An open letter to Hank Aaron

Fans bring flowers and balloons to the Hank Aaron statue located outside of Center Parc Stadium early last week. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

Dear Hank Aaron,

When I met you years ago, your warmth and kindness overtook me. You signed every fan’s autograph and took time to talk to them as well. 

It still seems surreal that it has been 11 days without you, Hank, and many have reminisced about your record-breaking home run that April night in 1974. That day, you not only became the home run king but the icon of sports in Georgia. The fact that a Black man broke the all-time home run record will be in the hearts and memories of current fans and future generations to come.

But your impact meant more than just on the diamond. Even before I knew anything about sports, your legacy had a significant impact on my life. 

Everyone knows the horror you encountered in the “city too busy to hate,” but you made the city live up to its motto. Atlanta became a city that embraces all of its people and allows them to have a voice. 

“The way I saw it, the only thing Atlanta was too busy for was baseball. It didn’t seem to give a damn about the Braves,” Aaron said in his autobiography. “It seemed like the only thing that mattered about the home run record was that a n—– was about to step out of line and break it.”

During your chase to break Babe Ruth’s record, you remained candid about the hate you faced, not just from fans in the state but the entire country. I couldn’t imagine receiving not only death threats but kidnapping threats from thousands of individuals and the Ku Klux Klan. 

Many will remember you for hitting your 715th home run, but I remember you for being a man of the people, supporting local Boys and Girls Clubs, introducing the game to youth and giving me the passion for covering the game today. 

When the number of Black players declined in the sport, you took action and helped create the Hank Aaron Invitational to give diverse youth the chance to play the game you loved. Your work will have an immeasurable impact on the game for years to come.

The drive to support social justice didn’t end after your playing days ended; you advocated for socioeconomic reforms your whole life. After George Floyd’s death and during the civil unrest in the summer of 2020, you were an inspirational voice for change. 

Your generosity has reached worldwide because you helped make the game international while never losing your roots. From the days of watching the KKK march down your street in Alabama to becoming a civil rights leader, you’ve changed America forever.

When your record was “broken” in 2007, you handled it with grace even when fans (like myself) did the opposite. Indeed, the country has changed for the better thanks to your touch. But Hank, we still have a long way to go, as you knew. 

“I have had the privilege to hold this [home run record] for 33 of those years,” Aaron said in a 2007 video. “I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry [Bonds] and his family on this historical achievement.”

You never forgot how the treatment you received as a player, and we as a country shouldn’t either. As players have become more outspoken about social issues, we will look back at how you were bold in the face of hate and opposition. 

Rest easy, Hank. You will always be king in our hearts.