• KYODO, REUTERS

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Baseball legend Hank Aaron, whose Hall of Fame playing career helped break racial barriers in U.S. sports and culture, died on Friday, according to the Atlanta Braves, his former team, and media reports. He was 86.

The Braves said in a statement that Aaron died peacefully in his sleep, without citing a cause of death.

"We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank," the team's chairman, Terry McGuirk, was quoted as saying.

Aaron, an Black man from Alabama, made his debut with the Braves — then based in Milwaukee — at age 20 in 1954, and stayed with the team for 21 of his 23 seasons in the majors.

Persevering in the face of racial abuse, Aaron shattered the previous career record of 714 home runs set by Babe Ruth. He hit his 715th homer in 1974 and finished his career with a total of 755, a record that stood for more than 30 years.

News of Aaron's death prompted an outpouring of tributes from colleagues, leaders and fans inspired by his achievements.

"Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we've ever seen and one of the strongest people I've ever met," former U.S. President Barack Obama tweeted, praising the legacy of "this unassuming man and his towering example."

In a statement, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said Aaron "symbolized the very best of our game."

"His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person," Manfred added.

Following his retirement after the 1976 season, Aaron was selected as a near-unanimous pick for the Hall of Fame in his first time on the ballot in 1982. His 3,771 career hits currently rank third-highest in MLB history, and he still holds the all-time career RBI record with 2,297.

After his playing career, Aaron became a front-office executive for the Braves, focusing on player development and was active in promoting youth sports and humanitarian causes.

For his furtherance of U.S.-Japan friendship through baseball, including events in collaboration with Japan's home run king Sadaharu Oh, Aaron received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette in 2015.

"He was great in everything. He was a paragon of a major league player," Oh, chairman of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, said in a statement released by the team. Aaron and Oh, whose 868 home runs are the most by a professional baseball player, initiated the establishment of the World Children's Baseball Foundation.

Aaron "contributed to spreading baseball among children. He had a wonderful baseball life," the 80-year-old Oh said.

Aaron played 23 major league seasons — the first 21 for the Braves and the final two for the Milwaukee Brewers. He appeared in a record 25 All-Star games.

Aaron's pursuit of Ruth's home run record was one of the top sports stories of the 1970s and generated intense media coverage. He finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs — one short of Ruth's record, which allowed the drama to build for several months before the 1974 season began.

The Braves opened that year in Cincinnati and Aaron wasted no time, hitting a home run in his first at-bat to tie Ruth's record.

A few days later — on April 8 and fittingly at home in Atlanta — Aaron broke the record when he drove a fastball from the Los Angeles Dodgers' Al Downing over the left field fence for No. 715. As Aaron rounded the bases at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, two fans broke through security to join him on the basepaths.

In the run-up to breaking the record, while millions of fans cheered Aaron, others jeered him and some took things even further. Bodyguards were assigned in 1973 after Aaron and his family became the targets of death threats and other harassment from racists who did not want a Black man to break such a sacrosanct record held by the charismatic Ruth.

Jackie Robinson, who was Aaron's hero, had integrated the major leagues in 1947. Still, when Aaron arrived in 1954 the U.S. civil rights movement had yet to build momentum. Aaron sometimes found himself unable to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his white teammates, some of whom ostracized him.

The drive for the home run title left scars.

In his 1991 autobiography, "I Had A Hammer," he described the final days of his quest by saying, "I thought I had earned the right to be treated like a human being in the city that was supposed to be too busy to hate.

"The way I saw it, the only thing Atlanta was too busy for was baseball. It didn't seem to give a damn about the Braves, and it seemed like the only thing that mattered about the home run record was that a nigger was about to step out of line and break it."

Because of the pressure and racial backlash, Aaron biographer Howard Bryant told National Public Radio the historic home run was "not a happy moment at all."

Aaron said he kept some of the hate mail he received to remind him of the reality of racism.

The record-breaking season would be Aaron's last in Atlanta. He was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers before the start of the 1975 season. The trade allowed Aaron, then 40, to finish his career in the city where it began. It also gave the Brewers, then an expansion team in its sixth year, a marquee player who could help the club draw more fans. Because the Brewers were in the American League at the time, the aging star could play as a designated hitter.

In 2015, Aaron told Milwaukee sportscaster Tom Pipines: "I came here when I was 19 years old, and made a lot of mistakes, but I've never once been in this city and the fans have booed me. They accepted me for what I am and I'm just so grateful."

His career home run record stood until 2007, when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants broke it. Bonds, whose career was shrouded by accusations of steroid use, finished with 762 homers.

Despite being passed by Bonds on the home run list, Aaron still holds the records for RBIs (2,297), extra base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856). He's third in hits (3,771) and games played (3,298), fourth in runs scored (2,174) and had a .305 lifetime batting average.

Aaron was National League MVP in 1957, the year he helped the Braves to a World Series victory over the New York Yankees, hitting .322, driving in 132 runs and blasting 44 home runs.

He led the NL in homers four times, won two batting titles, drove in at least 100 runs 11 times and scored 100 runs 15 times.

"I hope they'll say Hank Aaron was a complete ball player who hit some home runs and helped his team," he said.

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