Baseball mourns death of long-time homer king Aaron

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New York (AFP)

Long-time Major League Baseball home run king Hank Aaron was remembered for his character and dignity as well as his sporting achievements following his death Friday at age 86.

Aaron shrugged off racism and death threats to pass the record 714 homers hit by Babe Ruth in 1974, finishing on 755 for his career and becoming a pioneer in front office opportunities for black players after their careers.

"Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we've ever seen and one of the strongest people I've ever met," former US President Barack Obama said.

"Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to the Aaron family and everyone who was inspired by this unassuming man and his towering example."

Inspired by a meeting as a youth with Jackie Robinson, MLB's first black player, Aaron turned his talents to baseball and became an iconic sportsman while greeting intolerance with class and grace.

Newly-elected US President Joe Biden has fond memories of watching Aaron hit home runs.

"I knew I was watching someone special," Biden said. "With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people. But he was unbreakable.

"He stemmed the vicious force of white supremacy, in death threats, hate mail, and in hardened hearts. What I deeply admired and respected about him is that each time he rounded those bases -— an astonishing 755 trips home -— he melted away more and more of the ice of bigotry to show that we can be better as a people and as a nation."

Aaron played 23 MLB seasons from 1954 to 1976, starting with the Milwaukee Braves, moving with them to Atlanta in 1966, leaving for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1975 and retiring in 1976.

Aaron joined the Braves as an executive, became vice president of player development and a senior vice president for the club in 1980.

"We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank," Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said. "Henry Louis Aaron wasn't just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world."

Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, where his steadfastness and courage in the face of death threats made him elite even among baseball immortals.

"Hank Aaron is near the top of everyone's list of all-time great players," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. "His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person."

Former Braves star Chipper Jones admitted, "I can't imagine what Hank Aaron went through in his lifetime. He had every right to be angry or militant... but never was! He spread his grace on everything and every one he came in contact with."

Aaron's MLB career homer record stood for 33 years until broken by drugs-tainted San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, who finished on 762 in 2007. A surprise congratulatory video from Aaron played after Bonds set the new mark.

- 'Baseball lost a titan' -

NBA legend Magic Johnson said his own business and executive success owed much to trailblazer Aaron, declaring him on "the Mount Rushmore for the greatest baseball players".

"Rest in Peace to American hero, icon, and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron," Johnson tweeted. "While a legendary athlete, Hank Aaron was also an extraordinary businessman and paved the way for other athletes like me to successfully transition into business."

Other retired sluggers paid tribute to Aaron, Boston Red Sox legend David Ortiz tweeting he was "a legend on and off the ball field... the best to ever do it."

Chicago White Sox star Frank Thomas tweeted: "I'm just stunned. Hank was the standard of greatness for me. The one man who I acted like a kid around star struck always! He was the definition of class!"

"Hank Aaron's impact on the game was as powerful as his swing," tweeted the Washington Nationals. "His contributions to the sport were immeasurable. Baseball's lost a titan."

"The New York Yankees mourn the loss of baseball legend Hammerin' Hank Aaron," the club tweeted. "His impact on and off the field will never be forgotten."