ATLANTA — A few moments after fans at Truist Park did their customary tomahawk chop chant, which many see as a racist gesture that insults Indigenous people, they gave a standing ovation to Billye Aaron, the widow of Hank Aaron, during a pregame tribute to the Hall of Fame player who died in January.
Aaron’s courageous pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record in the face of racist abuse made him a pioneering symbol of progress for many Black Americans. His death unleashed an outpouring of love and tributes throughout baseball and the country.
(Atlanta originally hoped to honor Aaron at the All-Star Game in July, but Major League Baseball moved the game to Denver as a protest against a Georgia law that established new voting restrictions and that, according to Democrats and voting rights groups that have condemned the law, unfairly targets voters of color.)
All season, the outfield at Truist Park featured a giant No. 44, Aaron’s jersey number, painted into the grass. When Atlanta won the National League pennant this month, the team and M.L.B. decided to finally honor Aaron in front of a national television audience, ahead of the team’s first home World Series game, which was Friday’s Game 3.
“I think that us players in that clubhouse kind of felt like we needed to do something so that his life could be celebrated in some way on the biggest stage,” said Tyler Matzek, the relief pitcher for Atlanta. “It’s a little extra motivation just to go out there and show what the Braves are all about, and he was what the Braves were all about”
The ceremony included a video tribute that was shown in the stadium and on the Fox national broadcast. It included descriptions of Aaron’s role in helping to further integrate baseball after he joined Milwaukee in 1954 — seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier — and the significance of the home run chase when he passed Ruth in 1974. It also mentioned his impact as a role model for millions of Americans.
Billye Aaron stood on a round red carpet on the side of the field and waved to the fans as they cheered her, and then Dusty Baker, the Houston Astros manager who was a close friend of Aaron, emerged from the visitors’ dugout and jogged to the mound, where he greeted three of Aaron’s children, Hank, Jr. Gaile and Dorinda, and a grandson, Raynal Aaron.
Brian Snitker, the Atlanta manager, was overcome by the emotion of the moment when discussing the ceremony after Atlanta’s 2-0 win. Aaron had hired Snitker to be a coach in the minor leagues when Aaron was Atlanta’s farm director and he helped guide Snitker’s post-playing career. The two grew very close.
“I got to hug Billye,” Snitker said, and then paused for several seconds, apparently holding back tears, before he continued, “and tell her how much I missed Hank.”
Aaron was also a mentor to Baker, who joined Atlanta as a rookie in 1968 and played seven years with Aaron — he was the on-deck batter when Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 8, 1974. They remained very close friends and Baker often cites advice Aaron gave him and other teammates. Before the game, Baker noted that it was a strange, somber experience for him to come to Atlanta and not see Aaron there.
“This is the most different kind of feeling that I’ve had, that you can’t describe,” Baker said, “because I’m happy to be back here, but I’m sad to be back here for the first time — other than Hank’s funeral — without Hank.”
Baker gave each of Aaron’s children a hug on the mound, and then Hank Aaron Jr. threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Atlanta’s star first baseman, Freddie Freeman, who said before the game that he had chills thinking of what the ceremony would be like.
“Whoever came in contact with him, he made you feel love,” Freeman said. “I wish he was here to be able to watch this.”
The tribute was brief, in part because team and M.L.B. organizers said they believed that Aaron, a modest and understated superstar, would have wanted the focus to be on the players and the game and not on him.
But it was important that the greatest player in franchise history, and one of the transcendent athletes in history, received the recognition.
“It’s totally necessary,” Baker said. “This is the year of Hank Aaron.”