“There's only one way to break the color line. Be good. I mean, play good. Play so good that they can't remember what color you were before the season started.” - Hank Aaron
Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron, the Hall of Fame slugger whose 755 career home runs long stood as baseball's golden mark, has died. He was 86.
Aaron dominated baseball at a time when part of the nation still upheld Jim Crow, a system of racial apartheid in the American South. He held the most celebrated record in sports for more than 30 years.
Throughout his career, known as “Hammerin’ Hank”, Aaron experienced hate on and off the field for the simple fact that he was an African American.
Despite this and many other obstacles, Aaron endured and on April 8, 1974, before a sellout crowd at Atlanta Stadium and a national television audience, Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record with No. 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"Though he had come to the game seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Aaron was in the first wave of new Black stars, many of them from the Deep South. Like Aaron, Mays, Willie McCovey and Billy Williams all came from Alabama and all broke into the majors in the 1950s. Only Aaron would stay in the South."
Right up to his final days, the Hammer was making a difference.
Just 2 1/2 weeks before his death Friday at age 86, Aaron joined civil rights icons to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He wanted to spread the word to the Black community that the shots were safe in the midst of a devastating pandemic.
“I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” Aaron said. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”
Aaron was born in 1934 and grew up in and around Mobile, Alabama.
Aaron's mother would summon him from the baseball field to come home and hide under the bed because the Ku Klux Klan was riding through the neighborhood, Young said. But he was never deterred, going right back outside to finish playing when the Klan left.
Inspired by his idol Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era, Aaron completed brief stints in the Negro American League and the minor leagues before his success ultimately landed him in his first major league game with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954.
Over the next two decades, he would cement his status as a baseball icon. He was named MVP, received several Gold Glove awards, broke numerous records and led the Braves to win the World Series in 1957.
The hate that came his way only motivated Aaron to work harder toward his goal.
Aaron ended his legendary playing career in 1976 with a total of 755 home runs.
Aaron was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 his first year of eligibility and just nine votes short of being a unanimous choice.
In 1999, baseball began honouring its top hitter with the Hank Aaron Award, akin to the Cy Young for pitchers.
"Retiring as the last Major League player to have played in the Negro Leagues, Aaron's career can be seen as a symbolic bridge from the dark days of segregation to an era of greater opportunity," National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial said in a statement.
Aaron continued to speak out against racism in the sport after retirement, remaining engaged in community advocacy and the fight for civil rights.
Aaron served on the NAACP board and also founded the Chasing the Dream Foundation, which funded programs that helped underserved youth develop their talents and pursue their dreams.
In 2002, Aaron was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his humanitarian efforts. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund presented him with the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, and established the Hank Aaron Humanitarian in Sports Award in his honor.
"I would hope athletes from all sports will look at his legacy as an example of how to use their platforms for social good and to advance the causes of civil rights," - NAACP President Derrick Johnson
Aaron still has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856) than anyone in baseball history. He ranks second in at-bats (12,354), third in games played (3,298) and hits (3,771), and fourth in runs scored (tied with Ruth at 2,174).