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With the passing of Hank Aaron at 86, Chipper Jones, Braves manager Brian Snitker, Brian Jordan and team president and chief executive officer Derek Schiller joined a conference call Friday to share their thoughts on the icon.
LIVE with Brian Snitker, @RealCJ10 and @TwoSportman discussing the life and legacy of Hank Aaron: https://t.co/kP3o4OPdE0
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“We’re not only talking about a transcendent baseball player. We’re talking about a transcendent person in American history as well. Jackie Robinson kind of set the stage, but Hank took to to a whole ‘nother level. When you’re talking about a black man elevating himself in that day and age to be the best in the game and embarking on a journey that would take him to the top of the home run list, passing Babe Ruth and that all he endured. It really is amazing. He is a beautiful human.
“All the interactions that I’ve had with him through the years, I have treasured each and ever one of them. It was like, man, this guy when he walked into the room he had this aura about him. He was at constant peace while he probably had every right to be militant and angry and leery of everyone that he came in contact with. Never was. Always has a gentle smile. Always had this peace about him.
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“Those two men, sitting you down at 18 years old, you better pay attention and listen,” Jones told the Times-Union the day after Aaron’s death. “I was using a really small bat coming off the broken hand [in senior year of high school], having trouble getting around on 90-95 mile per hour [pitches]. Talk about making an impression. [Aaron] said, ‘We’re going to put as big a bat in your hand to get around those fast balls, so you better get in the weight room because we’re going to have you hitting 30 home runs in no time.’
“I thought they were crazy, but I didn’t want to say that. I kept to myself and heeded their advice. Damn if they weren’t right.”
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Thirty years later, a lot about Aaron’s legacy beyond baseball feels right. As Jones navigated through his own Hall of Fame career with the Braves, he learned more about the racism, the taunting and social injustice Aaron endured in his remarkable life.
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It not only elevated the achievements of Aaron in his mind, but Jones came to revere him for being Jackie Robinson 2.0 – carrying himself with dignity and grace after all those years of being a hate target for merely the color of his skin.
“For him to have gone through what he went through, to have been carrying all of Black America on his back,” Jones said. “Really, I was just so enamored with his every move. The weight of the world must have been on his shoulders many times. He was about to break one of the most hallowed records in sports, and to handle all that with the grace and humility that he had. . . . Hank Aaron really set a great example for everyone in this [Braves] organization of how to deal with adversity on and off the field.”
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“Throw in the fact he’s probably one of the greatest players to don a baseball uniform. . . . Top 3 or top 5, it’s debatable where he falls. But to achieve that kind of loftiness in your craft with all the outside distractions, that’s probably his most amazing feat.”
Reverence for HR king
Consider that Jones, the second greatest switch-hitter behind Mickey Mantle in MLB history, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer with 468 home runs, 2,726 hits, 1,623 RBI, one batting title and a .303 lifetime batting average.
Aaron, facing widespread bigotry and forced to deal with segregation from his white teammates on road trips, had 755 home runs, 3,771 hits, an all-time high 2,297 RBI, two batting titles and .305 lifetime batting average.
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It leaves Jones shaking his head at the enormity of Aaron’s achievements, on and off the field.
“Jackie Robinson laid the groundwork [for Black players], but Hank Aaron became like the best player in the game,” said Jones. “He’s embarking on this journey to become the home-run king and pass a white guy. This was unchartered territory for anyone. I’m not belittling in any way, shape or form what Jackie Robinson had to go through. I just can’t imagine the pressure either of them had to endure.
“How many times do you think they came home from the ballpark and wanted to quit, didn’t want to fight the fight any more and they wouldn’t let themselves? That’s a story of grit and determination there.”
But Jones can only imagine Aaron the ballplayer. It was the connection he made with people long after No. 44 stopped swinging a bat that resonates with the Braves’ latest Hall of Famer.
“He was very easy to talk to,” said Jones. “You can be slack-jawed and wide-eyed when you meet him or go up to him, but he makes you feel very comfortable. He’s just a beautiful human being. He had this peace about him, this easy-living, peaceful aura about him that is really awe-inspiring.
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“Whenever we talked behind the batting cage, somehow the conversation always came back to the bat and that talk we had when I was in the minors. We talked about length and how the weight was distributed. I told him I liked the weight at the end of the bat. He told me he liked it more evenly distributed through the bat.”
Jones treasured every interaction with Aaron because he saw a baseball legend, and more so a man, that he equated with royalty. After learning of Aaron’s passing, he felt compelled to post a picture on his Twitter account (@RealCJ10) of him and baseball’s long-time home run king at the ballpark. It shows Aaron seated above Jones and looking down at him with a smile on his face, while the Braves’ third baseman looks toward the field.
Underneath the picture, Jones posted: “On a pedestal. . . . As he should be! #HammerinHank.”
“He’s looking down on me like he was a doting father,” said Jones. “That look was on his face all the time. He loved the organization, the players. He was proud of us.”
A Brave for life
It was that way from the very beginning. The first time Aaron laid eyes on Jones was at a Bolles baseball game against West Nassau in 1990. Jones, a natural right-hander who was then still batting left-handed on a limited basis, hit a home run from the right side early in the game. With Bolles leading by a comfortable margin in the late innings, and scouts from several organizations in attendance, coach Don Suriano honored Jones’ request to hit left-handed.
“I wanted to show the scouts I was still working on [hitting from the left side] and could do it,” said Jones.
He hit a home run left-handed over the right field fence that landed on San Jose Boulevard. The ball happened to go over the heads of where the Braves’ brass of GM/manager Bobby Cox, scouting director Paul Snyder, coach Jimy Williams and Aaron were standing.
Several years later, the story was related to Jones from Snyder and Williams that after the ball sailed over their heads, Aaron said to his Braves’ colleagues: “You better draft that Jones kid.”
The Braves took his advice and selected Jones with the No. 1 pick, paving the way for him to play his entire 19-year MLB career for one team.
While Jones underwent seven knee surgeries and another operation on his ankle en route to Cooperstown, he knows it doesn’t begin to compare to what Aaron went through.
It’s why Chipper Jones, who came along a generation after Hammerin’ Hank retired, fittingly puts him on that pedestal.
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“I can remember the first time I shook his hand and his hand engulfed mine. He truly taught me that the game was played, not only in your head, but from the shoulders to the wrists. I was like ‘Man, know I know where that bat speed came from. Now I see where that strength came from.’
I consider myself lucky that Hank Aaron was a part of this particular organization, because he set the bar, not only for what you should strive for as a baseball player, but as a human being. He spread his grace on everything and everyone that he came in contact with. Just the epitome of class and integrity.
“It’s been a rough go for us in Braves Country, but none hits harder than this one. It’s a truly sad day for our organization.
“He played for the Galactic All-Stars. We’re just mere Earthlings. He was on a different level and when you can take all those home runs away and he’s still got 3,000 hits, won Gold Gloves, All-Star games. To this day, I have to look at the back of that baseball card and remind myself, because some of the numbers just get lost. You’re talking about a transcendent baseball player right here. For him to be at or near the top of the greatest baseball players ever, I’m truly thankful that he was an Atlanta Brave.”
“I wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for Hank Aaron. It’s plain and simple. He’s the reason I’m here. I’ve said many times I’ve been blessed to be raised by and around Hall of Famers my entire career, none more important to my career, to my family, to my life than Hank Aaron.
“Just recently I ran into him at the ballpark, he was down there doing his exercises, he sat in my office and we talked. I pinched myself then thinking ‘Are you kidding me? I’m sitting here talking to Hank Aaron.’
“Just a man of grace and I wish our team, our players would look at the back of that baseball card, because it’s stupid.
“I used to play racquetball with him when I was a young minor-league manager in Sarasota and we’d go to the YMCA. I probably still have welts on the back of my legs, because if you got in front of him — and you talk about wrist and hands — that freaking racquetball would go right through you and he didn’t care. After a while I learned to stay the hell out of his way.
“Just a sad day. The friend, the man, the person. That’s the reason for this sadness.”
“This morning I got the news on a Zoom call and I almost dropped to my knees. I lost a hero. As a black boy growing up, loving the game of baseball, Hank Aaron was that guy. He was a huge reason why I selected the Atlanta Braves as a free agent. It’s a great organization, but it was a chance for me to meet my hero, to talk to my hero and touch my hero.
“To meet Hank for the first time in the dugout in spring training, I was scared to even talk to him. He came over and talked to me first and knew more about me on the football field than baseball. Just to break the ice and have that conversation, he was such a humble man.
“We became really good friends. He’s a guy I will support and supported always. He was my mentor. He was fun to talk to and as a broadcaster, to have that opportunity to interview him was amazing. The fact that regardless of the interview, we continued to talk about history and talk about life. He is that example that I strive to be, not only on the field when I played, but off the field. The hope, the opportunity he’s given so many kids today, young kids like myself. Watching him grow up and seeing how strong he was through all the ignorance of this country was amazing. How he just stayed humble through it all.”