Hank Aaron, the baseball great who defied racist hatred to break Babe Ruth’s cherished major league home run record, died Friday. He was 86.

The Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s former club, and Major League Baseball said the beloved Hall of Famer affectionately known as “Hammerin’ Hank” passed away Friday morning.

“We are devastated by the passing of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, one of the greatest players and people in the history of our game,” MLB said in a statement.

In a glittering career, Aaron delighted fans with his poise and dazzling offensive skills to cement his place in baseball’s pantheon.

Aaron’s 715th career home run – belted on April 8, 1974 – broke the record Ruth had set nearly 40 years before.

A crowd of 53,775 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium celebrated the feat. But the build-up to the record-setting swing was a harrowing glimpse of the ugly underside of America.

Hate mail, death threats, even threats to Aaron’s family had seen security around him tighten as he drew closer to the record over two seasons.

For inspiration, Aaron turned to trailblazing Jackie Robinson, the player who paved the way for blacks in the modern game.

“I thought that if he could stand up and take the abuse that he took, that I can do the same thing and be the same person, as long as God gave me the ability to play the game,” Aaron once recalled. “It was a time for me to stand up and be tall, to do what I was sent here to do.”

Henry Louis Aaron was born on February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama, one of eight children of Herbert and Estella Aaron.

A speech by Robinson at a recreation center sparked the 14-year-old Aaron’s desire to be a major league ball player – a goal he pursued through a semi-pro team, the Black Bears, while he was still in high school.

At 18, he was playing for the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the last of the Negro Baseball League teams. He joined the Boston Braves in 1952, and played his first Major League Baseball game in 1954, after the club’s move to Milwaukee.

Two decades of sustained excellence would follow in Milwaukee and through the Braves’ move to Atlanta.

Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs – establishing a record that would stand for 33 years when it was broken by Barry Bonds – the drugs-tainted Giants slugger who would re-set the mark at 762.

Inextricably linked to baseball’s most explosive feat, Hammerin’ Hank was, in fact, far more than a slugger and MLB’s Hank Aaron Award given for overall offensive excellence reflects the fact.

Earlier in that magical April 8, 1974 game, Aaron – walked in his first at-bat – scored the 2,063rd run of his career – breaking the National League record set by Willie Mays.

He owns the major league record for most career runs-batted-in with 2,297 and as an outfielder won three Gold Glove awards for his fielding skills.

Aaron set a dozen major league records before he retired in 1976, heading into a career that would see him become one of baseball’s first black upper-level executives when Braves owner Ted Turner appointed him vice president of player development.

Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and in 2002 President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his philanthropy and humanitarian endeavors.

‘Marvelous moment’

But he knew he would always be identified with home runs.

“No matter what it is,” Aaron said, “they’re going to always say ‘Hank Aaron and a home run.”

And one home run in particular.

On that night in Atlanta in 1974, Aaron watched a slider from Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing find the dirt, then turned on a Downing fastball to send it high and right.

“It kept carrying and carrying,” Downing recalled. When it cleared the fence, fireworks went off and Aaron rounded the bases, maintaining his composure even when two fans made it onto the field to congratulate him.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said.

“What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”


(With inputs from AFP)