Righthanded Hitting, Righthanded Throwing Outfielder/First Baseman
Seasons With Braves: 1954-1974
Stats With Braves: .310 .377 .567, 733 HR, 2202 RBI, 2107 RS
What to say about a legend? Well, to begin, I think the Hammer is actually a little underrated. There’s a tendency to see him as a very good player for a long time. He was a great player; he won only one MVP award but earned four or five more. From 1955 to 1975 he made the All-Star team every year; he got MVP votes every year from 1955 to 1973. His 76 Black Ink points are eighth all-time. But all those league-leading seasons are drowned out by his many, many seasons among the leaders; nobody has finished in the top ten so much, in so many different things, as Hank Aaron. Only Cobb ranks ahead of him in the Grey Ink test, and Cobb didn’t have quite the breadth of contributions.
He didn’t play in a basestealing era like Cobb, but he was a career 78 percent basestealer who stole as many as 31 in a season, which was good for second in the league. He was a Gold Glove outfielder who played 293 games in center, and would have played more except that the team had good glove men and could afford to keep him in right. The power you know something of; he hit line drives with the best of them, and a whole lot of those left the park. He won two batting titles and finished in the top ten twelve times. The only thing Hank didn’t do was draw a lot of walks, but his isolated OBP is a little better than the league.
Aaron actually wanted to pass Cobb, not Ruth, and become the all-time hits leader; he started concentrating on home runs more when he moved to Atlanta. As it happened, he’s still third on the all-time hits list. Bonds will probably pass him for home runs, but his RBI record is probably beyond reach, and he might hold off Bonds for extra-base hits as well. Oh, and there are other differences.
Two more points of possible interest are that Aaron was a middle infielder when he entered organized baseball, moved off second base soon after (though he did play over 40 games at the position in the majors) and that at first he batted cross-handed — that is, righthanded but with a grip more like a left-hander’s. He’s speculated that if he maybe would have been even better had he been a switch-hitter, since he had a head start on the grip. Anyway, he started hitting the “right way” while with Indianapolis, I believe; Bill James speculates that the early hitting the “wrong way” might have helped Aaron gain his phenomenal wrist strength.
Hank was born in Mobile in 1934, three years after Willie Mays was born in the Birmingham area; it’s not necessarily meaningful that these two dominant figures were born in my home state, I just like to point it out. It is probably meaningful that a huge number of other quality players, highlighted by Willie McCovey, also came out of the Mobile area in Aaron’s wake. Many of them looked to him as a leader, and even wore 44 in tribute to him. Aaron played with the local segregated team, the Mobile Black Bears, then with the Indianapolis Clowns, before signing with the then-Boston Braves in 1952. Two years later, he was with the big club, now in Milwaukee. He was fourth in the rookie of the year balloting, but still pretty raw. He would not be raw for long.
A year-by-year summary of Aaron’s career would be really long, and fairly repetitive; he was great, and consistently great, for twenty years. Hitting the highlights… He made the first of those twenty-one consecutive All-Star teams in 1955. In 1956, he won the batting title. In 1957, at the age of 23, he won his lone MVP award, hitting .322/.378/.600 with 44 home runs, as the M-Braves won their only World Series title. Lew Burdette won three games to take the Series MVP, but Aaron was the offensive star, hitting .393 (the team as a whole hit .209) with three homers and seven RBI.
Those Braves teams were really talented, but never could get over the hump again. Hank just kept hitting — and fielding, winning the Gold Glove from 1958 to 1960. In 1958 he hit well again in the Series, but the team lost in seven. In 1959 he had his greatest year, leading the league in batting average (at .355), slugging, OPS, hits, total bases, and runs created, finishing third in homers and RBI. They gave the MVP to the shortstop of a last-place team, while the Braves lost a three-game playoff to the Dodgers, losing the last game in the twelfth inning. In 1963, he came closest to the Triple Crown, finishing third in batting average and leading in homers and RBI (and also in runs).
In 1966, the Braves moved to Atlanta; Hank was not crazy about this for obvious reasons, plus he liked Milwaukee. At the same time, he recognized that the different conditions in Atlanta called for a different approach, and started pulling the ball more. He’d won two home run titles in Milwaukee. He won two in his first two years in Atlanta. At the same time, he was no longer a threat to win the batting title, finishing out of the top ten when he led the league in homers and RBI in his first Atlanta season. Considered just for his time in Atlanta, I would still rank Aaron second among hitters, behind Chipper but ahead of Murphy and Andruw.
He faded a little in 1968, but who didn’t? He came back strong and at 35 was the offensive star of the 1969 NL West champs, and hit well again in a losing cause in the NLCS. (In three career postseason series, seventeen games, Aaron hit a combined .362/.405/.710 with six homers and sixteen RBI.)
Aaron was just about the only Brave who didn’t have a bad year in 1970. In 1971, he hit a career-high 47 homers, and at that point, with 639 homers, people started to take notice. After a bad-by-his-standards 1972, he came back with 40 homers in 1973, finishing the year with 713 homers.
Major League Baseball, then as always, was basically run by jackasses, and they decided to put the Braves on the road to start the season, the traditional season-opening series at Cincinnati. Eddie Mathews was managing the Braves and had no intention of letting Hank break the record anywhere but at home. Bowie Kuhn ordered Mathews to put Aaron in the lineup for at least two games in Cincinnati; I don’t know if it was unprecedented for the commissioner to make out the lineup card, but it’s certainly unusual. Aaron tied the record on opening day. In the home opener, he broke it.
1974 was otherwise pretty much the end of the road; he hit only 18 more homers and wound up with a .268/.341/.491 line, and couldn’t really play the field anymore. Bud Selig — speaking of jackass commissioners — arranged to acquire Hank for the Brewers (the Braves got Dave May, plus a minor leaguer who never played in the bigs) where he could serve as part-time DH. Aaron didn’t play well in two seasons in the AL.
In 1977, Hank took over as the Braves’ VP for Player Development, a position he held until 1989. He isn’t considered to have been successful in the job, but the team’s actual drafts in this period look pretty good to me, and the core of the 1991 squad was largely acquired on his watch — Gant, Justice, Glavine, Avery, and Blauser in the draft, Smoltz through trade. Also, he had the integrity to cut his son when it became clear the younger Aaron had no future as a baseball player. (HINT) I believe he’s still on the team’s board of directors but has no day-to-day role.