Henry "Hank" Aaron

(1934 – 2021)

Last week, America lost Henry “Hank” Aaron, who overcame racism to become one of the greatest all-around players in baseball history. One of the last major league stars to begin his career in the Negro leagues, Aaron joined Major League Baseball in 1954. Twenty years later, he eclipsed Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs and held that record for more than 30 years.

Although he was an all-star for all but two years of his career, Aaron did not enjoy the idolatry accorded to contemporaries in major media centers like the New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle or the San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mays. Yet, when elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility, Aaron received 97.8 percent of the vote from baseball writers, second at the time only to Ty Cobb, who was inducted in 1936.

Aaron played 21 of his 23 years in the majors for the Atlanta Braves, most of it in the Deep South where he was born. While he chased Ruth’s record, he frequently faced abuse from the stands, threats, and hate mail. However, when he hit home run #715 on April 8, 1974 in front of the largest audience in Braves history, he earned a standing ovation from more than 55,000 fans and the on-field congratulations of Georgia’s governor and future president Jimmy Carter.

In 1976, Aaron was named the Braves’ vice president of player development, overseeing their farm system. He later served as senior vice president of the organization and also worked on behalf of the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, which helped gifted children develop their talent.

Presenting him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 2002, President George W. Bush said that Aaron “embodies the true spirit of the nation.”

On the field, Blacks have been able to be super giants. But, once our playing days are over, this is the end of it and we go back to the back of the bus again.”

We are proud to salute Henry “Hank” Aaron, who persevered with dignity in the face of adversity to achieve excellence and forge a path for greater inclusion and equality in sports and in life.

Photographs:Focus on Sport/Getty Images