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The death of Henry Aaron shocked and saddened the baseball world last Friday. Aaron was a giant, a tremendous player and steward of the game who pushed back against the very racism he encountered during his playing career in his days as an executive with the Braves as well. Paying tribute to the man isn’t easy — in fact, some paying tribute to him end up just being insulting or dismissive of what he actually went through and felt, leaving others to clean up those messes — but there are certainly ways to do so. The Braves, the team Aaron spent decades with in both Milwaukee and Atlanta, have an opportunity for a long-lasting tribute to the man: rename the team the Hammers.
This certainly isn’t an original thought of mine — there were enough calls for such a switch that the Associated Press ran a story on the matter — but it is one I support. And that support is not just because it gives the Braves an easy out for their current name, which may seem innocuous enough compared to the NFL’s former Washington Literal Slur Against Native Americans, but is similarly responsible for creating a culture of offensive “tributes” and appropriation. It’s also because Aaron deserves to be remembered, and rebranding a franchise after its most vital icon is no small thing. A petition in favor of the name change, mentioned by the AP story, brings up both of these points as well:
“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.
Let me be clear on the “easy out” part, though. The Braves absolutely should change their name in order to change the culture surrounding them. When I say a switch to Hammers would be an “easy out,” I don’t mean to praise this as a slick little business move that lets Atlanta avoid some of the messiness surrounding a name change. It would be that, but I also don’t care how messy the process of changing their name is. They should change it regardless, as it is worth the mess. They should have changed it while Henry Aaron still drew breath on this Earth: they should not be waiting until they’re the only pro team left with a “tribute” name for Native Americans to finally make a move. I only mean to point out that, for an organization as obstinate about the racist culture surrounding their team name as Atlanta has been, a switch to something like “Hammers” in tribute to Aaron might be the only thing that moves them.
And obstinate they are. Not only did Dan Snyder’s NFL franchise somehow change their tune before Atlanta, but the Braves still haven’t come up with a definitive plan for handling The Chop, which was publicly called out by a Cardinals’ pitcher and member of Cherokee Nation, Ryan Helsley, back during the 2019 postseason. The Braves’ response was to not play the music for The Chop… but only when Helsley was in the game. As was said at the time, “Yes, the Braves’ answer to Helsley’s comments was ‘okay, sure, maybe the chop is racist, so we’ll only be racist when the guy it’s racist to isn’t around.’ And yes, admitting something is racist and then doing it two percent less often is even worse than feigning ignorance on the matter.”
The Braves know that it’s all racist! They know their team name is a problem, because they’ve spent years ignoring all of the local Native Americans telling them as much, just like Washington and Kansas City in the NFL, and Cleveland in MLB, also ignored the results of those much-discussed “conversations” with local Native Americans. Until they didn’t, anyway: Cleveland still has real work to do, but they’ve at least promised a name change is imminent, while the Chiefs have made inroads to improve the culture around their games, and Washington is playing as “Football Team” until they figure out a permanent name. Atlanta is still talking up those “conversations,” and have put off producing anything from them for a long time now. You can blame the pandemic for their lack of a response to in-game issues, but the 2020 season was going to be one with fans up until it wasn’t, and there wasn’t even an inkling of a solution in place at the point that changed.
The Braves should become the Hammers for a number of reasons. To finally have a connection to the region by linking themselves to a franchise icon who pre-dates Atlanta’s own time with the team, but was also a fixture in the Atlanta years, too. To pay tribute to Henry Aaron himself, to make sure he doesn’t just become a big name from the past as can often happen as time marches on. To finally, fully admit that the Braves name needs to go, because it’s a problem. And, much like I wanted the Red Sox to rename Yawkey Way to something after David Ortiz — a player that former Sox owner and professional racist Tom Yawkey would not have allowed to be on his clubs — because it would help send that much clearer of a signal of change. In the case of Aaron and Atlanta, the switch would be from a racist, appropriative culture to one honoring a legend that confronted racism throughout his life and career, making the change that much more meaningful.
Changing the name certainly doesn’t “fix” racism, whether it’s against Native Americans or Black Americans. It’s not a meaningful apology for wrongs against either group on all its own. But there is at least something aspirational about a switch to Hammers that there wouldn’t be if Atlanta decided to try some other way to “honor” Native Americans, or if they went to an extremely generic sports name. Atlanta Hammers is the right call. Now we just have to wait to see if Atlanta thinks so, too.
It should be noted that it would be important, too, for Atlanta to celebrate Aaron’s history without also MLK-ifying his career, his legacy, his life. A switch to Hammers should come with the unvarnished truth surrounding what he was forced to deal with, how he responded to it, how it made him feel, how it shaped him. I linked to this already in the story itself, but here’s Bradford William Davis on Aaron’s life story already being at risk, mere days after his death.
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