Remembering Hank Aaron (1934-2021)

The baseball world was saddened by the news of Hank Aaron‘s passing, two weeks shy of his 87th birthday. Regarded with Willie Mays as one of the two greatest right-handed hitters in major league history, Aaron will forever be remembered for being the first to surpass Babe Ruth‘s career home run total, long thought to be an unbreakable record. After the jump, more on the career of Hank Aaron.

Aaron made his professional debut in 1952 as an 18 year-old shortstop for the defending Negro American League champion Indianapolis Clowns. By mid-season, Aaron had contract offers from the Giants and the Braves, and chose the latter because Boston offered $50 more per month (can you imagine a Giants squad with Mays and Aaron – it might well have been the Giants, rather than the Dodgers, who would become the NL powerhouse of the 1950s and 60s; incidentally, the Dodgers had passed on a 15 year-old Aaron at a 1949 minor league tryout). Aaron finished that 1952 season with the Braves’ Class C affiliate in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, then tore up the Class A Sally (South Atlantic) League in 1953, smashing its color barrier with 208 hits in 137 games for Jacksonville, good for a .362 BA and .589 SLG.

Aaron made the big club in Milwaukee in 1954 at age 20 as the Braves’ opening day left-fielder, taking the spot created by the departure of veteran Sid Gordon, traded to the Pirates to acquire young infielder Danny O’Connell (Quiz: which player was active when Aaron debuted, and also played against Babe Ruth?). Aaron notched his first hit in game no. 3 (off the Cardinals’ Vic Raschi) and his first home run in game no. 7 (again off Raschi), then added a second homer in game no. 9, one of five hits against the Cardinals, becoming the 4th youngest (now 5th youngest) player with a 5 hit game. Aaron’s rookie season was cut short by a fractured ankle early in September, but not before he posted a very respectable .280/.322/.447 slash in 509 PA (the Braves would not have another qualified season by a 20 year-old rookie until Jason Heyward in 2010).

Fully recovered from his injury, Aaron played every game but one in 1955, now as the Braves’ right-fielder, leading the NL with 37 doubles and earning his first of 21 consecutive All-Star selections. It was also the first of a record 15 seasons with 300 TB, and the first of a record 18 seasons with 20 HR, 80 R and 80 RBI. Aaron topped 5 WAR that season, his first of a record 17 consecutive seasons at that WAR level. And, of course, he was just getting started. In 1956, Aaron was NL batting champion while also leading the league in H, 2B and TB. In 1957, Aaron was league MVP, leading the Braves (with three World Series home runs) to the franchise’s first world championship in more than 40 years, and leading the senior circuit in R, HR, RBI and TB. Another Brave pennant followed in 1958, and very nearly in 1959 when Aaron was again league batting champion and posted a career best 400 total bases, one of only three 400 TB seasons in the 59 years from 1938 to 1996 (Quiz: which players have the other two such seasons?). And on he went, recording 18 consecutive qualified seasons with 140 OPS+, including a career best 194 OPS+ at age 37, the highest at that age or older by anyone not named Ruth, Williams or Bonds. In all, Aaron was league best 8 times in TB, 4 times in 2B, HR, RBI and SLG, 3 times in R, OPS and OPS+, and twice in H and BA.

Aaron’s home run exploits include 8 seasons with 40 HR (second only to the Babe), a record 15 seasons with 30 HR, and a record 20 seasons with 20 HR. For most of Aaron’s career, attention was focused more on his contemporaries who might have a shot at Ruth’s record, notably teammate Eddie Mathews (370 HR by age 29), Mickey Mantle (374 HR by age 29) and Willie Mays (505 HR by age 34). But, they all slowed down in their mid-to-late-30s, while Aaron kept up the pace, ranking second only to Barry Bonds in HR aged 35+. Aaron passed 300 HR in 1963 (age 29), 400 in 1966 (age 32), 500 in 1968 (age 34), 600 in 1971 (age 37) and 700 in 1973 (age 39). Aaron finished that 1973 season with a total of 713, one shy of Ruth’s record. After an off-season of anticipation (and much racially hateful and threatening correspondence from strangers), Aaron wasted no time tying the record, connecting for a 3-run blast off of Reds’ right-hander Jack Billingham in his first PA of the 1974 season. Four days later, Aaron passed the Babe with a 2-run shot off of Dodger lefty Al Downing in a nationally televised game on NBC’s Monday Night Baseball (Quiz: which HoF pitcher surrendered the most Aaron home runs?). At season’s end, Atlanta traded their 40 year-old home run king to the Brewers, allowing AL fans the chance to see Aaron for his final two seasons (like the Babe, Aaron would start and finish his career in different leagues in the same city). Aaron’s all-time career ranks include 1st in RBI, TB and XBH, 2nd in HR, 3rd in Hits, 4th in Runs, and 5th (among position players) in WAR and oWAR. Aaron was the first player to reach 600 2B and 600 HR (since joined by Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols), and his combination of 2000 Runs and 2000 RBI has been matched only by Ruth and Alex Rodriguez. Rest in peace, Henry.

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Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 months ago

Quiz half-answer: Without looking I believe Jim Rice has 1 of those 2 other 400 TB seasons.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 months ago

Oddly enough Aaron never had a season with at least 100 walks. He peaked at 92 BB in 1972. The only other players with 500+ HR and no seasons of 100+ BB are Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Doug
Doug
8 months ago

Aaron, Bonds, Pujols, Cabrera and Brett are the only players with 1000+ career walks, incl. 20% intentional (Miggy is just barely at 20%, so could drop out of this group this coming year).

John S
John S
8 months ago

I’m gonna guess Teddy Ballgame (Williams) for 400 TB. I’m gonna agree with Richard Chester for Rice. As for which HoFer gave up most of Hank’s Homers, I think it’s Fergie. What active player played against the Babe? No clue whatsoever. Albert Pujols is so old, it wouldn’t be him, would it?

John S
John S
8 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Shoulda gone with my first choice, Musial. They were both phenomenal hitters. Too bad I was 3 years old in 1963 & missed them both.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 months ago

Phil Cavarretta played against Ruth in 1935 and was in the ML when Aaron debuted.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
8 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Dang, I was busy yesterday and didn’t check the site. Would’ve had this one!

Paul E
Paul E
8 months ago

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHI/PHI196604200.shtml

Was listening in the car as an 8 year old when Aaron hiomered twice against the Phillies in the above game for career numbers 399 and 400. Can still remember it to this day….Ashburn was the color analyst and was pretty excited for “Henry Aaron”.

Paul E
Paul E
8 months ago

stan Musial for the 400 TB season in, I believe , 1948?

Amazing how steroids made 400 TBs (and the previously impressive/somewhat revered .600 slg pct) seem like a walk in the park

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
8 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Fun fact: Musial was 1st in doubles, 1st in triples, and 2nd in homers… but was still also 4th in singles. That, I believe, is called “lapping the field.” He won the hits and batting titles by 40, so that gives you a lot of room to work with.

Musial also had a 200 OPS+ that season. It is one of only two OPS+ seasons of 200 or better in the NL in the time between Rogers Hornsby (1928) and Barry Bonds (1992). Without looking, can anyone name the other?

CursedClevelander
CursedClevelander
8 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

The other NL player with a 200+ OPS+ in that period should be Willie McCovey. Mike Schmidt just barely missed in his 1981 MVP campaign.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
8 months ago

Spot-on, CC. Not a hard question, but I think we radically underestimate how valuable a hitter McCovey was in that 1968-70 period. Playing in Candlestick in one of the worst offensive eras in history, he was putting up numbers that would be league-leading in all but the most extreme hitter’s environments in history. I don’t suspect many people would mention “Willie McCovey, 1969” in the same breath as some of these other seasons, but it merits the same kind of treatment.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Paul, I still wouldn’t call 400 TB “a walk in the park.” There were only seven such seasons in the steroid era – far fewer than the 1929-1937 era (15). And nearly half of those seven seasons may have as much to do with Colorado as steroids, seeing as three of the seven seasons were by Rockies. ALL seven of those 400-TB seasons were by NL players – another clue that the juiced ball and thin, Colorado air had as much to do with it as anything. And think of this – Todd Helton had 402 TB in 2001… and… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
8 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Doom,
I was comparing the stretch from 1938 – 1993 (Rice & Musial) with two 400+ TB season out of 56 seasons to the peak of the steroid era (7 times from 1997-2001). By the same token, one could call the steroid era 1994-2006, however, 1994 – 1995 were strike shortened and you could easily imagine Bagwell, Belle, Griffey, and Frank Thomas (291+ TB in ~ 114G) going over 400 in 1994 as well as Belle and Bichette in 1995 (377/359 in 144 games)

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Fair enough. As a counterpoint, I think it might be reasonable to expect some of those folks to fall a bit off the pace. (For example, Bagwell would certainly not have reached 400, since he had a season-ending wrist injury as the strike hit.) But it’s a point well-taken. Still, I find it interesting that no one ever seems to call out 1920-1937 as if that was some big outlying era, when it stands out even more than the Selig years. I realize that’s because people are especially offended by “chemical enhancement,” but it just goes into context like all… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
8 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Doom,
They juiced the ball in 1920 and everyone competed on the same level….in the steroid era, some chose to juice/cheat and compete on a different level. So, yes, I believe you’re correct in stating that “people are especially offended by ‘chemical enhancement’ “

Tom
Tom
8 months ago

I remember reading somewhere that Don Drysdale gave up the most HRs to Aaron.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 months ago
Reply to  Tom

He did, 17 HR. Drysdale also has the most PA vs. Aaron, 249. Altogether Aaron homered against 306 of the 729 pitchers he faced.

Mike L
Mike L
8 months ago
Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
8 months ago

A couple of other notes: Henry Aaron actually didn’t play in the second game of the Braves’ series with Cincinnati to open the ’74 season. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the Braves wanted him to sit both games of that series, to break the record at home. He did play in game 3, but I believe that was under pressure from the commissioner’s office. I tried looking it up, but now you have to sort through about a thousand pages of Aaron tributes before you can find what you’re looking for, and I couldn’t. But I… Read more »

Doug
Doug
8 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

You said it all with that last comment. Aaron is very exceptional in having very little performance drop-off all through his late ’30s. And that’s after a decade and a half of playing 145-160 games every year.

As to not mentioning Mays in terms of finishing a career in the city where a player started, I hadn’t thought to do so, simply because that part of the narrative was focused on Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth.

Paul E
Paul E
8 months ago
Reply to  Doug

OPS+ 35-39

241 Bonds
198 Williams
196 Ruth
168 Aaron
154 Edgar M
151 Ortiz
151 Nelson Cruz

I imagine the last three were/have been greatly aided by not having to play in the field. All of these guys had at least 2,500 PA’s in the five years from age 35-39. Cruz, in his last 735 PA’s, has hit 57 HR’s and knocked in 141.

Voomo
Voomo
8 months ago

Nobody was inducted to the Hall.
Lame.

We cant skip a year of the COG because of this.

I propose we find a way to proceed.

Paul E
Paul E
8 months ago
Reply to  Voomo

Morbid suggestion: Let’s debate and rate the recently deceased guys of 2020. Like “Kaline vs. Clemente”….”Morgan vs. Collins or Hornsby” rate the 5 deceased hall of fame pitchers. I dunno. It just seems like when these guys die, everyone starts to ask, “How good was….?”

Doug
Doug
8 months ago
Reply to  Voomo

We could have an election, and then get our numbers aligned the next time multiple players are elected. For example, we elect one player this year, and if there are two players selected for the Hall next year, we only choose one next year.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
8 months ago
Reply to  Doug

The problem with Doug’s idea, of course, is that if we get one inductee next year (or suffer another shutout), we face this same problem. But that was my first thought, too. I had an idea a while back that I have been tossing around. (Doug may have seen the initial post in the drafts folder on the site) of revisiting the Mount Rushmore idea. Only, instead of TEAMS, this time we would do POSITIONS. 8 fielders, DH, RHSP, LHSP, and relievers. 12 rounds, 48 players. I thought it could be kind of fun and keep us busy for a… Read more »

Doug
Doug
8 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Yeah, that would be the downside of getting out of step with the actual Hall count.

What we could do this year is have an election only for the secondary ballot, but also include the next birth year guys in the mix, so that we don’t have two birth years to deal with next year. That would just be one post, then we could move on to the Mt Rushmore of positions, a fun idea and even more exclusive than the franchise Mt Rushmore.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
8 months ago
Reply to  Doug

You know what, Doug? I think that’s a pretty good idea. My first thought was that it really depends on the quality of the players in question – if it’s a loaded year, you wouldn’t want to do that. But given that the only player with 50+ WAR is Lance Berkman, who’s seriously unlikely to gain election to the COG (and Javier Vazquez is the only other player over 40), I think that would be a fine way to do it. The problems would come if we get another shutout next year, because the quality of the top players (Carlos… Read more »

bells
bells
8 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Love both of these ideas, the CoG underballot with new birth year guys and also the mount rushmore of positions. So, just wanna say that to represent at least one person who comes here sporadically and barely posts; dunno if I speak for more than myself but there it is!

These tribute posts were great, thanks for all the work and thought you put into them Doug.

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
8 months ago
Reply to  bells

Bells, you speak for me, too – another person who visits sporadically and barely posts (but catches up on all the posts each time I check in). Both ideas will be good exercises. And I agree the tribute posts were fun to read – a sign of the quality work Doug put in to writing them.