Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron, the Hall of Fame slugger whose 755 career home runs long stood as baseball's golden mark, has died. He was 86.
"Our family is heartbroken to hear the news of Hank Aaron's passing," Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement on behalf of the Aaron family. "Hank Aaron was an American icon and one of Georgia's greatest legends. His life and career made history, and his influence was felt not only in the world of sports, but far beyond -- through his important work to advance civil rights and create a more equal, just society. We ask all Georgians to join us in praying for his fans, family, and loved ones as we remember Hammerin' Hank's incredible legacy."
The Atlanta Braves said in a release that Aaron died peacefully in his sleep.
One of the sport's great stars despite playing for the small-market Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves throughout a major league career that spanned from 1954 to 1976, Aaron still holds major league records for RBIs (2,297), total bases (6,856) and extra-base hits (1,477), and he ranks among MLB's best in hits (3,771, third all time), games played (3,298, third) and runs scored (2,174, fourth).
But it was Hammerin' Hank's sweet home run swing for which he was best known.
A 6-foot, 180-pounder, Aaron broke Babe Ruth's hallowed home run mark on April 8, 1974, slugging his record 715th off Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Al Downing in the fourth inning as 50,000-plus fans celebrated in Atlanta. In one of baseball's iconic moments, Aaron trotted around the basepaths -- despite briefly being interrupted by two fans -- and ultimately touched home plate, where teammates hoisted him, his parents embraced him and he was interviewed by a young Craig Sager.
Aaron went on to play two more seasons and finished with 755 career home runs, a mark that stood as the major league record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007.
"We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank," Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said in a statement. "He was a beacon for our organization first as a player, then with player development, and always with our community efforts. His incredible talent and resolve helped him achieve the highest accomplishments, yet he never lost his humble nature. Henry Louis Aaron wasn't just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world. His success on the diamond was matched only by his business accomplishments off the field and capped by his extraordinary philanthropic efforts.
"We are heartbroken and thinking of his wife Billye and their children Gaile, Hank, Jr., Lary, Dorinda and Ceci and his grandchildren."
Kemp issued an order to have the flags fly at half-staff at all state buildings in Georgia until sunset on the day of Aaron's funeral to honor his "groundbreaking career and tremendous impact on our state and nation."
Despite allegations that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs, 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.
Bonds expressed his "deepest respect and admiration" for Aaron in a statement on Twitter.
Aaron finished his career with a host of accolades. He was the National League MVP in 1957 -- the same year the Braves won the World Series -- a two-time NL batting champion (1956, '59), a three-time Gold Glove winner in right field (1958-60) and a record 25-time All-Star, earning that honor every season but his first and last.
He finished his career back in Milwaukee, traded to the Brewers after the 1974 season when he refused to take a front-office job that would have required a big pay cut.
The Brewers will wear No. 44 on their jersey sleeves throughout the 2021 season as a tribute to Aaron.
Aaron was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, receiving 97.8% approval in his first year on the ballot, nine votes short of being the first unanimous choice ever. In 1999, MLB created the Hank Aaron Award, given annually to the best hitter in both the AL and NL.
"Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone's list of all-time great players," said MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in a statement -- one of many to appear on social media Friday. "His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person. Hank symbolized the very best of our game, and his all-around excellence provided Americans and fans across the world with an example to which to aspire. His career demonstrates that a person who goes to work with humility every day can hammer his way into history -- and find a way to shine like no other."
Off the field, Aaron was an activist for civil rights, having been a victim of racial inequalities. Aaron was born Feb. 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama, and didn't play organized high school baseball because only white students had teams. During the buildup to his passing of Ruth's home run mark, threats were made on his life by people who did not want to see a Black man break the record.
"If I was white, all America would be proud of me," Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. "But I am Black."
Aaron was shadowed constantly by bodyguards and forced to distance himself from teammates. He kept all those hateful letters, a bitter reminder of the abuse he endured and never forgot.
"This is a considerable loss for the entire city of Atlanta," Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement. "While the world knew him as 'Hammering Hank Aaron' because of his incredible, record-setting baseball career, he was a cornerstone of our village, graciously and freely joining Mrs. Aaron in giving their presence and resources toward making our city a better place. As an adopted son of Atlanta, Mr. Aaron was part of the fabric that helped place Atlanta on the world stage. Our gratitude, thoughts and prayers are with the Aaron family."
The NFL's Atlanta Falcons, MLS' Atlanta United and Georgia Tech's football team all said they would retire their No. 44 jerseys in Aaron's honor for the 2021 season.
Aaron, who initially hit with a cross-handed style, was spotted by the Braves while trying out for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Leagues team. The Giants also were interested, but Aaron signed with Milwaukee, spent two seasons in the minors and came up to the Braves in 1954 after Bobby Thomson was injured in spring training.
Aaron's debut was hardly glowing: He struck out twice and hit into a double play while going 0-for-5. His first home run came before April was done, against Vic Raschi. By season's end, the rookie had put up promising numbers: 13 homers, 69 RBIs and a .280 average.
He was a full-fledged star by 1957, when he led the Braves to that World Series victory over Mickey Mantle's New York Yankees. The following year, Milwaukee made it back to the Series, only to blow a 3-1 lead and lose to the Yankees in seven games. Though he played for nearly two more decades, Aaron never came so close to a championship again.
After retiring as a player, Aaron made amends with the Braves for trading him away. He returned as a vice president and director of player development, a task he held for 13 years before settling into a largely ceremonial role as senior vice president and assistant to the president in 1989. He hoped more Black players could find front-office work after their playing days were finished.
"On the field, Blacks have been able to be super giants," he once said. "But once our playing days are over, this is the end of it and we go back to the back of the bus again."
Aaron showed he wasn't hesitant about speaking out on the issues of the day, often speaking bluntly but never bitterly on the many hardships thrown his way -- from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the ugly, racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America's most hallowed records.
"With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people,'' President Joe Biden said. "But he was unbreakable.''
Former President Jimmy Carter, described Aaron as "a personal hero.''
"A breaker of records and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come," said Carter, a Georgia native who often attended Braves games with his wife, Rosalynn.
George W. Bush, a one-time owner of the Texas Rangers, presented Aaron in 2002 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation's highest civilian honor.
"The former Home Run King wasn't handed his throne," Bush said in a statement Friday. "He grew up poor and faced racism as he worked to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him."
Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig called Aaron, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, a "true Hall of Famer in every way."
"Besides being one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Hank was a wonderful and dear person and a wonderful and dear friend," Selig said in a statement. "Not long ago, he and I were walking the streets of Washington, D.C. together and talking about how we've been the best of friends for more than 60 years. Then Hank said: 'Who would have ever thought all those years ago that a black kid from Mobile, Alabama would break Babe Ruth's home run record and a Jewish kid from Milwaukee would become the Commissioner of Baseball?'"
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 Associated Press contributed to this report.