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Hank Aaron embodied what athletes endured to fight for a better world

Aaron will forever be associated with home runs and social justice. When those two worlds collided, with society at its ugliest, he persevered and emerged a hero.

Atlanta Braves
Henry Aaron became an icon in this moment. But it took a lifetime of iconic work to get there.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The image forever associated with Henry “Hank” Aaron is of wrists that could’ve powered downtown Atlanta sending an Al Downing pitch into orbit to immortalize him as the man who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.

Befitting the magnitude of that sequence, Hall of Fame broadcasters Vin Scully and Milo Hamilton attempted to capture all of the night’s emotions for posterity. Naturally, for sheer poetry, you couldn’t beat Scully’s “What a marvelous moment for the country and the world! A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol...”

But if you were looking for an honest summation of what it actually felt to be the Black man breaking that particular all-time baseball idol’s record, the most accurate words for the moment were spoken by Aaron himself. After circling the bases, being lifted up by his teammates, and crushed by his mother in a bear hug, Aaron was handed a microphone and in front of a sold-out Fulton County Stadium, admitted:

“I just thank God it’s all over with.”

The truth was that 715 was a marvelous moment to watch. But, as only Aaron knew, it was hell to live through.

We write a lot about the intersection of athletes and social justice on Outsports. Their heroic stories inspire and uplift us. But it’s important not to overlook the sacrifices that often accompany an athlete’s transformation into an inspirational figure — especially if they teach us some unpleasant truths about who we are.

Next to Jackie Robinson, I believe Henry Louis Aaron was the most important person in baseball history. Inspired by Robinson, he was also the most prominent star to take up the mantle of civil rights advocacy for the Black community following the Dodger legend’s retirement.

Aaron’s activism took many forms. Sometimes it emerged through doing his job better than any other player in the game, as when he broke the color line in the Class-A South Atlantic League in Jacksonville, Fla., as a 19 year old in 1953.

Despite enduring a torrent of racial slurs, fastballs aimed at his head, death threats, and witnessing fans throw rocks at a Black teammate in the middle of a game, Aaron never wavered from his mission and won the league’s MVP award. In so doing, he blazed a trail for Black players in one of the most hostile of all the minor leagues.

Other times, Aaron took the lead in calling attention to his community’s needs off the field. Just before he tied Ruth’s record on Opening Day of 1974, Aaron paused during a routine press conference to remark that he had requested a moment of silence during pregame ceremonies to mark the sixth anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

This was well before the era when invoking King’s name scored an immediate applause break. It wasn’t until nine years later when MLK Day was adopted as a federal holiday. At that moment, Aaron was using his star status to promote a cause that meant everything to him and his community.

2011 National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Trustees Emmy Award Presentation
Henry Aaron with Martin Luther King III.
Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown/WireImage

All that Aaron represented came to a head during his protracted chase of Ruth’s record. Beneath the imagery of the 715th home run’s transformation into instant baseball nostalgia was buried the real story of his quest. An almost unfathomable avalanche of abuse and indignities that Aaron had to endure just because he was a Black man who dared to take his rightful place in history.

Take a moment to read one of the hateful letters Aaron received during the chase. Perhaps the one that ends with “KKK Forever” scrawled in the corner almost as an afterthought. Or the one where the writer is too timid to spell out “damn” but is perfectly fine repeatedly typing the entire N-word. In all caps.

Now multiply that letter by a thousand. Actually, make that several thousand. And imagine that hate mail arriving day after day for months on end. That was just the start of what Aaron had to endure, all while dealing with the added pressure of trying to hit more home runs than anyone who ever lived.

Atlanta Braves - Hank Aaron 715th Home Run Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

The threats were so real that Aaron’s daughter had to have FBI protection while enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. So real that the Atlanta Journal had pre-written his obituary just in case someone behind one of the death threats actually did the unspeakable. This was the environment in which Aaron attempted to break a cherished record and, more importantly, call America’s attention to its own systemic racism.

Ultimately, Aaron found the strength to continue and cemented his legend with home run after home run. His story ended in triumph and his place as one of baseball’s and humanity’s best was secure. But the abuse he endured also became indelibly linked to his story of heroism and it’s something that we should never forget.

In “The Last Hero,” biographer Howard Bryant quoted Aaron on what 715 actually meant to him:

“It still hurts a little bit inside because I think it has chipped away at a part of my life that I will never have again. I didn’t enjoy myself. It was hard for me to enjoy something that I had worked very hard for. God had given me the ability to play baseball, and people in this country kind of chipped away at me. So it was tough. And all of those things happened simply because I was a Black person.”

Henry Aaron will be revered as long as athletes who use their platform to make a better world are regarded as heroes. His story is also about the price those athletes can pay along the path to heroism.

We owe it to him to tell his story in full. Because that’s the only way we can hope to achieve that better world that he wanted.