Dear Hank Aaron,
It is with great reverence and respect that I write this letter. Why do I revere you? Why do I feel you are so worthy of respect and adulation? It’s not for your lofty athletic accomplishment of 715 home runs or your status as an ambassador for Major League Baseball − a sport that is still considered by many to be America’s favorite pastime. I can still recall a time in my own distant past when I would sit and talk to my now deceased grandfather while he watched the baseball game on his giant floor model television. Admittedly, I was never much of a baseball fan. But sitting and listening to him talk about the best players in the game is something that still warms my heart three decades later. As is the case when anyone who has ever watched you play, discussing one of the greatest hitters in the game, Grandpop Starks would bring up your name on many summer days. He would talk about the things you had to endure on the road to becoming the person you are today. Much of that experience was harsher than I could possibly imagine.
Most of the racism that I have experienced in my lifetime has been on a submarine level. In stark contrast, the racism you faced while attempting to break Babe Ruth’s record homerun record was so ferocious and wicked in nature that its true extent escaped me. I was still able to grasp the true nature of your struggle. However, your pain was made all too apparent when I read the story written by Bob Nightengale of USA Today based upon an interview with you, Mr. Aaron.
April 8, 2014 marked exactly 40 years to the day that you broke Ruth’s home run record. It was one that some thought was as unsurmountable as Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game in the NBA. During the interview, you said you have actually saved the racist letters sent by people who felt that no black man deserved to attain this hollowed record. I was even more surprised to find out that you kept those letters after all these years. To be clear, you didn’t keep any ol’ letters. Only the ones where your life was threatened. Why?
"To remind myself," you told USA Today Sports, "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.”
Mr. Aaron, I have spent a large part of my adult life writing about the perpetual ebb and flow of racism in America and oftentimes I was told by detractors that my writings were a part of the problem and that I was needlessly stirring the pot and even accused of demagoguery. A great deal of the population would like to believe that racism is in the distant pass. Many believe that racism in America is the exception rather than the unfortunate reality. In your 80 years on this planet, you have seen a great deal and your viewpoint cannot be easily dismissed. If you say we have made very little progress in this country, there are few who can say otherwise.
"We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he's treated.
"We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country.
"The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts."
When your interview first came to light, there were some celebrity sports reporters who immediately began painting you as a sad sack who is so bruised and battered internally that your outwardly view of the world is skewed and stuck in something of a time warp. But I say they should be ashamed of themselves. I say your sage advice on the current state of racial affairs in America provides genuine insight and imparts wisdom upon all who wish to listen.
In the history books we often only learn about the glorious accomplishments of our African-American forefathers. However, the truth is far less glorious and is filled with angst and uncertainty. The homerun record remains as one of those hallowed sports records that are placed on a marble column, resting atop a velvet pillow. Every year around this time there are specials to commemorate your grand achievement. However, to my surprise, you rarely discuss your grandest achievement.
"I don't think about it that much," you said, "just because of the pain. I think about other things. There were other things in my life that I enjoyed more than chasing the record.
"I was being thrown to the wolves. Even though I did something great, nobody wanted to be a part of it. I was so isolated. I couldn't share it. For many years, even after Jackie Robinson, baseball was so segregated, really. You just didn't expect us to have a chance to do anything. Baseball was meant for the lily-white.”
Feelings of isolation, coupled with thousands of death threats were your cross to bear. Yet because of your sacrifice other players of African descent were able to flourish in a more tolerant league. Sadly, today MLB is comprised of less than 8 percent African-Americans. There are many different reasons given, such as black Americans being drawn to other sports over baseball or the fact that baseball isn’t promoted in the inner city as fervently as other sports.
No matter the reason, I don’t believe you ever imagined you would live to see the day where blacks are still the American minority in the game you helped popularize. While I pray you live as long as you wish, your comments are not only a reminder of the racism of the past, but all that our elders had to endure in helping lift society to its current state. I see the pain is still evident and apparent, but I would like to thank you for every death threat you ever received. Baseball has claimed you as one of theirs long ago. However, your status as an elder statesman within the African-American community is just as apparent. Thank you, Hank Aaron. Thanks for all you endured.