ATLANTA – As his adopted hometown mourned Hank Aaron's death, some fans called on the Atlanta Braves to change their name to the Hammers in his honor.
“Hammerin' Hank” died Friday at age 86, drawing praise from all segments of society — including the current and former presidents — for his Hall of Fame career and providing inspiration to Black Americans by overcoming intense racism in his pursuit of baseball's home run record.
The governors of both Georgia and Alabama ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of Aaron — the Hammer was born in the port city of Mobile and called Atlanta home for much of his life.
The NFL's Atlanta Falcons, Major League Soccer's Atlanta United and Georgia Tech's football team all announced they would retire Aaron's trademark No. 44 for their 2021 seasons. The number was long ago retired by the Braves.
“May generations of Georgians continue to be inspired by his groundbreaking career and tremendous impact on our state and nation,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey added, “He inspired many young boys and girls to pursue their dreams and pursue excellence in whatever they do.”
The Braves opened up Truist Park to fans for the first time since the 2019 season, allowing them to pay socially distanced tribute to Aaron on Friday and Saturday at his statue located in a monument garden on the main stadium concourse.
Other fans paid tribute at a display honoring his 715th homer, which is in a parking lot for the stadium formerly known as Turner Field. The site was the home of Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, where the Braves played for 31 seasons after moving from Milwaukee in 1966.
The stadium was imploded after Turner Field became the Braves' new home in 1997, but a small section of fencing, a wall and a sign mark the spot where No. 715 broke Babe Ruth's hallowed home run record in 1974. Aaron finished his career with 755 homers, a standard that has since been eclipsed by Barry Bonds.
The Hammer spent nearly all of his 23-year career with the Braves, whose nickname has drawn some criticism as being offensive to Native Americans.
Social media buzzed with calls to change the moniker to match Aaron's nickname. There was even a fledgling online petition backing the idea.
“The renaming serves two important purposes: 1) It honors an icon who represented our city with grace and dignity for more than half a century, and 2) It removes the stain on the city of having a team name that dishonors Native and Indigenous people, especially given one of the greatest tragedies in American History, the Trail of Tears, began in the region the team calls home,” the petition said.
The Braves have steadfastly resisted calls to change their name, saying they view it as a tribute to Native Americans rather than a slur.
But the team did take steps during the 2019 playoffs to downplay symbols of its nickname after St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley — a member of the Cherokee Nation — said he found the team's "Tomahawk Chop” chant offensive.
The team did not distribute red foam tomahawks before the decisive Game 5 of the series, won by the Cardinals, and also halted the playing of rhythmic music that prompts fans to break into the arm-swinging chop.
Braves officials have not said whether those moves will be permanent when fans are allowed to return to games, but it has removed a “Chop On” sign that was near the entrance to Truist Park.
In recent months, some fans began coming up with a possible new logo that replaced the team's trademark tomahawk with a similar-looking hammer.
There has been no indication that Aaron's death would change the team's stance on its Braves nickname. The NL's oldest franchise began using Braves more than 100 years ago while its played in its original home in Boston.
The team changed its name to the Bees in 1936, a move that lasted until it reverted back to the Braves in 1941.
Last year, the Washington NFL Team dropped its longtime nickname, which Meriam-Webster defined as “insulting and contemptuous.” Baseball's Cleveland Indians have announced they will change their nickname as well, though not until after the 2021 season.
The Braves are among several big league teams that still use Native American-inspired monikers, including the NFL's Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, the NBA's Golden State Warriors and the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks.
Aaron also was honored in Milwaukee, where the Hammer began his big league career and helped lead the Braves to the 1957 World Series title. He returned to the city at the end of his career, playing his final two seasons with the Brewers, and regularly visited over the years for charity events.
The Brewers plan to wear a “44” patch on their jersey sleeves throughout the 2021 season.
“His contributions to the game of baseball and the community of Milwaukee created a legacy that is cherished and will never be forgotten,” Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said.
Bob Uecker, who was Aaron's teammate in Milwaukee during the 1960s and went on to greater fame as a Hall of Fame broadcaster, remembered his longtime friend.
“I will always cherish my time with Hank, and with (his wife) Billye — all the laughs we shared, and all the unforgettable stories," Uecker said. ”Hank loved Wisconsin, and we loved him back.”
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