For many, Henry Louis Aaron was the epitome of what a man is supposed to be: a servant leader, a master of a trade, and above all else, both honorable and dignified.
The man who came to be known as “Hammerin’ Hank” possessed each of those qualities in abundance. Not only was he an exemplary baseball player — he closed out his playing days as Major League Baseball’s all-time home run king with 755 home runs, and holding more than 21 records — he would later become an executive for the Atlanta Braves for more than 40 seasons while also emerging as one of the city’s most beloved philanthropists.
He passed away whilst sleeping last Friday, Jan. 22 in his Atlanta home. He was 86 years old.
Aaron is survived by his wife of 50 years, Billye, and daughter, Ceci. He also had five children with his first wife, Barbara Lucas.
On Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves, with Billye in attendance, announced the creation of the Henry Louis Aaron Fund, which will be used to increase minority participation in baseball. The fund already includes a $1 million donation from the Braves and separate $500,000 donations made by both the MLB and the MLB Players Association.
“God gave him the talent, and he used that talent to become the greatest baseball player of all time,” Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said in a tribute video. “But, more importantly, he used it to make our city, our country, and the world, a better place. For those who were blessed enough to know Hank, he left a lifetime of impact with every encounter. His life made you want to better your own.”
Aaron’s career spanned 23 seasons between the Milwaukee Braves, the Atlanta Braves, and the Milwaukee Brewers.
During his dazzling career, Aaron hit for a .305 batting average, possessed a .374 on-base percentage, and an exemplary .555 slugging percentage. He tallied 624 doubles; 755 home runs; 2,297 RBI; 2,174 runs; 3,771 hits; and 240 stolen bases.
Hammerin’ Hank retired as the all-time home run leader and held the record for more than 33 years. He remains the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases. He also holds the record for the most All-Star games at 25.
Yes, his name is all over the record books! However, Hammerin’ Hank also would be known for something deeper than lofty stats: a statesman for African-Americans.
Aaron was born to poverty and segregation on Feb. 5, 1934, in the port city of Mobile, Alabama. He was one of eight children born to Herbert and Estella (Pritchett) Aaron. His father worked in the Mobile shipyards to make ends meet. His mother was a homemaker.
Aaron would eventually make it to the Negro Leagues, playing for the Indianapolis Clowns. Aaron was also in negotiations with the New York Giants. He said a difference of $50 kept him from being teammates with Willie Mays.
Aaron would make his major league debut with Milwaukee Braves in 1954.
In 1966, the Braves would relocate to Atlanta and that’s where Aaron’s leadership off the field would match his example on the baseball diamond.
In 1969, Aaron launched a four-year scholarship program at the historically Black Morris Brown College, covering all expenses for deserving students. It would be his first foray into philanthropy.
Aaron also joined the United Negro College Fund as an advocate during his playing days. Later on, his wife Billye served as the Atlanta-based philanthropy‘s vice president.
In the Sept. 29, 1973 edition of The Atlanta Voice, it was reported the City of Atlanta sought to create the Hank Aaron Foundation Center, as a monument to the player while driving proceeds toward scholarships for Black students who sought to attend historically Black colleges and universities that were supported by the UNCF.
Ultimately, the creation of the UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball in 1983, would be spearheaded by Aaron and Andrew Young instead.
“Hank and Billye Aaron’s sincere belief in our motto, ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste,’ led them to co-found with former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, the first-ever Atlanta Mayor’s Masked Ball,” said Maurice Jenkins, UNCF’s Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer. “The Mayor’s Masked Ball has become an annual fundraising tradition in Atlanta for more than 30 years, drawing ever-larger crowds each year and breaking the million-dollar mark several years in a row.
“The Mayor’s Masked Ball has now been franchised across the United States to several other cities to help UNCF raise money in other locations because of its model of success—all thanks to the passion and ingenuity of Hank and Billye Aaron,” Jenkins added.
As Aaron’s march toward Babe Ruth’s home run record continued, Hammerin’ Hank would face racially-motivated death threats directed toward him, his family, and journalists that chronicled his career.
In spite of the vitriol, Aaron continued to perform with unmatched grace and unrivaled humility.
He would tell legendary New York Times sportswriter William C. Rhoden, “April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball.”
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” he said. “My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp.
“I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day,” he continued. “All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
On April 4, 1974, Aaron hit his 714th home run against the Cincinnati Reds, on the six-year anniversary of the murder of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Four days later on April 8, in front of 53,775 people at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Aaron would hit his 715th home run off of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing.
Fabled broadcaster Vin Scully said, “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of a baseball icon.”
Aaron’s parents met him at home plate. Herbert Aaron Sr. threw his arms around his son while his mother, Estella, kissed him and hugged him with all her might. It would be the moment that the quiet lad from Mobile would crack a smile for the world to see.
He grabbed a microphone to say, “I thank God it’s all over with,” as photographers and reporters surrounded him.
A further irony of Aaron’s 715th home run on April 8, would be its coincidence of the six-year anniversary of King’s funeral. As trailblazers and champions for equity, the two would forever be linked in history.
Aaron had a passion for discovering young baseball talent while nurturing his business acumen.
Braves owner, CNN founder, and Chairman Ted Turner appointed him an executive for the Braves in 1980.
He served 13 years as Atlanta’s vice president of player development.
Notably, Aaron gave a young minor league catcher his first job that year. That player would become current Braves manager, Brian Snitker.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here on this call if it wasn’t for Hank Aaron,” Snitker said. “He’s the reason I’m here. I’ve said many times, I’ve been blessed to be around Hall of Famers throughout my career, none more important to my career, my family, and my life than Hank Aaron.”
Aaron’s offices were on the 14th floor of the CNN Center, not far from Turner’s.
In 1996, Aaron purchased two West End restaurants from Churchs’ Atlanta-based parent, America’s Favorite Chicken Co. (AFC).
“If the playing field is not level, then we need to have some way for people to step in and say, `Hey, we need to give people an opportunity,’ ” Aaron said in a 1996 interview. “But not everybody wants to go into fast food. We’ve got contractors and people who want to work in government.”
And that was the epitome of Aaron. He was emblematic of the foreign policy mantra of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt: “speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”