It was April 14th, 2014, and it was gorgeous. The same couldn’t be said for the Atlanta Braves season that year, with the recent retirement of Chipper Jones, and a rebuild looming after another violent and disappointing postseason exit the past year. Regardless, my wife had gotten us tickets to the home opener, where Brave legend (giggle) Julio Teheran was to make his second of what would be six consecutive opening day starts.
I’ve been an avid Braves fan all my life, but this was my first home opener in the city of which my baseball fandom was born. I grew up mostly in the greater Philadelphia area (northern Delaware, Joe Biden country, to be specific), but was born in Atlanta and decided at a young age, thanks to the national broadcasting of TBS, that I was to be a fan of the Atlanta team. We had just relocated to Marietta, a suburb just north of the city (that would, ironically end up being the next home of the team) just a few months prior, and she landed great seats in the upper level behind home plate (she’s a keeper, I tell ya).
We got there early, as going to Turner Field was, well, a hassle may be too light of a word, and I didn’t want to miss a second of the action. We got to our seats, and then the presentation started. I didn’t put two and two together, nor did I read any sort of pre-game program to know, that I was about to lay eyes on the Hammer.
It was 60 years to the day, in 1974, when Hank Aaron stepped to the plate, and launched number 715 over the left field wall. Today was a ceremony to honor that incredible achievement, and I had literally no idea. I was flabbergasted, staring down at the Hammer. The most consistent power hitter in the history of the game of baseball, and Atlanta’s most prized sports possession was right there. In person. Sure, I was in the 400 level, but at this point in my life, I wasn’t a writer, a journalist, I was a fan. I had not contemplated the game’s place in society, it’s cultural landmarks, nor the blinding array of numbers that push it forward. I was just a 27 year old guy wearing a Chipper Jones jersey, watching his favorite team in person, in the city of his birth, for only the second time in his life. I was enamored, and those who know me, know that is an accomplishment.
There’s nothing I could offer you, in terms of his career that other great historians of the game or more qualified writers than I could say in more eloquent words than I could, but here’s a few of my favorite Hank Aaron tidbits:
- When he began his final season in 1976, he was the last active player to have appeared in the Negro Leagues
- He touched more bases than anyone in the history of baseball. The next closest player, Stan Musial, could come back to life, bat .300 for three straight years, and still not pass him.
- His perseverance was incredible. Only Pete Rose made more outs than the Hammer. He failed more than almost anyone, and still was one of the greatest ever.
- He received an Rookie of the Year, then All-Star selection and/or MVP vote in 22 of his 23 seasons.
He did all of this under the vile cloud of racism, relentless death threats, and the knowledge that he was on the precipice of breaking the most sacred record of the all-time baseball legend. In a part of the country that had, well.. a checkered track record with things like “equality” and all that.
It’s not my place, as a white man to make too much in the way of comments on the struggles of those whose lives are more difficult by simple chance such as melanin levels, other than to acknowledge how inherently awful that struggle must be. I will, say, however, as a lover of the game of baseball, and as a fan of the man that passed on today:
Thank you. May heaven have a batters box, so you can show these other fools how it’s done.