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Baseball Home Run King Hank Aaron Dies At 86

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Baseball legend Hank Aaron has died at the age of 86. Aaron, a Black man, was one of the game's most consistent sluggers, despite the racism that he faced throughout his time in the game - from his earliest days in the minor leagues to the biggest night of his career, the night he became baseball's all-time home run leader. Emil Moffatt of member station WABE looks back on his life.

EMIL MOFFATT, BYLINE: Henry Louis Aaron was born in 1934 in Mobile, Ala., one of seven children. As a child, he remembered chopping wood with his father, looking up to see an airplane overhead and aspiring to one day become a pilot. But his father had his doubts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HANK AARON: Said, boy - he said, you never will be able to fly an airplane. They ain't going to let you do that. I said, well, if I can't fly an airplane, I want to play baseball. He said, neither one of those things you can do. Chop that wood, boy, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

MOFFATT: Aaron's path to the big leagues started at age 15 playing semipro ball. He then had a brief stint in the Negro Leagues before he was signed by the Boston Braves. Aaron was called up to the majors in 1954, where he became the Milwaukee Braves' first Black player. He led the National League in hitting in only his third Major League season and was the league's most valuable player a year later. Aaron moved with the Braves to Atlanta in the mid-'60s, and the home runs kept coming. As he moved closer to Babe Ruth's all-time record of 714, he became the subject of racist death threats, leading up to April 8, 1974, with a sellout crowd on hand to watch him take on the Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: One ball and no strikes. Aaron waiting. The outfield deep and straight away. Fastball - it's a high drive into deep-left centerfield. Butler (ph) goes back to the fence. It is gone.

(CHEERING)

MOFFATT: The crowd roared, and fireworks exploded as Aaron rounded the bases and was met by his teammates and his parents at home plate. Hall of fame broadcaster Vin Scully described the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIN SCULLY: What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.

MOFFATT: And while Atlanta and the country celebrated, all Aaron could feel was relief. Here he is in a 2016 WABE interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AARON: It was 2 1/2 years - I've probably told this story many times. It was probably the saddest 2 1/2 years I ever had in baseball, personally, myself.

MOFFATT: Aaron eventually hit 755 home runs, a record that stood for more than 30 years before it was broken by Barry Bonds. Aaron was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1982. After his career, Aaron made Atlanta his home and became a fixture in the community.

CJ STEWART: Hank Aaron (laughter) - he was a part of the Braves coming from Milwaukee to Atlanta to prove that we were a city too busy to hate.

MOFFATT: Atlanta native C.J. Stewart, who once played in the Chicago Cubs organization, says Aaron was not only a transformative figure in the city's history, but was also a mentor.

STEWART: We can hold our heads up high - Black men, Black boys, Black people that love this game of baseball - knowing that he was a man that used this game to do a lot of amazing things.

MOFFATT: For his contributions to the game of baseball and his community, George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. Today, another president, Jimmy Carter, was among those honoring Aaron. Carter called the baseball legend a breaker of records and racial barriers whose remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come.

For NPR News, I'm Emil Moffatt in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOGWAI'S "DONUTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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