ATLANTA -- Former President Bill Clinton reminisced about the impact Hank Aaron had on the 1992 presidential election, while former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig remembered how his longtime friend positively influenced social change throughout one of baseball’s most iconic careers.
Clinton, Selig and Ambassador Andrew Young were among the dignitaries who attended Aaron’s funeral at Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta on Wednesday. The service celebrated the life of the legendary baseball player who died at the age of 86 while sleeping at his Atlanta home last Friday.
“It’s customary on occasions like this to moan and bemoan the fact we have lost something,” Young said. “I’m here to testify that Hank ain’t gone nowhere. He is crafted in the minds and hearts of everybody here and everybody looking all around the world.
“His mama had it right when she called this 12-pound baby boy, 'Man.' He was, and is, 'The Man,' and he did that without trying.”
As Reverend Dr. Richard W. Wills began the ceremony, he seemed to deliver a fitting message, when he said, “Something vast and noble has passed from amongst us. It is as if a mighty oak has fallen, leaving a gaping and glaring void on the horizon where its gallant place in life once stood.”
For nearly 87 years, Aaron stood on this Earth and made it a better place. His humble upbringing in Mobile, Ala., was remembered by longtime broadcaster Bob Costas during a video message played during the service. Costas talked about how Aaron skipped school and climbed a tree to watch Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers play an exhibition game in Mobile in 1948.
“There was no way to know that kid would go on to become, in many respects, the most significant baseball player since Jackie Robinson himself,” Costas said. “That that kid would take the baton from his idol and inspiration and carry it so well, so honorably and for so long. Now, that glorious race has been fully run.”
Aaron’s run toward Cooperstown was highlighted in 1957, when he won the National League MVP Award and helped the Milwaukee Braves win the World Series. As he hit an NL pennant-clinching, walk-off homer on Sept. 23 of that year, a 23-year-old Selig was in attendance, courtesy of the obstructed-view seat he had purchased.
“Henry, we’re going to miss you,” Selig said. “We’ll never forget you. But we’ll always be grateful for you showing all of us how to chase our dream.”
Aaron realized his dreams while constructing a Hall of Fame career and proving to be a successful businessman with his BMW dealerships. But he once said his greatest satisfaction came through the initiatives of the Chasing the Dream Foundation, which he and his wife, Billye, formed to help children pursue their talents through instruction or education.
Aaron’s longtime friend Allan Tanenbaum, who serves as the foundation’s attorney, was proud to introduce the attendees to Quianna Lewis, who first received funding when she expressed interest in playing the harp while in middle school. She also received assistance to attend Fisk University, where she earned a psychology/pre-med degree. She has since received a master's degree from Yale University and is currently working on her doctorate in adolescent health at Johns Hopkins University.
“History will remember Mr. Aaron as a record-breaking athlete, but I will always remember him as the man who opened countless doors for me and others to chase our dreams,” Lewis said.
Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, the president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine, will forever be thankful for the friendship and support she received from the Aarons. She told the story about how Hank had pledged $3 million to the school, which showed its appreciation with the creation of the Billye Suber Aaron Pavilion to honor his wife.
“While Mr. Aaron will be remembered for all the home runs he has hit, his true legacy is seen in the lives he has changed for the better,” Rice said.
Those who had the privilege to know Aaron also appreciated his sense of humor and brutal honesty. Braves chairman Terry McGuirk remembers being reminded of the latter while attempting to optimistically talk about the team's offense during a Turner Broadcasting board meeting during the late 1980s.
After McGuirk was done speaking at that meeting, Aaron was asked for his opinion of those woeful teams and offered, “The team is so slow, it would take four singles to score a run.”
Clinton’s friendship with Aaron began in 1992, when the Hall of Famer agreed to campaign for him in his presidential race against incumbent George H. W. Bush. More than 20,000 people came to hear Clinton and Aaron speak one day at Decatur High School.
Clinton carried Georgia by 13,000 votes a few days after that. Until the most recent presidential election, it had stood as the only time a Democrat won the state going back to native son Jimmy Carter’s win in 1976.
“For the rest of his life, he never let me forget who was responsible for winning,” Clinton said. “Hank Aaron never bragged about anything, except carrying Georgia for me in 1992.”
Clinton also reminisced about traveling to Atlanta to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. While reconnecting with his friend, Clinton asked who was the best Aaron had played against.
“He said, ‘Oh, Willie Mays,’” Clinton said. “He said [Mays] probably would have broken Babe Ruth’s record, too, if the Giants hadn’t moved to San Francisco. He said at Candlestick Park, the wind always blows against you. The good Lord himself couldn’t hit a home run out of Candlestick Park.”
After the funeral service concluded, the procession drove past the site of the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. It now stands as a large ballpark that includes a memorial, marking the spot where Aaron broke Ruth’s record with his 715th career home run.
Raynal Aaron said one of his favorite quotes from his grandfather was, “I don’t want them to forget Ruth, I just want them to remember me.”
Nobody will forget the significance of Aaron breaking Ruth’s record. But more importantly, many will forever remember the great impact this legendary figure had throughout his wonderful life.