#8 Hank Aaron
For several decades Hank Aaron led off the Major League Baseball encyclopedia with the rare Aa. In 2004 Hank Aaron's place atop the encyclopedia was supplanted by David Aardsma. I think it's safe to say that the journeyman middle reliever will never supplant Aaron's place in history.
Hammerin' Hank put up some incredible numbers over his very long, very consistent career. Of course there are the 755 home runs, second most ever. What's amazing is that he was not even a pure power hitter. Those 755 home runs were a relatively small portion of his 3,771 hits, number three of all time. His 624 doubles (#10) and 98 triples added up to 6,856 total bases -- the most ever. With an 880 XBH lead over Bonds (#4), that's a record that should be safe for a while. His 2,297 RBIs are the most ever and his 2,174 runs trail only Henderson, Cobb and Bonds. He was always a bit of a free swinger, but he still managed 1,402 career walks (24th), more than his 1,383 career strike outs. Of course, he also recorded the second most outs and double plays of anyone ever.
He was also selected to 21 consecutive All-Star games, won three Gold Gloves and, despite only capturing the award once, was sixth all-time in career MVP share.
Yeah, I'd say he was pretty good.
Born in Mobile, Alabama to Herbert and Estella, he grew up poor, playing baseball with sticks and bottle caps. He was a great athlete from the beginning, leading his high school baseball team to consecutive to consecutive championships and earning numerous football scholarship offers.
Thankfully, Aaron chose baseball, signing with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League in November of '51. The 18 year old led his Clowns to a Negro League championship and drew the attention of Major League scouts. The Boston Braves convinced Aaron to spurn the Giants and he signed with them in June of 1952. Thirty years later he was inducted, alongside Frank Robinson, into the Hall of Fame.
Aaron's initial assignment was with the Eau Claire (WI) Bears he made the Northern League All-Star team and was named Rookie of the Year. It was in Eau Calire where Aaron broke his habit of hitting cross handed.
He was quickly promoted and, while his talent soared, his career was headed south -- to Jacksonville. Despite leading his team to the championship and the league in runs, hits doubles, RBIs, total bases and batting average, the Tars' star had to arrange for his own housing and meals as the team traveled around the south, segregated from his white teammates, whose accomodations were arranged by the team.
The fall and winter of 1953 was possibly the most important off season of Aaron's career. That summer he had met Barbara Lewis. It became clear that fate had come calling, when he singled, doubled and homered in the first game she attended and they were married in October. He also spent the winter playing in Puerto Rico, where manager Mickey Owen tinkered with his stance and taught Aaron to hit effectively to every field, paving the way for Aaron to become arguably the best all-around offensive player the game has ever seen.
When Bobby Thompson broke his ankle in spring training, Aaron grabbed his starting spot and never looked back. Aaron had slugged 13 home runs and was batting .280 when he also fell to a broken ankle, possibly robbing him of the Rookie of the Year award. All things considered, though, Wally Moon's career fell somewhat short of Aaron's, despite the award.
Aaron won his only MVP and World Series Championship in his fourth season in 1957 ... and then a decade and a half passed without anything of note happening ... (umm ... yeah ... except for almost 3,000 hits more than 500 home runs and one of the greatest careers ever ... but if you want a more comprehensive biography, I'd recommend "I Had a Hammer")
By 1973, Aaron's career was winding down. Despite a career that was remarkable for health and longevity, his health and age were limiting his playing time once the 70s came around. Aaron managed fewer than 400 ABs that year, but still posted one of his best seasons, at the age of 39. On the second to last game of the season, Aaron slugged his 40th home run of the season, 713th of his career. On September 30th, Aaron posted one of the most disappointing 3 for 4 performances in the history of the game -- failing to tie Ruth's career record, but pushing his season batting average over .300, his OBP over .400 ... but keeping his slugging percentage pretty steady, in the low .640s.
As far as America had come since Aaron was growing up in Alabama in the 1940s and 50s, racism was still alive and well. As Aaron, a black man, stood on the precipice of breaking the record of records, held by one of white America's greatest heroes, he was in for a difficult off-season. He received countless hate mail and numerous death threats. Even press that gave Aaron favorable coverage suffered through threats and abuse.
Sports Illustrated poignantly asked, "Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of thirty-nine, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport...? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball's attic?"
Ruth's widow, Claire Hodgson led an outpouring of public support in response to this bigotry, though, announcing that the Babe would have enthusiastically cheered Aaron's attempt at his record.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn thwarted the Braves' attempts to save Aaron's glory for the fans of Atlanta -- mandating that they play Aaron in two of their three games in their opening series in Cincinnati.
Aaron didn't make the Cincinnati fans wait. With one out and two runners on in the first inning, Aaron hit #714 out to left-center field. Aaron went hitless over the rest of his stay in Cincy before returning to Atlanta to host the Dodgers.
He didn't seem as eager to take care of business on April 8th, 1974. He worked a walk in his first at bat in the second inning, before being doubled home by Dusty Baker.
Two innings later, with Al Downing on the mound and Darrel Evans at first, Aaron lofted the second pitch he saw into deep left field and the record was his.
Aaron has spent his retirement in the Braves front office. On February 5th, 1999, MLB celebrated Aaron's 65th birthday with the creation of the Hank Aaron award, for the league's best hitter. He remains one of the most revered athletes and men in all of sports and is arguably the greatest living baseball player.