Indirectly, I probably owe my baseball career to Henry Aaron, whose great feat of breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record we honor on today’s 35th anniversary of No. 715 in Atlanta. I wasn’t born yet when it happened, but I learned all about it from my granddaddy, George Cobbs. He loved Hank Aaron. It was all I heard about when I was little — Hank Aaron this, Hank Aaron that. All the time.
My granddad played ball in Arkansas and traveled around the area, to Louisiana, Missouri, all through that area of the country, playing ball. He loved the game, and it was a huge part of our heritage. He taught me how to throw a baseball, how to hit, catch, everything. My granddad had a lot to do with me becoming a baseball player, and a lot of that had to do with Hank Aaron, who was such an influence on him.
It’s a special day. We all should celebrate this, whether you’re black, white, Hispanic, Asian, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Hank Aaron was a great man, not only to break the biggest record in the history of sports — not just baseball, but all of sports — but because of the way he handled himself while he was doing it. His dignity and strength in going through what he did, those are the things that distinguish him and make him an American hero.
He didn’t talk about it at the time, but we learned later — and I learned from my family — about all the threats and all the things that he had to endure while he was going for the record. That kind of courage is what we should celebrate as Americans. When I go to schools to talk to kids and find out that they don’t even know who Aaron is, that really disappoints me. It hurts. He showed us all how to handle adversity with pride and character.
Hank Aaron deserves a place of honor in our history. I don’t know many, if any, players today who could have gone through what he did with such class and integrity.
I was fortunate to meet him once. It was at the All-Star Game in 2002 in Milwaukee. I shook his hand and told him what an honor it was to meet him. We didn’t get a chance to have a real conversation, but he wished me the best, and I had that moment. When you shake the hand of a man like that, a true legend, it’s something that sticks with you. I’ll never forget that.
He was one of the greatest of all time, and a true gentleman. I know Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and deserves all the credit in the world for that, but I really wish more kids knew who Hank Aaron is and what he means to so many people. He was a pioneer, like Jackie Robinson, paving the way for all the rest of us who came along behind him.
Here’s to Hank. You’re the man, Hammer.