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Requiem for a King

 

Steve Hirdt’s deep sports knowledge and insight have made him a trusted advisor to the country’s leading sports executives, writers, and broadcasters. He reflects on the life and career of the late, great Hank Aaron in a way that only he can – through the numbers. 

By: Steve Hirdt

Enough. Enough already.

The saddest news of Friday, Jan. 22, broke early. Henry Louis Aaron had died peacefully in his sleep.

Initial thoughts ran to the unprecedentedly long, sad roll call of baseball greats who have recently passed. Within the past 10 months, no fewer than 10 Hall of Famers have joined The Great Majority, and what a list it is. Three 300-game winners (Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton), the two pitchers with the most complete-game wins in World Series history (Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson), the one-time holder of the single-season and career records for stolen bases (Lou Brock), the youngest player to win a league batting title (Al Kaline), the only player to win both an MVP Award and a World Series in each of two straight seasons (Joe Morgan), and the only manager to both win a World Series – two, in fact – and lead a team to an Olympic gold medal (Tommy Lasorda).

But this news cut deepest and widest of all. Aaron not only had the most RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases in MLB history, but he also had steadily pursued and finally surpassed the most hallowed record in sports – Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs – under the constant pressure of hate mail and death threats based on his skin color.

Few individuals have played the game at its highest level with the sense of quiet confidence that oozed from Aaron’s every movement. And after witnessing the grace with which he endured throughout the chasing-the-Babe saga, the country rejoiced at seeing Aaron’s visible relief when he finally moved past the iconic Ruth on an early April night in Atlanta in 1974.

Being the guy who broke Ruth’s home-run record understandably led most of the headlines, biographies and retrospectives produced on the day of his death, but know this: That Aaron finished with 3,771 hits and 755 homers illustrates that he was such a complete hitter, both for average and for power. Even had he not hit a single home run, he still would have reached the coveted 3,000-hit milestone.

Forty-four seasons have come and gone since No. 44 played his last game, so today’s fans may not have witnessed The Hammer’s lightning-like hands and wrists. Longtime opponent Tim McCarver said, “I think his most remarkable ability as a hitter was that he could take the inside pitch, pull it, and keep it fair. You have to be extraordinarily quick to do that. Extremely rare.”

Aaron played in an era when major-league sports were not televised nearly as widely as they were 20 or 30 years after he retired. His first World Series appearance came with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, after his first walk-off homer had clinched the National League pennant.

In a Series win over the defending champion New York Yankees, Aaron became the only player ever to produce a hit in all seven games of a World Series, including three home runs. (The first of Hank’s three homers came off Don Larsen in Larsen’s first World Series appearance since he threw a perfect game against the Dodgers the previous year.)

Aaron’s Braves lost to the Yankees in seven games the next year, and he returned to the postseason only once over his last 18 seasons – a three-game sweep of the Braves by the New York Mets in the 1969 NLCS. Not that Bad Henry (as Seaver called him) was to blame for the result – he became the first player to hit a homer in every game of a postseason series.

Hank also turned the trick of squeezing a record 25 All-Star selections into his 23-year career. (Before you spend too much time trying to figure out how anyone, even someone as good as Aaron, could do that, we’ll share the secret: MLB held two All-Star Games for each of four straight seasons between 1959-62 before realizing that there is such a thing as too much ice cream!)

Aaron, born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934, was 13 years old when Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues with the Dodgers in 1947. After playing with a couple of Negro League teams in the early 1950s, Hank was signed by the Boston Braves in June 1952 and played two years in the minors, where he finally gave up his unconventional cross-handed batting grip (The Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and on to Atlanta in 1966).

Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth but went on to break the career home run record in the pre-steroids era, died early Jan. 22, 2021. He was 86. (AP Photo, File)

Aaron went to spring training with the Braves in 1954 and made the team after starting left fielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle. Three thousand two hundred ninety-eight games later, Hammerin’ Hank called it a career. In between, his work was a model of consistency. Twenty seasons hitting 20-or-more homers, 15 seasons hitting 30-or-more, 15 with 300-or-more total bases, records all.

And no seasons of 100-or-more strikeouts, a particular point of pride for The Quiet Man. The pitcher who struck him out most often was the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale, who whiffed Hank 47 times. But Aaron got Drysdale back: his total of 17 homers off the sidearming right-hander was his highest against any opponent.

While the majority of his home runs came while pulling the ball to left or left-center, he hit his share of balls over center- and right-field fences, including a couple of memorable blasts that don’t show up in his total of 755 regular-season home runs.

Certainly, the straightest home run that he (or anyone) hit came in the last postseason game he ever played, against the Mets at Shea Stadium in 1969. In the first inning, he belted one that smacked off a flagpole planted beyond a center-field fence that was 410 feet from home plate.

When asked about that majestic blast some 30 years later, while suffering through an elevator ride with a supposedly mature man somewhat flustered to be in the presence of greatness, Hank smiled, with a faraway look, and softly offered, “I think about that one sometimes, too.”

Then there was the home run that wasn’t. In a game at St. Louis in 1965, Aaron slammed an offspeed pitch high and far over the right-field roof, only to be called out by the home-plate umpire because Hank had run up to hit the ball (think slow-pitch softball) and had actually connected with his left foot completely outside the batter’s box.

McCarver, the Cardinals catcher at the time, said: “Earlier in the game, after Hank had lifted an easy fly ball, the umpire told me, ‘You know, Tim, if that ball had been dropped, I would have had to call Henry out for hitting it while out of the box.’  Just a few innings later, he did exactly that!”

Aaron tips his hat to fans and teammates greeting him at home plate after hitting his 715th career homer. (AP Photo/Sebo)

If that wasn’t the craziest moment of Aaron’s career, perhaps that designation belongs to the time that this all-time great hitter, baserunner and outfielder served as the pivot man on a ground-ball triple play engineered by the Braves in a 19-inning game at Pittsburgh in 1955, while playing second base  (Aaron had played the infield in the Negro Leagues and the minors, and he played 43 games at second and seven at third for the Braves, scattered through the ’50s and ’60s).

This particular highlight came on an around-the-horn triple play, Eddie Mathews to Aaron to Joe Adcock. It was a trio that combined for 1,603 home runs in their big-league careers – another record.

Aaron’s grace and his ability to do and say the right thing at the right time was never more evident than in 2007 when it became clear that his record of 755 home runs was about to be surpassed by Barry Bonds, who was widely believed to have used performance-enhancing substances along the way. It was an awkward time for everyone from the commissioner of baseball down to the fan in the bleachers. How should we all feel about this?

Bonds hit his 756th home run in front of his hometown San Francisco fans during a game against the Washington Nationals on Aug. 7, 2007. The game was briefly halted while Bonds was feted by fans, teammates and his family, who had come onto the field near home plate. After a few minutes, the public-address announcer directed everyone’s attention to the video board “for a very special message from a very special someone.”

The stadium’s roar quieted as the video board showed the pre-recorded comments of a 73-year-old man.

“I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment, which required skill, longevity and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dream.”

Hank Aaron’s words resounded through what was then AT&T Park on that August night in 2007. They resound even more loudly in January of 2021.

 

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