‘A very special man’: Hank Aaron, Major League Baseball’s one-time home run king, dies at 86

Major League Baseball (MLB) great Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his successful pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record, has died aged 86.

The Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s long-time MLB team, said he died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given.

Aaron made his last public appearance earlier this month when he received the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he wanted to help spread the word to Black Americans that the vaccine was safe.

“Hammerin’ Hank” set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBIs (runs batted in), extra-base hits and total bases.

But Aaron will be remembered for one swing above all others, the one that made him baseball’s home-run king.

On April 8, 1974, before a sell-out crowd at Atlanta Stadium and a national television audience, Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record with number 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Loading

Legendary baseball broadcaster Vin Scully famously called Aaron’s milestone home run, in which he highlighted the significance of the achievement.

“What a marvellous moment for baseball. What a marvellous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia,” Scully said in commentary after Aaron triumphantly made his way to the home plate.

“What a marvellous moment for 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.”

Loading

Scully paid his respect to Aaron on Saturday, saying it was a privilege to cover his milestone home run and his career.

“He meant so much more to baseball and the country than just being one of the game’s top home run hitters,” Scully tweeted.

Aaron held the home run record of 755 for more than 33 years, a period during which he slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America’s most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan.

But Aaron’s journey to that memorable homer was hardly triumphant, as he was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth’s cherished record of 714.

Aaron was shadowed constantly by bodyguards and forced to distance himself from teammates. He kept all those hateful letters, a bitter reminder of the abuse he endured and never forgot.

“This is just the way things are for Black people in America,” Aaron once said.

“It’s something you battle all of your life.”

Braves president and CEO, Derek Schiller, said Aaron “basically is the Braves”.

“Our brand is and our team is who we are because of Hank Aaron,” Schiller said.

“I know there are a lot of guys [who] have worn the uniform, but none like Hank.”

Loading

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said Aaron would be remembered as a legend of the game.

“Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone’s list of all-time great players,” he said in a statement.

“Hank symbolised the very best of our game, and his all-round excellence provided Americans and fans across the world with an example to which to aspire.

“His career demonstrated 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.”

A giant of baseball

Aaron spent 21 of his 23 seasons with the Braves — first in Milwaukee, then in Atlanta after the franchise moved to the South in 1966. He finished his career in Milwaukee after being traded to the Brewers following the 1974 season when he refused to take a front-office job that would have required a big pay cut.

While knocking the ball over the fence became his signature accomplishment, Aaron was hardly a one-dimensional star. In fact, he never hit more than 47 homers in a season.

But it can be argued no one else was so good, for so long, at so many facets of baseball.

He posted 14 seasons with a .300 average, the last of them at age 39, and claimed two National League batting titles. He finished with a career average of .305.

Aaron also was a gifted outfielder with a powerful arm, something often overlooked because of a smooth, effortless stride that his critics mistook for nonchalance. He was a three-time Gold Glove winner.

In addition, Aaron posted nine straight seasons with double-figure stolen bases, including a career best of 31 in 1963 when he joined Ken Williams and Willie Mays as only the third member of the 30-30 club — players who have totalled at least 30 homers and 30 steals in a season.

Six feet tall (182 centimetres) and listed at 180 pounds (81.6 kilograms) during the prime of his career, Aaron was hardly an imposing player physically. But he was blessed with powerful wrists that made him one of baseball’s most feared hitters.

Aaron hit 733 homers with the Braves, the last in his final plate appearance with the team on October 2, 1974. Exactly one month later, he was traded to the Brewers.

Hank Aaron laughs while sitting down at a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of his 715th career home run in 2014.Hank Aaron laughs while sitting down at a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of his 715th career home run in 2014.
Aaron, pictured in 2014, is regarded as one of the greatest all-round players in MLB history.(AP: David Goldman)

Aaron became a designated hitter with the Brewers but managed just 22 homers over his last two seasons. He retired after hitting .229 in 1976.

Even so, his career numbers largely stood the test of time. The home run mark lasted until Barry Bonds hit his 756th on August 7, 2007.

Bonds retired with 762 homers, but many consider Aaron the true home-run king because of steroid allegations that continue to hound his successor.

Aaron still has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856) than anyone in baseball history. He ranks second in at-bats (12,354), third in games played (3,298) and hits (3,771), and fourth in runs scored (tied with Ruth at 2,174).

He was the National League’s MVP in 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in seven games to give Aaron the only World Series title of his career. It also was his lone MVP award, though he finished in the top 10 of the balloting 13 times.

Aaron was selected for the All-Star Game in 21 consecutive years — every season but his first and his last.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, which was his first year of eligibility. He was just nine votes short of being a unanimous choice.

In 1999, MLB began honouring its top hitter with the Hank Aaron Award, akin to the Cy Young for pitchers.

Aaron was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, by then-president George W Bush in 2002.

AP/ABC