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On January 22, 2021, Hank Aaron died at the age of 86. Aaron, who many still see as baseball’s true home run king, played 23 seasons in the big leagues with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers but was so much more than just a baseball player.

Aaron was a humanitarian, a civil rights activist, a true role model, and simply a wonderful human being. He embodied everything a professional athlete should be, even in the face of racism and death threats during his pursuit of Babe Ruth. This is why Muhammad Ali once paid Aaron the compliment of all compliments.

Hank Aaron played 23 MLB seasons

Born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1934, Hank Aaron received his first major-league tryout at the age of 15 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who, of course, had signed Aaron’s childhood idol, Jackie Robinson, a few years earlier. Aaron didn’t make the team, but word spread about his talent. He played with a couple of independent Negro league teams while still in high school.

In 1951, a few months before his 18th birthday, he signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. Aaron played three months for them before accepting a contract offer from the Boston Braves in the summer of 1952. The team moved to Milwaukee the following season. After spending a short time in the minors, Aaron made his big-league debut on April 13, 1954.

Hank Aaron played 21 seasons for the Braves franchise (12 in Milwaukee, nine in Atlanta). He helped the team to a World Series title in 1957, the same year he won NL MVP, before finishing his career with the Milwaukee Brewers.

In his 23 seasons in Major League Baseball, “Hammerin’ Hank” hit .305, collected 3,771 hits (third all-time), hit 755 home runs (second all-time), batted in 2,297 runs (first all-time), and recorded 6,856 total bases (first all-time). He was a 21-time MLB All-Star, a four-time NL home run leader, a four-time NL RBI leader, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner, and a two-time NL batting champion.

His famous No. 44 is retired by both the Braves and Brewers. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

Aaron was a humanitarian, civil rights activist, and true gentleman

Despite his success on the diamond, Hank Aaron remained humble throughout his career. During his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1973-74, a time during which he encountered racism and even death threats, he would apologize to his teammates for all of the hoopla surrounding him. When he finally got to No. 715 on April 8, 1974, Aaron still thought of them before thinking about himself, according to Geneaology Bank.

“Thank you for being patient. Thank you for putting up with all that you have — the newspapermen, the photographers and all the other distractions. I know how difficult it was sometimes, and I appreciate the patience you’ve shown.”

Hank Aaron

Aaron wasn’t only an iconic figure on the diamond but off of it as well. He used his platform to bring attention to civil rights issues. A longtime supporter of the NAACP, he was awarded the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. The NAACP also established the Hank Aaron Humanitarian in Sports Award in his honor.

Aaron was known as a great humanitarian and philanthropist throughout his life. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. The athlete challenged MLB teams to hire more Black coaches and was a role model, especially in the Black community.

Even just recently, as many Black Americans have been hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Hank Aaron joined other civil rights leaders in getting the vaccine to prove that it was safe.

Muhammad Ali once paid Hank Aaron an incredible compliment

Legendary athletes Muhammad Ali talks with Hank Aaron during the Presidential Citizens Medal ceremony in 2001 at the White House
Muhammad Ali and Hank Aaron at the Presidential Citizens Medal ceremony in 2001 | Mark Wilson/Newsmakers

Hank Aaron’s Bold Prediction About a Young Tom Seaver Was on the Money

Like Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali was always one to stand up for what he believed in, which is one of the reasons that both were chosen to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001, which is where the picture above came from.

Ali and Aaron are easily two of the most influential and successful athletes in history. Ali himself was certainly aware of that as he once paid Aaron the ultimate compliment (h/t National Baseball Hall of Fame).

“The only man I idolize more than myself.”

Muhammad Ali on Hank Aaron

Now that’s high praise. We all know how much Ali loved himself, so for him to go on record saying that about Aaron certainly stands out.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference