The greatness of Hank Aaron
By Jeff Idelson
“Here’s the pitch from Downing … swinging … there’s a drive into left-center field. The ball is gonna beeee … out of here! It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home-run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron.”
That was the radio call of Braves broadcaster Milo Hamilton on April 8, 1974, when Aaron broke Babe Ruth‘s long-standing home-run record. As important as that milestone was, and as immortal as Hamilton’s words have become, that singular event is precisely why Aaron ranks among baseball’s most underrated ballplayers.
Fans tend to remember Lou Gehrig because he died from ALS. Outside of Baltimore, Cal Ripken Jr. is remembered for “the streak.” And Aaron is often remembered for the home runs, though he accomplished so much more.
On this — the eve of the opening of Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, our new exhibit dedicated to Aaron at the Baseball Hall of Fame — it is appropriate to consider the magnitude of what Aaron accomplished on and off the field.
Who is the all-time leader today in RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits? Hank Aaron. “The Hammer” also ranks second all time in home runs, third in hits and fourth in runs. He showed up to play every day, which is why he is among the top five all time in games played, at-bats and plate appearances.
Aaron’s also a member of the prestigious 3,000-hit club. Take away each and every one of his 755 home runs, and he still has 3,016 hits.
Said teammate Phil Niekro of Aaron’s home runs after No. 700, “It’s like the sun coming up every morning. You just don’t know what time.”
Over 23 seasons, Aaron was great, averaging 33 home runs and 100 RBIs with a .305 batting average. He was a 25-time All-Star, representing his league every year except his rookie year and final season. Aaron was in the top 10 in the Most Valuable Player voting 12 times, winning it in 1957 when the Braves won the World Series. By the way, Aaron hit .393 with three home runs and seven RBIs in the Braves’ victory over the Yankees in the Fall Classic.
Not only was he great, but Aaron was consistently awesome: He hit 20 or more home runs 20 times, drove in 100 or more runs 11 times and hit better than .300 14 times. He hit .303 with 385 home runs at home and .306 with 370 home runs on the road. His batting average never varied by more than 10 points, month to month, over his career.
The Hammer was raised in Mobile, Ala., a hotbed for talent. Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Satchel Paige, Ozzie Smith and Billy Williams were all born in Mobile, a city with a population under 200,000.
Aaron accomplished so much with a quiet grace and dignity which he brought to the ballpark every day in a time of racial divide in America. He was also among those who integrated the South Atlantic League, and he broke Ruth’s home-run mark in the face of intense hatred and racism. It’s no surprise that his hero was Jackie Robinson, who paved Aaron’s way to the way to the Majors.
Jeff Idelson is the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.