Aaron's principles celebrated at Invitational

July 31st, 2021

ATLANTA -- In his 86 years, Hank Aaron touched and changed countless lives, in Atlanta and around the world.

While Aaron is no longer with us -- he passed away on Jan. 22 -- the principles for which he stood, the causes for which he fought and the righteous examples he set are still alive every day.

On Friday, several of those whose lives he touched came to Atlanta’s Center for Civil & Human Rights to hold an event that Aaron had made a tradition -- hosting a tour of the center for players in the annual Hank Aaron Invitational, which began in 2015 and is held at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla.

It was a unique way to kick off a historic weekend, which will see the Braves celebrate Aaron while hosting the Milwaukee Brewers -- the teams representing the two cities in which Aaron played the entirety of his legendary 23-year Major League career.

A group of 44 players (Aaron’s jersey number) -- whittled down from 100 participants -- and the coaching staff, comprised of eight former Major Leaguers, did an exclusive tour of the Center, which chronicles the lifelong work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement and continuing worldwide battles for equality and social justice. The special guest for the event was Andrew Young, former congressman, mayor of Atlanta, and ambassador to the United Nations.

There were plenty of life-lessons to learn about at the center and heard about from Young. Among the most important lessons was in handling adversity and diversity.

“The world is filled with difference and your success in the world will depend in large measure with how you deal with the differences,’” Young said. He then offered an axiom he’d heard from his father while growing up. “He said, ‘My advice to you is ‘Don’t get mad. Get smart.’”

Young said he found a special level of humanity in Aaron.

“Everybody in life is trying to change, trying to grow, trying to be better,” he said. “Hank Aaron used to make everybody feel like they were better than they were and when you were with him, you felt good about yourself, because he felt good about himself. But he was never bragging and always cool but always looking out for someone else.”

The event at the center was MLB’s way of looking out for, and having the same kind of formative effect on the youngsters off the field that Saturday’s game at Truist Park between Team Aaron and Team Robinson will have on it.

“There’s already a roadmap. So they have an opportunity to not necessarily blaze a trail but maybe blaze it further and be able to follow something that they’ve seen in both leadership and what legacy looks like,” said Braves executive vice president, chief people capital officer DeRetta Rhodes. “I think that’s critical and as we talk about when there are those times, they’re the hardest times that you’re facing, you’ll remember this and it will continue to drive you, inspire.”

Former Major League outfielder Marquis Grissom, who played two of his 17 Major League seasons with the Braves and will be the manager of Team Aaron on Saturday, saw Friday as an opportunity for the kids.

“That’s what Hank always wanted. If you get that opportunity, take advantage of it,” Grissom said. “Those kids got that opportunity because of the work they did, their grade point average, their love of the game, to come here to take this experience. I just wish ALL 100 kids would have that opportunity. I think they’ve really learned a lot.”

After listening to and offering questions of Young, the players got to tour the “Voice To The Voiceless” exhibit, which featured rare writings of Dr. King, and “Moments of Courage,” which commemorated several Braves in their quest for equality. The exhibit saluted Grissom and Bill Lucas, MLB’s first African-American general manager, while also pointing out the discriminatory “Jim Crow South,” and samples of the hate mail Aaron received, yet endured, during his pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record.

On a table, as visitors proceeded out of the room, there was a yellow pledge card encouraging viewers to sign then put in a pledge box. The card read:

“I pledge to always keep learning. To listen and to be aware. To support those who need it. Because whether I’ve experienced inequality or not, I acknowledge that it exists, that its effects are devastating, and that I can help end it.”

Each of the players voluntarily stopped, read, signed, then inserted their pledges into the box.

The kids got plenty from the experience.

“There was a lot, honestly,” said Prince DeBoskie (Class of ‘22), an outfielder from Chandler, Ariz. “There was a piece of art, it was MLK’s quote, saying, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ It was a quote that really got to me.”

DeBoskie asked a question of Young, finding inspiration to do so from a previous visit to the Center and talk from Young.

“After hearing from him my first year, I knew I had to come back and ask him a question because I’d been thinking about it for a while,” he said. “Having his knowledge, there’s a lot that I could learn from just having that 10-minute conversation with him.”