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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.

The stadiums had segregated seating. Brown v. Board ended "separate but equal" on paper in 1954 -- the year Aaron got promoted to the big league. But, like with other facilities, the "whites only" signs didn't come down immediately. It wasn't until 1961 that the Braves took down the "whites only" signs, according to Aaron. The segregation also extended to the team.

While the white Braves got to eat in restaurants in the South, the black players took their meals on the bus. They were also housed separately in towns that kept public accommodations segregated. Some Florida newspapers wouldn't even print the pictures of the black players. But by the end of his Sally League season, Aaron says in his autobiography "little by little -- one by one -- the fans accepted us. Not all of them, but enough to make a difference ... and we were part of the reason why."

His hitting also got him noticed. In 1953, the South Atlantic League named him Most Valuable Player. He won the batting title with a .362 average and led the league in hits at 208 and 115 runs. He had more total votes than the next three vote-getters combined. He started his Major League career that following year.

Aaron had record success. He was named an MVP (1957), a Gold Glove (1958, '59, '60) and picked for countless All Star teams. Over the 23 years he played, Aaron achieved an incredible .305 lifetime batting average. Yet some fans couldn't see past their hate. That was never clearer than when he got close to breaking Babe Ruth's home run record.

Racist hate mail

The Braves front office kept a handful of the 990,000 letters Aaron received in the early 1970s. He received so many that the U.S. Post Office gave him a plaque for receiving more mail than any other American (not including politicians).

One angry letter sent to management suggests the Braves low attendance records were because of race. Sent in August 1972, it says, "If you will get rid of some of them NIGGERS and put in WHITE ball players who can use judgment we could win the pennant and fill that park."

Another letter starts "Dear Mr. Nigger, I hope you don't break the Babe's record. How do I tell my kids that a nigger did it. But it took, more at bats, live ball, and other nigger tricks. I wish you the worst at anything you do 'nigger!'" It was signed "KKK (forever).

Aaron originally told reporters he didn't want the team to move from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Atlanta in 1966. The city was home to Martin Luther King Jr. and a cluster of top-notch African-American Universities, but he felt many Atlanta residents were stuck in a racist past. At the opening game in Atlanta, Aaron says the biggest cheer came after the scoreboard flashed a message that said "April 12, 1861: First Shots Fired on Fort Sumter ... April 12, 1966: The South Rises Again." His wife often heard fans call her husband "nigger" from the stands.