What Hank Aaron Told MeRoundup
tags: racism, baseball, sports, Hank Aaron
Sandy Tolan is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and author of books including Me and Hank: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-Five Years Later.
One morning in Milwaukee in 1972, I read in the sports pages that my hero, Henry Aaron, was getting hate mail and death threats simply for following his dream. Hank, the superstar outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, was approaching what was then considered the greatest record in sports: the career home-run record of 714, held by the legendary Babe Ruth. During his chase of the Babe, Hank received 929,000 letters—at an ounce a piece, 29 tons of mail. Some of it cheered Hank on, but much of it was filled with racist hate and violent threats.
One of the letters was from me. Hank’s Milwaukee Braves had abandoned us for Atlanta six years earlier. But I’d stayed a fan, managing to tune into Braves’ games through the static on WSM, the Nashville station of the Grand Ole Opry. “Don’t listen to those racists,” I urged Hank. “We’re rooting for you up here in Milwaukee.”
To my astonishment, a few weeks later, Hank wrote back. “Dear Sandy,” the letter began.
I want you to know how very much I appreciate the concern and best wishes of people like yourself. If you will excuse my sentimentality, your letter of support and encouragement means much more to me than I can adequately express in words.
It is very heart warming to know that you are in my corner. I will always be grateful for the interest you have shown in me. As the so called “count down” begins, please be assured I will try to live up to the expectations of my friends.
Wishing for you only the best, I am
The letter was signed in blue ink.
I started a scrapbook, chronicling “Henry’s Homers” as he chased the Babe’s ghost. I knew what his letter had meant to a white teenager growing up in Milwaukee, but I didn’t fully understand what Hank himself faced at the time. Years later, as a journalist working on a book about Hank, I had the chance to talk to his daughter, his teammates, and Hank himself. And I learned that in that long-ago summer, he wasn’t just battling pitchers and worrying about curveballs—he was putting his own life on the line in the fight against racism.
Hank, who grew up under Jim Crow in Alabama, received letters threatening to murder him unless he gave up his chase for the home-run record. One writer promised to shoot Hank at home plate, either with a long-range rifle, from the bleachers, or with a handgun, from the box seats. The threats were so specific, Braves officials alerted the FBI. When a credible threat surfaced of a kidnapping plot against his daughter, Gaile, then in college, five FBI agents showed up at her dormitory at Fisk University in Nashville. They flashed their badges. Gaile recounted the conversation: “‘The men you see cutting the grass, those are FBI men. The men painting in the student union, those are FBI men.’ And the only thing I could say is, ‘Does my father know you’re here?’”
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