Throughout his legendary career, Hank Aaron endured racist threats and remarks — and even kept many of the hateful letters he received as a reminder of how much progress has yet to be achieved.
While chasing Babe Ruth's home run record in the 1970s, the late Hall of Famer, who died at the age of 86 on Friday, received thousands of letters daily, some of which contained death threats, according to the Washington Post.
"If I was white, all America would be proud of me," Aaron said about a year before he passed Ruth's record of 714 home runs in 1974, according to the Associated Press. "But I am Black."
Instead of allowing himself to feel defeated, Aaron said he used the hate mail as motivation.
"Dammit all, I had to break the record," he wrote in his autobiography, according to CNN. "I had to do it for Jackie (Robinson), and my people and myself."
In 1974, Aaron set the Guiness World Record for most fan mail received in one year by a private citizen. That year, the U.S. Postal Department confirmed that Aaron received 900,000 letters, about a third of which "were letters of hate engendered by his bettering of Babe Ruth's career record."
Hank Aaron, Hall of Famer and Baseball Legend, Dies at 86
Several years before his death, Aaron also revealed that he's kept most of the hate mail he received throughout his career.
Speaking to USA Today in 2014 Aaron said that he's held on to the messages "to remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record."
"If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There's not a whole lot that has changed," he continued. "The bigger difference is back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts."
Former President Barack Obama referenced the racism Aaron endured in his own moving tribute to the baseball legend.
"Hank Aaron was one of the best baseball players we've ever seen and one of the strongest people I've ever met," he wrote. "Humble and hardworking, Hank was often overlooked until he started chasing Babe Ruth's home run record, at which point he began receiving death threats and racist letters—letters he would reread decades later to remind himself "not to be surprised or hurt.' "
"Those letters changed Hank, but they didn't stop him," Obama continued. "After breaking the home run record, he became one of the first Black Americans to hold a senior management position in Major League Baseball. And for the rest of his life, he never missed an opportunity to lead—including earlier this month, when Hank and [wife] Billye joined civil rights leaders and got COVID vaccines."
The Hall of Famer "passed away peacefully in his sleep," the Atlanta Braves confirmed in a statement on Friday.
"We are absolutely devastated by the passing of our beloved Hank," Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk wrote in the statement. "Henry Louis Aaron wasn't just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world."
"With the passing of Hank Aaron, baseball has lost one of its greatest heroes, America has lost an inspiring role model and philanthropist, and I have lost a wonderful friend," former President Bill Clinton wrote in his own statement. "Hank Aaron's entire life was a home run."
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