Let’s Not Forget Hank Aaron Was the Best, and He Got Unrelenting Death Threats for Daring to be Great and Black

Hank Aaron was my first sports hero. 

I was seven years old the day Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth‘s MLB home run record. At the time I wasn’t aware of multiple threats against his life, or the plot to kidnap one of his daughters. 

Imagine having your sense of identity, your innate sense of superiority, so tied just to the color of your skin, that you threaten the life of someone else’s child, over that person’s accomplishments. 

A lesser known accomplishment: in 1973, Aaron received a plaque from the US Postal Service for receiving more mail (930,000 pieces) than any person excluding politicians. By this time Aaron couldn’t open his own mail because of all the death threats; the FBI had to do it for him. In preparation for possible attempts on his life, he had an obituary written. HIs biggest fear at the end of that year was not living to see 1974. 

Imagine being so good at your job people want to kill you.

Aaron made the decision to become a professional baseball player after hearing his first sports hero, Jackie Robinson, another black athlete who felt he could not in good conscience, “stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag.”

Hank Aaron ended his career with 755 home runs, the last credible MLB player to achieve such feats without asterisk of steroids hanging over him. At 6 feet, 180 pounds Hank was downright tiny compared to some of the beasts playing today. He might have broken Ruth’s record sooner, had he not begun his career in the Negro Leagues.

I’ve been an athlete all my life, and I’d argue few feats more challenging in professional sports than swinging a bat and hitting a ball being thrown in your general direction at 90mph. The level of hand to eye coordination required is almost prescient. The idea of hitting a ball traveling at that speed 400 feet, hundreds of times, while under the threat of death, is staggering. 

Today is Hank Aaron’s 86th birthday. Without him (and those who came before) we might never have gotten Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Simone Biles, or countless millions of others who refused to let white supremacy crush their sprits. 

Whether or not you are a sports fan, today show some respect for a man who refused to let anyone dictate what he could accomplish. And ask yourself if some of that bias (conscious or not), that fear of letting go of concepts of innate white superiority, isn’t creeping into how you view Black people today, famous or not.