Hank Aaron was 'a very easy person to idolize'
Anyone that's ever known Ozzie Guillen is well aware the former White Sox shortstop and World Series winning manager never shied away from talking to anyone.
Hank Aaron was the exception.
Playing for the Atlanta Braves for two seasons (1998-99) near the end of his career, Guillen spotted Aaron walking toward the dugout.
"I was like, 'Oh my God,'" Guillen said Friday on his La Vida Baseball podcast. "I wanted to approach him, but I didn't know him."
Braves manager Bobby Cox eventually introduced the two, much to the delight of Guillen.
"It was a privilege to meet him," Guillen said. "This man was better than people thought. He was an icon. He was a great human being."
Best known for breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record in 1974, Aaron died on Friday at the age of 86. The Braves said he died peacefully in his sleep.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982, Aaron played 23 seasons with the Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers.
The Mobile, Ala., native is still No. 1 all-time with 2,297 career RBI and 6,856 total bases and his 755 home runs rank second to Barry Bonds (762). Aaron batted .305/.374/.555 and his 3,771 career hits rank third all-time behind Pete Rose (4,256) and Ty Cobb (4,189).
On a Zoom call Friday, Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins remembered first watching Aaron play on TV.
"Growing up, Monday Night Baseball was kind of a thing," Jenkins said. "Got to see Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, quite a few players of color. (Aaron), he was a home run hitter, a hitter that was dangerous every time he came to the plate."
Breaking Ruth's home run record was a difficult enough feat in itself, but Aaron did it while dealing with racial injustice that was still present after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.
On April, 8, 1974, "The Hammer" broke Ruth's record with his 715th home run. The right-hander connected off the Dodgers' Al Downing at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
As he was mobbed circling the bases, legendary Los Angeles broadcaster Vin Scully perfectly captured the historic achievement.
"What a marvelous moment for baseball," Scully said. "What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol."
Aaron remained a tireless advocate for racial equality after retiring following the 1976 season, and reaction to his death was expectedly overwhelming Friday.
White Sox Hall of Famer Frank Thomas was a young child living in Columbus, Ga., when Aaron broke Ruth's record.
"I remember as a five-year-old how he touched my family, the whole state, the whole community," Thomas said. "That's something as a kid, it sticks with you the rest of your life, My family, they went crazy when Hank Aaron broke the home run record. It was like tears of joy.
"He meant so much to the state of Georgia and the African-American community. He was a rock star. To break the record of Babe Ruth with humility, he was a very humble person. He was under a lot of duress and stress but he never stopped smiling, He just did all the right things and was a very easy person to idolize."
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo wears uniform No. 44, as did Aaron.
"An American hero and baseball legend," Rizzo wrote on Twitter. "My thoughts and prayers go out to all of Mr. Aaron's family and friends. I am proud every day to wear #44. RIP."
When former Sox slugger Harold Baines was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019, he noted all of the legends that gathered in Cooperstown. One stood out.
"I think when you see a guy like Hank Aaron and you're in their midst, yeah, that's very special," Baines said. "I never envisioned myself being on the same stage with a person like that."