Henry Aaron put Georgia on the baseball map.
He set the sport’s career home run record in Atlanta in 1974, bringing the national spotlight on the city — and drawing intense pressure as a Black man challenging a Babe Ruth record once thought unbreakable.
Aaron, a senior vice president for the Braves and first-ballot Hall of Famer, died Friday morning. He was 86.
His death comes just three days after the death of another beloved Braves icon, broadcaster Don Sutton.
Another Braves player in the Hall of Fame, pitcher Phil Niekro, died Dec. 27.
“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.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said his family was “heartbroken” to hear of Aaron’s passing.
“Hank Aaron was an American icon and one of Georgia’s greatest legends,” Kemp said.
“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.”
Aaron broke Ruth’s career home run record, slugging No. 715 on April 8, 1974, in front of a sold-out Atlanta Stadium. He played out the season with the Braves, then spent the next two seasons back in Milwaukee — the team’s old home — with the Brewers before retiring.
In a 2016 interview with Atlanta public radio station WABE, Aaron called his pursuit of Ruth’s record “the saddest 2½ years I ever had in baseball.”
“I didn’t have too much fun,” he said. “Knowing what I know now, I don’t know that I would do it again.”
Aaron didn’t stay in the same hotel as his teammates and had to be escorted out of stadiums for his protection.
“I got all kinds of threatening letters from different people,” he recalled. “So I had all of these things to worry about.”
He ended his career with 755 home runs. The record stood for 33 years, until Barry Bonds hit No. 756 in 2007. Bonds’ alleged use of performance-enhancing substances has clouded the record in the minds of many fans, although his final tally of 762 stands in the major league record books.
A Mobile, Alabama, native, Aaron came up to the majors in 1954 and hit his first home run in a matter of days. He became the second-youngest player to win a batting title in 1956 and the second youngest to collect his 1,000th hit, off Sandy Koufax in 1959.
Aaron once had a 20-year string of 20 or more home runs and hit 34 or more each year between the ages of 35 and 39.
He averaged just 63 strikeouts per season — unheard of in today’s game for a player with the kind of power Aaron possessed.
Perhaps most remarkable about Aaron’s hitting ability is, subtracting his home runs, he still finished his career with more than 3,000 hits.
Aaron joined the Braves front office in 1976. He spent 13 years as the vice president and director of player development, then became the club’s senior vice president.
He started the Chasing the Dream Foundation in 1995 to help children between the ages of 9 and 12 realize their dreams through grants to pursue advanced study in music, art, writing, dance and sports, primarily through Boys and Girls Clubs.
In 1999, Major League Baseball introduced the Hank Aaron Award for the best hitter in each league. Braves players have won it twice: Andrew Jones in 2005 and Freddie Freeman in 2020.
Aaron is survived by his wife, Billye; children, Gaile, Hank Jr., Lary, Dorinda and Ceci; and grandchildren, according to the Braves.