There aren’t a lot of heroes these days, not in a world in which everyone’s lives are on full display, flaws and all. And now that baseball legend Hank Aaron has passed away, we’ve got one less.
The legendary slugger from Mobile, Alabama got his start in the negro leagues, and went on to become a mythmaker from baseball’s golden age, capturing the all-time home run record long before steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs started inflating numbers and sullying the record books. Aaron, 86, played for 23 seasons, 21 with the Braves (first in Milwaukee, then Atlanta), and hit 755 home runs, surpassing Babe Ruth’s record and hanging onto his own place in the books for 30 years (before finally being broken by Barry Bonds in 2007).
Aaron did it while black, in an era when black baseball players, especially one on his way to dethroning one of the game’s earliest icons, provoked anger and violence in the form of hate mail and death threats.
“On the field, Blacks have been able to be super giants,” he once 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.”
Aaron’s perseverance in the face of racism and work as a civil rights leader are as much a part of his legacy as his athletic prowess, as were his efforts to support his community and his commitment to philanthropy, facts acknowledged by the Braves organization in their statement.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” Atlanta Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said in a statement. “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.”
When he eventually broke the record, the footage became almost as legendary as the moment, with a pair of fans running onto the field to congratulate Aaron as he rounded the bases, before he arrived at home plate to a mob of teammates and family.
Aaron was the National League MVP in 1957 — the same year the Braves won the World Series — a two-time NL batting champion (1956, ’59), a three-time Gold Glove winner in right field (1958-60) and a record 25-time All-Star.