The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) mourns the loss of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, who passed away on January 22nd in Atlanta, Georgia. He was 86 years old. Mr. Aaron was a legend in baseball best known for breaking the home-run record of Babe Ruth in 1974. Mr. Aaron was inducted into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1982 after a prodigious 22-year major league career which included 25 All-Star game appearances.
His legendary on-field career was matched only by his perseverance in overcoming the racism of the Deep South to become a true American icon, inspiring generations. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2002.
Mr. Aaron’s wife, Billye Suber Aaron has served on LDF’s board for 45 years. Both have been generous supporters of LDF’s work. Last year, in their most recent commitment to LDF and in honor of the organization’s 80th anniversary, the Aarons donated $1 million to create the Billye Suber and Henry “Hank” Aaron Endowment.
“Hank Aaron was a wonderful gentleman, whose demeanor belied his heroism,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel. “He was a personal hero to me since I was a child because of my father’s love of baseball and intense support for Black baseball players. I was with my father watching on television the night Mr. Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974. It remains one of my most treasured sports memories. This great moment for the sport, and for all of us, was also one of the most painful periods of Mr. Aaron’s life because of the constant threats of white supremacists once it became clear he was likely to surpass the homerun record of Mr. Ruth.”
Mr. Aaron’s courage and focus in the face of intense hatred and threats directed against him and his family made his accomplishment all the more extraordinary. His willingness to speak honestly about the racism he faced as a player in subsequent years exposed the challenges Black players faced in Major League Baseball decades after baseball legend Jackie Robinson broke the sport’s color barrier.
Ms. Ifill remembered Mr. Aaron as “a warm, modest, and lovely person. My heart goes out to the entire Aaron family. A true American hero has left us.”
At right: Hank Aaron at the 2002 World Series. (Photo by JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)
Hank Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, on Feb. 5, 1934, to Herbert Aaron, Sr. and Estella Pritchett Aaron. One of eight children, Mr. Aaron grew up mostly in the Toulminville neighborhood of Mobile. He attended Central High School as a freshman and sophomore before, at age 15, he had his first tryout with a major league team – the Brooklyn Dodgers – in 1949. He returned to school after the tryout, moving to the Josephine Allen Institute. During his junior year, Mr. Aaron played for the semi-pro Pritchett Athletics and the Mobile Black Bears, an independent Negro League team.
In 1951, Mr. Aaron joined the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. He played with the club for three months and often told the story of experiencing racism while the team was in Washington, D.C.:
“We had breakfast while we were waiting for the rain to stop, and I can still envision sitting with the Clowns in a restaurant behind Griffith Stadium and hearing them break all the plates in the kitchen after we finished eating. What a horrible sound. Even as a kid, the irony of it hit me: here we were in the capital in the land of freedom and equality, and they had to destroy the plates that had touched the forks that had been in the mouths of black men. If dogs had eaten off those plates, they’d have washed them.” (“From Babe to Mel,” by Alan Schwartz and John Thorn)
After 26 games in the Negro Leagues, Mr. Aaron’s contract was purchased by the then-Milwaukee Braves, and he played for their minor league teams before making the majors in 1954. The year before, while playing with the Class A minor league Jacksonville Braves, Mr. Aaron met his first wife, Barbara Lucas, with whom he had five children. He remarried in 1973 to Billye Suber Williams, who has been a member of LDF’s Board of Directors since her nomination in 1976. Together, they had one child.
Once he made the major leagues, Mr. Aaron would never look back, embarking on one of the greatest baseball careers in the history of the sport. He made his major league debut with the Milwaukee Braves on April 13, 1954, getting the first hit of his career two days later. On April 23, he hit the first of his legendary 755 home runs.
One year later, Mr. Aaron was named to his first All-Star team and, in 1956, he won the first of two National League batting championships. In 1957, he won the National League Most Valuable Player Award, leading the Braves to a World Series title over the defending champion New York Yankees.
The franchise moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta at the conclusion of the 1965 season and, three years later, Mr. Aaron became the first Atlanta Braves player to hit 500 home runs – one of the more iconic statistics in the sport. Two years later, he reached another legendary marker, collecting his 3,000th career hit on May 17, 1970.
On July 13, 1971, Mr. Aaron become only the third major league player to ever reach the 600 home run plateau. But he was far from done, finishing the season with a career-high 47 home runs at age 37.
Mr. Aaron ended the 1973 season one home run shy of the then-home run record of 714 held by the legendary Babe Ruth – a record long considered unbreakable. While excitement and anticipation built around the nation, Mr. Aaron began receiving death threats and volumes of hate mail during the offseason.
As Tom Stanton noted in his book, “Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America,” Sports Illustrated wrote about the racist attacks at time:
“Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of thirty-nine, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport …? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball’s attic?”
On April 8, 1974, during a nationally televised game from Atlanta, Mr. Aaron hit home run number 715 in what remains to this day one of most iconic moments in all of sports history.
During the live broadcast, legendary broadcaster Vin Scully remarked:
“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, particularly for Henry Aaron.”
In his 1991 autobiography, “I Had a Hammer,” Mr. Aaron wrote about the countdown to 715.
“The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst. I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.”
Mr. Aaron hit his final home run – at the time number 755 – on July 20, 1976, as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, ending his major league career where it all began. In December 2020, Major League Baseball finally recognized the Negro Leagues as a major league, and all related statistics were added to players’ totals. As a result, Mr. Aaron’s final major league statistics were updated to 760 home runs, including more RBIs, total bases, and All-Star game appearances than anyone else in baseball history.
He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.
Upon his retirement, Mr. Aaron quickly transitioned into the Atlanta Braves front office and served as an ambassador for the sport he loved. While not as vocal as some of his teammates, Mr. Aaron was a champion of civil rights throughout his playing career and long after.
Mr. Aaron often identified Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, as his inspiration, writing in Time magazine:
“Jackie Robinson had to be bigger than life. He had to be bigger than the Brooklyn teammates who got up a petition to keep him off the ballclub, bigger than the pitchers who threw at him or the base runners who dug their spikes into his shin, bigger than the bench jockeys who hollered for him to carry their bags and shine their shoes, bigger than the so-called fans who mocked him with mops on their heads and wrote him death threats.”
“Hank Aaron was a legendary sports figure and humanitarian who broke barriers, blazed trails, and left a legacy of excellence on and off the field,” said Janai Nelson, LDF’s Associate Director-Counsel. “We are humbled to have been one of the organizations that Mr. Aaron and his wife Billye Aaron so generously supported over the years with their services and resources. He will be sorely missed, and we extend our deepest condolences to the Aaron family.”
Mr. Aaron was a deeply respected man of immense dignity. The late boxing legend and himself an American icon, Muhammad Ali, once famously referred to Mr. Aaron as “The only man I idolize more than myself.”
In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded Mr. Aaron with the Presidential Citizens Medal, given for “exemplary service to the nation.” In 2002, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.
That same year, LDF celebrated the inaugural Hank Aaron Humanitarian in Sports Awards Dinner. The award was established to honor the legacy and contributions of Mr. Aaron, as well as selected athletes, both active and retired, who exemplified “the courage, integrity, and adherence to the principles of both Hank Aaron and LDF.”
Recipients included then-Senator and former NBA player Bill Bradley; former major leaguer Larry Doby, the first Black man to play in the American League; and legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. In addition, NBA star Shaquille O’Neal was honored with the LDF Young Leaders Award. That same evening, LDF honored Mr. Aaron with the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award
In January 2021, in an effort to encourage Black Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Mr. Aaron held a public event at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta where he was vaccinated.
Mr. Aaron is survived by his wife, Billye, and his children Lary, Henry Jr., Dorinda, Gaile, and Ceci.