Hank Aaron is unquestionably one of the greatest names in pro sports. On April 8, 1974 he broke one of baseball's most sacred records by hitting his 715th home run, eclipsing the great Babe Ruth. What people often overlook is the intense, vicious racism Aaron experienced in the months leading up to his breaking the record. Aaron received thousands of letters from fans, many with death threats, from an America still divided over race. Aaron is one of our great heroes not only for his athletic abilities, but for his inner strength to overcome the intense hatred.
Hank's career began in the Negro leagues in 1952 with the Indianapolis Clowns. After playing terrifically he was offered contracts to play in the majors with both the Braves and the Giants. The Braves offer was $50 per month more so he ended up signing with the Braves. Can you imagine the Giants with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron on the same team for 20 years?
Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in 1947, and baseball was integrated in the early 1950s, but do not think that all was well for Aaron on his way to becoming a star in the major leagues. Aaron faced constant racism and Jim Crow laws everywhere he went especially in the South. He could not stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as their white teammates. He faced racist taunts from fans. He had to deal with white players trying to spike him on the basepaths and pitchers throwing at his head when he batted.
Despite the persistent racism, Aaron became one of the most feared home run hitters in the majors, hitting over .300 nearly every year and passing the 500, 600, and finally 700 home run mark in 1973. The great Babe Ruth's mark of 714 home runs was perhaps baseball's most sacred record, and the baseball world watched in anticipation as Aaron got closer to it. By the end of the 1973 season, Aaron had 713 career home runs and it was clear he'd break the record early in the 1974 season.
During the offseason of 1973, despite the progress that had been made on civil rights and race relations in the 1960s, America proved that it still had ugly racist skeletons in its closet. Hank Aaron was barraged by racist fans who could not imagine Ruth's record being broken by a black man. He could not go out in public without an escort. Aaron was quoted "I was a prisoner in my own apartment. I was an outcast in my own country."
He received 3000 letters per day from fans, most of them unsigned. Here's a sample of the letters, showing the vile underbelly of racist America.
Dear Nigger Henry, You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it.
Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies.
My gun is watching your every black move.
Dear Hank Aaron, With all that fortune, with all that fame, you're a stinkin' n****r just the same.
Listen Black Boy, We don't want no n****r Babe Ruth.
You can hit all dem home runs over dem short fences, but you can't take dat black off yo face.
I hate you!!!! Your such a little creap! I hate you and your family. I'D LIKE TO KILL YOU!! BANG BANG YOUR DEAD.
You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.
Aaron persevered, and thankfully he had millions of supporters as well. Fans filled the stadiums and sports writers followed his every move as the 1974 season started. With all the fan and media attention, and the threat of some nutcase following him with a gun, it's amazing Aaron was able to function day to day, let alone hit a 90 MPH fastball out of the ballpark. On April 8 at his home ballpark in Atlanta, Aaron hit his 715th home run off of Dodger pitcher Al Downing. As he circled the bases, a few rogue fans chased him around the bases, getting a few minutes of fame on a video clip that will be repeated thousands of times. Aaron was mobbed at home plate by his teammates and his mother and father who were able to share the wonderful moment with their son.
"I felt great. I felt like the world was lifted off of my shoulders. It was done, over with, and I felt like no matter what people thought about it, it was my record."
--From Ken Burns' Baseball 9th Inning
Hank Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs and was of course voted into the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible. The museum in Cooperstown has honored Aaron with his own room alongside one honoring Babe Ruth. Contrast Aaron's breaking of the record to Barry Bonds. Bonds broke both the single season and career home run records, but he is still hated and reviled by much of the baseball world not because of his race, but because of the inevitable conclusion that he took steroids. While Aaron persevered through the racism of the 50s and 60s and the hateful fans who came out in 1974, Bonds cheated his way to the record. History will not be so kind to Bonds.
Years after his playing days have been over, Aaron is loved and respected as a great player and a great man who stood up to the racism and made us all proud.