Hall of Fame outfielder Hank Aaron, one of baseball’s most iconic sluggers who held Major League Baseball’s cherished career home runs record for 33 years, died on Friday at his Georgia home at the age of 86.
The Atlanta Braves, the team where Aaron spent all but two of his 23 major league seasons, confirmed the franchise icon's passing in a statement.
"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."
Aaron was named to a record 21 All-Star teams and won two National League batting titles and the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1957, but his most notable accomplishment came near the end of his distinguished career. On April 8, 1974, the then 40-year-old homered off the Los Angeles Dodgers' Al Downing at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium to surpass Babe Ruth's MLB record of 714 home runs – a mark that had stood since 1935.
The achievement was met with both fanfare and vitriol in some cases, with Aaron often subjected to overt racism in the form of hate mail and even death threats from those who objected to his pursuit of Ruth's record.
Following a two-year stint with the Milwaukee Brewers, Aaron retired in 1976 with 755 homers. Though Barry Bonds would later exceed that number in 2007, "Hammerin' Hank" still ranks as MLB's all-time leader with 2,297 RBIs, 6,856 total bases and 1,477 extra-base hits.
"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," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.
"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."
Born in Mobile, Alabama. In 1934, Aaron broke into professional baseball at age 17 as a shortstop with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League in 1952 and had his contract purchased by the then-Boston Braves shortly afterward. He reached the majors in 1954 with the Braves then having moved to Milwaukee, and won his first NL batting crown two years later after hitting .328 in 153 games.
Aaron followed up with a sensational 1957 campaign in which he led the majors with 44 homers and 132 RBIs while batting .322 to claim his only NL MVP. The Brewers capped that season by defeating the New York Yankees in seven games for the franchise's lone World Series title in Milwaukee.
Aaron would lead the NL in both homers and RBIs three more times during his career and won another batting title in 1959. He also won three straight Gold Gloves from 1958-60 and completed his career with 3,771 hits, third in MLB history behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb.
One of only four players in MLB history with 600 homers and 3,000 hits (Willie Mays, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez), Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1982. He was named on nearly 98 percent of ballots.
"Henry Louis Aaron wasn't just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world," McGuirk added.
Aaron returned to the Braves as an executive following his playing career and was further honored by MLB in 1999 with the establishment of the Hank Aaron Award, given to the top offensive performer in both the American and National Leagues.
A strong advocate of civil rights, Aaron received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2002.
Aaron joins a list of several Hall of Fame members who have passed away in the past calendar year, a group that includes Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton.
Niekro and Sutton also had extensive ties to the Braves, as Niekro pitched 20 seasons for the franchise and Sutton spent several years with the team as a television and radio analyst.