Baseball legend and home run king Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron has died the Atlanta Braves announced on Friday morning. Aaron’s record-breaking Major League Baseball career spanned 23 years and prompted the world to come to know him as “Hammerin’ Hank.” Aaron was 86.
In a statement, the Atlanta Braves said Aaron died peacefully in his sleep on Jan. 22. No cause of death was given.
“We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank,” Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said in a statement. “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.”
Aaron received the coronavirus vaccine on Jan. 5 in the presence of reporters at an event at the Morehouse School of Medicine to help bolster public confidence in the safety of the immunization. Minutes after Aaron’s death was reported, social media users began to speculate about a connection between his passing and his recent vaccination.
In response, health officials have reiterated the vaccine’s safety and expressed concern that the timing of Aaron’s death in relation to receiving the shot could undermine the public’s confidence in the immunization.
“We have to have the public understand that all of these events in life occur on a routine basis,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And that, coincidentally, they’re going to occur in the same time period that a vaccine would occur…And they have nothing to do with the vaccination any more than if they had, you know, taken a ride in a car the day before — the car had nothing to do with it.”
Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934, Aaron was one of eight children. He grew up so poor he practiced his skills by hitting bottlecaps with sticks because his family couldn’t afford baseball equipment.
Aaron went on to play the outfield for the Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers from 1954 to 1976. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.
Recognized as one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Aaron still holds Major League Baseball records for runs batted in (2,297), total bases (6,856) and extra-base hits (1,477). Aaron hit .305 for his career.
The biggest moment of Aaron’s career came when he surpassed Babe Ruth’s 714 home run record on April 8, 1974. By the time his career ended Aaron had hit 755 home runs. That record stood for decades until it was broken by Barry Bonds on Aug. 7, 2007, when he hit his 756th homer.
As Aaron neared Ruth’s home run record, he received hate mail and threats to his life because he was a Black man poised to surpass a white man’s record.
“I got millions and millions of pieces of mail from people that were resentful simply because of the fact of who I was and they were just not ready for a Black man to break that record,” Aaron said.
For his own safety, Aaron often left the baseball field through a back exit, and was escorted by police much of the time.
After breaking barriers in baseball on the field, Aaron continued to fight for racial equality after he retired.
Aaron went on to lobby for efforts to increase the number of Black athletes in baseball. He took a front office role with the Atlanta Braves after he retired from the Brewers in 1976, becoming one of the first Black men to hold an executive position in baseball.
He founded the Chasing the Dream Foundation, which provides support to underprivileged youth through mentoring and financial support. In 2015, Aaron and his wife Billye Aaron donated $3 million to the Morehouse School of Medicine — the same institution where he received his recent coronavirus vaccination and where a pavilion is named in Billye Aaron’s honor.
Aaron was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former president George W. Bush in 2002 for his civil rights-focused philanthropy.
“Our family is heartbroken to hear the news of Hank Aaron’s passing,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement on behalf of the Aaron family. “Hank Aaron was an American icon and one of Georgia’s greatest legends. His life and career made history, and his influence was felt not only in the world of sports, but far beyond — through his important work to advance civil rights and create a more equal, just society.”
On Twitter, users linked Aaron’s death to the COVID-19 vaccination earlier this month.
“All the data in these huge clinical trials did not support a role for vaccine in causing death,” said Dr. Walter A. Orenstein, a former director at the CDC’s immunization program and a professor at the Emory Vaccine Center. “My fear is people will act emotionally and not get vaccinated. … My fear is that people misinterpret this and say, ‘Aha, see the vaccine is dangerous,’ when in fact there’s no science data to support that hypothesis at all.”