Braves legend and National Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron died peacefully in his sleep Friday, the organization announced. He was 86.
Aaron was beloved on and off the baseball field, and treasured for more than being baseball’s home run king. His passing is part of a rough month for the Braves organization, which also saw Hall of Fame pitchers Phil Niekro and Don Sutton, a longtime Atlanta broadcaster, pass away.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said. “He was a beacon for our organization first as a player, then with player development and always with our community efforts. His incredible talent and resolve helped him achieve the highest accomplishments, yet he never lost his humble nature. Henry Louis Aaron wasn’t just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world.
“His success on the diamond was matched only by his business accomplishments off the field and capped by his extraordinary philanthropic efforts. We are heartbroken and thinking of his wife Billye and their children Gaile, Hank Jr., Lary, Dorinda and Ceci and his grandchildren.”
On April 8, 1974, Aaron produced his most widely recognized feat, breaking Babe Ruth’s seemingly untouchable home run record with the 715th of his career. He reached the home run mark in the face of racism that included hate mail and death threats from those who didn’t want a Black man to break Ruth’s mark.
Aaron’s 755 career home runs stood as the record Barry Bonds, in a controversial era of performance-enhancing drugs, finished with 762.
Despite being known as the home run king, Aaron was one of pro baseball’s top hitters. Even without his 755 home runs, he still had 3,016 hits. He remains baseball’s all-time leader in RBIs (2,297) and total bases (6,856).
His batting average was over the .300 mark 14 times, he had more than 30 home runs in 15 seasons and topped the 90-RBI mark 16 times. He won three Gold Glove Awards as an outfielder and was selected as an MLB All-Star an astonishing 25 times. In 1970, he became the first player to top 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, and in 1982 he was picked for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Aaron grew from humble beginnings on the sandlot fields of Mobile, Ala., originally debuting with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. He was first scouted by Dewey Griggs of the Milwaukee Braves during a Clowns tryout. The Braves eventually beat out the Giants for Aaron’s services.
In 1952, he was assigned to the Eau Claire, Wisc., team of the Northern League. He was the unanimous choice for the Northern League’s Rookie of the Year while only playing in 87 games (.336, 9 HR, 61 RBIs, 116 hits and 89 runs). In 1953 he was promoted to the Jacksonville Tars, where he became the first African-American player in the South Atlantic League. Aaron won the batting title (.362) and led the league in RBI (125), runs (115), hits (208) and finished second in home runs (22) and earned the league’s MVP award.
He began his Major League career in 1954 when a spring training injury forced Bobby Thompson out of the Braves’ lineup. Aaron hit his first home run on April 23, 1954.
After retiring in 1976, Aaron worked in the Braves front office for decades. He most recently was a Senior Vice President, a role he held since Dec. 1989. In the first 13 years of his front office tenure he was the club’s Vice President and Director of Player Development. In that position, he oversaw the development of many players instrumental in the Braves’ 1982 N.L. West Division championship, including two-time MVP Dale Murphy.
Along with his accomplishments on the field, Aaron also gave back to society. In 1995, his Chasing the Dream Foundation was established with the goal of helping children between the ages of nine and 12 realize their dreams. The foundation has provided grants to more than 755 children, or ‘Dream Chasers,’ in six cities across the country, enabling them to seek advanced study in music, art, writing, dance and sports.
Through the generous support of Major League Baseball, the foundation transitioned into the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream “44 Forever” program, honoring Aaron’s retired Braves jersey number. The program annually provides financial assistance to 44 young people with limited opportunities so they can further develop their talents and pursue their dreams, exclusively at Boys and Girls Clubs across the country.
In 2010, the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Four-to-Four Scholarship program was created, endowing four-year scholarships for the benefit of deserving students who have chosen to pursue their dreams by attending college.
Aaron’s accomplishments as a player, in addition to his humanitarianism, were recognized in 1999 with the introduction of Major League Baseball’s Hank Aaron Award. The award is presented annually to the best hitter in the National and American Leagues. The announcement was made at Aaron’s 65th birthday celebration in Atlanta with President Bill Clinton in attendance, and it coincided with the 25th anniversary of Aaron hitting his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s all-time record.
In February 2003, Aaron received the first Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Legacy Award from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, honoring his “career excellence in the face of adversity.” The heroism the Mobile, Ala. native displayed throughout his career led boxing icon and philanthropist Muhammad Ali to call him the “the only man I idolize more than myself.”
“We are heartbroken and saddened by this morning’s passing of baseball legend, trailblazer and icon, Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “He not only made a great impact on the diamond, but in society as well with his caring and genuine spirit, always taking the time to be a friend to all. As an original member of the Falcons Board of Directors, he served as a mentor to so many of our players throughout the years, providing a source of knowledge and support on what it takes to build a winning culture while always displaying a great deal of humility. We loved Hank and his wife, Billye, and we are truly saddened by his passing. May he rest in peace.”