For Carla Koplin Cohn, Milwaukee’s Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron overcame hate was like family | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

For Carla Koplin Cohn, Milwaukee’s Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron overcame hate was like family 


Her daughter’s Uncle Henry died. That’s how she explains it when you talk to Carla Koplin Cohn, a Jewish woman who grew up in Macon, Georgia, who wound up at the crossroads of baseball — and American — history. 

In the early 1970s, Cohn was baseball legend Henry Aaron’s personal secretary. It was “Hammerin’ Hank” – of Milwaukee Braves and Brewers, and Atlanta Braves, fame – who waged a successful assault on one of baseball’s most cherished records. 

It sounds like a dream job for a young woman who started in the Atlanta Braves’ organization in 1969, and though it was full of twists and turns — and the creation of a lifelong friendship she never could have imagined — it was a nightmare at times. 

It was her job to help manage the hate mail that came pouring in from throughout the country and especially the South, as Americans realized that Aaron, a Black man, was on the verge of breaking icon Babe Ruth’s career record for home runs — 714. 

Which Aaron did in 1974, ultimately finishing his career with 755 home runs. 

Aaron chasing Ruth’s record was one of the most dramatic and intense sports sagas of all time, reflecting the good, the bad and the ugly. Americans of every race, religion and ethnic background cheered on Aaron, while the country’s bigoted underbelly stepped forward as well, with these hate-driven folks doing everything they could to make the slugger’s life miserable, including threatening his life. 

Standing arm in arm with the star and helping navigate the pressure he was facing, was Cohn, who had impressed Aaron so much with her work in the Atlanta Braves organization that he had recruited her to be his personal secretary. 

It was this young Jewish woman who helped Aaron manage and respond to the nearly 1 million letters he received as he approached and surpassed Ruth’s record, turning the more hateful ones over to the FBI. 

As noted in a profile of Cohn in connection with Aaron’s death in January of 2021, “The 900,000 letters Aaron received in 1973 contained hundreds upon hundreds of racist attacks and death threats. 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.” 

Good times 

Cohn became so close to Aaron and his family that their friendship wound up enduring for nearly 50 years, until his death at age 86. Shortly before he died, they had made plans for their families to get together in Florida. 

In an interview with Southern Jewish Life magazine shortly after Aaron died, Cohn reflected on the challenges and the good times that she and the Hall of Fame superstar shared in the early 1970s as he closed in on Ruth’s home run record.  

There was one story that especially delighted Aaron, Cohn and their families. “He even told it at my daughter’s wedding,” she remembered with a smile. 

When her daughter Jen was in grade school, she came across a book about Aaron that had his picture on the cover. “I want to read the book about Uncle Henry,” the young white Jewish girl told her teacher, referring to the African American home run king. 

It was a perplexing moment that led the teacher to call Cohn to come to school so they could discuss her daughter’s comment — and seeming confusion — in person.  “Jen thinks that Hank Aaron is her uncle,” explained the teacher.  

“Well, he is!” Cohn answered, telling the teacher about the unique relationship between the two families.  

“When I first told Henry about what had happened, he laughed until he was crying,” Cohn remembered. “He would tell that story so many times.” 

The Uncle Henry story, Cohn believes, reflected who this remarkable man was. “He loved people for who they were.  Skin color didn’t matter, religion didn’t matter — he was an open and loving man who welcomed us into his family for nearly 50 years.” 

It was Aaron’s belief in the goodness of people that led the Anti-Defamation League in Atlanta to honor him for his good works and community leadership as he was approaching Ruth’s record, an event that Cohn and her family attended.  She still has the program from the evening, a keepsake she treasures with pride. 

“Henry had lots of Jewish connections and friends in Atlanta, and he was more than happy to help the Jewish community with various causes, but he also helped other communities as well.” 

Returning to Milwaukee 

Referred to widely as Hank or by his nickname “Hammerin’ Hank,” Aaron was known to his inner circle, including Cohn, as Henry, the name he preferred. 

Aaron played for the Milwaukee Braves from 1954-1965. He played for the Atlanta Braves from 1966 to 1974.  He returned to Milwaukee to play for the Brewers in 1975 and 1976. When he came back to Milwaukee, Cohn came with him. 

Cohn loved her time in Milwaukee.  She said it was a great time in Aaron’s life; the record had been broken, it was behind him, and he was much happier and laid back.  She loved the front office people she worked with and the city itself. 

She found Milwaukee people to be warm and welcoming, exhibiting the kind of outgoing friendliness that she had come to know growing up in the South. “I met some wonderful people who I am still friendly with today.” 

Cohn remembered Marie and Ben Selig, parents of then-Brewers owner Bud Selig, reaching out to her, knowing that she was a young Jewish woman with few connections in Milwaukee, and inviting her to attend services with them on Rosh Hashanah. “They were very kind to me.” 

What led to the acclaimed baseball star and young Jewish secretary from small-town Georgia connecting so deeply? Cohn pondered that question, reflecting on her years of working for Aaron and the decades of friendship that would follow. 

One reason, she said, could be that Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama and Cohn grew up in Macon, Georgia. Part of their connection could have been that they came from similar Deep South cities, thus instinctively bonding and understanding each other’s roots and culture.  

Another reason might have been that Aaron was African American and Cohn was Jewish, two groups that have not always had it easy, especially in the South. Shared struggles might have further deepened their bond, even subconsciously, she said.  

In fact, as Aaron was deluged by racist hate mail as he approached Ruth’s record, Cohn herself received antisemitic hate mail after a news story mentioned that Aaron’s personal secretary was a Jewish woman. 

Above all else, however, they connected for the most basic of reasons: “Our personalities just clicked.” 

It is easy to see why.   

Even though her life’s journey has taken her from Macon to Atlanta to Milwaukee to New York City to Westport, Conn., and now to Boca Raton, Cohn has retained her Southern friendliness. And as Aaron’s superstar journey unfolded, he still loved to come back to Mobile just to hang out and go out on Mobile Bay with people he knew while growing up. 

Henry Aaron’s magic, Cohn believes, was not in the 755 home runs he hit and the countless baseball honors he accrued. It came from something deeper, something arguably more important. 

“When he asked you to do something, it was so gentle. He always said please and thank you — I appreciated that.  I don’t think you could ever talk to anyone who would have anything negative to say about this man. He was a gift.” 

Richard Friedman is associate editor of Southern Jewish Life magazine. 

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Carla Koplin Cohn, remembered Marie and Ben Selig, parents of then-Brewers owner Bud Selig, reaching out to her, knowing that she was a young Jewish woman with few connections in Milwaukee, and inviting her to attend services with them on Rosh Hashanah.