For many Americans of the past century, there was perhaps no greater measure of individual achievement than baseball legend Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 home runs. On a spring night in 1974, Hank Aaron surpassed that mark – and dealt a heavy blow to civil rights in the United States.
Aaron was an African-American man born in the isolated South at a time when black people were not allowed to play Major League Baseball. As he neared Ruth’s record in an all-white sport, Aaron was subjected to death threats and racist abuse so vicious that he said it “cut a piece of my heart” . When he hit his 715th homerun in the home stadium of his Atlanta Braves, Aaron made more than sporting history.
On the TV show the game April 8, 1974, Vin Scully advertiser said, “What a wonderful time for baseball. What a wonderful time for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a wonderful time for the country and the world. Black man receives standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the all-time baseball idol record.
Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron passed away on Friday at the age of 86, and is remembered both as one of the greatest players in the sport known as the “American pastime” and as a hero of the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
“America has lost an extraordinary soul” Stacey Abrams, wrote the Georgian political leader on Twitter. “On the pitch, he brought the power + the goal. In the community, Hank Aaron has invested in progress, in people and in dreams.
“His monumental accomplishments as a player were only surpassed by his dignity and integrity as a person,” said Rob Manfred, the MLB commissioner who described his friendship with Aaron as “one of the most great honors of my life ”.
Aaron began his baseball career in the Negro Separated Leagues in the early 1950s before joining the majors. A versatile star, his hallmark was consistency – in 23 seasons, he hit 755 home runs, a record that would last more than three decades, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1982.
It was his methodical research into Ruth’s case that made Aaron a civil rights icon. He received a torrent of hate mail from detractors who threatened to kill him if he outperformed the New York Yankees slugger.
This experience stuck with Aaron well into his retirement. In 2014 he said USA today that he recited from memory the threats he had received “to remind me that we are not so far from the time when I was chasing the record. If you think about it, you are wrong.
Born one of the eight children a boilermaker’s assistant and tavern owner in Mobile, Alabama, Aaron was inspired to get into baseball after listening to a speech by Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the black MLB player .
Aaron joined the Indianapolis Clowns from the Negro Leagues in 1952 before making his major league debut with the Milwaukee Braves two years later. They won the World Series in 1957, and Aaron remained with the franchise throughout his move to Atlanta before finally retiring with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976, two seasons after breaking the home run record.
Despite all his success, Aaron has often been overshadowed over the course of his career by more flamboyant stars who have performed in bigger cities – like Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Willie Mays of the New York and San Francisco Giants.
After his playing days, Aaron became one of the first black executives in MLB front offices, working for the Atlanta Braves. He also served on the president’s circle of the NAACP Foundation, the philanthropic arm of America’s leading civil rights organization.
Boxer Muhammad Ali said once that Aaron was “the one man I idolized more than I”.
In an interview in 1995 with the Hartford Courant To promote a documentary about his career, Aaron reflected on the importance of his home run record and why dethroning Ruth upset so many of his contemporaries.
“I kinda screwed up a bit,” he said. “I wasn’t the glamorous big boy. . . from New York. So my file, the hate mail I received was not so much [a reaction] at the threat of what I was doing was the threat that I was black and that I wasn’t a New York player either.