On Purpose

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How Hank Aaron helped others keep swinging

Image of Hank Aaron signing baseball hat

It was a two-Kleenex moment for Allan Tanenbaum. “One of the great things we have in life is memories,” he says, grabbing a tissue and reminiscing about his friend, Henry Louis Aaron.

“I’ve been having those memories every day since January 22, 2021,” Tanenbaum says. When Aaron, 86, passed away at his home in Atlanta in January, he left a giant legacy both on the field and off, especially for those closest to him. 

To baseball writers and fans, he was Hank Aaron. They called him the Hammer, for how hard he could hit a baseball. Opposing pitchers called him Bad Henry—because it was going to be a bad day when they had to face him. For those who truly knew his accomplishments and the character of the man, he was Mr. Aaron, a legend of baseball who broke Babe Ruth’s career home-run record and is one of only two people to have his own room at the Baseball Hall of Fame (Ruth is the other).

To his family and friends, including Tanenbaum, he was Henry. And Henry Aaron did much more than play baseball.

“Mr. Aaron represented excellence in everything you do,” says Danielle Bedasse, executive director of the nonprofit Atlanta Braves Foundation. “After his baseball career, he did so much: going on to a career and really building businesses, investing philanthropically in the community, working in the front office of the Braves.”

While many know Aaron’s public baseball life, it’s this other side of him that’s being celebrated by the Atlanta Braves and Truist for Hank Aaron Week, a special week of community-centered activities and announcements of long-term investments in diversity and inclusion by the two companies.

“Truist is committed to standing for better. Part of that is a dedication to creating equitable experiences and opportunities that may not exist otherwise,” says Todd Achilles, senior vice president of sports and entertainment marketing at Truist. Achilles points out that Truist’s purpose—to inspire and build better lives and communities—perfectly complements who Hank Aaron was and what he stood for.

“There’s certainly nothing we can add to Mr. Aaron’s legacy on the field,” says Bedasse, “so our ability to add to and honor his legacy off the field is really our focus.” That’s why the Atlanta Braves Foundation reached out to work with the Aaron family and Allan Tanenbaum to find a suitable way to celebrate.

A friendship is born.

Tanenbaum was a young lawyer in 1972 when he met Aaron and the two became lifelong friends. For the past 49 years, Tanenbaum has been a friend and attorney for the family, and helped with many of Aaron’s philanthropic projects. 

“He was my brother, my Dutch uncle, a father, and one of my best friends,” Tanenbaum said at Aaron’s funeral, where he described Aaron being synonymous with the Jewish idea of “tikun olam”—repairing the world through acts of loving kindness.

“There’s a saying, ‘To save one life is to save the world,’” Tanenbaum says. “And I always felt that personified Henry and his wife, Billye’s, lives. They taught that to me as a young lawyer, as a young husband, and throughout my life of association with them and their fans. There are 49 years of memories there.”

Bad Henry surpasses Babe Ruth.

Aaron was born in segregated Alabama in 1934. He endured racism and indignity throughout his career, but he persevered with character and focused on his work of hitting the ball. Except for the final two years of his career, he played for the Braves, first in Milwaukee and then moving with them to Atlanta in 1966.

Babe Ruth’s record of 714 lifetime home runs stood unchallenged for almost 40 years. Then, by 1973, people started to notice that Aaron was approaching it. He was a quick batter who could hit for power but was more low-key than other stars, so he frequently slipped under the radar of public notice.

During his run for the record, Aaron received some 930,000 pieces of mail. A lot of it was unflattering and racist, and some contained death threats. People questioned how a Black man could dare to break a white man’s record. Aaron had to have a police escort for his protection.

Tanenbaum has a sharp memory for this period. “Henry pointed out that it’s always publicized, the thousands of letters of hate mail that he got. But he got an equal number or more of other letters, of support.” 

Aaron finally hit home run number 715 on April 8, 1974, to eclipse Ruth’s record. He would go on to hit 755 career home runs.

Keep swinging.

Aaron liked to say he didn’t do it on his own—God gave him talent and the ability to develop it, but he never told kids to just practice baseball, says Tanenbaum. He told them to read a book. “He would say, ‘I should not be your role model. Your teacher is your role model. Your parents and caregivers are your role models.’”

It’s this life wisdom that Tanenbaum hopes will be Aaron’s true legacy. The lessons of perseverance, grit, and focus are not just what got Aaron in the record books. They’re also how he touched so many lives off the field. It was his character that connected everything he did.

“We have to remember the man and what he did, and keep applying those life lessons,” says Tanenbaum. 

“Keep swinging” was always Aaron’s motto. “Whether I was in a slump or feeling bad or having trouble off the field,” Aaron said, “the only thing to do was keep swinging.”

“They can do anything they want to do.”

That’s one reason Aaron, with his wife, Billye, started the Chasing a Dream Foundation. Billye Aaron was an academic powerhouse who graduated from Texas College, then got her master’s from Atlanta University, and did postgraduate work at the University of California at Berkeley. She would go on to join the United Negro College Fund and the NAACP to work for the education of African Americans.

After his experiences chasing opportunities on the field and her work in the classroom, it was natural the couple would go on to create better opportunities for kids who are trying to better their lives, Tanenbaum says. And that’s why the Chasing the Dream Foundation was created: to help kids keep swinging.

“I hope I’ve set a pattern in life,” Aaron said, “not only by my kids but for all the people in the world; that if you try a little harder, no matter how hard the obstacle might be, you can succeed. I don’t want any kid, no matter who they are, to think ‘I can’t do it.’ The fact is, they can do anything they want to do.”

What it costs to save a life.

The Chasing a Dream Foundation began giving students small stipends to chase their dreams, just as Aaron had. But the dreams were different: going to space camp, getting music lessons. Soon they were funding students to attend HBCUs and the Atlanta Technical College and giving gap funding to help students shoulder the burden of education costs not covered by loans. The foundation has its purpose. Allan Tanenbaum likes to ask, “What do you think it costs to save a life?”

The answer is as little as $500.

That amount is the difference between college students staying in school and dropping out because they can’t afford textbooks. A little help can make a big difference. That’s why the Chasing a Dream Foundation is focused on helping people further along the path of their dreams. 

Aaron said in one interview: “When I was a young kid growing up in Mobile, Alabama, I chased a dream and found it and played baseball for 23 years. I see these young kids coming along now, and they’re chasing their dreams. It just so happens that their dream costs a little bit more than mine did. I’m hoping they catch it, and that they’re able to do the things they want to do in life.”

Be better.

In keeping with his friend’s values of helping others before he helped himself, Tanenbaum is working with the foundation to keep Aaron’s dream alive. “Certain lessons of life need to be retaught daily,” he says. “Hopefully we can continue to inspire people so they can add their own meaning to his words, backed up by a life of actions, both on and off the field.”

One way that’s happening is the Henry Aaron Fellowship program. Truist is currently funding two Henry Aaron Fellowships within the Braves organization. The program honors Aaron’s passion for expanding diversity in baseball by developing the next generation of diverse business leaders in executive-level positions. These paid fellowships report directly to Braves President and CEO Derek Schiller.

Tanenbaum says Aaron would be proud of this program because it improves diversity and equity across the game he loved.

“He would always be asked, ‘What do you want to be remembered by?’” Tanenbaum says. “I don’t think I ever heard him say anything about any records, not baseball records. He would always say, ‘Every day I tried to be better.’”

Want to further Aaron’s legacy? Learn more about what you can do.

Read how Truist teammates are living out our purpose.

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