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Besting Ruth, Beating Hate: How Hank Aaron made baseball history

By Jen Christensen CNN | 4/8/2014, 2:24 p.m.
On the day the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called Lyndon B. ...
Hank Aaron finished his career with a record 755 homers, a stat so impressive it has been bested by only one player, Barry Bonds, who finished his career in with 762 -- though that record has come under a cloud of steroid-use allegations. CNN photo.

Editor's note: The following story contains epithets that may be offensive to some readers.

It was 40 years ago today that Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron did what most thought was impossible. On April 8, 1974, the Atlanta Brave hit home run number 715.

It broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. It was an incredible athletic accomplishment made even more incredible because it happened in the shadow of hate and death threats. Those threats came from people who did not want an African-American to claim such an important record.

Aaron finished his career with a record 755 homers, a stat so impressive it has been bested by only one player, Barry Bonds, who finished his career in with 762 -- though that record has come under a cloud of steroid-use allegations.

When Major League Baseball scouts first took a look at the teenage sensation in 1952, they saw potential but could not know the legend he'd become.

Those scouting reports show a player with natural talent but also little coaching or experience. He grew up in the 1930s and '40s deep in the heart of the segregated South -- an African-American man without access to organized baseball teams, fields or equipment.

The nearly million letters sent to Aaron as he chased the home run record also show an ugly side of American culture in the early 1970s. The letters drip with hate and threaten his life just for playing baseball.

Some of those letters and other documents from Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) will be on display at Emory's Robert W. Woodruff Library in an exhibit that opens April 24 in Atlanta. The letters are a testament to what Aaron overcame to become one of the greatest players of the game.

The scouting reports

The May 26, 1952, report from Braves scout Dewey Griggs describes Aaron as physically "well put up." Another report from July from scout and baseball Hall of Famer Billy Southworth describes Aaron's "slender build."

Listed as 5'11", 170 pounds on one report, he was even skinnier when he lived in Mobile, Alabama. It was so noticeable that a Dodgers scout told Aaron he'd never play professionally.

Griggs and Southworth disagreed. Perhaps they knew skinniness could be fixed. It happens when a young man's diet is limited to what his family grew in their garden. After all, Aaron was only 18, and there was still time to fill out.

By all reports, Aaron's childhood was marked by his obsession with baseball. He even got kicked out of high school when he cut too many classes to listen to Dodgers games on the pool hall radio.

When Aaron's hero Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to integrate Major League Baseball, came to Mobile in 1948, Aaron cut class to hear the Dodger speak at a drugstore. Later that day, he told his father that's what he wanted to do with his life. Robinson "gave us our dreams," Aaron wrote in his autobiography.

There was no school team, so he'd play fast pitch softball at school and pickup baseball games with neighborhood kids. They carved a makeshift diamond in an abandoned lot, their baseball made from rags.