For a couple of years now, people have been talking about the decline of the African-American player in Major League Baseball. The sport has made it a priority to get inner-city kids interested and involved in the game again, and the players have also done their part. I have the Torii Hunter Project, CC Sabathia has his, Jimmy Rollins has his thing going, Derrek Lee. Guys are doing what they can to get inner-city kids back into the game.
This is important to us, because it’s our heritage. Back in the days of the Negro Leagues, baseball was huge for African-Americans. They played in front of 20,000, 30,000 fans. Everybody was all dressed up, men in suits, women in dresses, everybody looking fine and having a great time.
The last 10 years we’ve seen a decline in African-Americans in the Majors, but there are signs it’s coming back around. Two years ago it was on its way to 7 percent African-American representation in the Major Leagues, but now it’s up to 10, 11 percent. That’s encouraging. It tells me these programs and projects are starting to work.
This series with the Dodgers is especially exciting for me. I’m always into the game — I don’t hide my love of playing baseball — but this Interleague series is definitely special. I look over at the other side of the field and see Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, Orlando Hudson, James Loney, Juan Pierre, Cory Wade. And Xavier Paul just went on the disabled list. That’s a lot of African-Americans on one team.
Over in our clubhouse, we’ve got Chone Figgins, Howard Kendrick, Darren Oliver, Gary Matthews Jr. and myself. It really feels good to see African-Americans playing the game and showing kids how they can have long, productive careers — and make a lot of money in this sport.
Like anything worthwhile, it’s never easy. It takes a lot of mental toughness. It’s a humbling game with a lot of failure involved. But it’s worth all the time and effort, believe me. I signed when I was 17, and I’m signed through 37 years old. That means I’ll have 20 years in the game, at least. How many guys do that in the NFL and NBA?
Last year it was the Angels, Rays and Brewers who had the highest percentage of African-Americans, but it looks to me like it’s the Dodgers and Angels now. Two L.A. teams, playing an exciting brand of baseball — old-school style. We go first to third, run the bases hard, play great defense. We compete..
I will have a big smile on my face tonight. I feel a lot of pride in what I’m seeing. I want inner-city kids to understand how great this game is, how you don’t have to have a 40-inch vertical leap or be able to run through a building to play baseball. You need desire, a strong work ethic, and you have to know how to handle failure and adversity.
The game is getting back to speed, moving away from all the focus being on power. You see how important the stolen base is again, with guys like Carl Crawford and Figgy. Heck, I’ve even got eight bags. Bobby Abreu is stealing bases.
This is the game our grandparents and their parents grew up loving. Knowing everything the Dodgers have represented for bringing Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella into the game and breaking down that color barrier, I’m so happy to see the team they’re putting on the field now.
I’m always excited to play the game and never take for granted how fortunate I am. This is going to be a great weekend of baseball.
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.