NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — The baseball world is mourning the loss of Henry "Hank" Aaron, the Hall of Fame legend known to the world as "Hammerin' Hank," who died Friday at the age of 86.
Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1934, the one-time home run leader and 25-time All-Star played 23-seasons with the Braves — first in Milwaukee and later Atlanta — before retiring in 1976.
Aaron made history on April 8, 1974, when he hit 715 home runs, breaking Babe Ruth's record — an achievement he accomplished in the face of bigotry, death threats and hate mail.
"It was a magical night because of what this man had gone through," New York Daily News sports writer Bill Madden told WCBS 880's Paul Murnane. "It would be one thing if it was just another guy that hung around long enough to break a big record like that, but this was so much more than that because everybody was watching this, and watching what was going on with Hank, and all the stuff he was putting up with while he was trying to get this record. Then when he finally did get it, it was one of the great nights in baseball history for everybody."
Madden said Aaron was a man of dignity and maintained that class not only during his pursuit of Ruth's record, but even when Barry Bonds claimed the home run title in 2007 amid a steroids scandal.
"Even when Barry Bonds broke his record, and everybody knew that the only reason he was able to break the record was because of steroids, and everybody else was talking about it, and writing about it, Hank never said anything about the whole business," Madden said.
In fact, once Bonds broke the record, Aaron recorded a congratulatory video message that was played at the ballpark.
"He was always asked about it, 'How do you feel about this?' And he always said, 'Look he broke the record, he's entitled to it,' and that was it. He never complained, but privately I know how much it hurt him because of what he went through to get that record and then to have it broken by a guy on steroids," Madden said.
Bonds retired with 762 homers, seven more than Aaron, though some consider Aaron's 755 to be the legitimate all-time mark.
Madden is among them.
"As I wrote in the first paragraph of my obituary on him, 'baseball has lost its legitimate all-time home run king' and by that I mean anybody who would think that Barry Bonds was the all-time home run king wasn't looking at the game properly," Madden said. "I used to tell people, when they would ask me why I wouldn't vote for Barry Bonds for the Hall of Fame, and my stock answer was always, 'I cannot look Hank Aaron in the face if I did.'"
"He was simply a giant in the game, a class act and baseball has lost a really genuine hero to everybody who has ever been associated with the game," Madden added. "What he went through in pursuing Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, and the hate mail he got, and the abuse he got everywhere he went from racists, and to be able to have accomplished it in the face of all that just made it even more of a heroic achievement."
After retiring from the game, Aaron joined the Braves organization, first as director of player development and then as a senior vice president with the organization.
Aaron was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility.