Here was Aaron, speaking in his distinctive baritone voice, telling many among the crowd who used to cheer him as a Braves icon, along the way to a final total of 755 home runs, that he loved them and that he cherished them as much as he did the game he helped make famous.
"I want to say thank you so very much for all your kindness these 40 years," Aaron said, referring to a period that included his transition from Braves slugger with a slew of all-time baseball offensive records, to Braves executive who helped set the foundation for their record 14-consecutive division titles that began in the early 1990s.
Still, Aaron mostly is known as that soft-spoken guy from Mobile, Ala., with the quick wrist at the plate, easy strides in right field and classy ways no matter his situation. While Barry Bonds officially holds the all-time record for home runs, Aaron remains the standard barrier.
For verification, there were Aaron's slew of worshippers on that warm April night in Georgia, and they nodded en masse when he added, "For 23 years, I gave baseball everything that I had, every ounce of my abilities to play the game."
As Aaron spoke, his voice was the only thing making a sound for miles. Many wiped away tears, and all of this emotion made sense. With baseball royalty speaking from the heart before numerous national, state and local dignitaries -- baseball and otherwise -- sitting or standing around the ballpark, you knew this was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. You could see it, and you could feel it. In fact, Braves CEO Terry McGuirk turned and said to me later after easing into a smile, "It was almost Lou Gehrig-ish."
Yes, it was.
Actually, as moving as it was, no it wasn't.
With apologies to McGuirk and Aaron, when it comes to all-time speeches in the history of sports, nothing will ever touch that moment at Yankee Stadium that happened on July 4, 1939. I'm talking about the Lou Gehrig Farewell Speech. It's the moment Major League Baseball is commemorating this year in a variety of ways, and it's the moment that still makes you go, "Wow."
It's greater than Jim Valvano imploring folks for the rest of eternity to never give up. It's greater than John Cappelletti's tribute to his cancer-suffering younger brother after winning the Heisman Trophy. It's greater than Tim Tebow promising his University of Florida teammates that they wouldn't lose again along the way to a national championship in college football. It's greater than a dying Brian Piccolo telling Gale Sayers enough inspiring stuff for a movie. It's greater than Herb Brooks reading words from the back of an envelope to inspire his players before "The Miracle On Ice." It's greater than whatever George Gipp whispered on his death bed to Knute Rockne, especially since some believe it never happened.
Gehrig was invincible. He played in a record 2,130 consecutive games before Cal Ripken Jr. came along. Gehrig had a ridiculous lifetime batting average of .340, and an even more ridiculous slugging percentage of .632 to complement his 493 home runs and 1,995 RBIs. While Babe Ruth batted third for the Yankees, Gehrig was the cleanup hitter. He had six World Series championship rings, and by his 35th birthday, he also had ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which later became known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
ALS killed Gehrig two years later at the age of 37.
Before then, there was July 4, 1939. A visibly weak Gehrig stood before a hushed crowd of nearly 62,000 to announce his retirement with a standup microphone before him, and the echoes of Yankee Stadium preparing to carry his voice.
Gehrig began with these immortal words: "Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
That was enough right there. The whole thing has kept Gehrig's speech vibrant and inspirational for 75 years. We know as much, because Major League Baseball is donating $300,000 this season to several organizations fighting Lou Gehrig's Disease. MLB is also issuing a patch in honor of the speech that will be worn on July 4 by every player, manager, coach and umpire. Not only that, a video will be played in all ballparks featuring a first baseman from each team reciting a line from Gehrig's speech beyond those opening ones.
Here's the last line, by the way: "So, I close in saying that, I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
The greatest speech, indeed.