Hank Aaron lived a life of legend. Now upon his death comes the hard, nearly impossible, duty of others to speak on it and attempt to do it justice.
Oh, how they tried Tuesday, honoring a man who Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said, “belongs on our sport’s Mount Rushmore; he stood on and off the field above all others.”
On this day the long goodbye to Aaron took the form of a memorial service at the current Braves ballpark a county away from where he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record almost 47 years ago, the shot heard throughout humanity. Aaron died in his sleep Friday morning at the age of 86.
Pick up Tuesday’s tributes there, again in Manfred’s words: “(Aaron) delivered to his racist detractors the message that greatness – greatness in a man from the Deep South, a Black man from the Deep South – could not be suppressed. Just as Jackie Robinson was the perfect person to change our game forever in 1947, Hank Aaron was the perfect person to meet the historic moment that he created in 1974.”
At Truist Park a large green No. 44 – Aaron’s number – stood out vividly against the outfield grass wearing its winter beige. Back where they honor the Braves past, in an alcove just beyond the home plate that Aaron set in place in 2016 before the park’s opening the next spring, a roster of important people gathered to speak of Aaron’s greater importance.
It was no task to take lightly. “It’s so scary standing up here, I respected the man so much I wouldn’t want to disappoint him or his family,” Braves Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones said.
On Tuesday, Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk presided over the memorial. Tributes, both in person and on video, followed from Manfred, Negro League Museum President Bob Kendrick, players past (Jones, fellow Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, Dale Murphy, Marquis Grissom) and players present (Freddie Freeman). Braves manager Brian Snitker fought through the emotion of once more retelling the story of how much how owed Aaron. For it was while Aaron oversaw the Braves’ minor league system that he redirected a young catcher whose modest talents were taking him nowhere and gave him his first job managing.
It has been a hard 10 months for a Braves lifer like the 65-year-old Snitker, who has watched pillar upon pillar of his franchise fall. First Bill Bartholomay, who brought the team to Atlanta from Milwaukee, died in March. Then in the last month Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro and long-time Braves announcer and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton died. And now, Aaron’s death, the loss deeply personal.
“I’ll miss the friend and the mentor that I had in my life,” Snitker said, voice breaking.
“We’ve lost a great friend,” he added.
There will be more stories to tell and more tears to shed at 1 p.m. Wednesday during Aaron’s funeral services at Friendship Baptist Church. That, like his memorial, will be telecast by the team’s lead network, Fox Sports Southeast.
Fortunately at such services, those who line up to pay homage are not constrained by the same humility that escorted Aaron through 86 exceptional years. They are free to sing praises in a voice Aaron never used.
Those who were accustomed to the company of stars spoke of how Aaron stood separately, leaving them in awe.
“I always felt like I was in the presence of greatness,” Glavine said, “but was always struck by how humble Mr. Aaron was. He would never let you know that he was arguably the greatest baseball player of all time.”
How great? To illustrate, the commissioner repeated a story that aptly summarized Aaron’s place in the firmament of star athletes: “The great Muhammad Ali once said that Hank was the only man I idolized more than myself.”
Those who have done stout work in the community – like Grissom, whose baseball academy encourages minority participation in the sport – pointed to Aaron’s example of community involvement as a guiding light.
“He lit a fire in me that is still lit today,” Grissom said.
“I wanted to be like him. I wanted to dream like him,” he added.
Toward honoring Aaron’s commitment to building minority participation through all levels of baseball, the Braves announced Tuesday they were forming the Henry Louis Aaron Fund. McGuirk said the team would kick-start the fund with a $1 million contribution, matched in part by separate $500,000 contributions by MLB and the MLB players association.
Long after Aaron was done playing, after the last of his 755 career home runs was hit, after his 2,297 RBIs and 6,856 total bases were tallied – representing a journey of nearly 117 miles around the base paths for his 23-year career – he was a front office constant for the team. When he wasn’t suggesting Snitker try this managing thing or that the team draft Jones ahead of some pitcher named Todd Van Poppel, his mere presence around the team set a standard.
“It’s been an honor of a lifetime to be able to wear the same uniform that Hank Aaron wore,” Murphy said during his video tribute.
“Hank’s spirit permeated our whole organization. If you wanted to be a ballplayer, this is the way you play. If you want to represent your organization, this is how you act. If you want to serve your fellow man, this is what you do.”
Said Jones: “He set the perfect example for everyone in the Atlanta Braves organization on how to deal with adversity: You just spread a little grace on it and go play ball. Keep swinging, as he would say.”
Another duty of those speaking on Aaron’s life was to underscore its everlasting value.
Smoltz started, saying, “I promise you Hank’s memory will live forever. Baseball won’t forget. Atlanta won’t forget.”
And Jones closed: “If Hank were to have one last message for us, it would be to respect each other, to help each other and keep love in your heart.
“Hammer, you were a transcendent baseball player, but you also were a transcendent figure in American history. We are so going to miss you.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com