By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
ATLANTA - Hank Aaron vividly remembers the day he played the game he loved with the joy sucked out of him.
It was April 10, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr., Aaron's hero -- every African-American's hero, really -- had been shot on April 4, a Friday. The following Tuesday, King was buried in Atlanta. And the day after that, after an unprecedented three-day sports moratorium moved the Cardinals-Braves Opening Day game back 24 hours, Aaron began his 15th season in the big leagues.
But he needed more time.
"It was really dreadful," Aaron said. "It's hard to explain. Here, one of the leaders of the country -- not only among black folks, but just a leader of the country -- had been mysteriously shot and killed, and all of a sudden you have to play a baseball game. That was the last thing on your mind was to think about sports at that time."
Before retiring after the 1976 season, Aaron compiled a laundry list of accomplishments that helped make him one of the game's greatest ever -- a then-record 755 home runs, a career .305 batting average and 21 trips to the All-Star Game.
But the Hall of Famer's influence has reached a whole new level because of what he still does at age 76 -- stay involved in the game and help the African-American presence in it.
"Henry Aaron has been tireless in working with our game," MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon said. "He's never left the game. He's an executive with the Braves, he has been a very close friend of the Commissioner's, has always been a fixture in our game. ... I think that Henry Aaron will go down as one of the tremendous icons of our game, not only for what he did on the field, but for what he did after he left the field."
Since he left, Aaron has worked in the Braves' front office and been a trusted advisor to Major League Baseball. And since Solomon helped honor African-American involvement in the Majors by starting up the Civil Rights Game in 2007, Aaron has been pushing for the event to come to Atlanta.
Finally, he has his wish, as MLB -- after making it an exhibition in Memphis, Tenn., in 2007 and '08, then moving it to Cincinnati as part of the regular-season slate the past two years -- previously announced that the Civil Rights Game will rotate to Atlanta for the next two seasons (a schedule for this year's event has not been announced).
Because it was home to several revolutionary leaders like King and Andrew Young, because three of the most influential black colleges -- Morehouse, Spelman and Morris Brown -- are located there, and because it open-mindedly accepted the first Major League team in the Southeast during a racially turbulent time, Atlanta was considered the central hub for the civil rights movement.
And because of all that, Aaron believes it's "very, very important" that Atlanta be where the next Civil Rights Game is played.
"Just to have the game here where Dr. King's home was, where his burial site is, where there are so many civil rights people, where a lot of things were started, to me is one of the greatest thrills that I can think of," Aaron said. "I think it's so important to have it here; not that it's not as important as having it in Cincinnati last year, or Memphis [two years] before. But just to have that Civil Rights Game here is going to play a tremendous role and is going to bring back all of the things that people think about."
When Bill Bartholomay purchased the Milwaukee Braves and quickly moved them to Atlanta in 1966, it became a landmark event in the advancement of African-Americans, not only because they became the first Major League team in the Southeast, but because the franchise player was also African-American.
Even though that was the case, Aaron said he "didn't feel threatened by coming to Atlanta."
"I had no idea," Aaron said. "I was coming in to be a baseball player, and that's exactly what I wanted to be, no matter if I was here, New York, Chicago or Kalamazoo. I was going to do the same thing I did in Milwaukee -- play baseball."
Atlanta provided Aaron with a place where he could thrive in that department, and it had little to do with Fulton County Stadium being nicknamed "The Launching Pad." Though racism was of course still present in the city, Atlanta was more evolved in terms of racial integration than its surrounding cities.
"The city of Atlanta was very progressive in that area," Bartholomay said.
Five decades ago, the city provided a coincidental link between baseball and social justice. But it wasn't the first time that went on.
"Baseball has always been a part of civil rights," Aaron said. "I've spoken with [former Atlanta mayor and activist] Andy Young many times, and he said they were dealing with segregation on one end, and they were dealing with it on the other end. We both had a mountain to climb, and everybody did their part."
Aaron went 0-for-4 in that April 10, 1968, game, a 2-1 loss by his Braves that drew 34,740 to the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. That day, baseball once again played a role in civil rights, because even though Aaron and several others had their minds on anything but playing, the game itself may have helped the city move on from losing one of its greatest leaders.
"It was a deep-seated feeling that we shouldn't have played, but we had no other choice," Aaron said. "I think Dr. King ... I think he would've wanted us to play, and we went and played."