In March of 1954, with his place in the major leagues far from assured, Hank Aaron was granted a start in a Milwaukee exhibition game versus Boston, only because Bobby Thomson, the regular left fielder and Aaron’s idol, had just broken his ankle.
Already possessed of dramatic timing at the age of 20, the rookie promptly drilled a ball that carried the wall, flew over a row of trailers parked outside the Sarasota park and reverberated so loudly in the Red Sox clubhouse that the great Ted Williams emerged, as Aaron recalled, “wanting to know who it was that could make a bat sound that way when it hit a baseball.”
Over the next 23 years, a nation of fans would join in Williams’ wonder, as Aaron was transformed from a raw, cross-handed line-drive hitter into the game’s most prolific force. A Hall of Famer, Atlanta’s first professional sports star, and, in a soft-spoken way, an agent of change in the post-Jim Crow South, Aaron came to embody the city as he embodied the Braves.
Baseball’s all-time home run king died Friday at the age of 86.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk said in a statement released by the team. “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.”
According to the Braves, Aaron passed away peacefully in his sleep.