In 1948, Hank Aaron was a 14-year-old facing segregation and poverty in Mobile, Alabama when Jackie Robinson came to town. Hank, who everyone knew as Henry at the time (his birth name), was surrounded by other young Black children, idolizing the man that broke baseball’s color barrier a year prior.
Robinson spoke to that crowd, telling those kids they could be just like him one day. While Robinson did break through that massive barrier, he alone was not able to erase the sport’s prior segregation nor end the racism that would follow for decades to come.
Despite the freeing of the slaves, Blacks were still denied entrance into white baseball leagues after the Civil War ended in 1865. Black players were forced to create leagues of their own. The leagues were amateur up until 1920 when dominant pitcher Andrew “Rube” Foster created the professional Negro National League in 1920. More leagues were created throughout the East in the following years and were collectively referred to as the Negro Leagues.
Three decades after the initial Negro League was established in Indianapolis, Indiana, Aaron — then 18 — began his professional career for the city’s club, then called the “Indianapolis Clowns.” Aaron played there for three months at a salary of $200 a month before the MLB’s Boston Braves called his name.
Aaron became a superstar and earned the sport’s home run record in 1974, holding it for 33 years before it was broken by Barry Bonds.
Despite chasing the home run record of the great Babe Ruth, Aaron still faced hate (or general indifference) from fans of his home team. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn’t even attend the game where he broke that illustrious record.
Aaron faced race-related challenges early on his career, becoming a Civil Rights activist within the sport just as his idol Robinson had years prior.
“It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,” Aaron told the New York Times in 1994. “My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.”
In the early stages of Aaron’s eventual Hall of Fame career, Black players could not share hotels with white players while at Spring Training in Florida. Aaron and teammate Bill Bruton pressed team management for changes. No immediate changes were made, but Aaron knew maintaining patience was important in the pursuit of equal rights thanks to the work of James Baldwin, a Black novelist who became popular for his writings on racism around the time that Aaron began his professional career.
As Aaron approached Ruth’s home run record, he faced racism and received death threats in stadiums throughout the country. Once he broke the record, though, he received a standing ovation, with the call coming from a 46-year-old Vin Scully.
“What a marvelous moment for the country and the world,” Scully said. “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”
While Aaron wasn’t as outspoken as some Civil Rights activists at the time, sometimes simply doing is enough. As a ballplayer, Aaron simply did better than almost everyone around. In the face of racism and death threats, Aaron was a sign of strength and resilience, paving the way for young Black kids just as Robinson did for him.
Muhammad Ali, a fellow Black superstar that excelled in the face of hatred, said Aaron was “the only man I idolize more than myself.”
Aaron passed away on Jan. 22 at 86 years old, leaving behind a legacy of forever engrained in sports — nay, American — history.