(CelebrityAccess) — Pioneering Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record and who faced racism and vitriol with grace, has died. He was 86.
His passing was announced by a short statement on Friday from his longtime team, the Atlanta Braves. No additional details about his passing were provided.
Aaron played for 23 seasons in the major leagues, all but two of them with the Braves, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta following the team’s 1966 move.
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Aaron got his start in baseball with a short stint in the Negro American League, playing for the Indianapolis Clowns before he was recruited by several Major League Baseball teams, eventually signing with the Milwaukee Braves in 1951.
“I had the Giants’ contract in my hand. But the Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – fifty dollars,” he told baseball historian David Honig in 2000.
Aaron seasoned in the minors for several years before attended his first spring training with the Braves in 1954. He made his first start that March after Braves left fielder Bobby Thomson fractured his ankle during a spring training game.
Aaron quickly developed a reputation as a slugger and won the first of his two National League batting titles in 1956 after hitting .328 for the season.
By the middle of the 1973 season, Aaron had amassed more than 700 career home runs and was closing in on the 714 career home runs record which had stood for 40 years. He came close to toppling Ruth’s record in 1973 but ended the season one run short at 713.
As Aaron pursued Ruth’s record, he became a national celebrity, appearing on the cover of publications such as Time and Newsweek and received an enormous volume of mail – 930,000 pieces in the 1973 season alone – enough that he received a plaque from the United States Postal Service for receiving more mail than any other person apart from political figures.
Not every letter was from a fan however, and Aaron was the target of racism and vitriol as well, enough that Aaron was concerned that he might not live to the 1974 season to break the record.
However, on April 8, 1974, in front of a crowd of 53,775 people in a nationally televised game vs. the Los Angeles, Aaron hit his 715th home run off of pitcher Al Downing. Aaron would hold the record for more than three decades until 2007 when Barry Bonds hit his record-breaking 756th home run on August 7, 2007.
Aaron went on to hit 40 more homers during his career, before retiring in 1976 at the end of his 23rd season as a pro.
After he retired as a player, he joined the Braves organization as Vice President and Director of Player Development and later Senior Vice President, becoming one of the first black Americans to hold a senior position with a team’s management.
In 1982, he was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame and later partnered with the MLB to found the Hank Aaron Rookie League program, creating opportunities for diversity in MLB.
Two decades later, U.S. President George W. Bush presented Aaron with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. The citation for the award said Aaron “embodies the true spirit of our nation.”