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Baseball great and Braves home run king Hank Aaron dies at 86
Hank Aaron 1969
The ball leaves the bat of Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron headed for the left field seats for a game run putting the Braves ahead of the Mets in the seventh inning, 5-4, in the National League playoff game in Atlanta Stadium, Oct. 4, 1969. - photo by Associated Press

Jimmy Lawler will never forget the game played between the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers on April 8, 1974.

Although he was just eight years old at the time, Lawler - now the athletic director at Flowery Branch High School - said the moment that then-Atlanta Brave Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record has been burned permanently into his memory. 

“I was a big baseball guy at the time,” Lawler said. “I loved the game. I loved the Braves and the players and coaching staff and all that stuff.”

Hank Aaron 2021
Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron sits for a portrait after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. Aaron and others received their vaccinations in an effort to highlight the importance of getting vaccinated for Black Americans who might be hesitant to do so. - photo by Associated Press

He was downstairs in his parents house, watching the Braves game with his family, when Aaron’s bat connected with a pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. Lawler remembers watching the ball soar into the bullpen at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, bounce off the back wall and land right into the waiting hands of Braves reliever Tom House. 

As Aaron started to run the bases following his then-record breaking 715th home run, Lawler wasn’t even trying to contain his excitement.

“I was just jumping up and down downstairs celebrating with my family that great moment,” he said. “To be able to watch that on television? Oh yeah, I remember it well.”

Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Ruth’s record, but went on to break it in the pre-steroids era, died early Friday. He was 86.

The Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. 

Aaron made his last public appearance less than two weeks ago when he received the COVID-19 vaccine. 

"Hammerin' Hank" set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.

But the Hall of Famer will be remembered most for his 755 career home runs, and in particular the one that made him baseball's home-run king.

It was a title he would hold for more than 33 years, a period in which the Hammer slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America's most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Ali or Jordan.

Though Aaron’s 755 home run mark was surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007, many continued to call the Hammer the true home run king because of allegations that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs.

But home run record aside, Aaron will always be a sports icon, particularly in southeast where he spent nine seasons playing in Atlanta and returned to become a part of the front office when his playing career was done. 

“What he will be remembered for is just being a very classy, humble man, who just wanted to play the game of baseball to the best of his ability,” Lawler said. “As someone who went to a bunch of games in the 70s, Hank Aaron was the guy.”

Hank Aaron 2
In this April 8, 1974, file photo, Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron holds aloft the ball he hit for his 715th career home in Atlanta. (AP Photo, File)
'Towering example'

Sure, he's remembered mostly for dethroning the Babe to become baseball's home run king on the way to 755, but don't forget about the .300 average, or the graceful way he fielded his position, or the deceiving speed he showed on the basepaths.

Yet, when talking about the true measure of the man, there was far more to "Hammerin' Hank" than his brilliance between the lines.

Exuding grace and dignity, Aaron spoke 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.

He wasn't hesitant about speaking out on the issues of the day, whether it was bemoaning the lack of Blacks in management positions, or lobbying against putting Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame, or calling on those involved in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal to be tossed from the game for good.

"He never missed an opportunity to lead," former President Barack Obama said, describing Aaron as an "unassuming man" who set a "towering example."

Right up to his final days, the Hammer was making a difference. 

Just 2 1/2 weeks before his death Friday at age 86, Aaron joined civil rights icons to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He wanted to spread the word to the Black community that the shots were safe in the midst of a devastating pandemic.

"I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this," Aaron said. "It's just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country."

But the Hall of Famer will be remembered for one swing above all others, the one that made him baseball's home-run king on April 8, 1974.

It was a title he would hold for more than 33 years, a period in which Aaron slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America's most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Ali or Jordan.

"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, 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."

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.

"He was a very humble and quiet man and just simply a good guy," said 89-year-old Willie Mays, who finished with 660 homers. "I have so many fond memories of Hank and will miss him very much."

Nathan Berg contributed to this report.

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