So much of Henry Aaron’s baseball legacy has to do with three numbers – 715, 755, and whatever Barry Bonds’ overall career homerun hit – that too often we overlook his all-encompassing brilliance on the field. Let’s put it this way: if you’ve turned his 755 home races into outs, he is still ended with more than 3,000 hits. In other words, he played 23 major league seasons and was All-Star 25 times (there were several All-Star games at the beginning of Aaron’s career).
Although widely regarded as one of the top five players in MLB history, Aaron has remained underrated among the greats. He played most of his career in the shadow of Willie Mays, his contemporary who, thanks to Mays’ defense in midfield, was the more visually stunning player. Many still consider Babe Ruth the greatest real outfield player. So Aaron is only the second best player of his generation and the second best right-back of all time.
When experts and fans talk about the best players in the game’s history, they usually talk about Ruth and Ted Williams and Bonds, or even individual players like Tony Gwynn, before Aaron’s name comes up. However, no player has played with such enduring, consistent excellence for so long as Aaron.
Showing up every day isn’t glamorous, but it’s a way to topple Ruth and hit 755 home runs. As a rookie with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, Henry Aaron broke his ankle in early September and ended his season with 122 games. Maybe he wasn’t quite Cal Ripken as an Ironman, but Aaron didn’t miss many games after that. From 1955 to 1968 he played 2,157 out of 2,214 possible games, with an average of 4.1 games missing per season. In 1969 and 1970, then 35 and 36 years old, it dropped to 147 and 150 games, respectively.
He’s never had a bad season en route. His only MVP award came in 1957, but Aaron made it into the top 10 on MVP voting 13 times during a time when the National League was full of future Hall of Famers vying for the award and among the three different decades Top 3 landed. Here’s one way to look at his high level of play for nearly two decades:
Most of the 6 WAR seasons
Tris speaker 14
Most of the 7 WAR seasons
Lou Gehrig 11
Mays is spot on with Aaron, but even Mays pale in his late 30s. May’s last 30 homer season took place in 1966 at the age of 35. From the age of 36 he achieved 118 home runs. Aaron reached a career high of 47 home runs at the age of 37 and 201 home races by the age of 36.
This is further evidence of Aaron’s persistence. Forty-seven other players have completed at least 47 home runs in a season – 15 of them more than once – but Aaron is still the second-ever home run. Since ending his career in 1976, four players up to the age of 30 have completed more home runs than Aaron. Neither of them could keep it going in their thirties:
Up to 30 years
Alex Rodriguez: 464 HR, 85.0 WAR
Ken Griffey Jr .: 438 HR, 76.2 WAR
Albert Pujols: 408 HR, 81.4 WAR
Andruw Jones: 368 HR, 61.0 WAR
Henry Aaron: 366 HR, 80.7 WAR
After the age of 30
Rodriguez: 232 HR, 32.5 WAS
Griffey: 192 HR, 7.6 WAR
Pujols: 254 HR, 19.4 WAR
Jones: 66 HR, 1.7 WAS
Aaron: 389 HR, 62.4 WAR
In 1955, in his second season with the Majors, Aaron beat Aaron at just 21 with 27 homers, 105 runs and 106 RBIs .314, his first great season. In 1973, at the age of 39, he beat .301 with 40 home runs – in just 120 games. But Aaron wasn’t just a thug. He ended his career with a career average of 0.305, hitting 14 times .300, although many of his busy seasons in the 1960s were in the most difficult hitting conditions since the dead ball era. In an interview with MLB Network last month, Aaron said he was most proud of the fact that “I didn’t cross it out”.
In fact, he has never hit 100 times or taken more walks than strikes in one season. Remember, Ruth, who played in an era with far fewer strikers than even Aaron’s era, led his league in strikers five times. Ruth fanned out 12.5% of his record appearances, Aaron only 9.9% of his. Maybe that’s why Aaron was such a good clutch hitter and RBI guy. He has hit .324 in his career with runners in goal position, and in “late and close” situations where the game is most on the line, he hit .318 / .407 / .576 – better than his overall line of. 305 /.374/.555.
Tim Kurkjian recalls the impact of Hank Aaron that went way beyond the baseball diamond.
Bonds may have overtaken Aaron on the home run list, but Aaron is still the front runner in RBIs and Total Bases. Using the unofficial list at Baseball-Reference.com (RBIs only became official since 1920), Aaron’s 2,297 top Ruths 2,214. Pujols is at 2,100, but 2021 will likely be its final season.
Years ago, Aaron stepped onto the ESPN Sunday Night baseball booth. At one point there was a second base runner with no outs. Joe Morgan asked Aaron how many times he tried to get the runner up in third place. He might be expecting Aaron to say he played the game “right” and hit the ball on the right side. Aaron let out a big, hearty laugh. “Never,” he said. “I always tried to turn the guy on.”
The overall base record could be even more unbreakable. Aaron has 6,856 – way ahead of Stan Musials 6,134. If another player came along and repeated Musial’s numbers, he would still have to complete 181 home runs to break Aaron’s record.
Further honors: Eternal connection to black baseball | BBTN podcast
As well as being a dominant batsman, Aaron was an excellent field player and base runner. He won three gold gloves, and while field metrics from his day are an informed estimate, baseball reference rates him a 98-plus for his career as ninth real field player. He stole 240 bases with an excellent success rate, and when he stole 44 home runs and 31 bases in 1963, he was only the third player to play 30 to 30 in the same season (after Ken Williams and Mays). Joe Torre, his longtime teammate with the Braves, said he never saw Aaron make a mistake on the field. To top it off, he hit .362 / .405 / .710 with six home runs in 17 games in just three postseason (the 1957 and 1958 World Series and the 1969 National League Championship Series).
He is the fifth of all time positional players in the career war:
Ty Cobb: 151.0
You can add Ted Williams to the conversation (121.9 WAR, although several major years were missed due to World War II and Korean War) – although Williams wasn’t the outfield or base runner that Bonds, Mays and Aaron were. So, yes, the top 5 are exactly, probably ahead of Cobb, once you’ve made a timeline adjustment, and you can judge what to do with bonds.
What to play with at the same time as Mays? OKAY. For sure. Mays’ size seemed to have been a little underestimated by Aaron even in their game days. However, not everyone was necessarily in agreement about this period. Here’s a quote from Pie Traynor, the third baseman in the Hall of Fame in 1964: “I’m going to take Hank Aaron over Mays every day. Give me a man who goes out there and plays every game, never tires of himself.” not complained and won’t faint … you don’t hear much about Hank, but he’s just as good a field player, runner and a more stable and better batsman. “