Brian Snitker: Hank Aaron’s presence felt throughout Braves’ title run

One year ago Saturday, the world lost Hall of Famer Henry “Hank” Aaron, a home-run king, civil-rights activist and pillar of the Atlanta and baseball community. Aaron is considered the Braves’ all-time best player and one of the more impactful athletes in history.

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Aaron was honored throughout the 2021 MLB season, which culminated with the Braves winning their first championship since 1995. Aaron was celebrated not only for his seemingly endless athletic achievements, but even more for his societal contributions.

Aaron’s legacy was scattered throughout the Braves’ unforgettable season. His No. 44 shaped a beautiful tribute: The Braves won 44 games before the All-Star game, 44 after the All-Star game, then won the World Series in the 44th week of the year.

Tweeted iconic broadcaster Vin Scully: “Maybe the Braves had a secret weapon after all.”

“You could almost feel that Hank was up there, looking down on us and overseeing what was going on,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. “His presence was there throughout the whole playoffs, the whole year. You see everything on the boards. You never walk through the clubhouse without seeing him on the walls. You felt his presence. He had a hand in everything.”

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In the postseason, the Braves first opposed the Milwaukee Brewers, Aaron’s other city and franchise. He played for the Milwaukee Braves from 1954-65 – hitting 398 of his homers in that span – and finished his career with the Brewers in 1975 and 1976.

The Brewers featured Aaron’s No. 44 on their jerseys during the 2021 season. They retired Aaron’s number following the 1976 season and his “44″ is displayed in the stadium’s outfield. The Braves split two games in Milwaukee and won the next two in Atlanta to advance.

The Braves faced the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Aaron launched his record-breaking 715th homer at then-Atlanta Stadium against Los Angeles on April 8, 1974. Aaron homered off the Dodgers’ Al Downing in the fourth inning, passing Babe Ruth on the all-time home run rankings.

In ousting the Dodgers, the Braves earned their first NL pennant since 1999. They faced the Astros, managed by Aaron’s friend and teammate Dusty Baker. When Aaron set the new home-run record, Baker was in the on-deck circle.

“Hank’s footprints are all over this series,” Baker said during the Fall Classic. Aaron helped convince Baker to sign with the Braves when he was a young draftee in 1967. When Aaron was a team executive, he hired Snitker as a coach in 1981 after the future World Series-winning manager’s playing career fizzled out.

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The Braves won the series in six games, turning an injury-and-misfortune-plagued season into the unlikeliest of title runs. His widow, Billye, spoke at the team’s parade.

The spirit of Hank Aaron pervades this space,” Billye said. “He is here with us. He loved the Atlanta Braves, and I am so very, very happy to be able to see these young men who have picked up the mantle and who are carrying it on. Thank all of you. Thank you so much.”

A year after Aaron’s death, Snitker reflected on his first season without him; one that allowed him and his franchise to continuously honor Aaron.

“We missed him,” Snitker said. “We would’ve loved to have him there. But it felt good, too, knowing he was there. You think about his handprint on the whole organization, a lot of our careers, and it’d make you feel good.

“There was a lot of chest-pumping going on in the heavens when we (won it). There were a lot of very proud Braves and friends of mine who were proud supporters and big fans. (Aaron) would’ve been very proud of what we accomplished.”