RIP, Hank Aaron

 

Hank Aaron in the batting cage spring training 1960

Baseball great Hank Aaron passed away today, January 22, 2021, at age 86. No cause of death has been provided.

Henry Louis Aaron was born on February 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama to Herbert and Estella Aaron. He was one of eight children which included a younger brother, Tommie, who would also play in the major leagues. The family was quite poor and so the young Henry had to work at odd jobs including picking cotton to help ends meet. He loved sports and learned baseball in sandlot games in which bottle caps or rocks usually substituted for balls and sticks or broom handles substituted for bats. He hit cross-handed from the start and he would keep hitting cross-handed until he began his professional career. Perhaps this is how he developed such quick and strong wrists which was much remarked upon from the beginning of his career. He did play baseball and football in high school, but like the young Willie Mays, he also began playing semi-pro baseball around the age of 14 thus adding another small sum to the family income.

And, like Mays and many of the other early black players to make it to the majors, he began his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns helping them to the 1952 Negro League World Series championship hitting .366. This brought him to the attention of major league scouts – the Giants and the Boston Braves were main suitors for his services – and he signed with the Braves allegedly for an additional $50 per month salary. The Braves sent him to their Class C team in Eau Claire where he hit .336. The following year, he was promoted to the Braves’ Class A team the Jacksonville Tars in the South Atlantic League where the 19-year old led the league in just about everything – batting average (.362), hits (208), runs (115), doubles (36) and RBI (115) and was named the league MVP.

In 1954, Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves and he became their starting left fielder when the incumbent LF Bobby Thomson broke his ankle in spring training. Up this point, Aaron had mainly played the infield although the Braves had sent him to Winter League the previous off-season to help him learn to play the outfield. As a rookie, he hit .280 with 13 home runs with his season ending in early September when he fractured his ankle sliding. The fractured ankle would not stall his career, however. In 1955, the Braves moved him to right field where he would settle in for most of the rest of his career and he had the first of what would be an annual occurrence over the next 15 plus years – what I call a “Hank Aaron season” an All-Star season at worst with many MVP caliber seasons mixed in. In 1955 he would hit .314 – the first of 14 .300 seasons and slug .540 – the first 18 seasons with .500 or better slugging average, and he would lead the league in doubles with 37 – the first of 11 seasons in which he would lead the league in at least one major offensive category.

Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and Eddie Matthews

The Braves in the late fifties were a great team led by three all-time greats – Aaron, pitcher Warren Spahn and third baseman Eddie Matthews – they finished first or second each year from 1955-1960 winning two pennants – back to back in 1957-58, one World Series (1957) and losing out on the 1959 pennant in a 3-game playoff with the Dodgers. Aaron would his only MVP during that 1957 season when hit .322 with league-leading totals of 44 HR and 132 RBI. He would never win another MVP despite having many other seasons just as good or better than 1957. For the record, I think his 1959 season is his best. He led the league in batting (.355), slugging (.636), hits (223), total bases (400), and extra base hits (92) winning one of his three Gold Glove awards to boot. In a measure of his consistency, he would get MVP votes every season 19 seasons in a row (1955-71) with 13 top-10 finishes.

Aaron’s career is less measured by individual great seasons than by the sheer bulk of his career achievements. This is the case even though he led his leagues so many times in so many major categories – batting average (twice), slugging average (four times), home runs (four times), games (once), runs (three times), hits (twice), doubles (four times) and total bases (a remarkable eight times). He is among the career leaders in many categories. He is still the all-time leader in RBI (2297) and total bases (6856). His 755 career homers are now second although many put a large asterisk next to the current record holder. He is third in runs (2174) and in hits (3,771) while his 624 doubles are 13th all-time. Here is a link to his Baseball Reference page.

Of course, the thing even non-sports fans know about Aaron is his breaking of the career home run record of 714 set by Babe Ruth. His pursuit of the record was somewhat stealthy until somewhat late in the process. This was due to a couple of things I think. First, he played the first half of his career in Milwaukee which was 1) not an especially good hitters park and 2) a cultural backwater per coastal elites but he spent the later part of his career in Atlanta when the Braves relocated there in 1966. The park was a great hitters park especially for home run hitters, which helped him a bit in his final kick to 715 and beyond. Second, he played the first half of his career in the shadow of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and so his accomplishments were less well known and certainly less commented upon. In 1972 and into 1973 when it became clear that Aaron was going to break the record he became the target of much abuse and venom among racists. He received thousands of abusive letters some even threatening his life. Despite the vitriol, he continued to go about his business as he always had – as a professional. He would finish the 1973 season at 713 home runs, one off Babe’s 714. After hitting 714 on the road in the first game of the season, he hit no. 715 on April 8, 1974, off of Al Downing of the Dodgers in front of 53,775 cheering Braves fans. Below is a four-minute video of that home run and the celebration as announced by Vin Scully.

Again, like Mays, Aaron was traded to a new team in an old playing city in his case the Milwaukee Brewers at age 41 to finish out his career. He was well received by the Milwaukee fans and he retired at age 42 after the 1976 season. Aaron’s playing career was capped his election to the Hall of Fame in 1982 his first year of eligibility entering the Hall with his long-time right field rival Frank Robinson. After his playing career, he worked for the Braves in a variety of positions including Director of Player Development. He also pursued several ventures in the private sector. He had a number of auto dealerships as well as a fast-food franchise (755 Restaurant Corporation). In recent years he had become more of a goodwill ambassador for the game of baseball. Aaron was married twice. He married his first wife in 1953 and that marriage produced five children although they divorced in 1971. He married again in 1973 and that marriage which lasted the rest of his life produced one child.

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  1. EDISONPARKS Member
    EDISONPARKS
    @user_54742

    Hank Aaron is the pre-steroid era career home run leader, which makes Aaron #1 Career HR King in my book.

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    He got his three-score-years-and-ten, with a bunch of change at the end. A life well lived. Memory eternal.

    • #2
  3. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Below is one of the first baseball cards I remember getting. I did the math and realized the order was going to change. Got to see Aaron speak at a local shopping mall around that time. Then a couple years later I was at a game where he set a new all-time HR record. 715? No. 755? No. It was one of the homers in between those where every time he hit one he broke his own record (maybe not all that special but I thought it was a big deal at the time). 

    • #3
  4. thelonious Member
    thelonious
    @thelonious

    Just looking thru Aarons stats. From 1957 thru 1973 he only missed hitting more than 30 HRs in a season twice. For a 17 year stretch you could pencil him in for at least 30 HRs and 100 Rib eyes. 305. career BA playing much of his career in a pitching dominant era aint to shabby. Is it possible to say he’s underrated? RIP.

    • #4
  5. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Hank Aaron is the pre-steroid era career home run leader, which makes Aaron #1 Career HR King in my book.

    Same here.    I think I have a childhood memory of watching #715 live.   Was that game on national TV?   Or have I seen the replay so many times that I just think I saw it live?

    No matter.    An all time great.   Rest easy Hank.

    • #5
  6. DJ EJ Member
    DJ EJ
    @DJEJ

    My Dad likes to tell the story of everyone taking to the streets of Milwaukee to celebrate winning the World Series in 1957. I attended many a Brewers game at County Stadium, but was too young to see Aaron play before he retired (my favorite Brewers roster is from 1982 with Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, Gorman Thomas, Rollie Fingers, Don Sutton (RIP), etc., etc.). I began to learn more and more about Hank Aaron as I got older, and he came to be one of my favorite baseball players. I think that’s because of the words I’d use to describe him, both as a baseball player and as a person in general – humble, distinguished, accomplished, and the definition of class. From the 1957 pennant game to defeat the Cardinals before going on to beat the Yankees in the World Series:

    From a highlights collection of Hank Aaron homeruns, here’s one from County Stadium, back when Bernie Brewer slid down a slide into a giant beer to celebrate each Brewers homerun:

     

    • #6
  7. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Hank Aaron is the pre-steroid era career home run leader, which makes Aaron #1 Career HR King in my book.

    Same here. I think I have a childhood memory of watching #715 live. Was that game on national TV? Or have I seen the replay so many times that I just think I saw it live?

    No matter. An all time great. Rest easy Hank.

    Yeah, it was on national TV. April 8, 1974 was a Monday so I’m not sure if it was on because the record might get broken or because it was a Monday Game of the Week.

    • #7
  8. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Hank Aaron is the pre-steroid era career home run leader, which makes Aaron #1 Career HR King in my book.

    Maybe the last clean slugger . . .

    • #8
  9. Mim526 Member
    Mim526
    @Mim526

    Hank Aaron was the best of baseball.  He was one of the best of us, the epitome of courage and class.

    Thank you for this post @tigerlily.

    • #9
  10. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Stad (View Comment):

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Hank Aaron is the pre-steroid era career home run leader, which makes Aaron #1 Career HR King in my book.

    Maybe the last clean slugger . . .

    But then, the steroid guys were hitting against steroid pitching so . . .

    • #10
  11. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Hank Aaron is the pre-steroid era career home run leader, which makes Aaron #1 Career HR King in my book.

    Maybe the last clean slugger . . .

    But then, the steroid guys were hitting against steroid pitching so . . .

    I’ve always thought unnecessary Tommy-John surgery was akin to doping . . .

    • #11
  12. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Hank Aaron is the pre-steroid era career home run leader, which makes Aaron #1 Career HR King in my book.

    He also had the misfortune to play in the brief dead ball part of the ’60s.

    With today’s juiced ball, one wonders what he would have done.

    • #12
  13. EDISONPARKS Member
    EDISONPARKS
    @user_54742

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Hank Aaron is the pre-steroid era career home run leader, which makes Aaron #1 Career HR King in my book.

    Maybe the last clean slugger . . .

    But then, the steroid guys were hitting against steroid pitching so . . .

    My take was steroids allowed guys to play at a high level later in their career.

    So while Hank Aaron was schlepping along as the Brewers DH hitting 12HR/468AB when he was 41 years old and 10HR/271AB in his final season at 42, while batting in the lower 230’sAVG, which is still not bad for a 40+ guy in the MLB.

    Barry Bonds while still playing left field for SF was hitting 26HR/367AB when he was 41 years old and 28HR/340AB when he was 42 , while batting in the 270’sAVG which are decent numbers for any position player at any age in the MLB, but is statistically anomalous for any 40+ year old MLB player and can probably be attributed to using PED’s.

    • #13
  14. danys Thatcher
    danys
    @danys

    I remember sitting in my brothers’ room listening to Vin Scully call the homer off of Al Downing. It was a wonderful moment.

    • #14
  15. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    This is a lovely post.  Here are the first two paragraphs from an article in NR:

    “Henry Aaron has died at 86, bringing to a close one of baseball’s great and remarkable lives. Aaron’s 23-year major league career was, for many years, reduced to ‘755 home runs’ — an impressive statistic, but one that misses much of what Aaron did on the field. He was a complete ballplayer — won two batting titles, stole as many as 31 bases in a season, was a fine right fielder, played for a division champ in 1969, a pennant winner in 1958, a World Champion in 1957, and batted  .362/.405/.710 in his three trips to the postseason.

    “There are a series of what I call the ‘baseball virtues,’ not always possessed (as in Aaron’s case) by virtuous men: consistency, durability, effort, growth over time. Aaron had all of them. After a broken ankle while sliding that prematurely ended his rookie season, Aaron did not miss significant time to injury again; he made a minimum of 634 plate appearances every year from age 21–35, averaging 154 games a year. He never had an off year, not until he was 41 and washed up. Over a 19-year span from 1955–73, he batted .312/.380/.574, averaging 105 runs scored, 109 RBI, 37 home runs, walking more than he struck out, with an OPS+ (park-adjusted on base plus slugging compared to the league average, set at 100) of 162, 7.3 Wins Above Replacement a year. Aaron was not a burly slugger but a man with incredibly quick hands; teammate Joe Adcock said that ‘trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.'”

    https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/r-i-p-henry-aaron-more-than-a-home-run-king/

    • #15
  16. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    The SI article.  https://www.si.com/mlb/2021/01/22/hank-aaron-obituary-baseball-hall-of-fame

    • #16
  17. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Milwaukee stole the Braves from Boston in 1953.  It was a Red Sox town, but the die hards lamented the loss of Warren Spahn for years (“Spahn and Sain and a day of rain”).  Unsurprisingly, this bled into “if only we’d had Hank” by ’55-57.  There was an incredibly strong rooting contingent for the World Series’ of ’57 and ’58, not the least of which was because the Yankees (gasp) were the opponents.  You would have thought Aaron, Adcock, Matthews, Spahn and Burdette were still in town.

    Unfortunately, Hank didn’t see the post-season again until 1969 at 35.

    • #17
  18. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    God bless. And Godspeed.

     

    • #18
  19. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    I worked with the son of Aaron’s roommate in Milwaukee (Felix Mantilla). He was quite a guy. My co-worker had interesting stories about the ball players. I’ll tell you one about Mickey Mantle if you’re interested.

    • #19
  20. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    EDISONPARKS (View Comment):

    Hank Aaron is the pre-steroid era career home run leader, which makes Aaron #1 Career HR King in my book.

    Agreed.  I can’t even remember the others.  

    • #20
  21. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Almost unquestionably the greatest player of my lifetime, even if my lifetime missed the major part of his career.  I saw him play the last two years of his career with Milwaukee in 1975 and 1976, when I was 13 and 14.  He made periodic appearances at Milwaukee Brewers games, and he was one 0f the featured highlights of the closing ceremonies for the last game at County Stadium in 2000.

    August 6, 1973 – An exhibition game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves held at Milwaukee draws 33,337. The Brewers win, 7–5, in the fourth and last exhibition between the two teams. But the big thrill is provided by Hank Aaron, who hits a home run.

    11-year-old me was at that game.  It was just before I started 6th grade.  My 6th grade teacher was a big baseball fan, and in fact still works as an usher at Miller Park.  I see him on occasion.    In any case, I can still remember talking to him early in the school year about that game, and how people in the crowd probably wouldn’t have minded losing if they could have seen Aaron hit another Home Run.   Aaron hit # 715 the following spring, and he put the front page of the newspaper on the wall of the classroom for the remainder of the school year.  The last day of school, he picked a student at random to keep the paper – I didn’t win.

    I was at Miller Park in late December.  I went looking for the marker (in what is now a parking lot on the North side of the stadium) that marks the spot from the left field bleachers where his final home run* landed in 1976, but they had a lot of the area chained off and I didn’t have much time.  I hope the marker is still there.

    And I still want to know what moron  left him off their HOF ballot in 1982.

    *Trivia about that ball.  It was picked up by a member of the grounds crew, who refused to turn it over.  He was fired for that.  In any case, he kept the ball, and several years later had it signed by Aaron, without telling him the significance of the ball at the time.

    http://www.espn.com/espn/wire/_/section/mlb/id/2949260

    • #21
  22. Gwen Brown Lincoln
    Gwen Brown
    @Gwen Brown

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Milwaukee stole the Braves from Boston in 1953. It was a Red Sox town, but the die hards lamented the loss of Warren Spahn for years (“Spahn and Sain and a day of rain”). Unsurprisingly, this bled into “if only we’d had Hank” by ’55-57. There was an incredibly strong rooting contingent for the World Series’ of ’57 and ’58, not the least of which was because the Yankees (gasp) were the opponents. You would have thought Aaron, Adcock, Matthews, Spahn and Burdette were still in town.

    Unfortunately, Hank didn’t see the post-season again until 1969 at 35.

    Spahn, Sain, and pray for rain.

    • #22
  23. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Great post, thanks

    Hank Aaron-Hammering Hank, and Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid two of the greatest baseball players are my favorite players. My heart broke when Mays left the Giants.

    • #23
  24. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Here’s video of the closing ceremonies at County Stadium.

     

    Right at the beginning they show his 755th homerun.

    Aaron was the first player introduced, at around the 42:50 mark.

    at 1:46:10, he’s one of the four throwing a “final pitch”.

    Uecker’s closing comments at 1:49:23 were great.  I was there, and even 20 years later, I still get goose bumps watching it.

    “It was here that boys became men.  Men became Champions.  And Champions became Legends.”

     

     

    Edit:  It’s a little sobering how many of the guys that were introduced during those closing ceremonies are now gone.

    • #24
  25. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    I worked with the son of Aaron’s roommate in Milwaukee (Felix Mantilla). He was quite a guy. My co-worker had interesting stories about the ball players. I’ll tell you one about Mickey Mantle if you’re interested.

    Always.

    • #25
  26. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Percival (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    I worked with the son of Aaron’s roommate in Milwaukee (Felix Mantilla). He was quite a guy. My co-worker had interesting stories about the ball players. I’ll tell you one about Mickey Mantle if you’re interested.

    Always.

    Do it as an OP.

    • #26
  27. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    I worked with the son of Aaron’s roommate in Milwaukee (Felix Mantilla). He was quite a guy. My co-worker had interesting stories about the ball players. I’ll tell you one about Mickey Mantle if you’re interested.

    Always.

    Do it as an OP.

    Baseball stories in general are always of interest.

    • #27
  28. Anon Member
    Anon
    @Anon

    In Shelby Steele’s book, White Guilt, he tells of his growing up in Chicago, his love for baseball and how, by persistence, he became the bat boy for a local semi-pro team. He tell of how gratifying it was to be accepted by an all white team and the effort he made to be useful to them – until the day they were preparing to get on the bus for the first away game of the season. The manager told him he couldn’t get on the bus because the away team didn’t allow blacks, and he was let go because he was no longer useful to the team. That anecdote is told with empathy inducing great sensibility and clarity. Those were the days, Aaron.

    • #28
  29. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    This is a lovely post.

    Thanks Gary.

    • #29
  30. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    I think that Aaron must have salivated every time he came to Cincinnati.  Crosley Field had a short left field fence and he sent many a ball into “laundry land”.  Except for 1961, Milwaukee practically owned my poor old Reds…

    • #30