(NEXSTAR) — Baseball Hall of Famer Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron died Friday at the age of 86.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” said Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk. “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.”
Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934, Aaron briefly played in the Negro Leagues and minor leagues during his youth. He made his MLB debut at age 20 and started his 23-year career with the Milwaukee Braves, now known as the Atlanta Braves.
Aaron, who became known as “Hammerin’ Hank,” would go on to set the career home run record, surpassing Babe Ruth. The record would later be broken by Barry Bonds during baseball’s steroid era.
MLB Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. issued the following statement regarding the passing of Aaron:
“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. His career demonstrates that a person who goes to work with humility every day can hammer his way into history – and find a way to shine like no other.
“Hank eagerly supported our efforts to celebrate the game’s best and to find its next generation of stars, including through the Hank Aaron Award, which recognizes offensive excellence by Major League players, and the Hank Aaron Invitational, which provides exposure to elite young players. He became a close friend to me in recent years as result of his annual visit to the World Series. That friendship is one of the greatest honors of my life. I am forever grateful for Hank’s impact on our sport and the society it represents, and he will always occupy a special place in the history of our game. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to Hank’s wife, Billye, their family, the fans of Atlanta and Milwaukee, and the millions of admirers earned by one of the pillars of our game.”
The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, a time when the civil rights movement had been gaining momentum for more than a decade.
“Honestly, I was scared coming to a high-profile city like Atlanta,” Aaron once told Channel 2 Sports Director Zach Klein. “Knowing that Dr. King was here, Andy Young and some of the other great civil rights leaders that made their home here, and I’m coming from Milwaukee where there was no activity at all … It makes you start thinking about what it is, what can you do, what role you can play. And makes you feel like you kind of shortchanged everybody really, you didn’t do your job.”
Aaron, a longtime civil rights advocate, co-founded with his wife, Billye, the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation to help children develop their potential.
“His success on the diamond was matched only by his business accomplishments off the field and capped by his extraordinary philanthropic efforts,” McGuirk said.
In 2002, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his philanthropy and humanitarian endeavors, and in 2005, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund awarded him the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award. The NAACP also established the Hank Aaron Humanitarian in Sports Award.
Boxing great Muhammad Ali once famously said Aaron was the only man he idolized “more than myself.”
Earlier this month, Aaron, along with former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and other civil rights leaders, were vaccinated against COVID-19.
They hoped to send a message to Black Americans in particular that the shots are safe.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.