ATLANTA – Moments after fans in Truist Park sang their usual tomahawk chop, seen by many as a racist gesture insulting indigenous people, Billy Aaron, the widow of Hank Aaron, swam during the pre-match tribute. Actor in the Hall of Fame who died in January.
Aaron’s courageous quest for a record in Babe Ruth’s career amid racist abuse made him a pioneering symbol of progress for many black Americans. His death triggered an outpouring of love and homage throughout baseball and the country.
(Atlanta originally hoped to honor Aaron in the All-Star Game in July, but Major League Baseball moved the game to Denver as a protest against the Georgian law, which introduced new voting restrictions and which, according to Democrats and electoral rights groups that condemned the law, unfairly targets colored voters.)
All season, the outdoor playground at Truist Park was the giant number 44, the number of Aaron’s jersey painted in the grass. When Atlanta won the national league flag this month, the team and MLB decided to finally honor Aaron in front of a national television audience, ahead of the first home game of the World Series, which was Friday’s Game 3.
“I think the players at this club house kind of felt we had to do something to be able to celebrate his life on the biggest stage in some way,” said Tyler Matzek, an Atlanta aid actor. “It’s a little extra motivation to go out and show what the Braves are, and he was what the Braves were.”
The ceremony included a video tribute that was shown at the stadium and on the national Fox show. It included descriptions of Aaron’s role in helping further baseball integration after joining Milwaukee in 1954 – seven years after Jackie Robinson broke through the color barrier – and the importance of catching home games when he passed Ruth in 1974. He also mentioned his influence as a role model to millions of Americans.
Billye Aaron stood on the round red carpet by the side of the field and waved to the fans as they cheered, then Dusty Baker, the Houston Astrosa manager who was Aaron’s close friend, stepped out of the guest hall and ran to the crowd where he greeted three of Aaron’s children, Hank, the younger Gaila and Dorinda, and the grandson of Raynal Aaron.
Brian Snitker, the Atlanta manager, overcame the emotion of the moment when discussing the ceremony after the 2-0 victory of Atlanta. Aaron hired Sniker as a coach in the lower leagues when Aaron was the director of a farm in Atlanta and helped lead Sniker’s career after playing. The two became very close.
“I have to hug Billy,” Snitker said, then paused for a few seconds, apparently holding back tears before continuing, “and telling her how much I missed Hank.”
Aaron was too mentor Baker, who joined Atlanta as a rookie in 1968 and played with Aaron for seven years – it was a punch on board when Aaron reached his 715th home run on April 8, 1974. They remained very close friends and Baker often cites advice given to him by Aaron and other teammates. Before the game, Baker pointed out that it was a strange, grim experience for him to come to Atlanta and not see Aaron there.
“It’s the most different feeling I’ve had that you can’t describe,” Baker said, “because I’m glad I came back here, but I’m sad to be back here for the first time – other than Hank’s funeral – without Hanka. “
Baker hugged each of Aaron’s children on the hill, and then Hank Aaron Jr. threw the ceremonial first pitch to Atlanta star star Freddie Freeman, who said before the game that he was cold when he thought about what the ceremony would be like.
“Whoever came in contact with him made you aroused by love,” Freeman said. “I wish I was here so I could watch this.”
The tribute was brief, in part because team organizers and MLB said they believe Aaron, a humble and underrated superstar, would like the focus to be on the players and the game and not on him.
But it was important that the recognition was given to the greatest player in the history of the franchise and one of the transcendent athletes in history.
“It’s absolutely necessary,” Baker said. “It’s Hank Aaron’s year.”