Hank Aaron collection with original hate mail on display at Emory University

Small selection of Hank Aaron materials at Emory University (courtesy of Emory University)

Small selection of Hank Aaron materials at Emory University (courtesy of Emory University)

ATLANTA – A rare assortment of Hank Aaron materials, including racist hate mail he received at the height of his career, is on public display at Emory University starting this Thursday.

The exhibition at the Robert W. Woodruff Library serves as a sampler to a wider collection available for research at the university.

In an unusual move, the exhibit, titled “He Had a Hammer: The Legacy of Hank Aaron in Baseball and American Culture,” is co-curated by three Emory undergraduates.

Pellom McDaniels III, faculty curator of the African-American collections in the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL), said he was so impressed by their passion he was confident the students could pull off the exhibit under his direction.

“They are not doing this for a class assignment,” said Professor McDaniels. “They volunteered to do this. This is a dream for me to be able to get students who are interested in working in the archives.”

Emory juniors Kyle Arbuckle, Warren Kember and Brett Lake, who are all members of the baseball team, each worked on different areas of the exhibit.

“I curated an exhibit on his chase for the record and what that meant for society so there was a lot of hate mail that he got,” said 20-year-old Mr. Arbuckle, “I kind of knew about it but actually reading it and holding it in my hand was pretty surreal. Some of the stuff was obviously very hateful, death threats. There were people who said they wanted to kill his family.”

Mr. Arbuckle, who is African-American, said just getting a glimpse of the racist vitriol Aaron was forced to endure has made him more appreciative of the opportunities he has.

“I’ve grown up around the game,” said Mr. Lake. “My grandfather was a huge baseball historian. He had books and books of all these great baseball games and baseball videos.”

The display includes photographs, newspaper clippings, scouting notebooks, commemorative artifacts and most notably the hate-filled, racist letters Aaron received as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s home run record, which he broke on April 8, 1974.

It is part of a wider series, spearheaded by McDaniels, which focuses on African-Americans in sports and a multiple of other areas dealing with black history and life.

“The fact that Hank was about to break the record was seen as an unraveling of white supremacy,” said McDaniels “It was one thing to play baseball; it was another thing to be seen as the very best that’s out there. In American racial politics the best is always supposed to be white.”

“As a baseball fan you know about Hank Aaron but you really don’t know the specifics that much,” said Mr. Lake. “You don’t know all the hate mail he got. How grotesque the language is, how vulgar it is. It’s really enlightening when you look at all these documents and pictures.”

The exhibition is drawn from the Richard A. Cecil collection, which was recently acquired by the university. Mr. Cecil, a former college baseball scout and vice president of the Atlanta Braves, had over the years collected Aaron materials as well as hundreds of scouting reports on players of his era.

McDaniels, a former NFL-player-turned-professor, said the idea behind the exhibit is to explore sports in the context of racism and political activism. There needs to be a broader conversation around African-Americans using athletics as a form of resistance to notions of black inferiority, he said.

“There is a political, social and of course economic motivation behind the participation [in sports],” he said. “Even when we think about Muhammad Ali, we think about Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1960s Olympics there is something very political about their performances in the contexts of 1960s.”

Forty years after Aaron’s historic 715th home run, it’s been reported this month that the baseball legend was once again receiving hate mail – this time for giving an interview where he spoke out about racism and defended President Barack Obama.

“We’re having the 40th anniversary but there’s hate mail sent to Hank even today,” said Mr. Kember, who worked on a case that explores Aaron’s transition from the Negro League to Major League Baseball. “Things have changed but society still has things to be fixed before everyone is on an equal playing field.”

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