Hank Aaron / Henry Aaron
Besides hitting for power, the all-time home run king also could run, field, throw, hit for average, and hit in the clutch with anyone. He did it, day in and day out, year after year after year. And he did it in relative anonymity created by his own soft-spokeness and deceivingly smooth style of play, as well as the fate of spending his career in Milwaukee and Atlanta, well off the beaten path of the media mob.
For a player of such diverse and encompassing talent who led his league in home runs just four times in his 23-year career to be remembered as "the all-time home run king" is ironic, to say the least. But it also is the ultimate testament to the prolonged, high-level consistency that stands as the true measure of Aaron's peerless stature at the very top of his profession.
The third of eight children, Aaron was the son of a rivet bucker for a shipbuilding company in Mobile, Alabama. A younger brother, Tommie, also played for the Braves. He was a slick-fielding first baseman but was not a strong hitter. After a brief playing career, he became a highly regarded minor league coach and manager and major league coach for the Braves before an early death from leukemia. Two other Mobile products, Billy Williams and Willie McCovey, would follow Hank to the majors and eventually to the Hall of Fame. Aaron didn't even play high school baseball, because his school didn't have a team. He was a star football player, though, and began playing semipro baseball for the Mobile Black Bears during his junior year. The Bears played a game against the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team on a barnstorming tour, and the visitors were impressed by the 17-year-old Aaron. The next year, the Clowns signed him for $200 a month. Aaron had gone to a Dodgers tryout camp first, but when someone said he was too small to play, he left before even taking the field.
He departed Mobile to join the Clowns in 1952 carrying only two dollars, two sandwiches his mother made him, and a banged-up suitcase. To show just how raw Aaron was when he started his pro career, he actually batted cross-handed, with the left hand above the right on the handle. Braves scout Dewey Griggs convinced him to change-in the middle of a game, no less-and Aaron went on to lead the Negro American League with a .467 average until he signed with Boston.
Aaron was playing shortstop then, and both the Braves and Giants wanted him. Griggs won the battle, signing him for $350 a month. The Braves paid the Clowns $10,000 for Aaron's contract, and Clowns owner Syd Pollack gave Aaron a suitcase for his first plane trip from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, home of the Braves' Class-C team. Just 18 years old and far from home in a white man's world, a white man's profession, Aaron played as if he were still in the Mobile sandlots. Two weeks after his arrival, he was named to the Northern League All-Star team, and at the end of the year he was selected the league's Rookie of the Year for batting .336 with nine home runs and 61 RBIs in 87 games.
Aaron had an even bigger year in 1953, his second pro season, leading Jacksonville to the Sally League pennant and being named the league's MVP. He led the league in hitting (.362) and RBls (125). It didn't all come naturally to Aaron, though. He was playing second base and not particularly well. Besides his defense, he had to do a little work on his baserunning. In one game, he stole three bases and each time was tagged out when the second baseman pulled the hidden-ball trick.
The Braves still felt Aaron wasn't ready for the majors despite two highly productive seasons in the minors. During the off-season, they converted him to an outfielder in the Puerto Rican Winter League. And when the Braves obtained outfielder Bobby Thomson in a trade with the Giants, it appeared the club was determined to keep Aaron in the minors for another season. During spring training, though, Thomson broke his ankle sliding into second. Thus, on March 14, 1954, Aaron became Milwaukee's starting left fielder, and he never looked back.
Magic is the only way to describe it," Thomson said years later about his 20-year-old replacement." You just had this feeling-even then-that this guy was something special. He was far removed from the ordinary class of ballplayer, like the rest of us. Some of the guys were skeptical. Everybody had said he was bound to be a great one. He'd hit well in the minors, sure, but we figured he'd be like so many other rookies-come to camp with a reputation, really see the curveball for the first time, and bomb out."
Instead of "bombing out," it was bombs away. Aaron's first home run came in his seventh game against Vic Raschi of the Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. He was productive enough as a rookie to finish second to Wally Moon of St. Louis for NL Rookie of the Year. However, his season was abbreviated when he broke his ankle sliding on September 5. Amazingly, he avoided serious injury for the remainder of his career. His 122 games played as a rookie were the fewest he appeared in until 1973 when he was 39 years old.
In 1955, just his second major league season, Aaron established himself as a bona fide star and made the All-Star team for the first time. Thomson returned to play left, so Aaron moved into right field, where he would spend most of his career. He hit .314 with 27 home runs and 106 RBIs at age 21 and led the league in doubles with 37. "Bad Henry" or "Hammerin' Hank" had arrived. Aaron believes his "Bad Henry" nickname came from Dodgers pitching greats Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. And "Hammerin' Hank" is credited to longtime Braves front office executive Donald Davidson. Later in his career, "Hammerin' Hank" became simply "The Hammer." Aaron's reputation grew quickly throughout the league, even if he was overshadowed in the media and with the public by other stars of the era. "Throwing a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak the sun past a rooster," said St. Louis pitcher Curt Simmons, summing up the frustration of pitchers all over the league.
In 1956, Aaron won the batting title (.328) and led the league in numerous other offensive categories, including hits, total bases, and doubles. In the process, he helped the Braves almost win their first pennant in Milwaukee, though they had to settle for second on the final day of the season.
The talented Braves went all the way in '57, though, and Aaron, of course, was a big reason for that. He hit an 11th-inning home run to beat St. Louis and clinch the pennant on September 23. He also led the league in both home runs (44) and RBIs (132) for the first time en route to being named the National League's MVP.
The Yankees were heavy favorites in the '57 Series, and future Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra was so confident he even tried to give Aaron a tip during batting practice. "Hey kid, you're holding your bat wrong. It's supposed to be with the label up," Berra said to Aaron, who replied, "I didn't come here to read." But he did come to hit, batting .393 with three home runs and seven RBIs in the Braves' seven-game Series victory, the last winning postseason experience of Aaron's career.
In 1958, Aaron had another typically big year at the plate as the Braves won their second straight pennant. But his defense also began to be recognized. He won the first of three consecutive Gold Gloves. As with all phases of his game, Aaron's unique defensive style was so smooth and seemingly effortless that he made even the most difficult plays appear considerably easier than they really were. "When he first joined our team, we held our breath when a fly ball was hit in his direction," said Billy Bruton, who played center field for much of the Braves' stay in Milwaukee. "It was the way he went after the ball, like he was never going to get there. But after we saw him a while and saw the kind of things he could do, we didn't worry anymore."
Every other player ran after balls. Aaron somehow seemed to glide across wide expanses of outfield grass to tuck away potential extra-base hits. It didn't look like he was expending much energy at all, when of course, he was working just as hard as the next guy. The same held true on the base paths and in the batter's box. Aaron strolled to the plate like he was walking out to pick up the Sunday paper. Even in the box, he was a picture of casual elegance, undoubtedly involved in intense concentration even though he appeared as relaxed as a couch potato except for the wiggling of the bat in his powerful hands. "He's the only ballplayer I've ever seen who goes to sleep at the plate and wakes up only to swing as the pitch comes in," said Curt Simmons, who Aaron named as the toughest pitcher he ever faced. And the swing itself was as unique as everything else about the great outfielder. He broke all the "rules," hitting with his weight on his front foot, overstriding, and dragging his back foot-then lashing at the last split second with wrists and forearms equipped with both the power of thunder and the speed of lightning. Unlike conventional power hitters, Aaron swung down on the ball, especially early in his career. His line drives rocketed off the bat, rising from the backspin, and often causing infielders to think they were catchable before they escaped the ballpark's field of gravity and landed in distant territory inaccessible to outfielders.
Obviously possessed with tremendous natural talent, Aaron also worked hard to develop that potential. And he refused to rely strictly on his physical ability, as he easily could have done. He became a student of the game, particularly of pitchers and their patterns. He admitted to being a "guess hitter," which is a modest way of saying he was a thinking man's hitter. Rather than simply reacting to the pitch, he was always trying to outthink the pitcher, "guessing" what pitch would be thrown and in what location. And he was very good at it. "Slapping a rattlesnake across the face with the back of your hand is safer than trying to fool Henry Aaron," said Dodgers pitcher Claude Osteen.
In 1959, Aaron won his second batting title with a .355 average and 223 hits, both of which would stand as career highs, as would his league-leading 400 total bases. Year after year, his accomplishments began to pile up, long before anyone could have imagined where it was all leading. He led the league in RBIs (126) in 1960 for the second of four times in his career. In 1963, he was named National League Player of the Year when he became only the fifth man to enter the 30-30 (home runs-stolen bases) club. Though his 31 steals represented a career high, he most certainly could have reached the 30-30 level several other times had he not played on such power-laden clubs or had he played in an era when stolen bases were more valued. He also led the NL in home runs (44), RBIs (130), and total bases in '63. With a few more points on his batting average Aaron would have won the rare Triple Crown. He hit .319, and Tommy Davis's .326 led the league.
In many ways, 1964 serves to illustrate just how productive Aaron was for so long. It was considered an "off" season for him because he failed to lead the league in any major offensive categories. All he did was hit .328 with 24 home runs, 95 RBIs, and 22 steals. Players become stars with such seasons, but for Aaron, it was a "downer" at age 30.
He led the league in doubles in 1965. The next year, the Braves moved to Atlanta, and Aaron showed his new fans just what he could do by racking up his third home run title and fourth RBI championship (127). It was the third of four seasons he would complete with 44 home runs, the number he wore on his uniform. Early that year, he hit his 400th career home run, too. And he and Eddie Mathews combined to set a major league record for home runs by teammates, passing Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and ultimately reaching 863.
In '67, Aaron won his fourth and final home run title (39), putting together yet another superb all-around season and leading the league in runs and total bases. On July 14, 1968, the "quiet" home run hitter connected for his 500th career home run, still 214 away from Ruth but a number that had been reached by only seven other men.
The Braves won the National League West in 1969, the first year of division play, and Aaron was a big reason with 44 home runs and his eighth and last year of leading the NL in total bases. The division title provided Aaron his first postseason exposure since 1958 and the last of his career. He didn't disappoint. Facing the powerful pitching of Tom Seaver and the Miracle Mets, he batted .357 with a home run in each of the three games but couldn't prevent the Braves from being swept in the best-of-five playoffs.
Early in 1970, May 17 to be exact, Aaron achieved one of his proudest moments. His single at Cincinnati against Wayne Simpson was his 3,000th career hit. Only seven others had ever reached that number then. Aaron tied Musial for getting No. 3,000 the earliest in a career, his 17th season. He also became the first player to combine 3,000 hits with 500 home runs. In 1970, Aaron set a major league record with his 12th season of 30 or more home runs. The following year, he moved from right field to first base to help relieve some of the wear and tear and preserve his strength for The Chase. He also hit his 600th home run on April 27 against San Francisco's Gaylord Perry.
Only Mays remained between Aaron and Ruth. Aaron reached yet another milestone in '71, though not nearly as significant. Always an underachiever in All-Star Games, he hit his first All-Star home run at Detroit against Vida Blue. It came in his 20th All-Star appearance. Later in the year, Aaron set a National League record for most seasons with 40 or more home runs (8). He ended the season with 47 home runs, a personal high, and at age 37, he batted a robust .327, his highest since 1964. He also had a career-high slugging percentage of .669, which led the league.
It appeared as if Aaron had been rejuvenated for his pursuit of Ruth. On June 10, 1972, he hit a grand slam at Philadelphia against Wayne Twitchell. It was the 649th homer of his career, surpassing Mays for second place, and it also was his 14th career grand slam, tying McCovey and Gil Hodges for the league record. Less than three weeks later, Aaron passed Lou Gehrig for second place on the all-time RBI chart.
By this time, it seemed that nearly every week Aaron was reaching a milestone. His 659th career homer, coming on July 19, 1972, tied Ruth for the most homers with a single team.
The Braves hosted the All-Star Game that year, the first time the event had been played in the South. Aaron responded with his second All-Star home run, prompting the third of four rousing ovations he received that evening. Aaron ended the '72 season with 673 home runs, 41 short of Ruth, creating a media buildup of gigantic proportions as he entered the final stage of his pursuit of a record many experts long felt was unbreakable. Despite the pressure of an entire nation and much of the world watching his every swing, despite the constant demand for interviews and appearances, despite pitchers concentrating on avoiding his personal hit list, despite hate mail and death threats, despite his advanced age of 39, he hit 40 home runs in 1973, the most ever by a player his age. All winter, he sat at 713, just one short of Ruth's record.
The scrutiny of Aaron was so great in the final stages of his ascent to the home run throne that he couldn't stay with the team on the road, registering in different hotels under an assumed name. He also hired a bodyguard in case the people behind any of the threatening mail and calls materialized. Though Aaron held up remarkably well under all the attention and duress, he said he'd be glad when it was behind him. And did he ever get the burden off his back in a hurry!
No. 714 came at Cincinnati on opening day 1974, against Jack Billingham in the first inning-on his very first swing of the season. The date was April 4. One down and one to go.
The Braves returned to Atlanta for the home opener April 8. The biggest crowd (53,775) in the history of Atlanta Stadium showed up, along with a horde of media, hundreds of celebrities and dignitaries, Aaron's parents, and assorted other guests of significance in his life. A 45-minute pregame salute to Aaron was staged, and national network TV interrupted programming to report on his at bats. Most men would have melted, but not Aaron, the epitome of cool under any circumstances.
In his first at bat, Aaron never even swung, drawing a walk on five pitches from Dodgers starter Al Downing. Then came the fourth inning. With Los Angeles leading, 3-1, and Darrell Evans on first with no outs, Downing fell behind with a first-pitch ball. On the next pitch, Aaron took his first cut of the game and his first of the year in Atlanta, depositing No. 715 neatly over the left-field fence and into the hands of relief pitcher Tom House. Pandemonium, of course, ensued. Hank Aaron was the new all-time home run king.
Aaron hit 18 more home runs that year, ending his Braves career with 733. The Braves weren't sure how much playing time they could give Aaron in '75, and he wasn't ready to accept a reserve role. Thus the team sent the greatest player in franchise history back to Milwaukee, where he began his big league career, in exchange for outfielder Dave May and minor league pitcher Roger Alexander.
After two seasons with the Brewers, Aaron retired with 755 home runs and more major league batting records than anyone else in history. His career records include most RBIs (2,297), total bases (6,856), and long hits (1,477). He's also second in lifetime at bats and runs, third in games and hits, ninth in doubles, 11th in singles, and tied for 14th in years of service. He and younger brother Tommie combined for 768 home runs, the most ever by brothers.
An All-Star in every season he played except his first and last, Aaron was incredibly consistent. He hit between 24 and 45 home runs for 19 straight seasons, averaging 33 from 1955 through 1973. He drove in 100 runs 11 times and scored 100 runs 15 times. He won two batting titles and four Gold Gloves. Aaron returned to the Braves front offfice after retiring as a player. He spent 13 years as a team vice president and director of player development. Often outspoken about baseball's indifference to promoting racial equality in the game's administration, Aaron protested in 1980 by refusing to accept a special award from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn honoring him for his 715th home run.
In 1989, Aaron was appointed a senior vice president and assistant to Braves president Stan Kasten. He's also a vice president and board member of Turner Broadcasting and is active with various community organizations.