Hank Aaron’s funeral a tribute to more than a baseball great

One final time Wednesday they gathered as best they could in a period of a pandemic, presidents and pastors, family and friends, to usher Henry Louis Aaron home.

Some would call it a funeral, but the preferred term at Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church is “homegoing.” And from there, this one was televised throughout the earthly city Aaron made better.

They didn’t gather so much to pay mere homage to Aaron’s fluid swing and weighty baseball records. The portrait that flanked his casket was not of Aaron in a ballplayer’s uniform but of an older man in a light brown suit looking hopefully heavenward. The images that flashed on the screen at the very start weren’t of his triumphs of 23 seasons with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers but rather those of Americans craving social justice, from black-and-white photos dating to the 1960s to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement of today.

Baseball, and Aaron’s famed 715th home run that passed Babe Ruth in 1974, mainly served as a convenient platform from which to broaden his legacy.

“It’s interesting that he was so protective of baseball and its integrity,” former President Bill Clinton said from the rostrum. “I think one reason was that despite all the racism and all the threats and all the terrible things that happened to him when he was about to break (Ruth’s) home run record, he knew that when he was playing, baseball was on the level.

“If you were an African-American when Hank Aaron was young ... and even now in too many places, there are still so many days when people wonder if anything will ever be on the level again. Baseball did that for him. Amidst all the racism, nobody fooled with his numbers.

“He treated other people like he knew they wanted and deserved the same thing, whether they could play baseball or not. He wanted everybody to have their baseball, some way to be on the level. To be seen as who they were, to be judged for what they were. That’s his legacy to me.”

Mourners including the SCLA Decatur group pay respect to baseball legend Hank Aaron at his funeral Wednesday, Jan 27, 2021 at Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Born in Mobile, Ala., Aaron will be eternally Atlanta’s, laid to rest at the South-View Cemetery at the south end of town.

For this is a city Aaron helped change when the Braves moved here in 1966. That is the reckoning of civil rights leader, former mayor and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.

On Wednesday, Young recalled the day the new team paraded through town, when he overheard “a bunch of country boys who happened to not be my color.”

As Aaron passed aboard a convertible, one of them said to his buddies, “You know, that fella is going to have to be able to buy a home anywhere he wants to in this town. We got to be a big-league city now.”

“Just his presence before he ever got a hit changed this city,” Young said.

Andrew Young (L) and Hank Aaron pose for photos with the participants at the end of the Hank Aaron Invitational at  SunTrust Park in Atlanta August 2, 2019.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

One after another they came forth Wednesday to illuminate the other facets of the home run king.

Aaron was a constant on the field – hitting 20 or more home runs for 20 consecutive seasons, never striking out more than 97 times in a season. “Spring would come, the trees would blossom, the birds would chirp and Aaron would begin wearing out the pitchers. It was a blessing,” Clinton said.

Yet that was but a hint of how Aaron would lead his life for the 44 years after his retirement. Wednesday, Clinton said, “was a tribute to a consistent life of caring and doing and being a certain way.”

Not a single ballplayer spoke Wednesday.

Rather, precious time was reserved for Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, the president and dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine. She spoke of the millions the Aarons have given the school, and the student pavilion named after Aaron’s wife, Billye.

“The world knows Hank Aaron as a trailblazing athlete, a man who faced incredible odds as he beat Babe Ruth’s home run record. But to Morehouse School of Medicine he was all that and much more. He was a stellar citizen, a businessperson, an advocate, a philanthropist, a mentor and a friend,” she said.

The former president of Sterling Motorcars, Tom Morehead, spoke of how his friend opened a BMW dealership in the late 1990s “motivated by the fact he wanted the industry to change its complexion; he wanted the complexion to look like individuals like us.”

Billye Aaron, the widow of Hank Aaron, speaks during the funeral services for the  longtime Brave and Hall of Famer Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, at Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta. (Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves)

Credit: Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

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Credit: Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

Quiana Lewis, now in a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University, was chosen to speak for the hundreds of young students Aaron’s Chasing The Dream Foundation has supported. “Mr. Aaron’s investments early in life provided so many youth the springboard they needed to realize their dreams,” she said.

Former baseball commissioner Bud Selig recalled the day in 1957 when the New York Times juxtaposed a photo of white teammates carrying Aaron off the field after a pennant-clinching home run alongside one of Black students being set upon by police in Little Rock, Ark.

On this day, Braves chairman Terry McGuirk chose to defer all talk of Aaron’s playing career. Instead he recalled Aaron’s sharp, straight-edged honesty in one long-ago Turner Broadcasting board meeting when McGuirk was over-selling their Braves holding. Asked what he thought, Aaron replied, “The team is so slow it will take four singles to score a run.”

“That ended my presentation,” McGuirk said. And, Aaron, by the way, was right, McGuirk said.

An attendee holds a program for the funeral services of Henry "Hank" Aaron, longtime Atlanta Braves player and Hall of Famer, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 at Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta. Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

Credit: Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

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Credit: Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves

Beyond a purely seminal baseball moment, that 715th home run on the night of April 8, 1974 off the Dodgers’ Al Downing “wasn’t about only chasing down Babe Ruth,” Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Costas said in his video tribute Wednesday. “It was about staring down some of the worst of America and prevailing as an enduring symbol about what can be best about America,” he said.

Yes, Hank Aaron is undeniably on the short list of greatest ballplayers ever. But it was how he lived after he put down his bat that was such the enduring theme of his homegoing.

“The longer life went on for Hank Aaron, the more graceful he became,” Clinton said.

Then the president sent his friend off tenderly.

“Hank Aaron knew that in every heart he encountered there were scales that sometimes titled toward darkness and sometime towards light, and the state of grace required the will and heart to tilt them toward light. And that required love.

“His whole life was one long home run, now he has rounded the bases.

“He is home. Hallelujah.”