Hank Aaron encountered plenty of racism in his life, but nothing prepared him for the hatred and death threats he received as he chased Babe Ruth’s career home run record nearly 45 years ago.
Among the many hate-filled letters he was sent was one that he shared years later in Sports Illustrated: “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 [slur] . . . My gun is watching your every black move.’’
Aaron, who will turn 85 Tuesday, says the night of April 8, 1974 — when he hit his 715th home run at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to break Ruth’s record — brings back memories that are much more bitter than sweet. The path to breaking Ruth’s mark of 714 was filled with anguish, he said.
Racial segregation was commonplace while Aaron was growing up in Mobile, Alabama. He saw how his father had to yield his place in line at a general store when a white customer entered. And there were times when his mother called him into the house and the family hid under a bed because the Ku Klux Klan was marching past the house.
Aaron faced the racism of the Deep South while winning the South Atlantic League’s MVP award with Jacksonville as a 19-year-old in 1953. And when Aaron was a shy rookie with the Braves in 1954, manager Charlie Grimm reportedly nicknamed him “Stepin Fetchit,’’ a vaudeville comedian billed as “The laziest man in the world.’’
Years later, as he closed in on Ruth’s record, Aaron was assigned a bodyguard because of the death threats and hundreds of pieces of hate mail he received.
Aaron kept most of the hate mail. Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jim Auchmutey wrote in 1996, “The hate mail, the death threats, the racial slurs, they’re all there, boxed up like toxic waste . . . Billye Aaron has read about how her husband goes up in the attic and digs out those letters and picks at the psychic wounds he suffered as a black man threatening a white man’s legacy . . . ”
Aaron spent the first 12 years of his major-league career in Milwaukee (he hit 398 home runs), but when the franchise shifted to Atlanta in 1966, the Braves’ new home did not feel like the land of the free to Aaron. At the time, he said he preferred playing on the road rather than in front of the sparse crowds the Braves were drawing. He interpreted that ambivalence as bigotry, which he experienced in that first season in Atlanta, when his first wife heard racial taunts targeting her husband as she sat in the stands.
Aaron said he has vivid recollections of those times. “It brings back a very foul taste in my mouth,’’ he said from Atlanta in mid-January. “I had to send my kids to private school. My daughter, who was in college at the time, couldn’t go out of the dorms. She was threatened with letters all the time. It was a horrible moment for me to try to break the record, really. The police were saying all of these probably are crank letters, but some of them maybe were for real. The team stayed at one hotel and I stayed at another. I sometimes had to sleep in the ballpark by myself. I had to slip out of back doors of ballparks.’’
Aaron’s teammates sympathized. “Everybody was excited except him,’’ said Frank Tepedino, 71, of St. James, a former Yankee who joined the Braves in 1973. “We had the FBI traveling with us. He never ever made anything out of it. He kept everything to himself.’’
Davey Johnson, 76, the Braves second baseman who would later manage the 1986 world champion Mets, said from New Smyrna Beach, Florida: “We didn’t see color, we saw talent. As a ballplayer, you never see color. You see talent and teammates.’’
Another teammate, Dusty Baker, watched Aaron open some of the hateful letters. “I could see when he got a bad letter,’’ Baker, 69, said from San Francisco. “He’d drop it and go into the trainer’s room. One said, ‘Get out of here [slur].’ Another one saying somebody in a red jacket’s going to shoot him. Me and [teammate] Ralph Garr were like, ‘We’ll be with you.’ We were looking up in the stands, more scared that something would happen than Hank was. Hank just went ahead with his life.’’
How did Aaron cope? “He’s a man,’’ Baker said. “He’s a strong man. A strong black man. This made him stronger and more determined and he concentrated harder. It wasn’t only playing against Babe Ruth, he was playing against parts of America.’’
CHASING THE RECORD
A 40-homer season in 1973 at age 39 left Aaron with 713 home runs. The sports world had the entire winter to focus on No. 714, which would tie Ruth’s record. The hate mail already had started.
“I didn’t expect it to be that harsh, really,’’ Aaron said. “I thought I was just playing baseball and bringing a little joy for somebody to come to the ballpark and have fun with me hitting a home run.’’
As the 1974 season started, the Braves, and by extension Aaron, came under fire from then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn when the team indicated Aaron would skip the season-opening three-game series in Cincinnati so he could break Ruth’s record before the home fans in Atlanta. Kuhn ordered Aaron to play in two of those three games.
On Opening Day, April 4, with Kuhn in attendance, Aaron homered in the first inning off Jack Billingham to tie Ruth’s record. Aaron sat out the next game and was 0-for-3 in the third game.
The Braves’ home opener was April 8 against the Dodgers and drew a capacity crowd of 53,775. Kuhn, who was not in attendance (he said he had a previous commitment in Cleveland), drew plenty of criticism for his no-show. Aaron, who said he bears no malice toward Kuhn, said “I was intent” on breaking the record against the Dodgers.
Former Yankees lefthander Al Downing was the starting pitcher and walked Aaron in the second inning. Darrell Evans reached base on an error to start the Braves’ fourth. Aaron was next and Downing’s first pitch was a ball. Braves broadcaster Milo Hamilton described what came next:
“He’s sitting on 714. Here’s the pitch by Downing, swinging . . . there’s a drive into left-centerfield . . . that ball is gonna beeee . . . outta here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron!’’
Downing, 76, who lives in Stevensville, California, said: “It was a fastball, it stayed up. That ball was right in the middle of the plate. I said, ‘Please don’t swing.’ I knew if he hit it, it was gone.’’
Downing, who is black, said he had long revered Aaron as a trailblazer for African- American players. “Pride long before him going for home runs,’’ Downing said. “Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, those guys are the pioneers. So when we came along, it was difficult, but not so difficult.’’
Downing said Aaron’s challenge of Ruth’s record “wasn’t a case of the society embracing Babe Ruth. I think it was a society saying we don’t expect this guy being the man capable of — why is he the one to break Babe Ruth’s record? This is a country that had gone through two world wars, the Korean conflict. You would have thought those events would have brought this nation together. But it didn’t.’’
After No. 715 cleared the leftfield fence that night, two young fans ran onto the field. At the time, amid the threats and all of the hate mail, their intentions toward Aaron may have seemed unclear . . . until they congratulated him on the basepath. Aaron said he recalled, “I felt like I wanted to make sure I touched all the bases because anything might happen.’’
The record was his, but that did not stop the vulgar letters. “The hate kept going. That stayed right there,’’ he said.
As baseball’s new home run king, Aaron said he got one commercial endorsement — as a spokesman for Magnavox, an electronics company.
“The opportunities were not there,’’ he said. “It was still very much ‘you’re black, I’m white.’ Things were not any different for me than they were for Jackie [Robinson] when he first started out in baseball. It wasn’t enjoyable for me. I had no enjoyment at all. When Pete Rose was going after the [all-time] hits record, he enjoyed it, he had a lovely time. I didn’t have that time. I was hounded, talked about. When I signed a contract for $100,000 and one day I didn’t play, somebody said, ‘You mean the hundred-thousand-dollar boy isn’t playing?’ It was awful, really.’’
It has taken decades, but Aaron said he now can reflect on and appreciate what he accomplished.
“I find the world has changed and people today respect me more now than they did even 20 years ago,’’ he said. “I think people grew up and understand. Baseball is a game. If you have the ability to play it and can do certain things, whatever records you accomplished, you deserve to break the record.’’
Aaron finished his Hall of Fame career in 1976 with 755 homers. His record lasted until Aug. 8, 2007, when Barry Bonds, whom many have accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, hit No. 756 (he retired with 762).
Aaron said he never has spoken to Bonds about the record. ‘’I guess you could say that I think in terms of if someone’s going to break a record and don’t have the respect of playing with all of the God-given talent, then they don’t deserve to have the record,’’ Aaron said. “So that’s the asterisk I put on it.’’
Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams, who played many times against Aaron, said from Chicago: “I think Henry Aaron is the home run king. Here’s a black guy who’s going to break Babe Ruth’s record, who stood out in the game for so many years. People were jealous because it was a black guy.’’
Dusty Baker managed Bonds in San Francisco before he surpassed Aaron’s record. “Barry was awesome during that. He captured all of baseball,’’ Baker said. “I don't really get into comparisons, what somebody did or didn't do, because I don't know. Hank was the best I played with and Barry was the best that played for me.’’
Former commissioner Bud Selig has said he considers Aaron the rightful record-holder. “And I haven’t changed my mind,’’ Selig, 84, said from Milwaukee.
It was Selig, then president of the Brewers, who brought Aaron back to Milwaukee for the final two seasons of his 23-year career. Selig recalled Aaron showing him some of the earlier hate mail from Atlanta. “It was really emotional,’’ Selig said. “I was stunned that people could write what they wrote.’’
Selig, who was criticized for being slow to react during the steroid era but has pointed to a landmark Joint Drug Agreement during his tenure, said he never considered nullifying Bonds’ home run total. “No, because I think that's a slippery slope,’’ he said. “Any time a commissioner does that, you're taking a lot of gambles . . . I'm glad I didn't do it. The downside is where do you stop when you start changing things?’’
Neither Aaron nor Selig was in San Francisco the night Bonds broke Aaron’s record. Aaron did pretape a video offering his congratulations, and Selig said he did the same in a phone call to Bonds.
Aaron said he always knew his home run record would not last forever. “It was mine for a long time,’’ he said. “I owned it for a while. I lived with it for a while. I respected it. And I still believe in it."