Henry Aaron (1934-2021)

Friday, January 22 2021 @ 05:00 PM EST

Contributed by: Magpie

For me, he was the toughest out. For everybody else, I had a plan. With Henry, I just never figured out what I was going to do.
  -- Sandy Koufax

Henry Aaron was a guy who went to work.

Writing about the Cardinals a couple of years ago, I wondered if there had ever been as great a player with less flash to his game than Musial. Henry Aaron may be the guy. Aaron, born on my own father's second birthday in February 1934, was a contemporary of Roberto Clemente, one year older than Frank Robinson and just a few years younger than Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle (both born in 1931.) He wasn't like any of them. Aaron didn't crowd the plate like Robinson, daring pitchers to throw at him - which they did - and get his revenge by sliding viciously into their infielders. He didn't make spectacular - did you see that? - plays in the outfield while complaining non-stop about everything under the sun, like Clemente. He wasn't Mickey Mantle, hitting home runs so far you'd think they ought to have counted them twice - from both sides of the plate, no less. And his game didn't have the unbridled joy of Willie Mays, who played like a kid wrapped up in the delight of discovering all these amazing things he could do that the other kids couldn't do. Henry Aaron was a guy who went to work.

There was never any doubt about how great a player he was - that was blindingly obvious all along. But he wasn't as colourful or as memorable as the other guys. He snuck up on you, the way he snuck up on Babe Ruth. For most of his career, Aaron was an after-thought in the discussion of who, if anyone, was going to catch the Babe's famous career homer mark. Mantle and Mays both had a three year head start. Aaron's own long-time teammate, Eddie Mathews, older than Aaron but younger than Mantle, actually made it to 500 career homers before Aaron.

Mind you, Henry Aaron's idea of going to work, for most of his career, generally involved hitting around .320 with some 35 or so HRs and 120 RBIs. Seriously.  He was a great player for nineteen seasons and over those 19 seasons, per 162 games he hit .312/.380/.574 with 40 HRs and 118 RBIs. That was his average season. He never had a bad year and he never missed significant time with an injury. after the broken ankle that cut short his rookie year.  His worst year among those nineteen seasons was probably his sophomore year, at age 21, when he hit .314 with 27 HRs and 106 RBI. He was still good enough to make the first of his 25 All-Star appearances and finish ninth in the MVP voting.

Still, it's hard to romanticize a guy going to work. Clemente and Robinson both played the game with enormous chips on their shoulders. They had something to prove. They were going to show you how great they were, that they were not men to be messed with. Mays - as smart a baseball player as ever stepped on the diamond - still managed to play with the wonder and delight of a child. And Mantle - haunted by ghosts, cursed by injuries, and possibly the most gifted of them all - is a novel asking to be written.

Aaron's career, and his life, changed when the Braves moved from County Stadium in Milwaukee to the Launching Pad in Fulton County Georgia. Aaron's homer totals, rather than gently declining as he eased into his mid 30s, stayed level. At some point, he said, it became clear to him that he had a real chance to catch Ruth and made a conscious effort to start hitting more home runs. That's what the man said, and indeed his single season career high is the 47 HRs he hit in 1971, when he was 37 years old. It's what the man said, but his 1971 season looks exactly like his 1957 season and his 1963 season. If he was sacrificing any other part of his game in the quest for Ruth's record, it's hard to see what it was.

He went to work so long and so well that he overtook everyone. When Aaron retired, only Ty Cobb had more hits. No one had played more games. No one had batted more often. To this day, no one has driven in more runs. No one has had more extra base hits. No one has accumulated more total bases.

And by the time he retired, no one had hit more home runs. His reward for this long act of sustained greatness was a campaign of personal vitriol, aimed at this quiet and dignified man, that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that America's Civil War was a long way from being over. Aaron was not unacquainted with racism - he grew up in Alabama and hid under his bed when the KKK rode through town - but he wasn't prepared for this. It shook him to his very core, taking the joy out of baseball and life itself for a time. "They carved a piece of my heart away" he said. I don't even want to think about it.

The Blue Jays owe him one. It was Aaron who kept his old roommate Cito Gaston in the game, after Gaston's career had fizzled out.

A few fun facts...

I threw the ball pretty hard and if I threw the ball inside to him, I couldn't get it by him. You just could not get it by him, he was just that quick.
  -- Bob Gibson

It was the Milwaukee broadcasters who started calling him "Hank" in an effort to make him seem more personable.

Aaron batted cross-handed until he was 18 years old. It may have spooked some of the major league teams from taking him seriously as a prospect.

The source of Aaron's power was always somewhat mysterious to contemporary observers. He wasn't like the other power hitters, taking a mighty cut at the ball. Aaron just flicked at it. He sometimes ended up on his front foot, with his top hand coming off the bat. People used to speculate about his "quick wrists" (it's possible that batting cross-handed until you're eighteen could do that. As I once commented, you do  need the wrists and forearms of a superhero to put any kind of decent swing on the ball.) Charlie Lau eventually became fascinated with Aaron's stroke. He studied it, and it was at the root of some of Lau's ideas about hitting.

No man has ever lived who had Aaron's supreme confidence that he could hit anybody's fastball, any time. He wasn't even worried about it.

I looked for the same pitch my whole career, a breaking ball. All of the time. I never worried about the fastball. They couldn't throw it past me, none of them.

That's right. He looked for the breaking ball and he'd adjust to the fastball. Which is... insane. Impossible. Unless you're Henry Aaron.

He was originally a second baseman, and the Braves tried him out there for a while in the middle of his second season. (Regular Danny O'Connell probably had a minor injury that shelved him for a couple of weeks.) But he spent the great majority of his career in right field. He wasn't Clemente, or even Kaline, but he was very good. He could throw and he was fast enough to play centre field.

Aaron didn't have Mantle's blinding speed and he didn't run the bases with Mays' verve and panache (no one has ever run the bases like Willie Mays. You simply had to see it - low to the ground, enormous strides eating up the territory, cap flying off). But Aaron managed to steal 240 bags in his career, and as many as 31 in a single season. Because he was really good at everything.

Aaron was the right fielder on the Mays-Newcombe All Stars, a team that barnstormed the Sun Belt after the 1955 season. Aaron has said he thinks it was the greatest team ever assembled, anywhere. (Geez, I'm still thinking of him in the present tense.) Anyway, in the outfield they had Aaron, Mays, and a Monte Irvin-Larry Doby in left. Roy Campanella was the catcher and Ernie Banks was at short. Jim Gilliam, Gene Baker, and George Crowe rounded out the infield. Newcombe, Joe Black, and Sam Jones were the starting pitchers. They would have been hard to beat.

Aaron only got to the post-season three times in his long career - why those great Braves teams of the late 1950s didn't win more often remains a mystery. I blame Fred Haney myself. And Charlie Dressen. And the GM who traded all those young starting pitchers. Anyway, Aaron didn't waste his October opportunities. He hit .362/.405/.710 with 6 HRs in his 17 post-season games. He could easily have been named the MVP of the 1957 World Series (he'd been the regular season MVP), although Lew Burdette was indeed a worthy choice.

His autobiography is titled I Had a Hammer. Perfect. Just perfect.

Aaron wore number 5 as a rookie, but switched to 44 in his second season. I don't know why - no one else was wearing 5 in his second year. But he made 44 famous. It had mostly been a number for pitchers before him - as far as I can tell, the only everyday player of note who wore it before Aaron was Phil Cavaretta. After Aaron, Willie McCovey came up in 1959, and he wore 44 his entire career. And when Reggie Jackson went to the Yankees in 1977, he found his own number 9 was already being worn by a veteran All-Star (Graig Nettles.) So Jackson took the number worn by Aaron and McCovey and promptly put on the greatest exhibition of post-season slugging anyone had ever seen. Ever since, 44 has been a number of choice for genuine sluggers and wannabe sluggers as well, from Adam Dunn to Richie Sexson to Rowdy Tellez. The most notable man wearing it these days, now that Paul Goldschmidt has given it up (I don't know why),  would be Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs.

When Barry Bonds overtook his career HR mark, this is the message Aaron sent, displayed on the JumboTron in San Francisco.

I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseballís 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 dreams.

He was a class act, for every one of his 86 years. It was our privilege to see him play.