Henry Aaron is 84 years old now. And as hard as it may be to believe, the number of distant springs that have passed since he made his storied and successful homerun record-breaking bid now amounts to more than half his age.
It was 44 years ago this week — a fitting number, indeed — on April 8, 1974, that Hank Aaron, as an Atlanta Brave, powered Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Al Downing’s offering up, up into the deep night sky, past the noise and the crowd and the lights and toward that stadium sign forever imprinted in my mind as somehow symbolic — “Think of It As Money.”
To me and many others, “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron now, then, and always will be the True All-Time Homerun King, and more. Much more.
Aaron’s humble rise from poverty in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama amid the ugly blight of segregation, to his formative years in the Negro Leagues, to his entrance onto the diamond stage of Major League baseball at the height of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s is an epic American story; one of drama, perseverance, and triumph.
The first thing that greeted me was this panoramic montage/collage from the exhibit that’s worth the trip and price of admission all by itself. To give visitors an added sense of closeness with the subject, many of the artifacts on view for inspection come from Aaron’s own personal collection: Bats, balls, cleats, bases, scorecards. Reams of audio-visual snippets shadow you as you stroll the displays: news clips, highlight reels, interviews with teammates, opposing players, scouts, managers, Hank himself. There are pictures of Aaron as a teenage stringbean; a leanly muscled young power hitter; a dangerous slugger in his prime; finally, a man closing in on his forties and history, fuller and thicker, striding the twilight of a magnificent career.
“I don’t want to make anybody forget about Babe Ruth,” he said with typical humility at the time. “I just want them to remember me.” By the end, he was emotionally battered, bruised, and desperate for the ordeal of the homerun chase to be over; never completely sure he wouldn’t be assassinated as his mother watched her son from the stands.
The un-flashy excellence and unwavering grace with which Aaron carried himself for 20+ years culminated in some astonishing career numbers that were anything but quiet.
We know about the homeruns, of course, but Henry also still holds both the all-time record for Total Bases (a ridiculous 6,856, leading the league NINE times), extra base hits (1,477), and Runs Batted In (a mind-bending 2,297, leading the league five times) — the latter stat, for my money, arguably the most crucial measure of a slugger’s ability to come through in the clutch and drive in runs for his team.
For perspective and the scope of this RBI record, consider this: If you drove in 100 RBI every year for 22 straight seasons, you would STILL be 97 RBIs short of matching Henry’s total.
More than 40 years after he retired, he’s still the only player in history to hit at least 30 homeruns in 15 different seasons. He also finished up just over 200 hits shy of four grand — yes, an astounding 3,771 hits, which still ranks third behind only two other guys you may have heard of named Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. Those bangers translated, over 23 seasons, to a better-than-.300 lifetime batting average (.305, winning two batting titles; if you subtract Aaron’s nostalgic end-of-career victory lap in Milwaukee, the city in which he began his major league career, he’s at .310 with 733 HRS).
For the tediously tiresome detractors who claim Aaron’s lifetime achievements had more to do with the lighted path of longevity than a burning brilliance — that he never really had eye-popping seasons and merely spread out his homers across many years to get to his record — consider these gaudy feats of fantastic: Aaron hit not 25, 30, or even 35, but more than 40 homers eight different times; drove in over 100 RBI eleven times; scored over 100 runs fifteen times; and hit over .300 fourteen times.
In his 23-year career, Aaron finished in the top 15 in Most Valuable Player voting nineteen times. In one of those four seasons he wasn’t considered for the MVP, he was a rookie; the other three were his final seasons as a Designated Hitter playing for the Milwaukee Brewers.
He won the MVP once, in 1957, when he powered the Milwaukee Braves to a World Series victory over the New York Yankees; the always non self-aggrandizing team player, Henry has stated that his World Series homerun was the most important dinger of his career, not the Ruth-tying 714 or record-breaking 715.
In 17 total post-season games, including two World Series’s, Hank was Mr. Clutch, driving in 16 RBI in those 17 games, hitting a glittering .362 that was only overshadowed by a sick .710 slugging percentage and six homeruns.
The consummate complete five-tool player, Aaron also won three Gold Gloves at a time when his National league counterpart, Roberto Clemente, was also patrolling his position as perhaps the greatest defensive rightfielder of all-time. Aaron also could run the bases, finishing in the top ten for stolen bases eight times.
At the time of his retirement in 1976, The Hammer, incredibly, held more than 30 major league baseball records, and still holds a number of batting/slugging “firsts.” “Hammerin’ Hank” was the first player in history to match 500 homers with 3,000 hits, for instance.
Not many prodigious home run sluggers, even great ones, can boast about huge hit totals and a slick .300+ lifetime batting average over a career that spanned the better part of three decades. But they’re not Henry Aaron.
“Trying to throw a fastball by Hank Aaron,” baseball great Joe Adcock once mused about Aaron’s lightning-quick wrists, “is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”
Fast balls or hate mail — neither could slow him or rob him of what increasingly seemed like destiny as he closed in on a record once thought un-breakable. Henry, too, was unbreakable. I like to think all that mail from his detractors (and detractors is a gentlemanly way of putting it) may have even inspired Hank to belt just one more round-tripper over the wall for his team, without fanfare or showboating. But rather with focus and purpose. Call it justice, or karma, or courage. As his uniform plainly said and brightly read across his chest, “Brave” was a word that defined this most extraordinary man.