Universally regarded as one of baseball’s greatest players, Hank Aaron became the all-time home run king, a title he would hold for more than 30 years. Aaron, who was also the last of the Negro League players to move to Major League Baseball, died Friday at age 86. His daughter confirmed his death with Atlanta station WSB-TV. No cause of death was given.
Henry Louis Aaron was born Feb. 5, 1934, in the low-income Black section of Mobile, Ala., known as “Down the Bay,” although he grew up in the middle-class neighborhood of Toulminville. Aaron, one of eight children, practiced baseball by hitting bottle caps with sticks.
During his first two years in high school, he played shortstop and third base, leading his team to the Mobile Negro High School Championship both years. When he was 14, his father took him to see Jackie Robinson play while the Brooklyn Dodgers were training in Mobile, and they heard Robinson give a speech in town. Aaron would later say that the experience made him determined to become a major-league player himself.
He did well enough in football to receive several football scholarships, but he pursued his first love, baseball, and at age 15 he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did not make the team, but he did join a Negro Leagues team during his junior year in high school. In 1951, he quit school to play for the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns, who won the 1952 World Series.
Aaron caught the eye of MLB scouts and received contract offers from two teams: the New York Giants and the Milwaukee Braves. He would later say, “I had the Giants’ contract in my hand. But the Braves offered $50 a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates—$50.” He was assigned to one of the Braves’ farm teams, the Eau Claire Bears, making $10,000 a year.
Aaron shone in the minors. He was named Northern League Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team. In 1953 he was promoted to the Jacksonville Tars, a Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League. (He was one of the first Black men to play in that league.) The Tars won the championship, and he was named Most Valuable Player.
His successes on the field didn’t protect Aaron from racism. Throughout his minor-league career, he was often segregated from his team because of Jim Crow laws and had to make his own arrangements for housing and meals. Ben Geraghty, the Tars’ white manager, repeatedly demanded at top restaurants that all of his players, Black and white, be treated equally. When they were refused service, the team would go to the next-best restaurant, and so on, until they found one that would serve everyone.
Aaron met and married Barbara Lewis in 1953, with whom he would have five children. He spent the winter of that year in Puerto Rico, working on his batting stance with the Braves’ manager, Mickey Owen. Aaron finally made his debut with the Braves in 1954. To make Aaron more accessible to the public, the team’s public relations director started calling him ‘Hank.’ Other nicknames developed from that, including the one conferred on him by his teammates: Hammerin’ Hank.
Aaron would reach a number of milestones over the next few years. In 1957, he won his first MLB World Series with the Braves against the New York Yankees. He picked up his first Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 1958, and in 1963 he led the league in number of home runs and runs batted in as well as batting average.
But the achievement for which Aaron will always be best remembered is shattering Babe Ruth’s all-time career home run record of 714. Over a decade and a half, Aaron had been hitting up to 40 home runs a season. By the end of the 1973 season, Aaron was only one home run behind Ruth. By this time, the Braves had moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta.
Baseball fans had strong and varied opinions about Aaron’s chase to beat Ruth’s record. Among the letters pouring into the Braves’ offices—up to 3,000 a day—were those congratulating Aaron. But the majority were horrified that a Black man was on the brink of breaking a record set by a white baseball legend. Aaron, his family and the sportswriters covering the story received death threats.
That didn’t stop Aaron. While remaining low-key about the home run chase itself, he spoke out against the league’s reluctance to provide opportunities for minorities in management. “On the field, Blacks have been able to be super giants,” he said. “But once our playing days are over, this is the end of it, and we go back to the back of the bus again.”
In 1974 Aaron tied Ruth’s record on opening day against the Cincinnati Reds. He held off hitting another home run until the team returned to its home field. On April 8, 1974, in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and with more than 50,000 fans in the stadium, Aaron hit his 715th home run. The crowd exploded as he rounded the bases, and his parents greeted him when he made it across home plate.
The 40-year-old Aaron was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1974. During his first season there, he broke baseball’s all-time RBI record, which had also been held by Ruth. He ended his career in 1976 with 755 home runs. Recently, Major League Baseball decided to reclassify the Negro Leagues as a major league. After a review, Aaron’s home run total may go up, but not enough to reclaim the title from Barry Bonds, who surpassed him in 2007.
Aaron helped break another racial barrier when he became a Braves senior vice president—and one of the first Black members of baseball’s top management. In 1982 he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Aaron released his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, in 1990. In 2002 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was also a member of the Black professional fraternity Sigma Pi Phi. To mark the 25th anniversary of Aaron’s dismantling of Ruth’s record, MLB unveiled the Hank Aaron Award in 1999, to be given to the game’s best offensive player.
Aaron remained active well into his 70s. He was a successful entrepreneur, with several car dealerships and fast-food franchises, and sat on Turner Broadcasting System’s board of directors. He also established Chasing the Dream to help underprivileged youths pursue an education. Aaron’s second wife, Billye Williams, whom he married in 1973, is the foundation’s president and co-founder.
Since that spring evening in 1974, Barry Bonds has become the new home run leader. When he hit his record-breaking 756th home run on Aug. 7, 2007, Aaron made a surprise appearance on the video screen:
“I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment, which required skill, longevity and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.