April 8th, 1974. In the fourth inning during Atlanta’s home opener against the Dodgers, pitcher Al Downing tried to get a 1-0 fastball by Hank Aaron. No such luck. Aaron launched it into left center and broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record with number 715.
As Aaron closed in Ruth’s record, racist hate mail and death threats began coming in daily. The FBI monitored his mail. One letter read, “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!” Another promised, “My gun is watching your every black move. This is no joke.”
In Aaron’s hometown of Mobile, Alabama, his parents received harassing phone calls. Kidnapping threats were made against his daughter, a college student in Tennessee. An off-duty Atlanta police officer was assigned as his personal bodyguard. The Atlanta Journal prepared Aaron’s obituary in case it had to be run at short notice.
“It should have been the most enjoyable time in my life,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography, “and instead it was hell.”
Aaron used the hate mail as a motivator. He had begun his career in the Negro Leagues and joined the Braves only seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He wrote in his autobiography that he was driven by “the sense of doing something for my race.” He believed the best way to honor Robinson’s legacy “was to become the all-time home run champion in the history of the game that had kept out black people for more than sixty years.”
Well done, Mr. Aaron.