‘American hero’ Hank Aaron hailed by Biden, Obama, Carter

Baseball’s greatest hitter dead at 86; Hollywood, U.S. political leaders react

President Joe Biden hailed Hank Aaron for his “courage and dignity,” as tributes continued pouring in Friday for baseball’s greatest hitter in the wake of his death at age 86.

“When I watched Henry Aaron play baseball, I knew I was watching someone special,” the newly inaugurated president said, in a statement from the White House. “It wasn’t just about watching a gifted athlete master his craft on the way to a Hall of Fame career as one of the greatest to ever play the game. It was that each time Henry Aaron rounded the bases, he wasn’t just chasing a record, he was helping us chase a better version of ourselves.  

“With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people. But he was unbreakable. He stemmed the vicious force of white supremacy, in death threats, hate mail, and in hardened hearts.”

Aaron’s cause of death has not been released.

“What I deeply admired and respected about him is that each time he rounded those bases — an astonishing 755 trips home — he melted away more and more of the ice of bigotry to show that we can be better as a people and as a nation,” Biden said. “Henry Aaron became, in the words of President Carter, ‘the first Black man for whom white fans in the South cheered.’”

“It was not only his bat, but his character that won over those hearts and minds,” Biden continued. “For generations of athletes and civil rights advocates who followed, he showed how to be proud and be unafraid to stand up for what is right and just. Jill and I count ourselves among the many millions of Americans who are grateful for the memories he gave us and our families. As a nation, we will still chase the better version of ourselves that he set for us. As we do, we mourn his passing and send our prayers to his beloved Billye, their children and grandchildren, and the entire Aaron family.

“God bless, Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron, an American hero.”

» Read and sign the online guestbook for Hank Aaron

Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, issued his own statement earlier Friday, as did many Hollywood celebrities and other national political leaders.

» How Henry Aaron made baseball a form of civil rights activism

Aaron made his last public appearance just 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he received the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he wanted to help spread the to Black Americans that the vaccine was safe.

“I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” he said. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”

“Hammerin’ Hank” set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.

But the Hall of Famer will be remembered for one swing above all others, the one that made him baseball’s home-run king. Before a sellout crowd at Atlanta Stadium and a national television audience, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record with No. 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was a title he would be hold for more than 33 years, a period in which the Hammer slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America’s most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Ali or Jordan.

Aaron’s death follows that of seven other Baseball Hall of Famers in 2020 and two more -- Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton -- already this year.

The Hall of Famer finished his career with 755, a total surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007 — though many continued to call the Hammer the true home run king because of allegations that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds finished his career with 762, though Aaron never begrudged someone eclipsing his mark. His common refrain: More than three decades as the king was long enough. It was time for someone else to hold the record.

Aaron played 21 seasons for the Milwaukee, then Atlanta Braves in the National League and two seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers in the AL, from 1954 through 1976.

» Relive the night Hank Aaron hit No. 715 in Atlanta

Aaron held the MLB record for career home runs for 33 years, and he still holds several MLB offensive records.

“I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Aaron said.

» Video: Hank Aaron talks about a year of honors and career memories

Aaron’s journey to that memorable homer was hardly pleasant. He was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth’s cherished record of 714, much of it sparked by the fact Ruth was white and Aaron was Black.

“If I was white, all America would be proud of me,” Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. “But I am Black.”

»Baseball legend Hank Aaron through the years

After retiring in 1976, Aaron became a revered figure, even though he never pursued the spotlight. He was thrilled when the U.S. elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2008. Former President Bill Clinton credited Aaron with helping carve a path of racial tolerance that made Obama’s victory possible.

Aaron was a true five-tool star. He posted 14 seasons with a .300 average — the last of them at age 39 — and claimed two National League batting titles. He finished with a career average of .305.

He hit 24 or more home runs every year from 1955 through 1973, and is one of only two players to hit 30 or more home runs in a season at least 15 times.

» Atlanta Constitution history: Hank Aaron hits No. 715

Aaron also was a gifted outfielder with a powerful arm, something often overlooked because of a smooth, effortless stride that his critics — with undoubtedly racist overtones — mistook for nonchalance. He was a three-time Gold Glove winner.

Aaron posted seven seasons with more than 20 stolen bases, including a career-best of 31 in 1963 when became only the third member of the 30-30 club — players who have totaled at least 30 homers and 30 steals in a season.

To that point, the feat had only been accomplished by Ken Williams (1922) and Willie Mays (1956 and ’57).

In 1982, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and was one of the original inductees into the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame.

In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Aaron fifth on its “100 Greatest Baseball Players” list.

In 1988, Aaron was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.

In 1999, baseball began honoring its top hitter with the Hank Aaron Award, akin to the Cy Young for pitchers.

Three years later, a nationwide vote named Aaron’s No. 715 as the second-most memorable moment in baseball history, eclipsed only by Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.

Also in 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Bush praised Aaron for overcoming “poverty and racism to become one of the most accomplished baseball players of all time.”

He was named a 2010 Georgia Trustee by the Georgia Historical Society in recognition of accomplishments that reflect the ideals of Georgia’s founders.

“He might be the greatest player of all time,” said the late Tony Gwynn, a fellow Hall of Famer. “Just look at his numbers. Everybody characterizes him as a home run hitter because he’s held that record so long. But he was a great baserunner, a great defender, a great player period.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.