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Hank Aaron Forced America to Change. It Never Changed Enough.

Remembering the life and legacy of a baseball icon, who died Friday at age 86

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Henry Aaron’s greatest skill was his ability to make the impossible look routine. When he hit his record-breaking 715th career home run on April 8, 1974, what was most apparent, beyond the sheer statistical import, was how easy it seemed to come. On the swing itself, his body hardly moved. With pitcher Al Downing’s offering a few feet from home plate, Aaron turned his hips, unleashed his forearms, and torqued his mammoth wrists. Bat and ball collided and then separated, with the white orb rocketing out of view.

The entire sporting universe had been waiting for this blast. The Major League Baseball home run record, previously held by Babe Ruth, is akin to a palatial jewel. From the moment it became clear that Aaron—the last active veteran of the Negro Leagues—was on pace to abscond with this American treasure, he received an influx of death threats. In replays of the homer, you can see two white fans race onto the field and run toward him as he rounds the bases. With Aaron nearing third, the fans reach out and pat his chest and back. Today, we know that Aaron’s bodyguard pondered grabbing the revolver from his binoculars case. After the spectators make their intentions clear, one thing remains constant until well after Aaron crosses home plate: He never smiles.

“It was supposed to be the greatest triumph of my life, but I was never allowed to enjoy it,” he said.

“I couldn’t wait for it to be over.”

Henry Aaron died in his sleep last Friday at age 86. Fans across the globe immediately mourned his loss and paid tribute to his legend. There is a thing that happens in the United States, and especially in American sports, when the public tries to make peace with the memory of its heroes. This occurs when a star athlete retires or is enshrined in a hall of fame, but even more when one dies. Part of an image becomes its whole. It’s not that we necessarily want to embellish our heroes. We do that, but we mostly want to make sense of their lives. For Aaron, this process has already begun.

“His monumental achievements as a player were surpassed only by his dignity and integrity as a person.” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred

“Exuding grace and dignity, Aaron spoke bluntly but never bitterly on the many hardships thrown his way.” The Associated Press

“With courage and dignity, he eclipsed the most hallowed record in sports while absorbing vengeance that would have broken most people.” —President Joe Biden

Aaron was many things over the years. He was a native of Mobile, Alabama, who was born at the height of Jim Crow. He was a young standout for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, and was the most consistently great hitter ever to pick up a bat. Throughout his life, Aaron empowered and assuaged Black players, knowing all too well the crucible they’d face both in and out of the sport. He was an ardent supporter of civil rights and a serial philanthropist. He appeared to be a great man, and those who knew him best were quick to champion that fact.

Aaron was also bound by a kind of untouchableness. “I don’t think too many people got a chance to know me through the years, and that was something that was my own doing,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006. “A lot of people thought they knew me, but they really didn’t.”

As a ballplayer, Aaron endured in spaces that mostly didn’t want him. Some desired his talent, his swing and his glove. But there’s a reason baseball looks the way it does, and a reason Black players had to form their own leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Baseball is America. And in America, men like Aaron are never really welcome.

While he was in the minors in Jacksonville, Aaron and a few others were part of a small group of Black players who became the first to integrate baseball below the Mason-Dixon Line. They went to different restaurants and stayed at different hotels than the rest of their teammates. In The Last Hero, sportswriter Howard Bryant’s acclaimed biography of Aaron, a former teammate revealed that they were called “alligator bait”—a reference to the horrific practice of using Black babies as hunting attractions—by heckling fans at home games.

In Aaron’s first year in the majors, the Braves made him wait to shower until after his white teammates finished up. Warren Spahn, a pitcher for the team who was 13 years Aaron’s senior, compared him to a cockroach. His manager, Charlie Grimm, and some other Braves players took to calling him “Stepin Fetchit,” a minstrel character known as “the laziest man in the world.” A charge of “aloofness” followed Aaron through his early years, fanned particularly by white sportswriters. When the Braves franchise moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, Aaron thought things would only get worse. “I have lived in the South, and I don’t want to live there again,” he told a reporter in 1964. “We can go anywhere in Milwaukee. I don’t know what would happen in Atlanta.”

Throughout the next two decades, Braves fans in Atlanta learned to love his swing just as they had in Milwaukee. They called him “Hammer”—as in an object, a tool. He was, to them, a workman. He never once went on the injured list. He hit 44 home runs in 1966, 39 in 1967, 44 again in 1969, and 47 in 1971. In every season from 1955 to 1973, he was an All-Star and received MVP votes.

As his home run count rose, so did the death threats. By the time Aaron was within striking distance of Ruth’s record, he was presented with a plaque from the U.S. postal service as the most mailed-to civilian in the country. It was almost exclusively hate mail. In a 1992 Sports Illustrated profile written by Mike Capuzzo, Aaron revealed a sample of the screeds:

“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 Henry Aaron,

How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”

“Hey nigger 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 nigger—alive.”

He sometimes was forced to sleep in ballparks by himself. In 1973, federal law enforcement agents uncovered a plot to kidnap his daughter; for the rest of that year, Aaron hired a security detail to guard his entire family. “He would get these threats but never mentioned them to us at the ballpark,” Aaron’s friend and teammate Ralph Garr later said. “He wouldn’t tell us what he was going through. He kept it all inside.’’

Even within the game, Aaron was viewed by many as an outsider. On the night that he broke Ruth’s record, then-MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to travel to Atlanta to see it. Instead, he went to a meeting for Cleveland’s booster club. After Aaron retired, he was critical of baseball’s treatment of Black players. He questioned why there weren’t more Black managers and executives and challenged the league to highlight the accomplishments of its first generation of Black stars. In response, the media branded him as “bitter.” He was portrayed as an unhappy meddler, clinging to a stage that he was no longer on.

“We came along and saved what would have become the dullest game in history,” Aaron told SI in 1992. “We brought excitement, speed. We paid our dues, man. No one knows what we had to go through—get off the bus, go get dressed somewhere else, go cat on the other side of town, get back in half an hour ready to play. What has baseball done for us? How many of those guys are around the game today? The white man allowed us a few crumbs.”

Over the years, the gauntlet through which Aaron traversed was partially acknowledged, as baseball and the public began to imbue him with the image of an elder statesman. He was not only a symbol of triumph, but a beacon of grace. In 1999, then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig created an award in Aaron’s name to be given to the best offensive performer in each league. In 2009, the Baseball Hall of Fame unveiled a permanent exhibit, “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream,” devoted to his life and career. A report on the exhibit’s opening touted his dignified image. “He’s still the classiest man in the room, just like in his playing days when with quick wrists and amazing grace he chased the ghost of Babe Ruth, chased the greatest record in baseball.”

Aaron never forgot what he went through. In a 2014 interview with USA Today, he revealed that he kept a box filled with hate mail. Sometimes, he would open it and reread the letters to remind himself what people are really like. “We are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record,” he said. “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.”

In the days after that interview was published, both the Braves and USA Today were flooded with a fresh round of hate mail. The contents were much the same as ever. Aaron should not speak. Aaron was scum. Aaron deserved to die. He never responded publicly. Is that the cost of dignity?

It’s not that Henry Aaron wasn’t grace personified. He was, or at least he undeniably appeared to be. It’s just that his ability to withstand a world set to break him has been repurposed into a virtue. What he was forced to carry is, to many, the part of his greatness most worth celebrating.

During Aaron’s career, MLB and its fans cared little for who he was—he would be what they wanted, when they wanted, and even that would never be enough. His life was proof of his capacity to live with himself, and excel, under these constrictions. But effect cannot be separated from cause; to honor Aaron without accounting for his circumstances is to distort his memory into a trinket, fashioned to affirm the hand that holds it.

This pattern did not start or end with Aaron. The reality of the Black athlete in America is to be either disfigured or perverted—sometimes both—to suit the needs of the viewing public. Muhammad Ali was painted as a seditionist before a humanitarian. Maya Moore went from unparalleled change-maker to the subject of a love story overnight. In an instant, Black athletes can be positioned to signify something alien to what they intended. In that respect, Aaron’s legacy is part of a battle that stretches far beyond his time.

“I was as good to baseball as baseball was to me,” Aaron once told the AJC. “I think I was better to baseball than baseball was to me.”

For baseball, Henry Aaron was aloof, then bitter, and then graceful. The last of those qualities is what will forever be associated with him most. The flick of his wrist, the crack of his bat, the pursuit of the most American record in America’s national pastime—he routinely bore that impossible weight on his back.