ATLANTA - Reaction to Hank Aaron’s death from former presidents to fellow Hall of Famers to everyone who knew him followed a theme: how the one-time home run king handled the racism he faced on the way to passing Babe Ruth’s hallowed record nearly 50 years ago.
Joe Carter met his childhood idol when he won the first Hank Aaron Award in 1986 after the majors in RBIs. By then, the All-Star slugger knew all about Aaron’s legacy.
"You tip your cap to those guys, because they paved the way for guys like me. It’s something I’ll never take for granted. They were pioneers. Jackie Robinson. Hank Aaron. Satchel Paige. Those were guys you heard about, you knew about, and you followed them. That ’s who the Black community followed," Carter said Friday.
"They are heroes and legends and they played the game the way that it was supposed to be played. … We all loved watching Hank," he said, adding: "Hammerin’ Hank, man. It’s definitely a sad day."
Aaron died in his sleep at 86.
"A child of the Jim Crow South, Hank quit high school to join the Negro League, playing shortstop for $200 a month before earning a spot in Major League Baseball," former President Barack Obama said.
"Humble and hardworking, Hank was often overlooked until he started chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record, at which point he began receiving death threats and racist letters — letters he would reread decades later to remind himself ‘not to be surprised or hurt.’ Those letters changed Hank, but they didn’t stop him," he said.
"A breaker of records and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come," Carter said.
Former President George W. Bush was managing partner of the Texas Rangers before becoming governor in his home state and spending eight years in the White House. Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the country’s highest civilian honor — to Aaron in 2002.
"The former Home Run King wasn’t handed his throne," Bush said. "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."
Chipper Jones, a Hall of Famer who spent his entire career with the Braves, cherished his time around the batting cage with Aaron, who remained active in the organization long after his career ended.
"We’re not only talking about a transcendent baseball player, we’re talking about a transcendent person in American history," Jones said. "Jackie Robinson kind of set the stage, but Hank took it to a whole other level."
Braves pitcher Tom House caught Aaron’s record-breaking homer in the bullpen beyond the fence in left field at Atlanta Stadium.
"That moment bonded us forever as friends and teammates," House posted on Twitter. "We watched Hank shrug off the weight of the world and just keep swinging."
Former Commissioner Bud Selig reminisced of a recent visit to Washington with Aaron, whose final two seasons were with the Selig-owned Milwaukee Brewers.
"Not long ago, he and I were walking the streets of Washington, D.C, together and talking about how we’ve been the best of friends for more than 60 years," Selig said. "Then Hank said, ‘Who would have ever thought all those years ago that a Black kid from Mobile, Alabama, would break Babe Ruth’s home run record and a Jewish kid from Milwaukee would become the commissioner of baseball?’"
Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine was a minor leaguer in the Atlanta system when he met Aaron.
"When I got drafted by the Braves I didn’t know a whole lot about Atlanta," Glavine said, "but I knew Hank Aaron."
Fellow Braves Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz celebrated every moment he spent around Aaron.
"You know, Hank was so unassuming. There is not a superstar I’ve ever been around that, A, went through as much as he did, both in life and in the game, and he just was a gentle guy that was there to say hello. You felt like you were in the presence of greatness every time you walked in," he said.
Smoltz also cherished a special moment from a day in Cooperstown, New York.
"I think my memory of Hank is going to be two-fold. It’s going to be at the Hall of Fame, it was Hank Aaron, Joe Morgan, and Frank Robinson. They all had walkers. They were coming to take a picture down at the end of the lawn like we do every year at the Hall of Fame. Somebody started announcing them coming down like a race.
"You could see each one had that little desire, and I think Hank turned it on at the end and I think he ended up winning. So that’s three iconic people obviously beat up by baseball and life, and we’re just going to miss them," he said.
AP freelance writer Jeff Babineau contributed to this report.