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.