March 13, 2012 by Matt Musico
March 13th, 1954: During an exhibition game against the Yankees, recently acquired Brave Bobby Thomson breaks his ankle in three places and will be sidelined until July 14.. The ’51 National League playoff hero is replaced by a promising prospect named Hank Aaron.
Promising? I guess you can call it that. When Henry Aaron stepped in the the injured Bobby Thompson and ended up having a decent rookie campaign in 1954 with a .280 average, 13 home runs, and 69 RBI, I’m sure plenty of people thought he was going to have a nice career, but I doubt few would have pinned him as the man to pass Babe Ruth for most career home runs. I have to admit that when I hear Aaron’s name or talk about him in any respect, I make the mistake of only thinking about his 755 home runs. Obviously, that’s a pretty big detail to miss, but it has always prevented me from seeing how much of a complete player he really was, not only at the plate, but in the field as well. The 21-time All-Star won three straight Gold Glove awards, recorded 4,139 putouts in Right Field (5th all-time at the position), and 177 assists in that position (4th all-time).
OK, so maybe the fact that he played for 23 seasons allowed him more opportunities to record those putouts and assists out in Right Field. Very fair assumption. However, it was the combination of both his defense and overall offensive talents that led him to win one MVP award and finish within the top-15 of voting for the award 16 other times. We all know he’s second on the all-time home run list to Barry Bonds now, but check out all of the other things he accomplished with the bat:
- 3,771 career hits (led the league twice)
- 2,174 runs scored (100+ runs 15 times)
- 624 doubles (10th all-time), led the league four times
- 6,856 total bases (1st all-time), led the league eight times
- 98 triples
- 2,297 RBI (1st all-time), 100+ RBI 11 times
- .300+ batting average 14 times, won two batting titles
- a career WAR (wins above replacement) of 141.6, good for fifth all-time
If someone asked me to name as many of Hank Aaron’s career accomplishments as I could, I would have only been able to possibly name three before I took a deeper look at his stats. It’s easy for someone to argue that it only makes sense that he would be the all-time leader in total bases because of his 755 round trippers, but Barry Bonds has 762 home runs, but he’s about 900 bases short of Aaron. It is also easy to argue his career hit total because of the amount of home runs he hit; once again, Bonds has more home runs than Aaron, yet he ended his career 65 hits short of the 3,000 hit club, meanwhile, Hammerin’ Hank is 229 hits away from the 4,000 hit club. This is the best way to sum up what type of hitter Hank Aaron was: if you take away every single one of his home runs, he still has over 3,000 hits. That shows you how talented of a hitter he really was.
To make matters even more difficult, Aaron had to play during the height of the civil rights movement, when discrimination was showing its ugly head on a daily basis throughout the duration of his career. The amount of attention he received for chasing Babe Ruth’s magic number of 714 home runs was unbelievable and surely was overwhelming, but what had to be more overwhelming were the people shouting mean things his way and sending him hate mail for approaching the Babe, simply because of his skin color. I saw all the time that baseball has evolved into a much different game than it used to be, and this is another example. I can’t pin one person in today’s game that could handle the pressure of discrimination and racism that Aaron had to endure, while playing at a level that none of us may ever see again.
I had tremendous amounts of respect of Hank Aaron and his storied Major League career, but my respect and awe for the man increased with each year of statistics that I looked at. One can only hope that a polarizing figure in the game will emerge. Could it be Albert Pujols? He’s on the right track so far, he needs to continue producing over the next decade.