October 1, 2023

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Baseball King Hank Aaron, Who Defied Racism, Dies at 86

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Henry Louis Aaron (February 5, 1934 – January 22, 2021), nicknamed “Hammer” or “Hammerin’ Hank”, was an American professional baseball right fielder who played 23 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB), from 1954 through 1976. He spent 21 seasons with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves in the National League (NL) and two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League (AL).

Henry “Hank” Aaron, the Black baseball slugger who broke Babe Ruth’s career home-run mark in an American sports milestone imbued with racial significance and racist insults he never forgot, has died. He was 86. He died Friday, according to Major League Baseball. No cause was given. More than a home-run hitter, the man known as “Hammerin’ Hank” also was skilled with the glove, earning a spot on lists of the game’s greatest all-around players. He saw himself as an heir to the civil-rights legacy of Jackie Robinson and aspired to live up to it during his baseball career and after.

His modesty and pride were tested when another slugger, Barry Bonds, surpassed his home-run record in August 2007. Several months later, Bonds was convicted of obstructing justice by making an evasive statement to a grand jury regarding his use of performance-enhancing steroids. The conviction was later overturned.

Some supporters maintained the taint on Bonds made Aaron “the true home run king,” as he was called when the Braves in 2014 celebrated the 40th anniversary of his 715th homer. Asked whether the Bonds controversy made him feel like the “real” record-holder, Aaron told the New York Times in 2011: “I feel like I hit 755 home runs and somebody else broke my record. Whatever people want to say about that is fine, but I don’t think about it too much.”

Reflecting on Aaron’s accomplishments, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said Friday in a statement: “Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone’s list of all-time great players. His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person. Hank symbolized the very best of our game, and his all-around excellence provided Americans and fans across the world with an example to which to aspire.”

Aaron’s association with hitting baseballs over the fence overshadowed his other achievements: a record 2,297 runs batted in, three Gold Glove awards for fielding and a 76% success rate at stealing bases. He was only the ninth player to reach 3,000 hits, and his 6,856 total bases is a record that may never be broken.

Though he never hit more than 47 home runs in one season, his consistency was astonishing: during his 23-year major league career, he hit an average of 37 homers per season. At age 35 he had 510 four-baggers to his name, a prodigious number yet still more than 200 from Ruth, whose record of 714 was set in 1935 and widely described as unassailable as late as 1970.