The news of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron’s death at 86 has rocked the MLB world, and rightfully so. While his accomplishments in baseball, including his 755 career home runs, are noteworthy, it is challenging to mention Aaron’s name without also talking about his contributions to battling racism.
After growing up in Mobile, Alabama, when segregation was a normal part of life, Aaron went on to play in the Negro Leagues before joining the Atlanta Braves in 1954. Those struggles with racism did not get easier, as he was now a rising MLB star in a world dominated by the likes of Babe Ruth. It has been no secret that Aaron received an insurmountable number of hate letters as he neared Ruth’s homerun record. The U.S. Postal service confirmed the Braves legend received up to 3,000 letters per day during this time.
These letters were brutal, including sentiments like “retire or die” and threats of Aaron being shot dead during games. Of course, these letters were masked behind the idea nobody could take Ruth’s place in baseball history, but there was clearly a more significant issue here. Seeing a black man succeeding in the ’50s and beyond was something that did not sit well for baseball fans with their own bias. Aaron has even said teammates were afraid to sit too close to him in the dugout due to the threats of being shot.
However, once fans started learning of the revolting letters Aaron was receiving on a daily basis, he started getting positive letters from a different group of fans, admiring his strength and talent. And, because the hate letters never stopped, it was to Aaron’s surprise the day he tied Ruth’s home run record that fans gave him a standing ovation. Aaron later recalled that day, saying, “I couldn’t believe I was Hank Aaron and this was Atlanta, Georgia. I thought I’d never see the day.” Any player that would have tied Ruth’s home run record at the time would have been ecstatic, but to Aaron, this was a feeling so far beyond baseball and a statistic.
Still, years later, Aaron kept those letters of hatred. He revealed they were still preserved in his home in 2014, where he would even look back and read them. When asked why he would keep such horrible memories, he replied, “to remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
After Aaron’s retirement, he continued to make strides in baseball and within the civil rights movement. He sailed through several front-office roles for the Braves and founded an organization called the Chasing Dreams Foundation. It was through this foundation that he would continue making efforts to encourage black youth to pursue baseball. The organization also provided funding for underprivileged kids and provided them with more opportunities than what limited resources they had.
Aaron’s upbringing came from less than humble beginnings, breeding a baseball legend that learned to hit with a broomstick and bottlecaps. Through the trenches, Aaron had a constant love for baseball, and there are not enough words to sum up what he did not only for the sport but also for America as a whole. And, as President Jimmy Carter, who was in attendance for the record-tying homerun, said it best, “He became the first black man for whom white fans in the South cheered … A humble man who did not seek the limelight, he just wanted to play baseball, which he did exquisitely.”