Hank Aaron was without question a baseball icon. He broke Babe Ruth’s home run record and went on to hit 755 home runs in his career. On January 22, the record-breaking right fielder died at the age of 86.
Besides his legendary plays on the field, Hammerin’ Hank will be remembered for more than baseball.
Here are 10 things to know about Hall Of Fame legend Hank Aaron off the field.
Aaron and his wife, Billye, spent more than 20 years building their philanthropic legacy. It all began began with their paying for extracurricular activities and equipment fees for needy grade school students, The Undefeated reported.
The couple’s efforts grew to include college scholarships and a multimillion-dollar grant to the Morehouse School of Medicine.
“When I was a young kid growing up in Mobile, Alabama, I chased a dream and found it and played baseball for 23 years,” Aaron said. “I see these young kids coming along now and they are chasing their dreams. It just so happens that their dream costs a little bit more than mine did. I’m hoping they catch it and that they’re able to do the things they want to do in life.”
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Over the years, Aaron’s Atlanta-based Chasing the Dream Foundation has awarded hundreds of thousands in scholarships. In 2016, the foundation awarded about $350,000 in college scholarships, mostly to students attending small, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), The Undefeatd reported.
Launched in 2010, the foundation’s 4 for 4 scholarship program provides at least $4,000 a year for four years to 12 students. There’s a significance to the numbers. “That’s the number of times Henry went 4-for-4 in his career,” said board member Allan Tanenbaum.
Scholarship recipients have attended Spelman, Morehouse and Atlanta Technical colleges in Atlanta; Texas College in Tyler; Dillard and Xavier universities in New Orleans; Mount Mary University and the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee; Tuskegee University and Talladega College in Alabama; and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Students at other colleges have also received scholarships.
Aaron has served on the board of Atlanta Technical College, an adult vocational school, and several of the college’s students received scholarships from his foundation.
In 2015, Aaron donated $3 million in honor of his wife to Morehouse School of Medicine. A student pavilion at the school was named in her honor.
Following his retirement as a player, Aaron became one of the first Blacks in Major League Baseball upper-level management as the Atlanta Brave’s vice president of player development, ESPN reported.
Aaron was awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2002 by President George W. Bush.
Of Aaron’s passing Bush said in a statement, “Laura and I are saddened by the passing of Hank Aaron. The former Home Run King wasn’t handed his throne. He grew up poor and faced racism as he worked to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him. Henry Louis Aaron was a joyful man, a loving husband to Billye, and a proud father of six children who will deeply miss him. Laura and I send them our condolences and our thanks for sharing this great man with our country.”
Aaron became an Arby’s franchisee and had close to 20 different restaurants to his credit.
In the mid-1980s, Aaron met with Arby’s then-head of marketing Frank Belatti and together they reportedly crafted a campaign to raise the restaurant chain’s profile among baseball fans, The Milwaukee Record reported.
And, in 1986 Arby’s became the official fast food of Major League Baseball. There was also the Arby’s RBI Award (a.k.a. the Hank Aaron Trophy), given to the player in each league with the most runs batted during a season. Aaron also organized a program in which the MLB gave $1,000 for each of those two players’ RBIs (usually a sum of about $250,000) to Big Brothers/Big Sisters Of America, a charity Aaron long supported.
Also in 1986, Aaron took ownership of a Milwaukee-area Arby’s location. By the end of 1989, he had three metro Milwaukee Arby’s sites. He later added four more.
Aaron later expanded his fast-food franchise ownership to other chains, including Church’s, Popeye’s, and Krispy Kreme locations. At one point, he owned 19 restaurants, according to the Milwaukee Records.
Besides the food business, he also opened a handful of car dealerships.
“Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Awards,” Aaron was asked about athletes using the attention they receive to voice their political opinions. Aaron did not hesitate to give his perspective on the intersection of politics and sports.
“I think they ought to voice their opinion, regardless of what one may think,” Aaron said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We didn’t get to where we are today because we kept our mouth closed or scratched our head and sat and didn’t do anything. If you have an opinion, then you should voice it and let people know that is your opinion and you’re not speaking for anybody but yourself.”
The fact that he was broke Babe Ruth’s record in all-time home runs, caused a barrage of racist attacks against Aaron. He received hate mail and threats to his life, but this didn’t stop him from striving in baseball and speaking out against racism off the field.
“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.
In a 2019 interview with Fox Sports South, Aaron said, “Sometimes you sit down and you want to cry about it, you think about it and you say what did i do to make people have this kind of hate toward me. For a year and a half, I couldn’t open a letter, they wouldn’t allow me to open mail because every piece of mail I had was opened by Secret Service, people like that. It was hard, I had to go into the back of the ballparks instead of going out the front of the ballpark. Tough situation for me, for a while.”
Despite the danger to his life, Aaron used his baseball career as a platform to promote civil rights. For example, he lobbied for efforts to urge more young Black athletes to remain in baseball, he became the first Black American to hold a senior management position in baseball as a front office exec with the Atlanta Braves, supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and he founded the Chasing the Dream Foundation to support underprivileged youth with mentoring and financial support, CBS News reported.
“I think that people can look at me and say, he was a great baseball player but he was an even greater human being,” Aaron said in the same 2010 interview.
Just before his death, Aaron urged people, especially Black Americans, to receive the covid-19 vaccine. He received his, alongside 20 prominent African-American leaders and notables, at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
“I was proud to get the covid-19 vaccine earlier today at Morehouse School of Medicine,” he wrote on Twitter on Jan. 5. “I hope you do the same!”
The Atlanta Braves recently announced it will honor Aaron during the upcoming season, with a $1-million donation to establish the Henry Louis Aaron Fund, which will work to increase minority participation among players, managers, coaches and front-office personnel, ESPN reported.
Aaron often criticized the lack of Black managers and general managers in Major League Baseball.
“We want to continue Hank’s amazing work in growing diversity within baseball now and in the years to come,” Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said in a statement. “I believe this seed money is just the beginning for this growing fund and I’m certain other companies and organizations who have worked with Hank over the years will join us and add to this call to action to develop talent and increase the diversity on the field and in the front offices across the league.”
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The Braves’ $1-million donation will be matched by $500,000 apiece from MLB and the players’ association, ESPN.
“Henry Aaron was a Hall of Fame player, a front office executive, a mentor, a colleague and a friend. In each of these roles, he was a tireless advocate for better representation of people of color throughout our sport,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “As a philanthropist and businessman, this celebrated power hitter was most passionate about empowering others. We are proud to honor his legacy through this joint donation to the Henry Louis Aaron Fund, and commit ourselves to continue building toward greater diversity and representation in the game Hank loved dearly.”