• Atlanta Stadium

    44 Forever: Aaron Meant So Much to Braves, But Impact Traveled Further Than Any Home Run

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – You grow accustom to it after a while, the roaring cheers every time the legends gather. Be it the two-time MVP from Oregon, the provider of the run that won the World Series, or the guy with bad knees whose slide at home plate is seared in this franchise’s history, there is no shortage of people revered by the Braves fanbase.

    And yet, one set of cheers always topped them all. You didn’t even have to see him shuffling out of the dugout or sitting in the back of a car circling the warning track to know. Just close your eyes, and listen.

    Not the Big Three aces, or the cocky kid from Florida, or the Skipper, or the Architect. Not even Murph or Justice or Bream or the various heroes who helped a baseball franchise not just take root in the South, but grow from sea to shining sea and beyond.

    No, the loudest cheers always were reserved for The King. The Hammer. Henry Louis Aaron, he of the quick, smooth swing that drove more home runs out of big-league ballparks than any right-handed slugger in major-league history. He who provided Atlanta with its first signature sports moment with the world watching. He who, more than anyone else, defined the Atlanta Braves.

    Hank Aaron passed away Friday morning in his sleep, the 86-year-old becoming the 10th Hall of Famer to die since June. The past four weeks have been remarkably cruel for Braves fans. Phil Niekro, the beloved knuckleballer who spent his retirement just across the lake from here in Flowery Branch, died Dec. 27. Don Sutton, who spent nearly 30 years in the broadcast booth before health issues sidelined him in 2019 and 2020, passed away Monday night.

    It hurts. They all hurt. Our team’s legends aren’t supposed to die. When it happens, we grieve as if they are family.

    Because they are.

    The Hammer: Hank Aaron played nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves after the franchise moved from Milwaukee before the 1966 season.

    My grandfather used to tell me three things about Aaron. First were the hands and wrists, formed from working on trucks delivering ice blocks as a kid. Big hands. Strong wrists. Powerful forearms. Perfect for belting baseballs 400-plus feet. Second, Aaron learned to bat cross-handed, the right-hander putting his left hand higher on the bat than his right. Try to swing a bat like that; Aaron didn’t adjust his hands properly until he was already playing in the minor leagues.

    Third, and most important, my grandfather said Aaron’s strength wasn’t just physical. I would learn as I grew older what that meant, as I read the well-documented stories of hate and ignorance directed toward a black man chasing a white man’s hallowed record in the Deep South in that era. Just to do his job in that environment was noteworthy and commendable, not knowing what potential threat lurked in the upper reaches of the ballpark or by the back entrance of the hotel Aaron used when the team was on the road.

    All the more remarkable – while inhabiting that fishbowl that grew more claustrophobic the closer he crept to Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career homers – that Aaron kept his cool, never cracked under the pressure, never lashed out. He simply did what we all seek to do: show up at work and do his best, with grace and humility.

    While bigots and racists threatened his life – resulting in the Braves taking extra security precautions and the FBI protecting his family – Aaron’s production didn’t wane as the gap to Ruth’s homer mark decreased. Aaron belted a career-high 47 homers in 1971, leading the majors in OPS (1.079) and slugging percentage (.669) while batting .327 and driving in 118 runs in 139 games. Two seasons later, at age 39, Aaron hit .301 with a 1.045 OPS, 40 homers and 96 RBIs in 120 games.

    The signature moment would come the following spring, on that famous Monday night in April – the first time the sports world had turned its laser focus on Georgia’s capital city. Aaron’s fourth-inning homer off Al Downing of the Dodgers and subsequent, joyous reaction from more than 53,000 inside Atlanta Stadium prompted legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully to tell his audience:

    “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record on an all-time baseball idol.”

    Marvelous, indeed. A moment of celebration, the first of many for the Braves franchise that a decade later, Aaron would help foster as director of player development. Justice. Gant. Glavine. Lemke. Jones. Names synonymous with the Braves emergence from perennial NL West doormat to 1990s powerhouse, all drafted with Aaron as part of the front office.

    I remember the chills I got seeing Aaron walking out onto the field at Atlanta Stadium after the final regular-season game in 1996, flashbulbs popping all over the circular stadium as the crowd roared. He was there when Turner Field – located at 755 Hank Aaron Drive – opened seven months later. There he was in 2016, helping deliver home plate after the final game at Turner Field to the construction site where the next spring, SunTrust Park would host its first game – Aaron throwing the first pitch to Bobby Cox on an April evening in 2017.

    New Home: Hank Aaron helps deliver home plate from Turner Field to SunTrust Park following the Braves finale at their downtown ballpark on Oct. 2, 2016. Aaron would throw out the first pitch at the new stadium on April 14, 2017.

    Aaron always was there. The Braves honored him at their new spring training site in North Port, Fla., shortly before the pandemic shut down spring training. He congratulated Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman on winning the Hank Aaron Award – given to the best offensive player in each league – just a few weeks ago.

    No matter what, when it came to the Braves, there was Aaron.

    And now, he’s gone. I can’t even fathom what it will be like when things return to normal, we return to the ballpark for opening night, or this summer’s All-Star game, and he won’t be there. It just won’t feel right.

    Sure, it’s certainly not unexpected for someone to pass away after 86 years. It just felt like Hank Aaron would live forever, which explains in part the hole in the collective heart of Braves Country tonight.

    We’re left with memories of one of the greatest players to ever step foot on a major-league field, a man who impacted a city, a region and society in ways that go far beyond the foul lines and resonate for reasons far more important than wins and losses.

    And we remember the cheers. The loudest ones of all, always and forever, are reserved for The Hammer.

    In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations be made to Aarons’ Chasing the Dream Foundation:

    Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation

    3466 Buffington Center

    Atlanta, GA 30349

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    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.