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Black excellence is a threat to Whiteness and White Supremacy: The Legacy of Hank Aaron

January 24, 2021

The world lost one of the best all time baseball players, with the passing of Hank Aaron. 

I grew up watching Aaron play in the late 60s and 70s, all the way up to his retirement from baseball. Hank Aaron was so good, that he is the all time leader in RBIs and total bases. Hank Aaron also played in 25 All Star games. 

As great a baseball player that Hank Aaron was, he was an amazing human being and ambassador for the game. Aaron was not overly political and he wasn’t flashy, but that didn’t mean anything for a Black athlete who came into the Major Leagues in the 1950s. 

Hank Aaron got his start in the Negro Leagues, but in April of 1954, Aaron was signed by the Milwaukee Braves, a team he played for throughout most of his career. 

We all know how Jackie Robinson broke the color-barrier, when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, but sometimes we forget that other Black baseball players and Black athletes faced constant harassment, intimidation, discrimination and threats against their life. The irony is, that the greater the player you were, the more intense the threats were.

According to Dave Zirin’s book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States, the year (1973) before Hank Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth’s all time home run record, Aaron had received 930,000 letters, most of which were filled with vicious insults and death threats. Zirin writes:

Samples of the letters read, “Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?; Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.” Aaron later wrote, “The Atlanta fans weren’t shy about letting me know what they thought of a $200,000 nigger striking out with men on base.” 

Zirin also noted that when Aaron did break Bath Ruth’s home run record on April 8, 1974, against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Commissioner of Baseball, Bowie Kuhn, didn’t even bother to show up to witness and congratulate Aaron. 

Playing baseball takes skill and dedication. As someone who played baseball competitively in men’s summer leagues, I am aware of how important dedication to the game is. Yet, the very fact that Hank Aaron, a Black baseball player was going to pass the home run record of White icon Babe Ruth, was what prompted so many death threats against Hank Aaron. It wasn’t because Aaron was on the front lines of the Black Freedom Struggle or because he endorsed groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, rather it was because his excellence as a Black athlete threatened the very essence of Whiteness and White Supremacy.

And just to be clear, White Supremacy is not only what dictates the actions of the Proud Boys, the KKK or Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol, White Supremacy is what the US was founded on, and White Supremacy still dictates so much of US society that we don’t even recognize it. 

In a world that runs on White Supremacy, it is paramount that we honor the legacy of Hank Aaron, for what he meant to the game of baseball and how much White hatred/White Supremacy he had to endure. Hank Aaron, Rest in Power!

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