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Rays fan has a special memory of meeting Hank Aaron

St. Petersburg’s Jeff Wilcox has a ball signed by Aaron and Babe Ruth, plus a grandson named after the legendary slugger.
St. Petersburg resident Jeff Wilcox owns a baseball signed by Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, among others.
St. Petersburg resident Jeff Wilcox owns a baseball signed by Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, among others. [ Courtesy of Jeff Wilcox ]
Published Jan. 23
Updated Jan. 23

Kevin Cash has a signed jersey, Neil Solondz a photo and the recording of an inning shared on radio, Brandon Lowe a tale of a disappointing trip to Cooperstown.

All around baseball, people were telling Hank Aaron stories on Friday, as news of the legendary slugger’s death shook the industry.

That included a Rays fan in St. Petersburg, Jeff Wilcox, with an extremely special keepsake — a ball he says was signed by Aaron and the man whose career home run record he broke, Babe Ruth.

Related: Reaction to the death of Hank Aaron

Wilcox, 74, was living in Minnesota in 1974 when he saw that Aaron’s Braves were playing an in-season exhibition game against the Twins (which, per retrosheet.org, was on May 30), shortly after Aaron broke Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. (In-season exhibitions were somewhat common at the time.)

Wilcox’s uncle, Charlie, worked the scoreboard at old Metropolitan Stadium and had passed the ball on to him. The Spalding from the 1930s with blue and red stitches was adorned with signatures from several Hall of Famers, including Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott of the 1933 Giants, and Ruth.

Wilcox had wanted to add Aaron, and figured this might be the only chance.

Jeff Wilcox has been a big Rays fan since moving to St. Petersburg in 2003 and has supported the team at home and on the road, including a 2008 trip to Baltimore.
Jeff Wilcox has been a big Rays fan since moving to St. Petersburg in 2003 and has supported the team at home and on the road, including a 2008 trip to Baltimore. [ Special to the Times - Jeff Wilcox ]

Wilcox said he hustled home from work to retrieve the ball, got to the game late but found his way in, and somehow found himself near the doors of the visiting clubhouse.

As he shared in an emailed account, here is what happened next:

“Suddenly, then the door opened. There he was. Surrounded by a protective entourage. I quickly joined the flood of bodies down the hallway. I could feel the sweat on the plastic bag in my pocket.

“I removed THE BALL from my pocket. ‘Mr. Aaron, would you be so kind as to autograph this baseball? It’s a special one.’

“The bodyguards shoved me away. Hank noticed that there was something different about this old brown ball. He told everyone to stop.

“I removed the ball from the plastic bag and held it closer to him. He could see the name, Babe Ruth. He took several side glances at the crowd. His eyes lit up. He smiled. ‘Sure, I’d be honored,’ he said.

“It was a magic moment, as he added his name to the list of legends on THE BALL. Another link had been added to the chain of baseball’s history.”

Actually, Wilcox said Friday, there would be one more link. His daughter and her husband named their son Henry Aaron Peter. So Wilcox, who moved to St. Petersburg in 2003 and became a big Rays fan, said his now 13-year-old grandson is a daily reminder of the baseball star.

Several members of the Rays shared their memories of Aaron, as well, on Friday.

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Cash recalled last seeing Aaron in July, when the Rays were the visitors for the Braves’ home opener. He joined Atlanta manager Brian Snitker on the field before the game and waved to Aaron in the stands. (Aaron also was in North Port in March 2019 when the Braves opened their new spring complex with a game against the Rays.)

Cash said one of the few pieces of baseball memorabilia he has collected is an old Braves jersey signed by Aaron that he got through a mutual friend a few years ago. “I figured that would be a pretty cool one to have,” Cash said.

Lowe tweeted his respects, then told a story of visiting the Hall of Fame as a kid: “The only thing I wanted to see was the Hank Aaron exhibit. Unfortunately, it was still under construction when we visited. Made for an unhappy kid wearing the classic ‘A’ Braves helmet.”

Solondz had a face-to-face encounter with Aaron while working for Triple-A Durham in 2006.

Aaron, in town on personal business, walked into the team offices “and asked at the front desk if you could buy a ticket for that night’s game.” Solondz and the Bulls staff recognized Aaron and quickly made plans to set him up in the owners’ suite — though Aaron did have to do an inning on the air with Solondz.

“Remember, this was also the year before the (home run) record was about to be broken (by Barry Bonds),” Solondz posted. “You could not have imagined a more gracious, kind individual, especially considering all he went through in life.”