Baseball legend Hank Aaron, who began and ended his big-league career in Milwaukee, dies at 86
Major League Baseball and its longtime fans have been reeling for months as a lengthy list of Hall of Fame legends passed away, but the biggest blow of all came Friday.
The great Henry Aaron, who began and ended his big-league career in Milwaukee and was known as "Hammerin' Hank" for his successful pursuit of Babe Ruth's cherished home run record, died early Friday in his sleep at age 86.
Former Milwaukee Brewers owner and baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who knew Aaron for 63 years and counted him among his closest friends, said he received news of Aaron's death from a longtime assistant of the baseball great.
"I'm absolutely heartbroken, heartsick," Selig said. "This is so devastating. I know some people may quarrel with it but I've always said he was the greatest player of our generation. But he was a better human being. I'm so sad.
"When you think back to what he accomplished on the field, he was an even greater man off it. He was the same nice, wonderfully decent human being that he was when I first met him in 1958."
“We lost a legend," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in a statement. "Hank Aaron was my childhood hero of heroes. He was an amazing person and a fantastic baseball player. He was such a big part of Milwaukee.”
Brewers Hall of Fame radio broadcaster Bob Uecker was born 10 days before Aaron in 1934 and they were teammates with the Milwaukee Braves in 1962-63 and again in Atlanta in 1967. They had been friends ever since and loved spending time together.
"This is a tough day, a really tough day," said Uecker, who got the news at his winter home in Scottsdale, Arizona. "We were friends a long time. We were very close friends. We had a lot of great times together."
After playing with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League and the minors, beginning in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he debuted with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954 at age 20. Aaron actually accepted a $10,000 signing bonus from the Boston Braves in ’52, before the team relocated to Milwaukee.
Playing at first in the infield, Aaron broke his habit of hitting cross-handed and batted .336 for Eau Claire, a Class C entry in the Northern League. In 1953, the year the Braves moved to Wisconsin, he was assigned to Class A Jacksonville, Florida, where he endured the indignity of racial segregation to be named MVP of the South Atlantic League. Aaron then was sent to winter ball in Puerto Rico to learn how to play the outfield, a watershed moment in his career.
Aaron played 21 seasons for the Braves in Milwaukee and Atlanta, after the team moved there in 1966. At the behest of Selig, who quickly forged what became a long-term friendship with Aaron, the slugger returned to Milwaukee to finish his career with the Brewers in 1975-76.
"He treated everybody the same," Uecker said. "He was just one of the guys. I got to call his last home run (on the radio). I'll always remember that."
Aaron got his chance to make the Braves' major-league roster in the spring of ’54 when leftfielder Bobby Thomson broke an ankle sliding into second base. He would wear No. 5 during his rookie season in the majors before switching to No. 44, which he wore for the remainder of his career.
In 1957, the native of Mobile, Alabama, was named the National League most valuable player for his role in leading the Braves to the pennant. On Sept. 23, Aaron socked a two-run homer off St. Louis’ Billy Moffett in the bottom of the 11th inning to clinch the pennant and propel the Braves to the World Series, where they triumphed in seven games over the vaunted New York Yankees.
"I remember that home run so well he hit off Billy Moffett," said Selig, who was at County Stadium that night. "It was one of my greatest thrills."
Aaron nearly won the Triple Crown in 1963, leading the NL with 44 home runs and 130 RBI but finishing third with a .318 batting average.
Major-league pitcher Curt Simmons once said, “Trying to throw a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”
Aaron’s seminal moment as a player came in 1974 when he topped the home run record of revered Yankees slugger Ruth, whose mark of 714 once was considered unreachable. Aaron had finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs, leaving him one shy of the Babe’s record.
Over the winter, Aaron received death threats and hate mail from racist fans who didn’t want a Black man to break Ruth’s record. The Braves began the ’74 season in Cincinnati and Atlanta’s team management planned to sit Aaron for all three games to assure he would make history at home.
Uecker said Aaron continued to receive hate mail and ugly notes for years, even when returning to finish his career with the Brewers.
"I got to see some of the mail and all the other garbage that took place back then," Uecker said. "It was awful. He didn't let it stop him."
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decreed that Aaron had to play in at least two games against the Reds, and Aaron tied Ruth’s mark in his first at-bat but did not homer again in the series. The Braves returned home to play the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 8, and Aaron came through before a packed house.
In the fourth inning, Aaron socked No. 715 off Dodgers lefty Al Downing, sending a drive over the left-field fence and into the Atlanta bullpen, where the ball was caught by reliever Tom House. Two fans ran onto the field to accompany Aaron on part of his home run trot, startling him for a moment.
That would prove to be Aaron’s final season in Atlanta. Looking for something to provide some excitement for his young yet foundering franchise, Selig hatched the idea to have Aaron return to Milwaukee to finish his career. After the Braves departed for Atlanta, Selig led the search for a major-league team to replace them, finally succeeding in 1970 when his group was awarded the Seattle Pilots in bankruptcy court.
Selig met with Braves chairman Bill Bartholomay in Atlanta and struck a deal on Nov. 2 that sent outfielder Davey May and a player to be named (pitcher Roger Alexander) to the Braves for Aaron. His skills had dwindled considerably by then and he spent most of his two seasons with the Brewers as a designated hitter, but he returned to Milwaukee with a hero’s welcome.
On April 11, 1975, the Brewers staged “Welcome Home, Henry Day” at County Stadium. A robust crowd of 48,160 turned out to fete the return of baseball royalty and Aaron assumed the unfamiliar role of DH in a 6-2 victory over the Cleveland Indians.
Aaron, then 41, batted only .234 that year with 12 homers and 60 RBI, but his return proved to be a genius move by Selig, helping set a club-record attendance of more than 1.2 million fans that season. The next season proved to be the last for the home run king, who on July 20 belted what would prove to be the last of his storied career, No. 755, off California’s Dick Drago.
Not only was Aaron the all-time home-run champ, he set major-league records with 2,297 career runs batted in, 6,856 total bases and 1,477 extra-base hits. He finished among the all-time leaders with 3,771 hits, 2,174 runs scored, 12,364 at-bats and 3,298 games finished.
Aaron made 21 all-star appearances and won three Gold Gloves for his play in right field. In 1999, he was named to MLB’s All-Century Team and was ranked No. 5 on the list of the 100 greatest players by The Sporting News.
Aaron’s home run record was eclipsed on Aug. 7, 2007, by San Francisco’s Barry Bonds, who went on to finish with 762 for his career. Because of the taint of suspected steroid use by Bonds, however, many fans consider Aaron to remain the true all-time home run champion.
In Milwaukee in August 2009 to be honored at the Fellowship Open, Aaron refused to say he should be considered the home run champ over Bonds.
“Let’s face it. You look at the stats and Barry Bonds is on top,” said Aaron. “He got more home runs than I did and he legitimately should be the home run champ.
“My career is over with and done with, and that’s the end of it. I’m glad to say it was a great career. I know I’ve never taken anything (to enhance performance).”
Aaron reached his career numbers by being remarkably consistent and never spending a day on the disabled list. He is the only player to hit at least 30 home runs in 15 seasons and is one of only four players to produce at least 17 seasons with 150 or more hits.
On Aug. 1, 1982, Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, having received 97.8% of the votes cast by baseball writers, far exceeding the 75% necessary for election. The Atlanta Braves made him a vice president and director of player development, making him one of the first minority executives with a major-league club.
With Selig providing the impetus, Major League Baseball announced the creation of the Hank Aaron Award on Feb. 5, 1999, Aaron’s 65th birthday, commemorating the 25th anniversary of his breaking Ruth’s home run record. The award is giving annually to the top offensive players in each league, based on a formula and the voting of a panel that includes Hall of Fame players.
"We spent a lot of time with the Aarons," Selig, who offered his condolences to Aaron's wife, Billye, said Friday. "They were such wonderful people. I'm hearing from so many people today. Everybody loved Hank Aaron."
In June 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Aaron joined Rollie Fingers, Paul Molitor and Robin Yount in the inaugural class of the Miller Park Walk of Fame in 2001. Statues of Aaron stand outside of both Atlanta’s Truist Park and the Brewers’ American Family Field, where both teams retired his No. 44.
In 1994, Aaron and his wife founded the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, established to help underprivileged children accomplish their goals.
“That’s what it’s all about, helping youngsters,” Aaron said. “I chased my dream many years ago as a little boy in Mobile, Alabama.”
As with everyone else throughout the baseball world, Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio said he was stunned upon learning of Aaron's death in the early-morning hours at home in Los Angeles.
"Waking up this morning and getting this news was like getting hit in the stomach with a baseball bat," Attanasio said in a Zoom session. "He is a cherished part of our organization's legacy and cherished in Wisconsin. He was a person of enormous class and grace.
"He was a role model for all of us. They don't make them like that any more. He was so, so special. He may be the best baseball player who ever lived and one of the best human beings who ever lived. As big a fan I was of him as a player, I’m an even bigger fan as a human being.
"I don’t know anyone I admire more as a person, and I don’t say that lightly. He’s No. 1.
Aaron and wife Billye attended the ceremony on Aug. 31, 2012 when a statue of Uecker was dedicated outside of Miller Park. During his speech, Uecker summoned the unsuspecting Billye onto the stage and had her sing an impromptu version of "Somewhere over the Rainbow," accompanied by Doc Severinsen and his band. She brought the house down, eliciting a huge ovation.
"I don't think people knew Billye could sing like that," Uecker said. "I did. She stole the show."
Of his frequent get-togethers with Aaron, Uecker said, "I could always make Hank laugh. It started when we were teammates and he watched me try to hit. I remember he did a magazine interview talking about me trying to show him how to hit, and how he was glad he didn't listen to me.
"It got to the point over the years where he started laughing as soon as he saw me. It was just great being around Henry and telling stories with him. We had a lot of great times together. It's going to happen to all of us but I 'm sorry to see him go."
In an interview with the Journal Sentinel in May 2012, Aaron said, “The people here in Milwaukee and Wisconsin molded me into the person I am today. I was a young kid when I came here, unfamiliar with everything. I met so many good friends, people who were dear to my heart and taught me what life was all about, other than just baseball.”
Aaron's death comes on the heels of a string of Hall of Fame legends who were lost in recent months such as Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Al Kaline, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, and most recently, Tom Lasorda.
The Brewers announced they will wear the number 44 on their jersey sleeves throughout the 2021 season in tribute to Aaron.