Baseball legend Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron passed away on January 22, 2021. Aaron was a baseball legend who held the record for the most home runs in Major League history (755) until that record was later broken by Barry Bonds.
While many associate Aaron with the home run record, not many people understand the pioneering role he played in desegregating professional baseball and his commitment to civil rights both during and after his career ended. Aaron began his baseball career in 1952 with the Indianapolis Clowns of the “Negro Leagues,” a professional baseball league for Black players in the intense racial segregation of the United States. The Negro Leagues produced some of the greatest baseball players in history whose stories are largely unknown given that the leagues ran on shoestring budgets with little organized record-keeping of statistics.
Aaron was finally able to break into the Major Leagues in 1954, signing with the Milwaukee Braves franchise. While Jackie Robinson had been the first black player in the league in 1947, Aaron was one of the first black baseball players to desegregate professional baseball in the South, playing in Jacksonville, Florida for a minor-league affiliate of the Braves’ franchise. Throughout the early part of his career, Aaron faced brutal segregation and racism, being forced to sleep in separate hotels, and shower and eat in different facilities from his teammates. In the face of this treatment, Aaron established himself as one of the best and most consistent players in the history of the game, hitting at least 20 home runs a season for 20 straight seasons from 1955 to 1974.
As he closed in on eclipsing Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1973, Aaron received constant death threats and hate mail from racist fans who didn’t want a Black man to be the all-time home run leader. He was forced to travel with private security for him and his family. In 1974, Aaron finally broke Babe Ruth’s record. Two white fans ran onto the field trying to congratulate him as he rounded the bases after hitting the record-breaking homerun. What many people don’t know is that, in what should have been one of the happiest moments of his life, he was anxious and his bodyguard sat in the stands with a loaded gun because he didn’t know if white fans might be trying to assassinate him, given the constant death threats he had been receiving.
Throughout his career, Aaron was a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and racial justice as he opposed the racist system he played in. He supported the movement as a player, sometimes making public appearances at important demonstrations and befriending key activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. when the Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in the mid-1960s. After his playing career, Aaron remained an outspoken critic of baseball’s racist and conservative culture, which to this day has very few Black players and managers. He also donated thousands of dollars to various educational and criminal justice reform causes.