"April 8th, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball," Henry Aaron, who died Friday, once told a New York Times columnist. That was the date he hit his 715th career home run, passing Babe Ruth to hold Major League Baseball's record. "It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. 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 thing have put a bad taste in my mouth and it won't go away. They carved a piece of my heart away." The hatred wasn't showered at him only because of that record, he said. Aaron thought it was a pent-up response to a generation of Black players—including Willie Mays, Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, Willie McCovey, and Lou Brock—who'd become the game's biggest stars by the mid-1960s. "We changed the face of baseball," Aaron said.
That response included a deluge of hate mail, sometimes with death threats. "Imagine that," Jerry Brewer writes in a Washington Post column. "Think of your proudest moment, the culmination of your life’s work. And then picture receiving thousands of letters expressing a desire to end your life just because your greatness doesn’t fit into their limited, bigoted view of the world." Carla Koplin, the secretary who read Aaron's mail, said letters said things like, "You black animal," and "You will die in one of those games." KKK hoods were drawn on some, per Slate. Koplin, who said Aaron "was like a father figure to me," sorted it all, sending the hate mail to Aaron's attic. He'd read it at times over the years. And there was hate mail addressed to her. "They knew I was white, Jewish, and working for a Black man," Koplin said. When Aaron went public about the mail in 1973, it sparked a national letter-writing campaign. A Wisconsin child wrote, "I have heard about those sick letters you have been getting but don’t pay any attention to them." Among the letters Aaron answered was one from the south side of LA telling him, "I may be black, but I am somebody." (Read more Hank Aaron stories.)