In the mid-'50s Aaron couldn't stay with Spahn and Eddie Mathews and the rest of the white Braves in the big, pink Manatee River Hotel in Bradenton, Fla., during spring training. The two-time batting champ stayed with the other black players at Lulu Gibson's house, in a room over a garage in the colored part of town.
In the '60s the National League All-Star team was dominated by black players. Aaron, Mays, Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Willie Stargell met nearly every year at the midsummer classic and swapped stories—the kind of stories, Aaron says, that "made it clear that we could never forget we were black ballplayers."
Williams had been so angered by being forced to eat in restaurant kitchens in San Antonio that he quit his minor league team. In Plainview, Texas, a white man had put a gun to the head of Stargell and said, "Nigger, if you play in that game tonight, I'll blow your brains out." Aaron contributed Sally League horror stories.
"But I was only 19 in the Sally League," he says now. "It was like sending a 19-year-old into war. What did I know about death? What did I know about the world? It didn't matter so much then.
"Later, it mattered."
The letters came from every state, but most were postmarked in northern cities. They came in an avalanche, 3,000 a day. They were filled with hate. More hate than Aaron had ever imagined.
He got a plaque from the U.S. Postal Service for receiving more mail than anyone else in the U.S. except politicians—930,000 pieces. Aaron's bodyguard, Wardlaw, tried to hide the most vile letters—like one with a picture of a gorilla that said, "This is your mother." Dick Cecil, then a Brave vice-president, says he too tried to shield Aaron from missives that spewed hate but contained no assassination threats. The death threats, of course, were put into plastic bags and shipped right to the FBI.
You are a very good ballplayer, but if you come close to Babe Ruth's 714 homers I have a contract out on you.... If by the all star game you have come within 20 homers of Babe you will be shot on sight by one of my assassins on July 24, 1973.
Dear Hank Aaron,
I got orders to do a bad job on you if and when you get 10 from B. Ruth record. A guy in Atlanta and a few in Miami Fla don't seem to care if they have to take care of your family too.
Hey nigger boy,
We at the KKK Staten island Division want you to know that no number of guards can keep you dirty son of a bitch nigger——alive.