MLB Amplified panel looks at Aaron’s legacy

July 31st, 2021

Two changes of clothes, a ham sandwich and train fare.

That was all Hank Aaron had in his duffel bag as he prepared to depart Mobile, Ala., to join the Indianapolis Clowns at age 18. The moment has been immortalized in a photo that hangs in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: The Hammer taking modest first steps toward his legendary career.

Once he retired from baseball, Aaron had much more to his name -- a World Series ring, an MVP Award and a spot in the Hall of Fame. But he never forgot the people who paved the way for him to play in the Majors, just as he went on to pave the way for future Black players.

“Often times, we celebrate the people who cross over the bridge, but rarely do we celebrate the people who built the bridge,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “We celebrate the bridge builders, but these are the folks who also have crossed over that bridge. And now they're doing the exact same thing for these young people who are now looking at them, dreaming about the possibilities.

“Henry Aaron was no different.”

Aaron passed away in January 2021, but his spirit was alive at the Hank Aaron Invitational, which culminated in Hank Aaron Weekend at Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves. Kendrick moderated an Amplified panel, presented by MLB and The Players Alliance, in which Black baseball professionals discussed how Aaron’s legacy persists in today’s game.

Like other former Negro Leagues players, Aaron was more than just a great ballplayer. He broke barriers, opening the door for others to follow in his path. Former MVP and Phillies great Ryan Howard said he pays homage to oft-unsung heroes of the Negro Leagues.

“Those [players] were the ones that helped blaze that path, which allowed me to be able to have the opportunity to go out and go play,” Howard said. “I wanted to try to carry a piece of them because they didn't get that opportunity; they had to stay over here on the side. But I wanted to carry that over into the big leagues with me.”

Integrating the game was one challenge, but truly changing the game was another. Twenty-seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s longstanding all-time home run record. And 27 years later, the hate Aaron received was not unlike the vitriol that Robinson experienced when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Aaron’s legacy is not just expressed through his on-field accomplishments, but in his ability to persevere through extreme adversity -- a trait that Black ballplayers, then and now, have plenty of experience with.

“I wonder how hard it was for them in ways that we will never know. I know what it's like to be the only one in the room,” said Michele Meyer-Shipp, MLB’s chief people and culture officer. “I can't imagine what he experienced, what he felt like, the comments he heard, the letters and things that he got. So, I think about someone who left a legacy of courage and tenacity, and grit and resilience. And that, to me, is just more powerful than words can say.”

The Players Alliance is one way to honor that legacy. Former MLB outfielder Curtis Granderson, president of the organization, said the goal is to grow the game while creating better opportunities for the Black community.

“We're going to continue to keep making sure that if you want to play this game, you're going to have the ability to play this game,” Granderson said. “[We] all have that same mission and are continuing to keep pushing forward and continuing to keep striving to make this game the best game that it can be, and ultimately will be, once we finish with it.”

Meyer-Shipp said access and exposure are two major areas of focus for MLB and The Players Alliance. Youth baseball can be expensive at elite levels, and players with financial hardships often miss out on events where they may be seen by scouts.

“The landscape of youth baseball is completely changed, because that's what it's all about now; it's showcases,” Howard said. “When these kids can have that access -- and be exposed to opportunities to be able to potentially get drafted, or potentially go to school and get a scholarship and get drafted -- I think that it speaks volumes.”

But it all starts small, just like with Aaron and his duffel bag. That’s what The Players Alliance is all about: Individuals can make their mark on the game, but many individuals working toward a common goal can transform it.

“If we can do it together, I felt like it'd make a huge impact,” said former MLB pitcher CC Sabathia, vice president of The Players Alliance. “Having people in positions of power that look like you, or that show up and show interest in what you're doing, just fuels dreams.”