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editorial

Hank Aaron opens window on racial past — and present

Hank Aaron, now 80, received a stream of racist hate mail as a player.

Associated press

Hank Aaron, now 80, received a stream of racist hate mail as a player.

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In baseball lore, Jackie Robinson courageously broke the major-league color barrier in 1947, withstood appalling attacks, and then proved, with his stoicism and performance, that African-Americans were fully entitled to play in the major leagues. But as a new Emory University exhibit on the great Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron shows, the desegregation battle continued long after Robinson retired in 1956. Indeed, Aaron and other young blacks who broke into the majors in Robinson’s wake were able to have longer big-league careers, and thus take on some of baseball’s most cherished records. By 1974, when Aaron was challenging Babe Ruth’s home run record, the Braves star faced more than just the pressure of exceeding the game’s greatest legend: There was a relentless stream of hate letters with racial slurs. Some are part of the Emory exhibit. One declared “Retire or Die!” with the writer rattling off the Braves’ schedule and claiming, “You will die in one of those games. I’ll shoot you in one of them.”

Aaron bravely withstood the onslaught and kept quiet about it — thereby sparing the nation yet another race-related trauma, and kept the focus on the baseball field. It was, at bottom, a patriotic act. Now, at 80, Aaron is setting the record straight, and then some. Recently, he stirred up some controversy by telling USA Today that America was “not that far removed” from those days. Citing the monolithic Republican resistance to President Obama, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, the dearth of black CEOs, and low percentage of black baseball players, Aaron said, “Back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”

It was a provocative statement, but hardly shocking. Nonetheless, it triggered enough hate mail to the Atlanta Braves to, well, give credence to Aaron’s point. And that was before the racially offensive comments of Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. Sterling allegedly told his girlfriend that he didn’t want her pictured with black players, including Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, or to bring blacks to games. Jackie Robinson broke the barrier and Hank Aaron broke the record, but there are still some prejudices yet to be broken.

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