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Hank Aaron has the letters tucked away in his attic, preserved these last 40 years. He's not ready to let them go.

He almost has them memorized by now, but still he carefully opens them up and reads every word, as if he wants to feel the pain.

"You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it," one of them reads. "Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. My gun is watching your every black move."

Yes, Aaron even saved the death threats, the ones that vowed to end his life if he dared break Ruth's cherished all-time home run record.

"I wouldn't have saved those damn things," says Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, who grew up in Aaron's hometown of Mobile, Ala. "I would have burned them. I had a few of them myself over the years. I don't save stuff like that.

"Why would you?"

Aaron's march to history ended 40 years ago today, when his 715th home run vaulted him past Ruth as baseball's all-time home run leader. Yet it was an often joyless and lonely pursuit, and Aaron says he has good reason to hang onto the cruel correspondence.

"To remind myself," Aaron tells USA TODAY Sports, "that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There's not a whole lot that has changed.

"We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, 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."

Aaron, 80, looks around and sees few African Americans as CEOs of major corporations. He reads and watches about incidents such as the Trayvon Martin case, a racially charged trial in which George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, was acquitted after shooting and killing Martin, an unarmed black teen. Zimmerman was accused of racial profiling; he claimed he acted in self-defense.

And, of course, Aaron looks at the faces on the ballfield.

"When I first started playing, you had a lot of black players in the major leagues," Aaron says. "Now, you don't have any (7.7% of big-leaguers last season). So what progress have we made? You try to understand, but we're going backward."

'Perfect man to do it'

While Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and Larry Doby became the first African American to play in the American League, Aaron's feat might be the next most significant accomplishment in baseball's role in the Civil Rights movement.

"There isn't a doubt in my mind that he was the perfect man to do it," says Commissioner Bud Selig, one of Aaron's closest friends, "representing this sport socially and everything that happened during that time. Henry took a lot of abuse when he broke that record, but he rose above all that.

"I can't think of a better human being to achieve what he did and carry himself the way he has, and, as a result, baseball is better because of him."

Aaron, a proud, private man, wishes he could have experienced joy in chasing the record. He would love to look back and think of fond moments that might have been clouded 40 years ago but now are appreciated. But he can't think of any.

"I don't think about it that much," Aaron says, "just because of the pain. I think about other things. There were other things in my life that I enjoyed more than chasing the record.

"I was being thrown to the wolves. Even though I did something great, nobody wanted to be a part of it. I was so isolated. I couldn't share it. For many years, even after Jackie Robinson, baseball was so segregated, really. You just didn't expect us to have a chance to do anything. Baseball was meant for the lily-white.

"Now, here's a record that nobody thought would be broken, and, all of a sudden, who breaks it but a black person."

It wasn't just the thousands of hate letters and death threats. He could handle those. It was the isolation. He couldn't even stay in the same hotel as his teammates. His name was listed in one room, and he checked into another. Constantly, he had a security guard at his side.

"That was a tough time in our country, period," says Dusty Baker, Aaron's close friend from their playing days with the Braves. "I lockered next to (Aaron), and I could see him just staring at those letters and throw (them) on the floor. Then I would read it. But he would never share his problems."

And when he marched toward the record that April evening, those threats became even more real.

"Hank never showed his fear," Baker says, "but we did. I remember one day we were told that there was going to be this guy in a red coat that was going to shoot Hank in Atlanta. Hank told us not to sit by him on the bench. Me and Ralph (Garr) couldn't concentrate one game. We kept looking for the guy in the red coat the whole game. Hank acted like it didn't bother him, but I know there was a lot of pain."

When Aaron stepped toward the plate in the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers' Al Downing, he was determined to homer.

"The night before," says teammate Paul Casanova, who played in the Negro leagues with Aaron, "he was so confident he would do it right away. He just wanted to get it over with."

'Thank God it's over'

After walking on five pitches in his first at-bat, Aaron lunged forward and swung at a high 1-0 fastball. The ball soared toward the left-center-field fence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Left fielder Bill Buckner jumped up, and the ball went over his head.

It was 9:07 p.m., and history was made.

Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers at the time, celebrated in his office. Billy Williams, a Hall of Fame outfielder who grew up with Aaron, remembers the thrill of watching the moment on TV.

Bowie Kuhn, baseball's commissioner, was in Cleveland attending a meeting of the Wahoo Club.

"I just remember thinking, 'Thank God it's over,'" Aaron says. "It was just a relief. It was a huge weight that came off my shoulder. I did what I was here for. Once that night was over, that weight came off."

It was a burden lifted for the entire team, with Aaron's closest friends — Casanova, Baker and Garr — knowing that a semblance of normalcy would finally return to his life.

"He kept all of that pain inside," Casanova says. "Hank is a very strong person. He never told us about it. I remember the first day I found out about it, we were having lunch in Philadelphia, and he opened up to me. I couldn't believe it. I would take meals up to his hotel room, and we'd eat together because he didn't want to go out.

"He told me, 'I don't even want to be in this situation. What do I gain by breaking Babe Ruth's record? But what am I supposed to do, quit playing? Quit hitting homers? I've got to do my thing.'

"That's something that will stay with me forever."

Garr, who credits Aaron for helping him win the batting title in 1974 because pitchers fed him fastballs while worrying about Aaron hitting behind him, says he also had no idea until later about the death threats.

"Hank Aaron didn't bring that stuff up and dump it on us in the clubhouse," Garr says. "Why would anyone want to hurt that man? He's one of the most beautiful people in the world, and you have no idea how many people he helped. As great a ballplayer as he was, he was even a better person."

In many respects, Aaron's record is more illustrious and celebrated now than 40 years ago. It's easy to forget Aaron no longer is the home run king. That honor belongs to Barry Bonds, who hit his 756th homer Aug. 7, 2007, during an era that remains clouded because of widespread allegations of steroid use.

"I don't think it's a stretch when you talk about an American sports icon, there is nobody that certainly rates any higher than Henry Aaron," Selig says. "His achievements on the field are remarkable, but the most remarkable part of Henry Aaron is that you couldn't be prouder of the person."

Aaron, who filmed a video of appreciation that aired when Bonds broke his record, says he'll let others judge where his 755 mark stands in history. He has no problems with Selig and others continuing to proclaim Aaron still is baseball's home run king.

"It doesn't bother me when people say it," Aaron says. "The commissioner says it all of the time. I know my rightful place in history.

"No matter what happens the rest of my life, I don't think I'll ever hit another home run. So wherever people want to rank me is fine."

Bonds, 49, understands the sentiment. He says his record-breaking homer should only enhance, not tarnish, Aaron's place in history.

"He and I share something that no two people can say," Bonds told USA TODAY Sports. "I love being associated with him. He's such a classy and gracious man.

"My dad (Bobby Bonds) used to talk about Hank Aaron and Willie (Mays) all of the time and just what they meant to the game."

Celebrations continue

Aaron broke his hip when he slipped on ice outside his Atlanta home in January; he's now walking with the help of a cane, and is scheduled to attend tonight's game at Turner Field, where the Braves will commemorate his achievement.​

It's just the latest celebration. Selig hosted Aaron's 80th birthday party in Washington last month, and Aaron's portrait was placed in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

"It doesn't seem like it's been 40 years, and I think more people appreciate it now than 20 years ago," Aaron says. "History has a way of doing that. People appreciate it more the longer it lasts."

Aaron acknowledges Bonds as the record holder. There will be a day, he says, when Bonds' mark will be broken.

Aaron, who has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild, might not be alive to see it.

Yet when it happens, Aaron says, he hopes he'll find joy in the chase.

"I just hope we can all enjoy the game and celebrate the next athlete who hits 60 homers or even 50 homers," Aaron says, "and not worry about whether he's taking anything or he's on anything.

"Most of all, I pray that no one ever again, in any walk of life, has to go through what I did."​

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