Hank Aaron, who played briefly for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues and went on to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, has died. He was 86.
The Atlanta Braves, where Aaron played 21 of his 23 major league seasons, confirmed his death to media Jan. 22.
Aaron, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1982, finished his career with 755 home runs, 41 more than Ruth. The record stood until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007, though some in the sport still cling to Aaron as the true home run king since Bonds admitted after his career that he used steroids (though he also said his trainer misled him).
Aaron hit his record-setting home run April 8, 1974, against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The ball went into the Braves’ bullpen and two college students sprinted onto the field to join Aaron in his jog around the bases.
There were plenty of people rooting against Aaron as he approached the home run record. He received letters, including racist hate mail, throughout the 1973 season, and the Braves hired a secretary to help sort them. Aaron continued to receive threats during the offseason — he still needed two home runs to break the record — and at one point the Braves hired two Atlanta police officers to sit in the stands while off duty to keep an eye on him during games.
“I was there to perform my duty, and I knew that I had been given the opportunity to play,” he told American History in an interview in 1999. “And just for a few people to write a few letters and all these other things, it didn’t make any difference to me.”
Aaron joined the Braves organization in 1954, only seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before joining the majors, Aaron played for three months with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League, where he also experienced racism.
In his autobiography, “I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story,” he told of the time he was with his teammates at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., when they heard staff shattering the plates the team had just used.
“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,” he wrote. “If dogs had eaten off those plates, they’d have washed them.”
Aaron signed with the Clowns for $200 a month in 1952, his only season in the Negro Leagues, and led the American League with a .467 average, according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He chose to sign with the Boston Braves — the team later moved to Milwaukee and then Atlanta — instead of the New York Giants in the major leagues and played his last two professional seasons in 1975 and ’76 with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Along with still being No. 2 on the home run list, Aaron ranks in the top five for hits (3,771) and runs scored (2,174). He is first in total bases (6,856), extra-base hits (1,477) and RBIs (2,297).
Aaron was born Henry Louis Aaron in 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. He was one of eight children. His younger brother Tommie also played major league baseball and joined the Braves in 1962. The brothers hit home runs in the same game that season on June 12 against the Dodgers.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Hank Aaron signed with the Milwaukee Braves. He actually signed with the Boston Braves, and by the time he made it to the major leagues the team had moved to Milwaukee.