Quick—name the greatest baseball player of all time. Did you say Babe Ruth, for his slugging prowess? Ted Williams for his singular batting eye? Ty Cobb for his tenacity and reckless abandon? Maybe Willie Mays, the ultimate five-tool player? I’m guessing that Hank Aaron was not one of the first names that came to your mind, but he is up there on the list.
Aaron has been in the news quite a bit recently. He had a birthday, came out with some strong statements regarding the Astros’ cheating scandal, and when the Negro Leagues celebrated their centennial, he can count himself as a member. With all that recent press, and considering it is Black History Month, an examination of Aaron’s career seems in order. The results may shock you:
Born on February 5, 1934, in the Deep South (Mobile, AL), Henry Aaron began his professional baseball career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. In 1952, playing shortstop, he led that club to a Negro League World Series championship.
In short order, and thanks to Jackie Robinson’s courageous actions seven years earlier, Hank made his major league debut with the Milwaukee Braves, where he’d play from 1954-1965. When that franchise moved to Atlanta in ‘66, he went with them until 1974. His final two seasons (‘75-’76) were spent back in Milwaukee with that city’s new franchise, the Brewers.
Aaron’s career stats over those 23 campaigns are gargantuan in stature: .305 BA, .928 OPS, 155 OPS+, 2, 297 RBI (MLB record), 755 HR, 6, 856 total bases (MLB record), and 3,771 hits. Oh yeah, and throw in three Gold Glove awards as an outfielder for good measure.
His 143 WAR total has been eclipsed by exactly five players to ever put on a uniform: Ruth, Mays, Cobb, & Barry Bonds.
A deeper-dive into Aaron’s stats produces even more eye-popping feats:
-From 1955-1974, he never hit less than 24 HR in a single season. Eight of those were 40+ homer years.
-Despite being known as a slugger, he got past 200 hits in a season three times.
-He never struck out 100 times in any year. In fact, for his career he walked to first more times—1,402—than he did back to the dugout with nothing to show for it—1,383.
-Getting into ludicrous territory, Hank stole 16+ bases a season from ‘60-’68, including a high water mark of 31 in 1963.
Of course, the stats alone don’t measure the Hammerin’ Man’s legacy. Despite receiving death threats (largely due to the color of his skin) from fans while pursuing Ruth’s all-time home run record, Aaron persevered and swatted the iconic #715 on April 8, 1974...
As has become baseball numerical immortality, Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs, a number only eclipsed by Bonds (and the PED scandal that came with him).
Aaron played 17 games against the Minnesota Twins in his career, during his age 41 and 42 seasons. He collected just eight hits and a .136 BA in those affairs, but—of course—cranked out two home runs (off of Twins pitchers Ray Corbin & Tom Johnson).
I’m as guilty as anyone of not having the name Henry Aaron come to the tip of my tongue when asked about the all-time great ballplayers. While not being the most charismatic player, nor the one with a single extraordinary skill, his utterly insane consistency over a long period of time is mind-boggling.
I’ll close with a Hank Aaron quote, one I often refer to when in a funk or feeling low myself:
My motto was always ‘keep swinging’. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging
For 23 major league seasons, Hank indeed kept swinging. Even today, at age 86, he still seems to be taking some pretty healthy cuts.