Last Friday, the baseball world lost one of its all-time legends, Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron at the age of 86. It was a sad day for all sports fans, as Aaron is one of the most beloved and respected figures not only in baseball history, but in all of sports history.
Aaron has his own exhibit in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, and in my two times going there, that was my favorite part of the museum. His story is just incredible. Raised in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era in a very poor family, Aaron used his passion for and talent in baseball to overcome racial barriers and become one of the greatest players of all time.
In fact, I believe he became THE greatest baseball player of all time, and I’m not quite sure why that isn’t more obvious to the baseball community. The other three major American sports all have figures widely accepted as the GOATs (greatest of all times) of their sports. For hockey, it’s Wayne Gretzky. For football, it’s Tom Brady. For basketball, it’s a little more contested, but I feel like most people still say it’s Michael Jordan, although that may change by the time LeBron James retires.
For baseball, there really is no clear consensus. Some people say Aaron, but others say Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds or Ted Williams. Some people who want to throw pitchers into the mix say names like Cy Young or Greg Maddux. If you ask 10 different baseball fans who the greatest player ever is, you could very well get 10 different answers.
And that’s OK, but I think Aaron easily has the best case based on his combination of dominance and longevity.
After initially not getting a major league contract and having to play in the Negro Leagues for a season, Aaron was signed by the then-Boston Braves in 1952. He played in the minors for two seasons before breaking into the big leagues with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954. From there, the rest is history. Aaron played 23 seasons in the majors, all but the last two with the Braves, and by the time he retired in 1976 at the age of 42 he held several major league records, some of which still stand today.
Aaron was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982 on his first ballot, but I would personally like a word with whoever didn’t vote for him, as he only received 97.8% of the vote. That’s just ridiculous. Mariano Rivera is great, but if anyone deserved to be the first unanimous inductee, it was Hank Aaron.
He was named an All-Star a record 25 times over the course of 21 consecutive seasons (there were two All-Star games from 1959 to 1962, don’t ask me why). He also has the MLB records for runs batted in (2,297), total bases (6,856) and extra-base hits (1,477). However, his greatest record perhaps is one he no longer holds.
On April 8, 1974, Aaron hit his 715th career home run, surpassing Ruth’s sacred and “unbreakable” mark of 714. But the amount of racism and bigotry he faced in the months leading up to breaking that record is something I believe no player outside of Jackie Robinson himself had to deal with. By the early 1970s, I think most people had accepted the integration of the MLB, but there’s a big difference between a Black man playing baseball with White men and a Black man breaking one of the most coveted records in baseball that was formerly held by a White man. That was not acceptable to a lot of people, and Aaron received numerous death threats leading up to the 1974 season.
However, he just went about his business with class like usual and broke the record in front of over 50,000 supportive fans in Atlanta. He retired with 755 home runs, a record that would stand until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007. But considering Bonds almost certainly had his numbers inflated by steroid use, many still recognize Aaron as the home run king, myself included. (I do however still think Bonds is a Hall of Famer, but that’s a topic for another column.)
Being the home run king alone doesn’t automatically make Aaron the GOAT though. It was his combination of power and pure hitting ability that put him over the top. He ranks third all-time with 3,771 hits, and had an amazing career batting average of .305. He was such a great hitter that he never once struck out more than 97 times in a season. In addition, despite not being known for his speed, he also racked up 240 career stolen bases and even had a 30-30 season in 1963.
Also underrated was Aaron’s defensive ability. He played most of his career as an outfielder, but also spent some time at first and second base. He won three Gold Glove awards and finished his career with a very impressive fielding percentage of .982 over the course of 3,000-plus games played in the field.
Perhaps the biggest knock on Aaron’s GOAT case is his lack of MVPs. He only won one in 1957, leading some people to feel he was more of an accumulator who didn’t really dominate the league. But that’s just not true. Despite only winning one, he received MVP votes in 19 consecutive seasons from 1955-1973, finishing in the top 10 in voting 13 times and finishing third a brutal six times.
Most players don’t even play in the majors for 19 seasons. Aaron played at a level people deemed MVP-worthy for 19 seasons. If that doesn’t show how dominant he was, nothing does. He also led the league in home runs four times, RBIs four times, doubles four times, total bases eight times, OPS three times, runs scored three times, batting average twice and hits twice. Dominance.
Besides all the statistics, he was also one of baseball’s great people. There’s not a single person who knew Aaron who has ever said a negative word about him. He was kind, respectful and gracious to everyone, no matter how he was treated in return. That counts for something in my book and only adds to his case for being the greatest ever.
In this humble writer’s opinion, Hank Aaron is the undisputed GOAT of baseball, and I think it’s about time that becomes more widely accepted and appreciated.