Hank Aaron was the greatest home run hitter of all-time. I know that’s a controversial statement. But when you lay everything out on the table, including the things we don’t know, one thing remains true.
Aaron reigns supreme.
Babe Ruth didn’t have to face the same types of speeds we see from today’s pitchers. Without the possible aid of Steroids, Barry Bonds might not have topped Aaron’s career total for longballs. And if he had been given the chance, perhaps Josh Gibson could have beaten everyone. But there’s no blemish on Aaron’s record. Hank Aaron could hit. That’s a scientific fact.
Playing in Atlanta during the 1960s and 1970s also presented some challenges for Aaron. In the middle of the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, the Milwaukee Braves picked up and moved their operation to Atlanta, becoming the most Southern baseball team in the country.
But Aaron kept on hitting all the same. As the 1973 season finished, Hammerin’ Hank was just one home run away from Babe Ruth’s 714.
All he had to do was wait through the winter.
And while he waited the World began to wonder. What will the world be like when a Black player takes over Babe Ruth’s top spot? Sports Illustrated’s William Leggett put it this way. “Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of thirty-nine, takes a moonwalk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport …? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball’s attic?”
Between the 1973 and 1974 seasons, the Atlanta Braves received so many letters addressed to Hank Aaron that they hired him a personal secretary. Over 930,000 pieces of mail came flooding into the Braves offices, all addressed to Aaron, some with support, but the majority littered with hate.
“My old man instilled in my mind from a young age, the only good n***** is a dead n*****.”
“Hank Aaron is a scumbag piece of shit n*****.”
Oh, I’m sorry those two are excerpts from the racist hate mail that Hank Aaron got in 2014. Sorry, it’s hard to keep up with the racist hate mail that just gets swept under the rug, as if it never happened. Because, let’s face it, you didn’t remember that Hank Aaron got hate mail in 2014, right?
Of course, you didn’t. It wasn’t a big enough story for most baseball fans. So we all swept it under the rug. Because that’s what we do. We acknowledge that something is not our problem, and then we move on. Who cares about Hank Aaron’s well-being, right?
We remember Hank Aaron’s biggest moments as triumphs of the sport, but really, those moments are a triumph of the human spirit, of resilience.
We champion Hank Aaron as a behemoth at the plate, but the courage Aaron had to face off the field makes him a champion of the human condition, of strength and an example to all of us.
Because in between the 1973-74 seasons, as the Winter kept him from breaking Ruth’s record, Aaron received hundreds of thousands of letters.
“Dear Hank Aaron, Retire or Die!!! The Atlanta Braves will be moving around the country and I’ll move with them. You’ll be in Montreal June 5-7. Will you die there? You’ll be in Shea Stadium July 6-8, and in Philly July 9th to 11th. Then again you’ll be in Montreal and St. Louis in August. You will die in one of those games. I’ll shoot you in one of them. Will I sneak a rifle into the upper deck or a .45 in the bleachers? I don’t know yet. But you know you will die unless you retire!! You’ve been up 2000 more times that Babe Ruth and you’re ½ the player he was. You will vandalize his record. See you later.”
“How could such a creap hit a home run your the creap. I hate you!!!Your such a little creap! I hate you and your family, Id, LIKE TO KILL YOU! Bang Bang your dead, PS, Watch It, Mite Happen”
“Dear Mr. N*****, I hope you don’t break Babe’s record. How do I tell my kids that a N***** did it. But It took more at bats, live ball, and other N***** tricks. I wish you the worst at anything you do ‘N*****’! (KKK Forever)”
Dear N***** Henry, you are [not] going to break his 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.
Dirty old n***** man, Had Ruth played and been at bat as many times as you, old n*****, he would have hit…1100 home runs…. I hope lightning strikes you old man four-flusher.
“Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”
“Dear Hank Aaron, I hope you get it between the eyes.”
Hey n***** boy, We at the KKK Staten island Division want you to know that no number of guards can keep you dirty son of a bitch n*****——alive.
Hi Hank! There is 6 months until the ’74 season begins. Until then, one can break a leg, his back, develop sickle cell anemia or drop dead. Babe Ruth’s 714 record will never be tied or broken.
Dear Hunk, You are a very good ballplayer, but if you come close to Babe Ruth’s 714 homers I have a contract out on you…. If by the all star game you have come within 20 homers of Babe you will be shot on sight by one of my assassins on July 24, 1973.
Dear Hank: I hope lightning will strike you before next season.
Mr. Henry (Hank) Aaron, You are bitter and upset because you were not the first n*****manager. All you black bastards do is complain and demand. Now I know why they lynched you people in the south.
Dear Hank Aaron, I got orders to do a bad job on you if and when you get 10 from B. Ruth record. A guy in Atlanta and a few in Miami Fla don’t seem to care if they have to take care of your family too.
Mr. Hank Aaron, …I think Mr. Aaron in all fairness you should make a statement…that you had more at bats than Babe Ruth, after all Babe Ruth was a super great baseball player and is a credit to the white race.
Within the first week of the season, Aaron had broken Babe’s record, and praise rained down on the Atlanta outfielder.
In the moments after his home run, legendary announcer Vin Scully took in the moment, offering this sentiment:
“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron … And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”
Years later, then-Governor of Georgia and future President Jimmy Carter said, “Having integrated sports in the Deep South, Aaron already was a hero to me as I sat in the stands that day. As the first black superstar playing on the first big-league baseball team in the Deep South, he had been both demeaned and idolized in Atlanta. 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.”
Hank Aaron? “I just thank God it’s all over. I feel I can relax now.”
And now, 46 years later, after years of the same hate flowing through his mailbox, what does Aaron do with the letters?
“I read the letters because they remind me not to be surprised or hurt,” Aaron said to Sports Illustrated. “They remind me what people are really like.”
In the 1973 Season, in an interview with The New York Daily News, Aaron broke it down:
“If I were a white man, all America would be proud of me. But I’m Black. You have to be Black in America to know how sick some people are. I’ve always thought racism a problem, even with as much progress as America has made.”
On January 22nd, 2021, Hank Aaron took his bat and glove and ascended to the ballpark in the afterlife. The greatest home run hitter heading off to talk shop with Ruth, Williams, and Gibson, and maybe take a few cuts against Satchel Paige.
At the time of his death, it is impossible to see how the world has changed, and how there is still more work to do. In 1973, as Scully points out, “A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us.”
Earlier this month, Georgia elected their first Jewish American and first Black American to the Senate in John Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock. That effort to flip Georgia was led by Black Women, as Stacey Abrams fought to give new voters a voice in their government.
None of that is possible without Henry Aaron and his loud, noisy bat. And now as we cast off into this new era of American life, it only feels fitting to honor his legacy and his fight.
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