One of the greatest to ever pick up a bat entered the cornfield this morning as Henry Aaron passed away at the age of 86. His impact on baseball was nearly as immense as his stature as a man in the turmoil of American Civil Rights. One of the most prominent black celebrities throughout the 60s and 70s, Aaron’s steady warm personality and supreme excellence in his craft made him a prominent leader and role model for the past several generations of all colors and backgrounds to look up to.
When asked what made him want to be a baseball player, Aaron would recall a speech given by Civil Rights and Baseball icon Jackie Robinson. At the age of 18, Aaron played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League in 1951 but only for 26 games (at least as far as we know). The Milwaukee Braves then purchased Aaron’s contract in ’52. For two years he dominated their farm system and was brought to the majors in ’54. For the next 23 years Aaron did nothing but smash.
He finished his career with per-162 game averages of 31 doubles, 37 HRs, 113 RBIs, 69/68 BB/SO, and a .305/.374/.555 slash. He is the career RBI and Total Base leader and held the all-time HR mark for 31 years until Barry Bonds broke it in ’07. Aaron was an able baserunner and held his own in the field but it was at the plate where he made his claim as one of the greatest ever. He hit 40+ HRs 8x which is tied with Bonds and Harmon Killebrew for second most, and 30+ 15x which is tied with Alex Rodriguez for most all-time. He went to 21 straight All-Star games and because of the dual All-Star competitions of the early 60s ended up with 25 selections to the Mid-Summer Classic, the all-time record.
He was the 1957 National League MVP when he led baseball with 44 HRs, 132 RBIs and slashed an outstanding .322/.378/.600. He was worth 7.6 fWAR that season, which was actually his 6th best in terms of value. He was top-10 in MVP voting a staggering 12 more times but didn’t win any more trophies. In terms of fWAR, he should have also won in ’61 and ’68, and finished 2nd to Willie Mays several other seasons.
He and teammate Eddie Matthews formed the core of the brightest moments of Milwaukee Braves baseball. Early on, in ’57 and ’58 seasons they ascended to the peak facing a dominant Yankees team in the World Series in back-to-back years. In ’57 Aaron was a problem for the Pinstripers, launching 3 HRs and slashing .393/.414/.786 as the Braves won in 7. The following year, despite Aaron’s best efforts – .333/.419/.407 – the Yankees managed to keep him in the park (0 homers) and returned the favor, taking the trophy back in another 7 game classic.
As mentioned, Aaron’s only impact wasn’t on the diamond. He was willing to speak out to the injustices he faced in his everyday and baseball life. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 and was given the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement award in 2005, both symbolizing his larger-than-life presence in American society. One of the lasting images from his career will be the shot of him rounding the bases after sending the record-breaking 715th HR into the seats and two white fans shaking his hand and patting him on the back. There’s a lot of work to be done, racial tensions have seemed so present these past few years, but the lives of men like Hank Aaron are beacons of hope and symbols of courage we can all look up to.