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Hank Aaron, Baseball’s Home Run King Who Defied Racism, Dies at 86

The Braves honored Aaron at their home opener on April 8, 2014, the 40th anniversary of his breaking Ruth’s record. Though weak from a partial hip replacement after a fall, he spoke briefly. The number 715 had been mowed into the outfield grass, where 715 fans held baseball-shaped signs, each with a number and a date signifying every one of those home runs.

Aaron, Mays, Sandy Koufax and Johnny Bench were selected by fan balloting as the four greatest living players in a promotion leading up to the 2015 All-Star Game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. They were introduced on the field before the first pitch.

For virtually all his major league career, Aaron competed against Willie Mays.

“It’s just not my way to be flashy or flamboyant the way, say, Willie is,” Aaron said in a 1970 interview with Sport magazine. “I have my own even rhythm, and I guess it just doesn’t attract the kind of attention that a more colorful style does.”

Both were raised in Alabama (Mays in Westfield and then Fairfield, about 225 miles north of Mobile), and they both played in the Negro leagues. But there was a perception of frostiness between them. When they were interviewed together by Bob Costas in 2008 for his HBO program “Costas Now,” they played down any antagonism. Aaron said there had been “competition” but “no resentment, no animosity.”

Aaron crossed baseball paths with Mickey Mantle in two World Series and in All-Star Games.

“If they had a choice of who they wanted to break Babe Ruth’s record, it would have been Mickey Mantle first,” he once said. “Mickey was like Marilyn Monroe. He didn’t have to be the greatest ballplayer. He had that charisma. The Yankees had won all those pennants.”

When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Aaron felt he had finally been accorded the respect he deserved. But he did not slight the Babe.

“It was always this player and that player and then Henry Aaron, but now I think I’m appreciated,” Aaron said. As for Ruth’s devotees: “I never wanted them to forget Babe Ruth. I just wanted them to remember Henry Aaron.”

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