Change Braves Name to Honor Aaron
Photo Credit: Getty Images. Henry "Hank" Aaron was one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game.
As the sports world deals today with the death of Hank Aaron, arguably the greatest hitter in baseball history, it provides an opportunity for the team he is associated with to both honor Aaron’s greatness and do the right thing by dropping a racially insensitive team name.
Because of his batting power, Aaron’s nickname was the Hammer, which came from the alliteration Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. (MC Hammer, the 1990s hip-hop icon, was a ball boy as a child for his hometown Oakland Athletics and given the nickname Hammer by A’s owner Charlie Finley because of the resemblance he bore to Aaron.)
After beginning his pro career as a teenager in the waning years of the Negro Leagues, and then being one of the first Black players in the minors in the South Atlantic League, Aaron spent almost his entire career with the Braves, first in Milwaukee in 1954 and staying with them through their relocation to Atlanta in 1966. The Atlanta Braves, of course, stubbornly remain one of the few teams in professional or collegiate sports to cling to a Native American team mascot and all the associated imagery and sounds that come with it. After years of sustained public pressure – and internal resistance - the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians and Edmonton Eskimos have all agreed to change their names, joining a myriad of high school and college teams that had Native American-themed nicknames or mascots that did the same.
But the Braves have held fast. On its own, there is nothing offensive about calling oneself a Brave. But when it is accompanied by logos with a screaming Mohawk warrior and Native American weaponry, well, then it starts to become a little offensive.
Exacerbating this in the Braves’ case is the team’s continued use of the lyrical Tomahawk Chop chant it encourages fans to sing during games, all while moving their arm in a chopping motion. You know, like all those “savage” Indians did…while trying to prevent their land from being stolen by white men.
The Braves even tacitly admitted the Tomahawk Chop is offensive. During the 2019 playoffs, St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Ryan Helsley, a native-born member of the Cherokee Nation, called the chant “disrespectful…It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots.”
In response, the Braves agreed to “take steps to reduce” the use of the offensive chant. “Among other things, these steps include not distributing foam tomahawks to each seat and not playing the accompanying music or using Chop-related graphics when Mr. Helsley is in the game.”
While Mr. Helsley is in the game. But the rest of the time, we’ll be as offensive as we damn well please! To paraphrase the comedian Jeff Foxworthy, if you have to change the offensive ways you encourage your fans to support your team, you might be…
Aaron’s death today at age 86 gives the Braves a great chance to get with the times by dropping an offensive name and honor the greatest player in franchise history and one of the all-time greats of any sport. How good was Aaron? He retired as the most prodigious slugger in the game’s history, hitting 755 home runs while batting .305 and driving in 2,297 runs. Barry Bonds surpassed Aaron’s home run record with the help of steroids; the RBI record still stands. Most baseball players either hit for a high average or produce a lot of power. Aaron did both – in 1959 he led the Majors by hitting .355, one of two batting titles he won.
Aaron was an All-Star in 21 straight seasons, won three gold gloves for his defense and, what he was most proud of, led the Braves to the 1957 World Series title. Given baseball’s affinity for stats, we could go on for days discussing Aaron’s numbers and accolades. Instead, let’s just say if there were a Mount Rushmore for baseball, Aaron would damn sure be on it. He did all this despite having a modest build for a slugger – 6-0, 180 – and playing most of his career before baseball lowered the pitchers’ mound 10 inches in 1968, because it was thought to be putting hitters at a disadvantage. And, of course, he did it all without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. That was on the field. Off the field, he was a pioneer for Black athletes, who endured all sorts of slurs and racism that came by being Black in the 50s and 60s. The South Atlantic League did not integrate until 1953, which meant a 19-year-old Aaron had to be among the first to endure the slurs that came with bussing to entertain the good people of towns like Columbia, S.C., Macon and Savannah, Ga., and Montgomery, Ala. Use your imagination for what that must have been like. When the Braves relocated to Atlanta, they became the first major league team of any sport in the South, meaning Aaron was a Black superstar in his prime in a place and time where many restaurants, stores and hotels were still segregated and the governor of his new home state was notorious integration opponent Lester Maddox. In short, Atlanta was a long way from becoming “the city too busy to hate” that it claims to be today. In 1974, as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s hallowed record of 714 home runs, Aaron received stacks of racist letters, loaded with slurs and epithets, and threatening him and his family with violence, all because he was out there doing his job.
What composure and fortitude it must have taken to perform at such a high level, and for such a long time. Under those circumstances, it is almost impossible for most of us to fathom. And, yet, as with many of his era in and out of the public eye, Aaron did so with grace and skill. After his playing career, Aaron worked in the Braves’ front office, and in 1982 he became executive vice president, making him one of the first Blacks in the upper levels of team management in any sport. Aaron’s contributions to the Braves go so far beyond a statue or a banner on a stadium. And the Braves, who play in the city of Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock, are long overdue to change their offensive nickname. Despite its tardiness, the timing is perfect for the club to both do the right thing and honor its greatest player. It’s time for the Atlanta Hammers.