CHICAGO — Hall of Famer Frank Thomas grew up in Columbus, Ga., and realized at an early age Hank Aaron’s vast importance to the game of baseball, society in general and particularly his family. Aaron died Friday at age 86.
“I felt that in myself when I was younger, like 5 years old,” said Thomas during an interview with White Sox television play-by-play announcer Jason Benetti Friday evening. “I kind of felt the significance because my parents, my uncles, they were all like sports people. On the weekends, that’s all we did was sports. We watched sports together.
“In ‘74, I was a baby, I was almost 6 and they went crazy when Hank Aaron broke the home run record, and that’s when I was really aware who Hank Aaron was. It was like tears of joy, like their savior had happened because he meant so much to the state of Georgia and the African American community. He was a rock star among rock stars. To break the record he did of Babe Ruth, with humility, very humble person. Just a class act.”
Thomas became one of the biggest stars in Chicago sports history, hitting 448 of his career 521 home runs with the White Sox and winning back-to-back American League MVP Awards in 1993-94 before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014. Yet, he was still awestruck when he had the chance to chat with Aaron, remembering how Aaron touched his family, his community and the whole state of Georgia when he was a kid.
“It sticks with you the rest of your life,” Thomas said. “I’m just grateful I got to meet him and meet him multiple times and have conversations with him.”
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Thomas’ family was with him during one of the last visits he had with Aaron at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and his kids were able to take pictures with the legend. They had the biggest smiles on their faces, according to Thomas, knowing what Aaron meant to their father.
The two shared their love of baseball through conversations, with Thomas noting how Aaron’s impressive approach at the plate influenced him to use the whole field when hitting. He added a humorous story involving Thomas’ first MVP Award and comments from his father, Frank Sr., who died in 2001 and also was a true Aaron fan.
“He said, ‘Son, you are playing really well, but you are still not Hank Aaron.’ That will stick with you the rest of your life,” said a smiling Thomas of his father’s comments. “I looked at him and said, ‘You are right. I’m not. He’s the greatest to ever do it. I only wish my career can be as big as Hank Aaron.’ He was one of those generational heroes that I strive to be like, Hank Aaron. He was under a lot of duress and stress, but never stopped smiling.
“Always said the right things and always just did the right things. It was an easy person to idolize. To this day, I idolize him as an adult. He meant so much to my family, my community, the state of Georgia. Just like Michael Jordan did for the city of Chicago, that’s the effect Hank Aaron had in my early years growing up.”
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Aaron’s importance to the African American community also was stressed by Thomas, especially the racism the humble icon dealt with through class and dignity as he approached and passed Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record on April 8, 1974.
“It started with Jackie [Robinson]. He idolized Jackie to go through all that. Besides Jackie, nobody went through that but Hank Aaron,” Thomas said. “The death threats and ‘you better not show up tomorrow or we are going to kill you.’ He went through that. He never snapped. He always held it with dignity and a big smile. He was alert about it.
“To do what he did and break that record under those circumstances, my hat will always be off to him and Jackie Robinson for what they did for the game of baseball for the African American player. Just a great person. I was really stunned this morning. He looked great a few weeks ago on TV. You never know when something like this happens. It’s unreal.”