware Atlanta was becoming the center of the civil rights movement but was unsure of his place in it.
“To be honest with you, I felt a little ashamed of myself, because I was so far back in the sticks, in the woods, that I didn’t know what was going on. It kind of made me start thinking, realizing that, regardless of what I achieved in life, no matter whether it’s baseball, football, basketball, life, lawyers, whatever it may be, that I still had a role to play,” he said.
Later, after his career as a player ended in 1976, Aaron became an executive with the Braves and a community icon. While never chasing the spotlight, he nonetheless attracted it. President Bill Clinton praised Aaron’s work on race relations as paving the way for Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008.
While his career record of 755 home runs fell in 2007, many continue to consider Aaron the true Home Run King as Barry Bonds, who passed Aaron’s mark, is widely believed to have used performance-enhancing drugs.