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This is Joe Posnanski's write up on Aaron in the Athletic from over the summer. In his Top 100 baseball players ever he ranked Hank 4

  I wish we had more Posnanskis in sports writing. 

 

Couldn't remember the spoiler code

 

Starting in December, Joe Posnanski began counting down the 100 greatest baseball players. Initially, we published one a day to count down to Opening Day — but with the start of the season pushed back, we’ll be counting down the last 13 with three essays per week. In all, this project will contain roughly as many words as “Moby Dick.” Yes, we know it’s nutty. We hope you enjoy.


On April 8, 1974, a gray and rainy day in Atlanta, Henry Aaron broke a cherished baseball record.

No, we’re not talking about that record.

There were 53,775 people at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that day but that was only because the stadium wouldn’t hold any more people. It could have been 100,000. It could have been 200,000. It is still the largest home crowd for any home game in Braves history, whether that game was played in Atlanta, Milwaukee or Boston.

And the crowd that day was a moving picture album of Henry Aaron’s life. To scan the stadium that day was to scan his years. Herbert Aaron was there, Henry’s father. Herbert was the first person to hear Henry’s dreams. It was 1948. Henry was 13 or 14. He went to see Jackie Robinson speak at the Davis Avenue Recreation Center. Robinson talked about being relentless, chasing goals, and how a ballplayer’s job is not just to get hits, it is to score runs.

“I’m going to be in the Major Leagues before Jackie retires,” Henry told his father that day.

His mother Estella was there in the crowd, too. She did not want him to become a ballplayer, not at the beginning. She wanted him to go to college, make something of himself, maybe become a teacher. But she also came to understand that Henry had no room in his imagination for anything other than baseball. He went to the pool hall instead of school. He refused to study anything except the art of hitting a baseball with a bat (or a bottle cap with a broomstick — that was often the only option). He somehow knew that he was going to be a big-league ballplayer when that was an impossible thing for him to know.

Ed Scott was there in Atlanta. He was the man who first signed Henry up to play professional baseball. Aaron was 17 when he joined the Mobile Black Bears, a semi-pro team made up of grown men — fathers, husbands, factory workers, farmers.

“He was as green as he could be,” Scott would say in Aaron’s autobiography “I Had a Hammer.” “He stood up there at the plate upright, no crouch at all, and the other team figured he wasn’t ready. The pitcher tried to get a fastball by him, and he hit a line drive that banged against the old tin fence they had around the outfield out there — nearly put the ball through the fence. They walked him the rest of the time.”

John Mullen, the nice man who signed Aaron for the Boston Braves and watched out for him, was there. Sadly, Mullen’s scout Dewey Griggs was not. He’d died in 1968. Griggs had seen Aaron play for the Indianapolis Clowns and was blown away; he told Mullen to do whatever he had to do to get Aaron signed. But Griggs had an even bigger impact on Aaron’s life. Before the game, he walked over and said, casually, “You might want to try hitting with your right hand on top.”

Up to that point, Aaron had been hitting cross-handed.

The first time Aaron hit with his right hand on top of the bat, he homered.

Donald Davidson was there in the crowd that day. He had been the Braves’ traveling secretary. He had given Aaron his famous uniform number, No. 44. Aaron had not asked for that number specifically, he’d only wanted a repeating number for his uniform. “You’re too skinny to have a double number,” Davidson had said, but then he made sure that Aaron got the now legendary No. 44.*

*Aaron and another 44, Willie McCovey, hold the baseball record for most home runs in a season that also matches their uniform number. Aaron hit 44 homers four times. Davidson would always say his big mistake was not giving Aaron the number 66.

Davidson was also the one who spread the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank.”

There were celebrities all over the place. Pearl Bailey sang the National Anthem. Sammy Davis Jr. signed autographs. Georgia governor Jimmy Carter smiled broadly; that smile was about to become world-famous — in less than three years, Carter would be elected President of the United States.

Eddie Mathews was not just there, he was the Atlanta Braves manager. Few teammates have been as connected as Aaron and Mathews. They were the slugging brothers for the Milwaukee Braves for a dozen seasons. They were friends and rivals and balancing influences on each other’s lives. Mathews brought Aaron out of his shell. Aaron helped Mathews calm down.

“Henry would hit a home run,” their teammate Wes Covington said, “and — where somebody else would say he got lucky — Mathews would say, ‘What a shot!’ Mathews would hit a home run, and Hank would say, “Helluva shot!’ Their relationship was like fourteen-karat gold.”

A band played before the game began. A stockpile of fireworks was set beyond the wall.

And in the second inning of the Braves-Dodgers game, Aaron came up to the plate to face Al Downing. Words cannot revive the sounds of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in that moment. The cheering was something more than cheering. Imagine the sound if 53,775 people gathered in one place to see Neil Armstrong land on the moon or to see the Beatles break out on the Ed Sullivan Show or to see Mike Eruzione score the goal that beat the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics.

That’s how it sounded that day. People had not come to see a baseball game. They had come to be a part of American history, to be in the photograph when something transcendent and wonderful happened. It isn’t often in your life that you go to see something that you know — before it even happens — you will remember forever.

Aaron felt nervous but determined. This would be the day. This would have to be the day; he couldn’t take it any longer. He waited for Downing to give him something to hit; the men had faced each other 24 times. They’d each had their victories. Downing had gotten the better of things the first few times they faced off.

“He usually pitched me outside with sliders and screwballs,” Aaron would say, and so in 1973, he began to crowd the plate more. That worked: Aaron cracked a couple of homers off Downing in ’73. He crowded the plate again that day, and he somehow blocked out the deafening roars. This was one of his many gifts. “I know it’s hard for people to believe,” he said. “But I didn’t hear anything when I was at the plate.”

Downing threw a pitch out of the zone. Another. A third. And a fourth. He walked Aaron on four pitches. The boos from the crowd were murderous.

Then Dusty Baker, Aaron’s teammate and friend, smacked a drive and the Dodgers’ left fielder Bill Buckner misplayed the ball. And Aaron kept running. People never really appreciated just how good a baserunner Henry Aaron was, but then again, that’s the point of all this. There were a lot of things about Aaron people never appreciated. He rounded third and he headed for home. There was no throw to the plate. Aaron scored the first run of the game.

It was the 2,063rd run of his career.

And that broke the National League record set by Willie Mays.

This was something meaningful, something profoundly important to Aaron. It went back to the very beginning when he heard Robinson talk about the importance of scoring runs. To score 2,063 runs you have to average 100 runs for more than 20 years. It is a mind-numbing achievement — think about all those cold April nights, those July steambaths, those meaningless August games and the anxious September games with a pennant in the balance.

Think about the drive, the focus, the sense of purpose needed to score that many runs.

But nobody did think about that, not there in the crowd that day. There were no cheers for that record. Everyone was there for something else, and Aaron knew it. There was no time to celebrate. There was no time even to breathe. No, there was nothing at all for Henry Aaron to do except go out the next time and fulfill the destiny he never wanted.


Can a man as beloved and admired and appreciated as Aaron still be underrated? I think so. It comes down to a simple contradiction: His name became synonymous with the home run.

“No matter what it is,” Aaron says, “they’re gonna always say, ‘Hank Aaron and a home run, Hank Aaron and a home run.’”

And Hank Aaron was not a home run hitter.

No, Aaron was a pure hitter. He was an excellent outfielder. He was a superb baserunner. And he was a metronome, pumping out the same brilliant seasons year after year and decade after decade. He led the league in total bases eight times, first as a 22-year-old, last at age 35. Eight times. Nobody — not Ruth, not Williams, not Hornsby, not Musial, not Cobb, not anybody — led the league in total bases as many times.

And the home runs? Well, to turn around the phrase, home runs were a bug, not a feature. Aaron hit the ball very hard and when you hit the ball very hard, some of them go out. He never hit 70 homers in a season like Barry Bonds or 65 homers in a season like Mark McGwire or 60 homers in a season like Babe Ruth or 55 homers in a season like Ken Griffey or 50 homers in a season like Mickey Mantle or even 48 homers in a season like Willie Stargell, Dave Kingman and Jorge Soler.

Home runs were not the chorus of Henry Aaron’s song.

He just hit so many baseballs hard over the years that 755 left the ballpark.

And when a person does something as colossal as hit 755 home runs, it’s hard to think of anything else. The magic inventor and writer Jim Steinmeyer talks about a type of stagecraft device called the “dazzler.” It is a very bright light that is placed on stage and pointed at the audience’s eyes. When that light hits the eyes, everything around the dazzler seems to disappear. “If there’s something dark near the dazzler,” he says, “you can’t see it.”

For Henry Aaron, 755 home runs is the dazzler. It blocks the view. People see that, talk about that, argue about that. (When Bonds hit his 756th home run, people argued about it, raged about it, many insisted that Bonds would never be the Home Run King, no matter what the record books said.)

It’s a bright light that blinds people to the things that made Henry Aaron so special. People can’t see, for instance, how fast Aaron was. He didn’t steal bases when he was a young player — almost nobody stole bases in those days, particularly in Milwaukee. In 1957, the Braves stole 35 bases — we’re talking about the whole team. In 1958, they stole just 26, dead last in the league.

It wasn’t until 1959 that Aaron started feeling the freedom to steal bases. He was 25 years old and had been in the league for five years. He attempted eight stolen bases that year. He was successful all eight times. From 1959 to 1968, Aaron stole 203 bases, seventh in all of baseball, ahead even of Mays. He became just the third player in baseball history to have a 30-30 season.

But here’s the big thing: In those 10 seasons, he was successful on more than 80 percent of his attempts. That was the highest stolen-base percentage in the game over that time. How many stolen bases could he have had if he’d tried? There’s no telling. For his career, Aaron was successful more than 76 percent of the time, a higher percentage than Robinson, Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Juan Pierre and, yes, Mays.

“Henry didn’t steal bases like Willie,” Mathews said, “but goddamn, he could steal bases. He could run like hell, and he didn’t even look like he was running. I’ll bet you in a footrace, Hank would have beaten Willie.”

And what about Aaron as an outfielder? Well, he wasn’t a center fielder (he was actually an infielder when he started) and so historically he has been written off by many. But by the Baseball-Reference stats, Aaron was worth 100 runs more than average. By range factor — number of plays made — he often led the league and always finished in the top two or three, and, remember, he played just about his entire career in the same league as another pretty good right fielder named Roberto Clemente. Aaron won three Gold Gloves and could have won more.

Again, from Mathews: “He never threw to the wrong base, never missed the cutoff man.”

Mostly, though, the dazzler covers up just how complete a hitter Henry Aaron was. If you took away his 755 home runs — just took them away — he would still have had 3,000 hits. Not only does he have the record for most RBIs with 2,297, but he also has the most combined runs and RBIs.

Most runs plus RBIs:

  1. Henry Aaron, 4,471
  2. Babe Ruth, 4,388
  3. Barry Bonds, 4,223
  4. Ty Cobb, 4,189
  5. Alex Rodriguez, 4,107

And then there’s his absurd, almost laughable, breakaway lead in career total bases. If you want to call Henry Aaron the king of something, call him the King of Total Bases. He had 6,856 total bases in his career — 700 more than anyone else.

Musial could have hit 350 more doubles and not had as many total bases as Aaron.

Ruth could have hit 250 more home runs and not has as many total bases as Aaron. (Bonds would have needed 220 more homers just to tie Aaron.)

Pete Rose could have cracked another 1,100 singles and not had as many total bases as Aaron.

And let’s add something else that people miss: Aaron played in a pitcher’s time. He played his prime in a pitcher’s ballpark. If you neutralize Aaron’s numbers — which is to say you try to put Aaron in what Baseball-Reference calls a “neutral setting” — Aaron’s numbers jump from mind-boggling to impossible.

If you neutralize the numbers, Aaron’s total bases jump all the way to 7,502 — and his lead jumps to almost 1,000 bases. All of his numbers go up including, yes, home runs (all the way up to 824 neutralized homers).

See, when you talk about Aaron and home runs, you put Aaron in the wrong box. He wasn’t a slugger and would not stand up to Ruth or Jimmie Foxx or McGwire or a dozen others as a slugger. He never wanted that. Henry Aaron was a ballplayer. He hit for average, hit for power, ran the bases, played good defense and threw with authority. He did everything well for longer than anyone who ever played this game.

And if he was overshadowed by Mays or Mantle or his blinding consistency or his laconic persona or, yes, that damned home run chase, it didn’t matter. He kept going. He kept doing all those brilliant things. Nothing could make him stop.

“You know,” Aaron once said, “If I had to pay to go see somebody play for one game, I wouldn’t pay to see Hank Aaron. I wasn’t flashy. I didn’t start fights. I didn’t rush out to the mound every time a pitch came near me. I didn’t hustle after fly balls that were 20 rows back in the seats.”

“But,” he added, “if I had to pay to see someone play in a three-game series, I’d rather see me.”

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I asked Henry Aaron if he had any regrets. A career as perfect as his should be without regrets, at least that’s what you would think. But he said that he did have one.

He regretted that he never won a triple crown.

“I do think about it,” he said. “I missed it three years — not in a row, but three years. And I think if I had really concentrated, really focused on it, I would have won one or two triple crowns.”

Aaron, for the record, won two batting titles, four home run titles and four RBI titles. But, alas, he never put the three together in one season.

In 1957, he led the league in homers and RBIs, but his .322 average was fourth behind three of the greatest hitters who ever lived — Musial, Mays and Frank Robinson.

In 1959, he led the league in hitting at .355 but his 39 homers and 123 RBIs fell short. He finished seven homers behind his Hall of Fame teammate Mathews, and finished 20 RBIs shy of Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.

In 1963, he led the league in homers and RBIs, but his .319 average was seven points behind the Dodgers’ Tommy Davis. He has always regretted hitting .263 the last two weeks of that season to lose the batting title.

In 1966, he again led the league in homers and RBIs, but he hit just .279 that year — he was getting used to a new ballpark in Atlanta and had shifted his game to take advantage of the home run dimensions.

Of course, what could that matter? What could a triple crown or two add to a career like Aaron’s?

“I just felt … I just felt like there was something missing in my career,” he said. “I just felt like if I had done what I was supposed to do, I could have won at least one or two triple crowns. And that just would have been something …”

He paused here and never finished the thought. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I remember years ago, Bob Greene wrote a story about Frank Gifford and how he’d had pretty much the biggest American life imaginable — big man on campus at USC, superstar NFL player, handsome television star, coolest man in the room. But in the end, Greene found that even Gifford looked back wistfully. In his case, Gifford wished he could have been the quarterback rather than the halfback.

This is at the heart of human nature, I guess. I don’t believe anyone has had a more perfect career than Aaron — perfect in that he never had a down season and he has several of the most important records. But even Hank Aaron wishes he could have accomplished just one more extraordinary thing.


Let’s go back to April 8, 1974. It was the end of the worst time of Aaron’s life. He had never wanted to chase Babe Ruth’s record. It’s just that one day, right around when he turned 32, he began to realize that he had a chance to put up numbers that would match him up with the greatest to ever play the game. And that was too tempting to pass up.

A writer named Lee Allen explained to him that if he stuck around for three or four more seasons, he’d have a real shot at 500 home runs. At that point, only four players ever — Ruth, Foxx, Williams and Mel Ott — had 500 home runs.

And then if he stuck around for another year or two, he’d get to 3,000 hits. That was a big one; only eight players — eight of the greatest players — had 3,000 hits. Even Ruth and Williams had not done that.

So he kept doing what he always did, and he hit his 500th homer in 1968. He got 3,000th hit in 1970, but the thing is, that year he began closing in on 600 homers. So he had to do that. He stuck around in 1971 and led the league in slugging and OPS while bashing 47 home runs. What was he going to do? Stop there? No, of course not. So he kept going, and suddenly 700 home runs were in sight, and if 700 homers were in sight, that meant that Ruth’s unbreakable record of 714 home runs was in sight.

What was he going to do? Stop?

“If I played out my career in typical fashion … the record would show that I had been one of the best ballplayers to come along,” Aaron wrote in “I Had a Hammer.” “My credentials would put me in the company of Ruth and Mays and all the others. But I also knew that in the final analysis — in the books and sports columns and barbershops — I wouldn’t be in their class, To be in their class, my numbers had to be better than theirs. I didn’t agree with it, and I didn’t accept it, but it was reality, and I had to deal with it.”

And so he dared. He went after Babe Ruth, a black man chasing after a white legend in 1970s America. He hated every minute of it. He hated the racist mail that poured in.

Dear N—–,

Everybody loved Babe Ruth. You will be the most hated man in the country if you break his career home run record.

 

Dear N—–,

You are doing more to hurt baseball than any other that ever played the game. You may break the record and you may replace Babe Ruth in the hearts of the liberal sportswriters, the liberal newspapers, TV and radio … but you will never replace the Babe in the hearts of clear-thinking members of our Society.


Dear Black Boy,

Listen Black Boy, We don’t want no n—— Babe Ruth.


Dear Super Spook,

First of all, I don’t care for the color of s—. You are pretty damn repugnant trying to break the Babe’s record.

 

Dear Mr. N—–,

I hope you don’t break the Babe’s record. How do I tell my kids that a n—– did it?

 

Dear Henry Aaron,

How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?

 

Dear Brother Hank Aaron,

I hope you join Brother Dr. Martin Luther King in that Heaven he spoke of. Willie Mays was a much better player than you anyway.

 

On and on and on and on … these letters never stopped coming. Polls showed that most of America was rooting for him. One showed that 87 percent wanted him to get the recognition he deserved by breaking the record. But what good are polls when the death threats keep coming in? Thirteen percent of America is still a lot of people. His children needed security to go to school. He needed an escort every time he appeared in public. And meanwhile, the reporters kept coming at him, each asking the same exact questions.

“All I do is lay in bed and stare at the ceiling,” he told one reporter who asked how well he slept.

“Well, isn’t it worth it?” he asked.

“I really don’t know,” he said. “If I go to bed half berzerk, it’s not.”

No, he didn’t sleep. He ate every night in his hotel room alone. He felt alone. Yet he kept on hitting — and hitting home runs — because somewhere along the way he came to a powerful and painful and undeniable realization.

The only thing worse than breaking the record would be not breaking the record.

On April 8, 1974, while a misty rain fell, Henry Aaron came up in the fourth inning. He was the new all-time National League leader in runs. He stepped in against Al Downing. The crowd stood and cheered madly. He shut out the sound like only he could do. The first pitch was a slider and it was down in the dirt.

Then came the next pitch. Downing said it was a fastball up. Aaron remembered it as a slider down. They both remember Aaron turning on it and hitting a long and high fly ball to left field. Neither knew it was gone off the bat. “But,” Downing said, “it kept carrying and carrying.”

When it cleared the fence and landed in the glove of relief pitcher Tom House, fireworks exploded. The crowd exploded. Aaron’s heart exploded. He didn’t show it. He rounded the bases the way he always did, unsmiling, undaunted. He took a moment to shake hands with Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey and second baseman Davey Lopes. Even when two college kids ran on the field and surrounded him — they had run on to congratulate him — he showed no fear or emotion.

He just kept running.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” Vin Scully said in the booth after letting the crowd tell the story. “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 the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

So many people have asked Henry Aaron what he was thinking in that exact moment. I asked him that, too. He shrugged. How do you explain it? He doesn’t have any better answer now than he did that very day when the crowd cheered for 11 straight minutes, and his mother raced on the field and gave him a bear hug that choked the breath out of him, and he was handed a microphone to say what came to mind now that he had passed the Babe.

“Thank God it’s over,” he said.


Note: Portions of this series were adapted from previous work that originated on my personal blog.

(Photo: Bettmann)

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"one time homerun king"

Barry Bonds was a hell of a player and a Hall of Famer even if you discount the roided out years, but I do not recognize his record.

"We know no king but the King in Atlanta, whose name is Hank!"

How Lyanna Mormont became Game of Thrones' youngest and bravest hero

 

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8 minutes ago, mdmost said:

It always bothered me that those two douchebag fans ran on the field and couldn't just let the man have his moment. 

 

 

It probably bothered Aaron more, at least temporarily.   Had just broken Ruth's record and not everyone was happy about it in the south, especially.  Two cracker dudes come out of nowhere, from behind him....Glad they were just happy for Hank and wanted to share in the moment. 

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I was a kid and living in the RGV when he broke the record. I remember listening to the game on the radio as we were driving home from a trip and we were somewhere south of Falfurrias. Those of you too young to have seen him in person missed out. He had to endure all kinds of crap as an African American breaking the record of the great Babe Ruth. RIP

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46 minutes ago, mdmost said:

It always bothered me that those two douchebag fans ran on the field and couldn't just let the man have his moment. 

 

I'm not enough of a sports maniac to have seen a whole lot of historical moments, but I saw this live.  I think.  I seem to recall that networks cut over to it.

RIP.

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13 minutes ago, youdunnf'dup said:

Holy shit I didn’t know that. 

Yep.  3771 career hits.  755 HR.  

 

Had 13 straight seasons of over 100 runs.  

 

Hit his famous #44 in HR's 4 different times in his career.  

 

Just a mountain of stats.  Had over 100 RBI 11 times, with 5 more seasons in the 90's.  

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RIP to an all time player. That “one time” home run champ Is bullshit. He is still the HR King as far as I am concerned. He is also an all time classy person for enduring what he did as he broke the record. 

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Jesus man we lost 6 HOF players in 2020 and that was the 2nd most all time to the 7 in 1972.   We aren't even through 1 month of 2021 and we're at 50% of 2020.

He is always the standard I put forward for greatest hitter of all time.  Still holds the RBI & total bases marks.  Lifetime .300 hitter, non steroid home run king and a career spanning 23 years and a career ops of .928 they simply don't make 'em like that anymore.

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the 3 greatest power hitters that ever lived are Ruth, Aaron, and Williams.  given the era Aaron played in I would probably put him first over Ruth.  Its very close because it is hard to ignore Ruth's SLG and OPS numbers.

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For all he had tO endure, I’m glad Hank got to live to see this past Wednesday.  I know he cracked his famous grin.  RIP, slugger.  The game will never have another like you. 

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think about this...in 1973 during the chase, the braves had to hire a full time employee named carla koplin to process all the mail that hank received.  he received over 900,000 pieces of mail that year at a clip of over 3,000 letters every day.  of course, we all know how much of that was threatening or otherwise demeaning.  and crazy enough, the braves wouldn't let him read any of it until a couple of years later.  here's a pic of koplin receiving a single day's mail intake for aaron.  insane.

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1 hour ago, Post Oak said:

This is Joe Posnanski's write up on Aaron in the Athletic from over the summer. In his Top 100 baseball players ever he ranked Hank 4

  I wish we had more Posnanskis in sports writing. 

 

Couldn't remember the spoiler code

 

Starting in December, Joe Posnanski began counting down the 100 greatest baseball players. Initially, we published one a day to count down to Opening Day — but with the start of the season pushed back, we’ll be counting down the last 13 with three essays per week. In all, this project will contain roughly as many words as “Moby Dick.” Yes, we know it’s nutty. We hope you enjoy.


On April 8, 1974, a gray and rainy day in Atlanta, Henry Aaron broke a cherished baseball record.

No, we’re not talking about that record.

There were 53,775 people at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that day but that was only because the stadium wouldn’t hold any more people. It could have been 100,000. It could have been 200,000. It is still the largest home crowd for any home game in Braves history, whether that game was played in Atlanta, Milwaukee or Boston.

And the crowd that day was a moving picture album of Henry Aaron’s life. To scan the stadium that day was to scan his years. Herbert Aaron was there, Henry’s father. Herbert was the first person to hear Henry’s dreams. It was 1948. Henry was 13 or 14. He went to see Jackie Robinson speak at the Davis Avenue Recreation Center. Robinson talked about being relentless, chasing goals, and how a ballplayer’s job is not just to get hits, it is to score runs.

“I’m going to be in the Major Leagues before Jackie retires,” Henry told his father that day.

His mother Estella was there in the crowd, too. She did not want him to become a ballplayer, not at the beginning. She wanted him to go to college, make something of himself, maybe become a teacher. But she also came to understand that Henry had no room in his imagination for anything other than baseball. He went to the pool hall instead of school. He refused to study anything except the art of hitting a baseball with a bat (or a bottle cap with a broomstick — that was often the only option). He somehow knew that he was going to be a big-league ballplayer when that was an impossible thing for him to know.

Ed Scott was there in Atlanta. He was the man who first signed Henry up to play professional baseball. Aaron was 17 when he joined the Mobile Black Bears, a semi-pro team made up of grown men — fathers, husbands, factory workers, farmers.

“He was as green as he could be,” Scott would say in Aaron’s autobiography “I Had a Hammer.” “He stood up there at the plate upright, no crouch at all, and the other team figured he wasn’t ready. The pitcher tried to get a fastball by him, and he hit a line drive that banged against the old tin fence they had around the outfield out there — nearly put the ball through the fence. They walked him the rest of the time.”

John Mullen, the nice man who signed Aaron for the Boston Braves and watched out for him, was there. Sadly, Mullen’s scout Dewey Griggs was not. He’d died in 1968. Griggs had seen Aaron play for the Indianapolis Clowns and was blown away; he told Mullen to do whatever he had to do to get Aaron signed. But Griggs had an even bigger impact on Aaron’s life. Before the game, he walked over and said, casually, “You might want to try hitting with your right hand on top.”

Up to that point, Aaron had been hitting cross-handed.

The first time Aaron hit with his right hand on top of the bat, he homered.

Donald Davidson was there in the crowd that day. He had been the Braves’ traveling secretary. He had given Aaron his famous uniform number, No. 44. Aaron had not asked for that number specifically, he’d only wanted a repeating number for his uniform. “You’re too skinny to have a double number,” Davidson had said, but then he made sure that Aaron got the now legendary No. 44.*

*Aaron and another 44, Willie McCovey, hold the baseball record for most home runs in a season that also matches their uniform number. Aaron hit 44 homers four times. Davidson would always say his big mistake was not giving Aaron the number 66.

Davidson was also the one who spread the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank.”

There were celebrities all over the place. Pearl Bailey sang the National Anthem. Sammy Davis Jr. signed autographs. Georgia governor Jimmy Carter smiled broadly; that smile was about to become world-famous — in less than three years, Carter would be elected President of the United States.

Eddie Mathews was not just there, he was the Atlanta Braves manager. Few teammates have been as connected as Aaron and Mathews. They were the slugging brothers for the Milwaukee Braves for a dozen seasons. They were friends and rivals and balancing influences on each other’s lives. Mathews brought Aaron out of his shell. Aaron helped Mathews calm down.

“Henry would hit a home run,” their teammate Wes Covington said, “and — where somebody else would say he got lucky — Mathews would say, ‘What a shot!’ Mathews would hit a home run, and Hank would say, “Helluva shot!’ Their relationship was like fourteen-karat gold.”

A band played before the game began. A stockpile of fireworks was set beyond the wall.

And in the second inning of the Braves-Dodgers game, Aaron came up to the plate to face Al Downing. Words cannot revive the sounds of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in that moment. The cheering was something more than cheering. Imagine the sound if 53,775 people gathered in one place to see Neil Armstrong land on the moon or to see the Beatles break out on the Ed Sullivan Show or to see Mike Eruzione score the goal that beat the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics.

That’s how it sounded that day. People had not come to see a baseball game. They had come to be a part of American history, to be in the photograph when something transcendent and wonderful happened. It isn’t often in your life that you go to see something that you know — before it even happens — you will remember forever.

Aaron felt nervous but determined. This would be the day. This would have to be the day; he couldn’t take it any longer. He waited for Downing to give him something to hit; the men had faced each other 24 times. They’d each had their victories. Downing had gotten the better of things the first few times they faced off.

“He usually pitched me outside with sliders and screwballs,” Aaron would say, and so in 1973, he began to crowd the plate more. That worked: Aaron cracked a couple of homers off Downing in ’73. He crowded the plate again that day, and he somehow blocked out the deafening roars. This was one of his many gifts. “I know it’s hard for people to believe,” he said. “But I didn’t hear anything when I was at the plate.”

Downing threw a pitch out of the zone. Another. A third. And a fourth. He walked Aaron on four pitches. The boos from the crowd were murderous.

Then Dusty Baker, Aaron’s teammate and friend, smacked a drive and the Dodgers’ left fielder Bill Buckner misplayed the ball. And Aaron kept running. People never really appreciated just how good a baserunner Henry Aaron was, but then again, that’s the point of all this. There were a lot of things about Aaron people never appreciated. He rounded third and he headed for home. There was no throw to the plate. Aaron scored the first run of the game.

It was the 2,063rd run of his career.

And that broke the National League record set by Willie Mays.

This was something meaningful, something profoundly important to Aaron. It went back to the very beginning when he heard Robinson talk about the importance of scoring runs. To score 2,063 runs you have to average 100 runs for more than 20 years. It is a mind-numbing achievement — think about all those cold April nights, those July steambaths, those meaningless August games and the anxious September games with a pennant in the balance.

Think about the drive, the focus, the sense of purpose needed to score that many runs.

But nobody did think about that, not there in the crowd that day. There were no cheers for that record. Everyone was there for something else, and Aaron knew it. There was no time to celebrate. There was no time even to breathe. No, there was nothing at all for Henry Aaron to do except go out the next time and fulfill the destiny he never wanted.


Can a man as beloved and admired and appreciated as Aaron still be underrated? I think so. It comes down to a simple contradiction: His name became synonymous with the home run.

“No matter what it is,” Aaron says, “they’re gonna always say, ‘Hank Aaron and a home run, Hank Aaron and a home run.’”

And Hank Aaron was not a home run hitter.

No, Aaron was a pure hitter. He was an excellent outfielder. He was a superb baserunner. And he was a metronome, pumping out the same brilliant seasons year after year and decade after decade. He led the league in total bases eight times, first as a 22-year-old, last at age 35. Eight times. Nobody — not Ruth, not Williams, not Hornsby, not Musial, not Cobb, not anybody — led the league in total bases as many times.

And the home runs? Well, to turn around the phrase, home runs were a bug, not a feature. Aaron hit the ball very hard and when you hit the ball very hard, some of them go out. He never hit 70 homers in a season like Barry Bonds or 65 homers in a season like Mark McGwire or 60 homers in a season like Babe Ruth or 55 homers in a season like Ken Griffey or 50 homers in a season like Mickey Mantle or even 48 homers in a season like Willie Stargell, Dave Kingman and Jorge Soler.

Home runs were not the chorus of Henry Aaron’s song.

He just hit so many baseballs hard over the years that 755 left the ballpark.

And when a person does something as colossal as hit 755 home runs, it’s hard to think of anything else. The magic inventor and writer Jim Steinmeyer talks about a type of stagecraft device called the “dazzler.” It is a very bright light that is placed on stage and pointed at the audience’s eyes. When that light hits the eyes, everything around the dazzler seems to disappear. “If there’s something dark near the dazzler,” he says, “you can’t see it.”

For Henry Aaron, 755 home runs is the dazzler. It blocks the view. People see that, talk about that, argue about that. (When Bonds hit his 756th home run, people argued about it, raged about it, many insisted that Bonds would never be the Home Run King, no matter what the record books said.)

It’s a bright light that blinds people to the things that made Henry Aaron so special. People can’t see, for instance, how fast Aaron was. He didn’t steal bases when he was a young player — almost nobody stole bases in those days, particularly in Milwaukee. In 1957, the Braves stole 35 bases — we’re talking about the whole team. In 1958, they stole just 26, dead last in the league.

It wasn’t until 1959 that Aaron started feeling the freedom to steal bases. He was 25 years old and had been in the league for five years. He attempted eight stolen bases that year. He was successful all eight times. From 1959 to 1968, Aaron stole 203 bases, seventh in all of baseball, ahead even of Mays. He became just the third player in baseball history to have a 30-30 season.

But here’s the big thing: In those 10 seasons, he was successful on more than 80 percent of his attempts. That was the highest stolen-base percentage in the game over that time. How many stolen bases could he have had if he’d tried? There’s no telling. For his career, Aaron was successful more than 76 percent of the time, a higher percentage than Robinson, Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Juan Pierre and, yes, Mays.

“Henry didn’t steal bases like Willie,” Mathews said, “but goddamn, he could steal bases. He could run like hell, and he didn’t even look like he was running. I’ll bet you in a footrace, Hank would have beaten Willie.”

And what about Aaron as an outfielder? Well, he wasn’t a center fielder (he was actually an infielder when he started) and so historically he has been written off by many. But by the Baseball-Reference stats, Aaron was worth 100 runs more than average. By range factor — number of plays made — he often led the league and always finished in the top two or three, and, remember, he played just about his entire career in the same league as another pretty good right fielder named Roberto Clemente. Aaron won three Gold Gloves and could have won more.

Again, from Mathews: “He never threw to the wrong base, never missed the cutoff man.”

Mostly, though, the dazzler covers up just how complete a hitter Henry Aaron was. If you took away his 755 home runs — just took them away — he would still have had 3,000 hits. Not only does he have the record for most RBIs with 2,297, but he also has the most combined runs and RBIs.

Most runs plus RBIs:

  1. Henry Aaron, 4,471
  2. Babe Ruth, 4,388
  3. Barry Bonds, 4,223
  4. Ty Cobb, 4,189
  5. Alex Rodriguez, 4,107

And then there’s his absurd, almost laughable, breakaway lead in career total bases. If you want to call Henry Aaron the king of something, call him the King of Total Bases. He had 6,856 total bases in his career — 700 more than anyone else.

Musial could have hit 350 more doubles and not had as many total bases as Aaron.

Ruth could have hit 250 more home runs and not has as many total bases as Aaron. (Bonds would have needed 220 more homers just to tie Aaron.)

Pete Rose could have cracked another 1,100 singles and not had as many total bases as Aaron.

And let’s add something else that people miss: Aaron played in a pitcher’s time. He played his prime in a pitcher’s ballpark. If you neutralize Aaron’s numbers — which is to say you try to put Aaron in what Baseball-Reference calls a “neutral setting” — Aaron’s numbers jump from mind-boggling to impossible.

If you neutralize the numbers, Aaron’s total bases jump all the way to 7,502 — and his lead jumps to almost 1,000 bases. All of his numbers go up including, yes, home runs (all the way up to 824 neutralized homers).

See, when you talk about Aaron and home runs, you put Aaron in the wrong box. He wasn’t a slugger and would not stand up to Ruth or Jimmie Foxx or McGwire or a dozen others as a slugger. He never wanted that. Henry Aaron was a ballplayer. He hit for average, hit for power, ran the bases, played good defense and threw with authority. He did everything well for longer than anyone who ever played this game.

And if he was overshadowed by Mays or Mantle or his blinding consistency or his laconic persona or, yes, that damned home run chase, it didn’t matter. He kept going. He kept doing all those brilliant things. Nothing could make him stop.

“You know,” Aaron once said, “If I had to pay to go see somebody play for one game, I wouldn’t pay to see Hank Aaron. I wasn’t flashy. I didn’t start fights. I didn’t rush out to the mound every time a pitch came near me. I didn’t hustle after fly balls that were 20 rows back in the seats.”

“But,” he added, “if I had to pay to see someone play in a three-game series, I’d rather see me.”

hank_aaron_article-1024x683.png

I asked Henry Aaron if he had any regrets. A career as perfect as his should be without regrets, at least that’s what you would think. But he said that he did have one.

He regretted that he never won a triple crown.

“I do think about it,” he said. “I missed it three years — not in a row, but three years. And I think if I had really concentrated, really focused on it, I would have won one or two triple crowns.”

Aaron, for the record, won two batting titles, four home run titles and four RBI titles. But, alas, he never put the three together in one season.

In 1957, he led the league in homers and RBIs, but his .322 average was fourth behind three of the greatest hitters who ever lived — Musial, Mays and Frank Robinson.

In 1959, he led the league in hitting at .355 but his 39 homers and 123 RBIs fell short. He finished seven homers behind his Hall of Fame teammate Mathews, and finished 20 RBIs shy of Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.

In 1963, he led the league in homers and RBIs, but his .319 average was seven points behind the Dodgers’ Tommy Davis. He has always regretted hitting .263 the last two weeks of that season to lose the batting title.

In 1966, he again led the league in homers and RBIs, but he hit just .279 that year — he was getting used to a new ballpark in Atlanta and had shifted his game to take advantage of the home run dimensions.

Of course, what could that matter? What could a triple crown or two add to a career like Aaron’s?

“I just felt … I just felt like there was something missing in my career,” he said. “I just felt like if I had done what I was supposed to do, I could have won at least one or two triple crowns. And that just would have been something …”

He paused here and never finished the thought. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I remember years ago, Bob Greene wrote a story about Frank Gifford and how he’d had pretty much the biggest American life imaginable — big man on campus at USC, superstar NFL player, handsome television star, coolest man in the room. But in the end, Greene found that even Gifford looked back wistfully. In his case, Gifford wished he could have been the quarterback rather than the halfback.

This is at the heart of human nature, I guess. I don’t believe anyone has had a more perfect career than Aaron — perfect in that he never had a down season and he has several of the most important records. But even Hank Aaron wishes he could have accomplished just one more extraordinary thing.


Let’s go back to April 8, 1974. It was the end of the worst time of Aaron’s life. He had never wanted to chase Babe Ruth’s record. It’s just that one day, right around when he turned 32, he began to realize that he had a chance to put up numbers that would match him up with the greatest to ever play the game. And that was too tempting to pass up.

A writer named Lee Allen explained to him that if he stuck around for three or four more seasons, he’d have a real shot at 500 home runs. At that point, only four players ever — Ruth, Foxx, Williams and Mel Ott — had 500 home runs.

And then if he stuck around for another year or two, he’d get to 3,000 hits. That was a big one; only eight players — eight of the greatest players — had 3,000 hits. Even Ruth and Williams had not done that.

So he kept doing what he always did, and he hit his 500th homer in 1968. He got 3,000th hit in 1970, but the thing is, that year he began closing in on 600 homers. So he had to do that. He stuck around in 1971 and led the league in slugging and OPS while bashing 47 home runs. What was he going to do? Stop there? No, of course not. So he kept going, and suddenly 700 home runs were in sight, and if 700 homers were in sight, that meant that Ruth’s unbreakable record of 714 home runs was in sight.

What was he going to do? Stop?

“If I played out my career in typical fashion … the record would show that I had been one of the best ballplayers to come along,” Aaron wrote in “I Had a Hammer.” “My credentials would put me in the company of Ruth and Mays and all the others. But I also knew that in the final analysis — in the books and sports columns and barbershops — I wouldn’t be in their class, To be in their class, my numbers had to be better than theirs. I didn’t agree with it, and I didn’t accept it, but it was reality, and I had to deal with it.”

And so he dared. He went after Babe Ruth, a black man chasing after a white legend in 1970s America. He hated every minute of it. He hated the racist mail that poured in.

Dear N—–,

Everybody loved Babe Ruth. You will be the most hated man in the country if you break his career home run record.

 

Dear N—–,

You are doing more to hurt baseball than any other that ever played the game. You may break the record and you may replace Babe Ruth in the hearts of the liberal sportswriters, the liberal newspapers, TV and radio … but you will never replace the Babe in the hearts of clear-thinking members of our Society.


Dear Black Boy,

Listen Black Boy, We don’t want no n—— Babe Ruth.


Dear Super Spook,

First of all, I don’t care for the color of s—. You are pretty damn repugnant trying to break the Babe’s record.

 

Dear Mr. N—–,

I hope you don’t break the Babe’s record. How do I tell my kids that a n—– did it?

 

Dear Henry Aaron,

How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?

 

Dear Brother Hank Aaron,

I hope you join Brother Dr. Martin Luther King in that Heaven he spoke of. Willie Mays was a much better player than you anyway.

 

On and on and on and on … these letters never stopped coming. Polls showed that most of America was rooting for him. One showed that 87 percent wanted him to get the recognition he deserved by breaking the record. But what good are polls when the death threats keep coming in? Thirteen percent of America is still a lot of people. His children needed security to go to school. He needed an escort every time he appeared in public. And meanwhile, the reporters kept coming at him, each asking the same exact questions.

“All I do is lay in bed and stare at the ceiling,” he told one reporter who asked how well he slept.

“Well, isn’t it worth it?” he asked.

“I really don’t know,” he said. “If I go to bed half berzerk, it’s not.”

No, he didn’t sleep. He ate every night in his hotel room alone. He felt alone. Yet he kept on hitting — and hitting home runs — because somewhere along the way he came to a powerful and painful and undeniable realization.

The only thing worse than breaking the record would be not breaking the record.

On April 8, 1974, while a misty rain fell, Henry Aaron came up in the fourth inning. He was the new all-time National League leader in runs. He stepped in against Al Downing. The crowd stood and cheered madly. He shut out the sound like only he could do. The first pitch was a slider and it was down in the dirt.

Then came the next pitch. Downing said it was a fastball up. Aaron remembered it as a slider down. They both remember Aaron turning on it and hitting a long and high fly ball to left field. Neither knew it was gone off the bat. “But,” Downing said, “it kept carrying and carrying.”

When it cleared the fence and landed in the glove of relief pitcher Tom House, fireworks exploded. The crowd exploded. Aaron’s heart exploded. He didn’t show it. He rounded the bases the way he always did, unsmiling, undaunted. He took a moment to shake hands with Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey and second baseman Davey Lopes. Even when two college kids ran on the field and surrounded him — they had run on to congratulate him — he showed no fear or emotion.

He just kept running.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” Vin Scully said in the booth after letting the crowd tell the story. “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 the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

So many people have asked Henry Aaron what he was thinking in that exact moment. I asked him that, too. He shrugged. How do you explain it? He doesn’t have any better answer now than he did that very day when the crowd cheered for 11 straight minutes, and his mother raced on the field and gave him a bear hug that choked the breath out of him, and he was handed a microphone to say what came to mind now that he had passed the Babe.

“Thank God it’s over,” he said.


Note: Portions of this series were adapted from previous work that originated on my personal blog.

(Photo: Bettmann)

I didn't know he was such a good all around player.  I just pulled up his BRef page and he was a 6.2 Win player in 1955, his second year, to being a 7.2 Win player in 1971, with never lower than a 5.0 between.  That's 17 years straight of all star quality play and getting MVP votes every year.

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If he wasn't the best all-around player to ever put on a uniform, he's certainly in the conversation.  Could do it all -- hit for power, hit for average, field his position at a high level, and terrific on the bases.   And he was amazingly consistent in terms of playing at an All-Star level.  RIP, Hammerin' Hank.   

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2 hours ago, Trey3216 said:

Damn.  Very sad day.  You could take away every HR he ever hit and he still has 3000 hits. 

 

2 hours ago, youdunnf'dup said:

Holy shit I didn’t know that. 

Next highest HR total that can say that is Musial's 475.

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21 minutes ago, Underdog said:

Had the good fortune of seeing his tying and record breaking HRs on TV, such a great, great player. 

RIP, Hank. 

One of my brother's friends went to the Braves' Opening Day game in Cincinnati in '74, and was sitting in the left field stands, front row on the railing, so he had an up close view of #714.  He said if the ball had carried a little further, it would have been just down the row from where he was sitting.  

I watched #715 on TV along with my family.  My brother wasn't too happy at first -- he's a Dodgers fan -- but he got over it. 

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42 minutes ago, Carl Spackler said:

If he wasn't the best all-around player to ever put on a uniform, he's certainly in the conversation.  Could do it all -- hit for power, hit for average, field his position at a high level, and terrific on the bases.   And he was amazingly consistent in terms of playing at an All-Star level.  RIP, Hammerin' Hank.   

for all around I might have to go with Mays or possibly Griffey Jr.  Ruth is in there because he probably could have been 300 win pitcher had he chose that route.

Aaron is top 5 for sure.

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28 minutes ago, Carl Spackler said:

One of my brother's friends went to the Braves' Opening Day game in Cincinnati in '74, and was sitting in the left field stands, front row on the railing, so he had an up close view of #714.  He said if the ball had carried a little further, it would have been just down the row from where he was sitting.  

I watched #715 on TV along with my family.  My brother wasn't too happy at first -- he's a Dodgers fan -- but he got over it. 

Opening Day was a big deal in Cincy back then, bunch of festivities, local TV talk show host Bob Braun would broadcast from RF or Fountain Square/Downtown Cincy for it.  I skipped school, as I was accustomed to doing back then, to stay home and watch the game.  

 

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