Hank Aaron celebrated at memorial service

January 26th, 2021

ATLANTA -- As MLB finalized plans for the Hank Aaron Invitational a few years ago, Commissioner Rob Manfred received a call from Aaron, who made it clear that his interest in the event extended beyond what some of the country’s top high school stars would be doing on baseball fields.

“Henry wanted to know about the educational part of our program, the historic sites that we planned for the participants to visit, the activities we had planned off the baseball field and, most important, the lessons we were trying to teach and the values we were trying to instill,” Manfred said. “Hank truly cared about the next generation. With his philanthropy and business endeavors, this celebrated power hitter was all about empowering others.”

Manfred told this story as the Braves hosted a memorial service on Tuesday to celebrate the life of Hank Aaron, who died Friday at age 86 while sleeping at his Atlanta home.

Braves manager Brian Snitker, ex-players and , and chairman Terry McGuirk also spoke at the private event held at the Hank Aaron statue on the first-level concourse behind home plate at Truist Park.

“I’ve been asked many times over the past few days to describe Henry Aaron in one word,” Jones said. “Without hesitation, that word is ‘beautiful.’ The swing, the smile and the spirit were all beautiful.”

With Aaron’s wife, Billye, in attendance, the Braves honored their most iconic figure and proudly announced the start of the Henry Louis Aaron Fund, which will be used to increase minority participation in baseball. The fund already includes a $1 million donation from the Braves and separate $500,000 donations made by both MLB and the MLB Players Association.

“We believe this is just the beginning of this growing fund,” McGuirk said. “I’m certain other companies and organizations who have worked with Hank over the years will join this call to add to the talent and diversity across the league.”

Grissom reminisced about first meeting Aaron while playing for Florida A&M University in 1987. The team’s head coach was Robert Lucas, the son of former Braves general manager Bill Lucas, and its outfield coach was Hank’s son Lary Aaron. On a trip to North Carolina, the players were treated to visiting Aaron’s home in Atlanta.

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Upon finishing his 17-season big league career, Grissom created the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association to give athletes in underserved communities the opportunity to play in a competitive baseball league.

“I wanted to make Hank proud,” Grissom said. “I wanted him to see the work I was doing. In 2017, Henry Aaron came to my golf tournament. He validated and put the stamp on what I was doing in the community. I learned that from him. That was his goal. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to dream like him.”

One of the event’s most emotional moments occurred as Snitker fought back tears while talking about his longtime friend. Aaron gave the current manager his first coaching job with the Braves in 1980 and then gave him his first Minor League managerial job two years later.

“Hank epitomized what being an Atlanta Brave is, how he lived his life both on and off the field, always with class and grace,” Snitker said. “I’ll miss the times he’d stop by, come in my office and just talk. I’ll miss the friend and the mentor I had in my life.”

The event also featured video tributes provided by , , , Dusty Baker, and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick.

“God gave him the talent, and he used that talent to become the greatest baseball player of all time.,” Freeman said in his video. “But, more importantly, he used it to make our city, our country and the world a better place. For those who were blessed enough to know Hank, he left a lifetime of impact with every encounter. His life made you want to better your own.”

Kendrick told the story of welcoming Aaron to the Negro Leagues museum in 1999 and showing the picture of the future Hall of Famer preparing to board a train that would take him from his hometown of Mobile, Ala., to Indianapolis, where he would play for a Negro Leagues team.

“He said, ‘Bob, I may have had two changes of clothes in that bag, a $1.50 in my pocket and a ham sandwich that my momma had made for me,’” Kendrick said. “He was a cross-handed-hitting shortstop. When he got to the [Indianapolis] Clowns, they put the right hand on top, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Baker, who was on deck when Aaron hit his historic 715th home run, plans to attend the funeral service, which will be held at Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church on Wednesday.

“You meant more to me than anybody in my whole life,” Baker said of his longtime friend. “I want to thank you for giving me love and discipline. Sometimes, you had to tell me like it was. But I really appreciate you helping me be the man that I am.”

Like many of the others, Murphy made a point to say Aaron’s greatness extended beyond what he could do on a baseball field.

“I’ll never understand how he did it and how he carried himself with such grace and dignity,” Murphy said. “But I’ll always be thankful for the chance to rub shoulders with Hank Aaron. I felt something different when I was in his presence. I’ve been around a lot of ballplayers who have achieved a lot of records. But there was something special about Hank. Hank was the epitome of how we all should be as human beings.”