It was April 14th, 2014, and it was gorgeous. The same couldn’t be said for that year’s Atlanta Braves season, with the recent retirement of Chipper Jones and a looming rebuild—after another violent and disappointing postseason exit the previous year. Regardless, my wife had gotten us tickets to the home opener, where Brave legend (giggle) Julio Teherán 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 my baseball fandom. I grew up mostly in the greater Philadelphia area (northern Delaware. Joe Biden country, to be specific), but was born in Atlanta. I had decided at a young age, thanks to the national broadcasting of TBS, that I was to be a fan of the Atlanta team. My wife and I had, a few months prior, relocated to Marietta, a suburb just north of the city—which would ironically end up being the team’s next home—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—that 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 had I read any sort of pre-game program, to realize 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’d literally had 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, or a journalist: I was a fan. I had not contemplated the game’s place in society, its 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’s an accomplishment.
There’s nothing I could offer you, in terms of his career, that great historians of the game or writers more qualified than I could say—in more eloquent words—but here are 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 was still one of the greatest ever.
- He was Rookie of the Year, then garnered an All-Star selection and/or MVP vote in 22 of his 23 seasons.
He did all of this while under the vile clouds 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. And he did this in a part of the country that had, well … a checkered track record with the idea of “equality.”
It’s not my place, as a white man, to comment too much on the struggles of those whose lives are made more difficult by circumstances of simple chance, such as melanin level, 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 who passed on today:
Thank you. May heaven have a batter’s box so you can show these other fools how it’s done.