NEW YORK • Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, the quiet, unassuming slugger who broke Babe Ruth's supposedly unbreakable record for most home runs in a career and battled racism in the process, died on Friday, the Atlanta Braves announced. He was 86.
Aaron joined the Braves management to become one of the few African Americans in a baseball executive position after retiring as a player in 1976 with 755 career home runs, a record unmatched for more than three decades. Aaron died "peacefully in his sleep", the Braves said in a statement.
Nicknamed "Hammerin' Hank", he was fuelled by a powerful inner drive as he overcame an impoverished youth and racial hatred to become one of the sport's greatest stars.
Tributes poured in from the worlds of sports, entertainment and politics, praising not only his achievements in baseball but also his courage in confronting the racism that dogged him even at the pinnacle of his career.
"He grew up poor and faced racism as he worked to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time," former US president George W. Bush, who presented Aaron with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, said in a statement.
"Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him."
President Joe Biden likewise saluted Aaron as a transformative athlete, saying: "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."
Aaron played 23 major league seasons - the first 21 for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, and the final two for the Milwaukee Brewers. He appeared in a record-breaking 25 All-Star games.
His pursuit of Ruth's ultimate home-run record was one of the top sports stories of the 1970s. He finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs - one short of Ruth's record. The Braves opened the 1974 season in Cincinnati, and Aaron hit a home run in his first at-bat to tie Ruth's mark.
A few days later, on April 8, Aaron broke the record when he drove a fastball from the Los Angeles Dodgers' Al Downing over the left field fence for No. 715.
In the run-up, millions of fans cheered Aaron. But he and his family also faced death threats from racists who did not want a black man to break the mark.
The landmark season would be Aaron's last in Atlanta. Before the 1975 season began, he was traded to the Brewers.
His career home-run record stood until 2007, when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants broke it. Bonds finished with 762 homers.