On June 13th, 1974, two months after becoming baseball’s home run king, Henry Aaron received a plaque from the U.S. Postmaster General. It said “America’s #1.” In home runs and in fan mail.
Not all of it was from well-wishers. The 900,000 letters Aaron received in 1973 contained hundreds upon hundreds of racist attacks and death threats. Aaron, who died on Friday at age 86, was Black; the man whose record he’d broken, Babe Ruth, was white. Aaron ended the ’73 season one short of Ruth’s sacred 714 mark, and spent the winter worried he’d be assassinated before 1974’s opening day.
Handling this correspondence was the work of Carla Koplin, a Georgia native and graduate of a New York City secretary school. Koplin was working in the basement of what was then known as Atlanta Stadium when the Braves outfielder asked her for help with his correspondence. She had no idea what she was in for. By 1972, the work had become so demanding that Aaron got her written into his contract as a full-time secretary—a first, for a baseball player.
It was Koplin who handed Aaron cards and letters to autograph, and Koplin who fielded the hate mail and reported the threats to the FBI. One stack of outgoing mail went to the fans, often with a form letter from Aaron that concluded, “I will try to live up to the expectations of my friends.” The hate mail went to Aaron’s attic, where he kept it, and returned to it in the years to come.
Koplin stuck with Aaron for a decade, moving to Milwaukee when he was traded to the Brewers, and the two remained close. He attended her wedding, spoke at her daughter’s wedding, and played with her grandchildren every Christmas in Florida. “He was like a father figure to me,” Aaron’s former secretary, who now goes by Carla Koplin Cohn, told me when I reached her on the phone on Friday. He had called her not that long ago to say he had gotten his first COVID-19 vaccine shot. He told his old friend that he hoped to see her soon. And she joked with him that they should have kept more of the baseball cards all those fans had sent. They would really be worth something now!
Due to his longevity, Aaron was one of the last active players in Major League Baseball to have once played in the Negro Leagues. For a time, he was overshadowed by the generation of Black stars who followed Jackie Robinson, such as Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. But his march towards Ruth’s storied record brought him national attention, right as the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta.
Aaron, who was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, went back South with reluctance. Two decades after Robinson broke the color line in Brooklyn, Black ballplayers still faced widespread abuse from fans, and sometimes even from teammates.
But it was the letters, hard evidence of nasty, naked racism, that made his pursuit of Babe Ruth into a national civil rights story. The letters came with scrawled KKK hoods, and read, “You black animal,” and “You will die in one of those games,” and many things worse. Koplin even got some herself. “They knew I was white, Jewish, and working for a Black man,” she told me.
After Aaron talked about his hate mail publicly in the spring of 1973, he generated a massive, national letter-writing campaign. The mail came and came, Koplin recalled, and now it was 99 to one in his favor.
Lonnie Slaton’s fifth-grade class at Blessed Sacrament in La Crosse, Wisconsin, wrote to Aaron. Bobby Schultze wrote, “Dear Hammerin Hank, I have heard about those sick letters you have been getting but don’t pay any attention to them. Black is beautiful. I will always be your number one Fan For ever.” Paul Chamberlain wrote, “I have always put black people on the top of the list of friends, although you may not believe this it’s true. You are the greatest person I know (on earth that is.) I love the Braves.” Ann Hammes wrote, “Dear Hank Aaron, I am 100 percent on your side. I am a tom-boy and I play baseball all the time. Your friend and fan.”
Koplin set some fan letters aside for Aaron to read and respond to personally, like this one from Connie Jackson on the South Side of Los Angles: “I may be black, but I am somebody… I try to understand others and pray they will understand me.” Or one from a young writer named Sandy Tolan, who would go on to write a book, Me and Hank, about his admiration for Aaron and the ballplayer’s outspoken views on race.
When Hank Aaron finally did slug home run No. 715 on April 8, 1974, against the Los Angles Dodgers, Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully did not let the larger significance of the moment go unnoticed. “What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”
Sammy Davis Jr. and Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter were in attendance. The Dodgers infielders shook his hand. Two white teenagers rushed the field to congratulate him between second and third base, and Aaron’s father and mother met him at home plate. Carla Koplin had her 715 lapel pin ready to go the next day, when the phone woudn’t stop ringing.
For Aaron, though, all that buzz could never drown out what he’d heard, and what he’d read. Even when the letters were 99 to one in his favor, it was the hateful ones that he kept.
“I just thank God it’s all over,” Aaron told the fans. He had never been far removed from American racism, but the strain of the chase would never leave him. When he connected off Dodgers southpaw Al Downing, his bodyguard Calvin Wardlaw was in the stands with his hand on his .38, wondering if the two white men rushing the field wanted to celebrate with Aaron or murder him. Reflecting on the events two decades later, Aaron said, “April 8, 1974, really led to me turning off baseball.”
Aaron went on:
It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.
And yet in the popular imagination, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s eclipse of the Babe was a feel-good American story. As Tommy Craggs wrote, the curse of Hank Aaron was “to be treated like a sandwich board for the prevailing attitudes of the day”—a raw and unrefined talent at the beginning of his career, a dignified figurehead for turning the other cheek at the end of it, and a paragon of hard work and honesty to contrast with the vilified sluggers of the steroid era.
But Aaron wasn’t shy. He was vocal about baseball’s declining number of black players on the field, and the continued whiteness of baseball front offices. He was angry that tickets had become so expensive, remembering how his own family had been forced to stand in the faraway, segregated part of the ballpark when he was young.
He spoke up in defense of LeBron James, whom President Donald Trump called an idiot, and reviewed his old hate mail from time to time to remember that, as he told USA Today in 2014, “there’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
“Sure, this country has a black president,” he said then. “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.”
After that story, Henry Aaron got a final round of hate mail, this time with no baseball cards for him to sign.