Aaron is baseball's gold standard
Hall of Famer has few peers in the game's history
Decades have passed since one swing of Hank Aaron's bat became indelibly etched in Major League Baseball history and forever remembered in video clips that still permeate the airwaves. What's easy to forget, however, is that his greatness extended far beyond his ability to deposit pitches over the outfield wall.
When many think of Aaron, they immediately remember the historic home run that he hit on April 8, 1974 to surpass Babe Ruth as baseball's home run king. But what is often forgotten is the fact that in addition to his 755 career homers, Aaron still holds the record for RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856). His 3,771 hits rank third, behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. His 2,174 career runs tie him with Ruth for fourth.
When Aaron singled in Cincinnati on May 17, 1970, he became the first player to have both 3,000 career hits and 500 career homers -- a standard since reached by just three others.
The sum of those numbers ensured his first-ballot election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.
Those who saw Aaron throughout his 23-year Major League career will often say the three Gold Gloves that he won were too few, considering he had competition from Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays most of his career in the outfield. Along with being a definite offensive threat, The Hammer was an all-around talent who will forever be remembered as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Major League uniform.
"He was such a great player," Hall of Famer and former Cubs star Billy Williams said. "I think he's lacking the recognition and all that. If he played in an era with all the television and publicity that surrounds players now, I think he'd be at the top of the list. He played in the golden era and did everything there was to do in this game but he did it with such ease. He wasn't flashy. He just got it done."
Aaron's historic Major League career began and ended in Milwaukee. Just two months after his 20th birthday, he became a mainstay in the Milwaukee Braves outfield. He moved with the organization to Atlanta in 1966 and then ventured back to Wisconsin in 1975 to spend his final two seasons with the Brewers.
"If you look at all of the things that I did in baseball, I'd have to say that I did as well as any other ballplayer ever has," Aaron said recently. "I was fortunate."
Even as Aaron thinks back upon a career that included 21 straight years of All-Star selections and one National League MVP Award, he does so with humility. While he knows he was one of the greatest, he refuses to allow himself the satisfaction of believing that he was indeed the greatest player to ever live.
"I know that I was a good baseball player," Aaron said. "But I don't wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and think about that. Every year, I went to camp feeling that I needed to prove myself. I think in order to continue motivating yourself, you have to think that way."
Aaron's early motivation came during those youthful days back in Mobile, Ala., when he often found himself carrying heavy blocks of ice. At the time, it was a way to make a dime. But the work helped him develop strong forearms that helped him become one of the best hitters of all time.
When Aaron joined the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League in 1952, he was batting cross-handed and playing second base. Because they had a female that they wanted to play second base, he moved to the outfield. It was a transition that proved fruitful two years later when Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson broke an ankle in Spring Training.
Thomson's injury opened a spot for Aaron and the 20-year-old kid, who had now developed a traditional batting grip, took full advantage. Just one year earlier, while playing in Eau Claire, Wis., he had been named the Northern League Player of the Year.
Manager Charlie Grimm thought enough of Aaron that he batted him fifth on Opening Day of the 1954 season. The first career homer would come six games later against Vic Raschi. He'd finish fourth in that year's NL Rookie of the Year balloting behind Wally Moon, Ernie Banks and teammate Gene Conley.
"Hank was just unbelievable when he got in the batter's box," Banks said recently. "He was very calm. I copied that from him. I never rushed to the plate. He took his time. When he came to hit, jeez, he was so good."
Aaron would enjoy the first of 21 consecutive All-Star selections in 1955 and two years later he would win his only MVP. While he has fond memories of hitting .322 with 44 homers and 132 RBIs during that 1957 season, he'll always remember it as the year in which he experienced his only World Series championship.
It was also the year in which he delivered the most pivotal of his 755 career homers. It came in the 11th inning of a Sept. 23 game against the Cardinals. Moon had taken the Rookie of the Year Award from him three years earlier. But the Cardinals center fielder was unable to go over the wall and prevent this walk-off homer that gave the city of Milwaukee its first pennant winner.
|"That's the only thing that really bothers me when I think back on my career. I was always two home runs short or a couple points short with my batting average. I know I should have won a couple Triple Crowns."|
|-- Hank Aaron|
That magical moment was not lost on a young Braves fan named Allan H. (Bud) Selig, who would go on to own the Milwaukee Brewers and later become Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
"I have many, many favorite Henry Aaron moments," Selig said recently, "but the best one is, I'm a 23-year-old kid, sitting alone in the upper deck at County Stadium, September 1957, and he hits the home run off Billy Muffett [of the St. Louis Cardinals] that wins the National League pennant."
With the pennant sewn up, Aaron requested an opportunity to accept the invitation to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show the next night. But Braves manager Fred Haney denied him the chance to fortify a bank account that looked nothing like the ones possessed by the game's modern-day superstars.
"Back then you got something like $200 for appearing on that show," Aaron said. "I went to Fred Haney and told him that I wanted to go to New York for the show. He said, "like hell, you're going there." [Warren] Spahn was going for his 20th win that night and Haney wanted me in the lineup.
"I dreamt about that $200 all night long. But I came out and hit a grand slam homer that night and we won the game and Spahn got the win. So thinking back on it now, I'm glad that I didn't go to the show."
Had Aaron had the opportunity to take advantage of those types of things, he may have gained the national notoriety that he lacked while playing in Milwaukee. He may have won more than one MVP Award if he'd have played in a larger media market.
During the 1963 season, Aaron just missed winning the Triple Crown. He hit .319, a mark only slightly bettered by the .326 average produce by batting champ Tommy Davis. His 44 homers matched Willie McCovey for the league lead and his 130 RBIs were 19 more than any other NL player. And for added measure, he had a career-high 31 stolen bases
When it was announced that Sandy Koufax was the NL MVP that year, it wasn't a complete shock. The dominant lefty was 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and 306 strikeouts. But the fact that St. Louis' Dick Groat finished second in the balloting was a sign that Aaron didn't always get just respect.
Other than the fact that he had 14 more doubles and seven more triples, Groat didn't come close to matching Aaron's numbers that season. With their batting averages and hit totals being even, The Hammer belted 38 more homers, contributed 57 more RBIs and swiped 28 more bases.
"I thought I had some great years in which I was deserving of the MVP," Aaron said. "Constantly you had to fight the New York players for attention. They had a lot of media members there in New York and there were times you didn't feel like you were getting the attention that you deserved."
But it's not the lack of MVPs that still bothers Aaron. Instead, what still gets to him is the fact he never won a Triple Crown. When he won his second batting title in 1959, he finished that year ranked third in both homers and RBIs.
"That's the only thing that really bothers me when I think back on my career," Aaron said. "I was always two home runs short or a couple points short with my batting average. I know I should have won a couple Triple Crowns."
Aaron appreciates that he had an opportunity to play in an era that history will remember fondly. His playing days came shortly after integration and before the eras of expansion and muscle-enhancing supplements.
With four-man starting rotations still in place, it was nearly impossible to face the Dodgers without having to go against both Koufax and Don Drysdale in a series. But Aaron didn't exactly have too much trouble against these Hall of Famers.
Aaron hit .372 (42-for-113) with seven homers against Koufax. Against Drysdale, he hit just .261 (57-for-218). But the 17 homers he tallied against the Dodgers right-hander were the most he hit against any pitcher in his career.
"I was fortunate to play in a era that was filled with talented players," Aaron said. "Every team had one or two future Hall of Famers. For that I'm very proud."
When the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, they provided Aaron with a ballpark that had very friendly power alleys. Throughout his career, he'd always shown an ability to hit the ball to right field with power. But with the urging of Hall of Fame teammate Eddie Mathews, he also began to pull the ball with more regularity.
Having hit at least 39 homers in five of the final nine seasons the Braves spent in Milwaukee, Aaron had established himself as a definite power threat. But the confines of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium certainly helped him sprint toward Ruth's all-time home run record.
Aaron led the NL in homers four times in his career and two of those occasions came during his first two years in Atlanta. During his first six seasons in the organization's new home, The Hammer notched 241 homers and moved to within 96 of Ruth's all-time mark of 714.
Suddenly, racism became a major issue in Aaron's life. He received stacks of hate mail. As he inched closer to Ruth's record death threats forced him to become isolated from his teammates away from the ballpark.
"When people want to talk about it, I tend not to talk about it because it wasn't an exciting time," Aaron said.
All of the tension that had mounted over the years was relieved on the night of April 8, 1974, when in the fourth inning he drilled Dodgers left-hander Al Downing's pitch over the left-center field wall at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to displace Ruth as the all-time home run king.
There was sudden pandemonium, and as Dodgers Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully remembers, Aaron was provided the longest ovation he can ever remember. There to share the moment with The Hammer was his mother.
"She got to home plate before I did," Aaron said. "To this day, I don't know how she got there so quick. It was a hug that I'll always remember."
Once again, another moment in Aaron's career caught the attention of Selig.
"If you were to pick the prototype person to break the most famous record in professional sports, you know who it would be? Henry Aaron," Selig said. "Why? Because of his class and his decency and his dignity. He has represented this sport so beautifully in every way."
History will always remember Aaron as being the man who exceeded Ruth's mystical mark. But the baseball world should always remember that he did the unthinkable and so much more.
"He is the standard by which all complete ballplayers are measured," Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton said. "We get caught up in the 755 home runs, and we forget what a terrific athlete he was. He was a good outfielder, great baserunner. He is a guy who handled himself in a world class fashion, where there were a lot of things that were making it hard to do that. I consider him a classy standard bearer for all power hitters."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.