Baseball Great Hank Aaron Was a Legend Off the Field as Well

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The home run king was a champion of civil rights and dedicated to youth sports around the world.

Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh at a World Children’s Baseball Fair event in 2012, with co-founder Akiko Agishi (left) and then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff and Wire Service Reports

Baseball legend Henry “Hank” Aaron, whose Hall of Fame playing career helped to break racial barriers in U.S. sports and culture, died on Friday, according to his former team and media reports. He was 86.

The Atlanta Braves said in a statement that Aaron died peacefully in his sleep, without citing a cause of death.

“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” the team’s Chairman Terry McGuirk was quoted as saying.

Aaron, an African American from Alabama, made his debut with the Braves – then based in Milwaukee – at age 20 in 1954, and stayed with the team for 21 of his 23 seasons in the majors.

Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974.

Persevering in the face of racial abuse, Aaron shattered the previous career record of 714 home runs set by Babe Ruth. He hit his 715th homer in 1974 and finished his career with a total of 755, a record that stood for more than 30 years.

Aaron endured racist taunts and threats as he neared Ruth’s mark, but remained calm and focused throughout, setting an example of peaceful pursuit of excellence.

News of Aaron’s death prompted an outpouring of tributes from colleagues, leaders and fans inspired by his achievements.

“Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we’ve ever seen and one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” former President Barack Obama tweeted, praising the legacy of “this unassuming man and his towering example.”

In a statement, Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred said that Aaron “symbolized the very best of our game.”

“His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person,” Manfred added.

Following his retirement after the 1976 season, Aaron was selected as a near-unanimous pick for the Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 1982. His 3,771 career hits currently rank third-highest in MLB history, and he still holds the all-time career RBI record with 2,297.

After his playing career, Aaron became a front-office executive for the Braves focusing on player development and was active in promoting youth sports and humanitarian causes.

For his furtherance of U.S.-Japan friendship through baseball, including events in collaboration with Japan’s home run king Sadaharu Oh, Aaron received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette in 2015.

Aaron and Oh envisioned an international children’s baseball gathering while the two stars were filmimg a television show in Japan in the 1980s.

“While we were shooting, we had time to chat and got to talking about what kinds of things we could do after we both retired. We both had ideas about giving back, mostly to children, through the sport of baseball. We wanted to help spread the greatness of the sport of baseball,” Oh remembered.

Aaron and Oh soon presented their concept to Dr. Akiko Agishi, and the trio laid out plans to organize an annual camp for 10- to 11-year-old youngsters to gather and learn about baseball – and each other.

The first World Children’s Baseball Fair was held in 1990 at UCLA, and has since taken place in cities across Japan, in San Diego, Canada, Puerto Rico and Taiwan.

“When we initially started this, it wasn’t just to help some kid wanting to learn to play baseball,” Aaron explained. “It was planned to help international kids learn what kids in Japan were like as well as kids in other countries.”

From her home in Los Angeles on Friday, Agishi said she was in disbelief, after recently speaking to Aaron’s wife, Billye, in a call from their residence in Atlanta.

“She said Hank was doing very well, and miss getting together with me and Sadaharu Oh,” Agishi said. “We have been talking for gathering at Tokyo Olympic this summer.

“We are very grateful for his warm heart towards children of the world, and will miss him very much. May he rest in peace, condolences to all.”

In a photo provided by Akiko Agishi, Hank Aaron instructs a young player at the 1991 WCBF in Mito City, Japan, as Sadaharu Oh looks on as catcher.

In recent days, Aaron was active encouraging the African American community to receive the COVID vaccine when it becomes available to them. There remains lingering mistrust among Black Americans over vaccinations, stemming from the infamous Tuskegee experiment, the decades-long study that left syphilis untreated in participating Black men without their consent.

“I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” Aaron said while being inoculated earlier this month in Atlanta. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”

At a 2012 event in Los Angeles for the World Children’s Baseball Fair, Aaron initially bristled at a question about how his home run record was broken – amid a steroids controversy – by Barry Bonds. The baseball legend then turned his response into a teaching moment about his approach to inspiring young players.

“The most important thing to tell a kid is that there is no shortcut in life,” he explained. “We are sure to tell them that they may not ever play MLB, but the most important thing is to have fun while they’re there. And whether they become doctors, lawyers or whatever, there are absolutely no shortcuts in life. If you can instill that in them and have them understand that, I think you’ve got a successful kid.”

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