Baseball legend Hank Aaron dead at 86

Legendary baseball slugger Henry “Hank” Aaron has died. He was 86.

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Aaron died Friday, according to his daughter, WSB-TV reported.

The Atlanta Braves, where Aaron was senior vice president, said he died peacefully in his sleep. No cause was given.

Aaron became Major League Baseball’s all-time home run leader in 1974 and eventually ended his career with 755 home runs.

He grew up poor in Mobile, Alabama, honing his baseball skills hitting bottle caps with sticks.

“If it hadn’t been for my brother, my uncle, sharing their love and making me realize that — although I had a dream at that time — but if I keep looking and pursue it, that I could match it,” Aaron told WSB-TV in an interview for his 80th birthday.

He first tried out in 1949 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did not make the cut and finished school. In 1951, he got his start playing for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues.

In 1952, Aaron was signed to the Boston Braves, who moved the next year to Milwaukee. Aaron made the big league roster in 1954 and the next year won his first of 21 All-Star selections.

He showed consistent offensive power through his 23 major league seasons, gaining the nickname “Hammering Hank.” He won the batting title in 1956 and an MVP award in 1957, when the Braves won the World Series. He finished third in MVP voting six times throughout his career.

He was the first player to record 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, setting the bar for those offensive categories. He hit 40 or more home runs in eight different seasons. He posted 14 seasons with a .300 average — the last of them at age 39 — and claimed two National League batting titles. He finished with a career average of .305. He retired in 1976 and was selected to the Hall of Fame in 1982.

Major League Baseball established the Hank Aaron Award in 1999 to honor the best overall offensive performer in each league.

“I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Aaron said.

As Aaron reached Babe Ruth’s historic 714 home run mark, he suffered an onslaught of death threats, racist letters and hateful yelling from crowds. He was shadowed by body guards. He kept the threatening letters as a reminder of the abuse he endured.

“If I was white, all America would be proud of me,” Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. “But I am black.”

He broke Ruth’s record before a sellout crowd at Atlanta Stadium, hitting number 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Downing was more of a finesse pitcher,” Aaron remembered shortly before the 30th anniversary of the landmark homer. “I guess he was trying to throw me a screwball or something. Whatever it was, I got enough of it.”

Aaron’s 755 career home runs was surpassed 33 years later by Barry Bonds, whose legacy has been tarnished by allegations of use of performance enhancing drugs.

His role as a figure in the civil rights movement as the team moved in 1966 from Milwaukee to Atlanta started humbly.

“I was scared coming to a high-profile city like Atlanta,” Aaron told WSB-TV. “Knowing that Dr. (Martin Luther) King was here, Andy Young and some of the other great civil rights leaders that made their home here, and I’m coming from Milwaukee where there was no activity at all ... It makes you start thinking about what it is, what can you do, what role you can play. And makes you feel like you kind of shortchanged everybody really, you didn’t do your job.”

He soon realized his significance in the movement.

“I think it hit me when we played an exhibition game, and I don’t know when, in Macon,” Aaron said. “I think it hit me when I realized that I had some kind of role that I should be playing. I’m not talking about a baseball role, I’m not talking about somebody going out on the baseball field, someone who had a role to play to help other Blacks like myself.”

Major League Baseball shared condolences on social media.

“We are devastated by the passing of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, one of the greatest players and people in the history of our game,” the league said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.