Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight –
Henry “Hank” Aaron, who died Friday at the age of 86, was a Hall of Famer’s Hall of Famer. He reached international renown in 1974 by breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark, which had stood unchallenged for four decades, but that was just the crowning achievement of a career that spanned 23 years and saw Aaron set all manner of records.
Along the way, few players have ever garnered more respect from their peers: “Aaron is the best ball player of my era,” Mickey Mantle once said.
Still fewer persevered in the face of such pressure and prejudice as Aaron did in pursuit of Ruth’s record. At the height of the record chase, Aaron received 3,000 letters per day, many of which carried death threats and hate on a scale no person could prepare themselves for.
“This changed me,” Aaron would later say of the letters and the racism they contained. But he fought against the ugliness, both with his performance on the field and as a symbol for civil rights as a Black player excelling in the South — and later by becoming one of the game’s first executives of color as a vice president for the Atlanta Braves.