Appreciating Aaron

Great ballplayers have an iconic moment, an image fans immediately recall when hearing the player’s name. Ted Williams homering in his final at bat; Willie Mays’ catch off Vic Wertz in Game One of the 1954 World Series; Babe Ruth calling his shot at Wrigley Field. Hank Aaron’s moment came on April 8, 1974, when he broke Ruth’s home run record.

The 40 year old Braves slugger took a fastball from Dodgers pitcher Al Downing and sent it over the left field fence. Aaron rounded the bases for the 715th time. Hall of Fame Announcer Milo Hamilton captured the moment: “There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron.”

Most baseball fans under 40 only know Aaron from that highlight. They’ve seen it dozens of time but probably don’t know much about the rest of his career. Thanks to a new biography by Howard Bryant, young people can now appreciate the man’s life in full.

Hank Aaron came into the big leagues at 20, joining a Braves team on the verge of greatness. Warren Spahn led their rotation; five times, he’d been a 20 game winner and was an ace in his prime. 22 year old Eddie Matthews was in just his third season, but had become a star third baseman. He hit 47 home runs the year before and was the slugger in Milwaukee’s lineup. The Braves offense added another explosive part when Aaron joined the squad. The rookie right fielder made an immediate impact: in 122 games, he hit .280 with 13 homers and 69 runs batted in.

The Braves stayed in the pennant race until September 10, when Aaron broke his ankle sliding into third. Milwaukee was just four back with seventeen to play; they finished the year eight back, in third place behind the pennant winning Giants and, the team that would be their biggest nemesis, the Dodgers.

By the end of 1954, Bryan notes, Aaron not only believed he belonged in the big leagues, he didn’t think there was anything on the field he could not do. He showed that in 1955-hitting .314 (he wouldn’t hit below .300 for the next fifteen years) with 27 homers and 106 runs batted in. The Braves made great strides in 1955 but couldn’t catch the pennant winning Dodgers. Brooklyn started the year 18-2 and finally beat the Yankees in October, securing the only championship for “the boys of summer.”

But Milwaukee thought the Dodgers would have a let-down the next season and Milwaukee believed 1956 was their year. The Braves had the NL’s best record all summer, but the Dodgers came roaring back in August and September. Brooklyn finished the year on a 40-19 run. Milwaukee, on the other hand, began to fold- they were under .500 after Labor Day. The pennant came down to the final weekend: Milwaukee faced the Cardinals while the Dodgers played the Pirates. The World Champs swept Pittsburgh while the Braves couldn’t hold off St. Louis. Once again, Brooklyn would represent the National League in a World Series against the Yankees.

Aaron did all he could for his team: as the Braves collapsed in September, he hit .357; he tore up the Dodgers, batting .409 against Brooklyn for the year and hitting .457 at Ebbets Field.

Milwaukee was disgusted with themselves that October. Fifty years later, Aaron summed up the team’s 1956 season: “We choked.” The Braves vowed to take care of business the following year.

They were true to their word. The Braves won 95 games in 1957 on their way to the pennant. Warren Spahn led the way, going 21-11 with a 2.69 earned run average, on his way to the Cy Young Award. Aaron had his best year of his young career and won the MVP award: he hit .322 with 44 homers and 132 runs batted in.

Both Aaron and Spahn won the top award (the Cy Young and MVP) for the only time in their careers, something hard to fathom considering their sustained greatness: Aaron had over 3700 hits and 700 homers while Spahn has more wins (363) than anyone in the live-ball era (1920-present) and more victories than any left-hander ever.

Milwaukee met the Yankees in the Fall Classic and played an epic seven game series. Spahn and Yankee ace Whitey Ford dueled in game one (the Yankees won the opener; both pitchers went 1-1 in the Series).

But the Series was a coming out party for the 23 year old Aaron. On the game’s biggest stage, he showed he had become one of its top offensive stars. He hit .393 with 3 homers and 7 runs batted in that October. In Game 7 at Yankee Stadium, the Braves routed the Bronx Bombers (winning 5-0) and Aaron was a world champion.

A year later, the two teams met again in the Series. After five games, it looked like history would repeat. The Braves were up 3-1, with Game 6 and 7 back home in Milwaukee. Champagne was on ice. Once again, Aaron did his part—hitting .333 over the seven game series. But on the verge of becoming a dynasty, the Braves collapsed.

Biographer Howard Bryant captures this five year span in a brilliant narrative account. In it he chronicles Aaron’s rise, the team’s emergence as a contender, and Milwaukee’s inability to capitalize on golden opportunities in 1955, 1956, and 1958 Bryant also focuses on Aaron’s contentious relationship with Warren Spahn and his managers, Charles Grimm and Fred Haney. Most importantly, he analyzes Aaron’s contentious relationship with the press.

Media problems began in 1956, when Atlanta journalist Furman Bisher penned an Aaron profile for The Saturday Evening Post. The piece, titled “Born to Play Ball,” highlighted his prodigious talent but said he preferred to grab a bat and swing, rather than using a “scientific” approach to the game. Bisher mentioned that Aaron was unaware of the baseball commissioner. After receiving a telegram from Ford Frick (the commissioner,) Aaron said: “Ford Frick. Who’s that?” It also used phonetic language, to imply that Aaron was a country bumpkin who was out of his depth.

The slugger remained wary of the media for the rest of his life. He feared the media would mis-characterize him and preferred to let his on-field performance do his talking.

He also thought baseball writers had overlooked his greatness.

Part of that was a matter of geography. Aaron spent his career in Milwaukee and Atlanta, far from the media capital of New York. After 1958, he never played another World Series game. Aaron spent the 1960s- the time when he put up the numbers that defined his legacy- playing in oblivion.

Part of it was timing. Aaron played decades before satellite television and the internet made every game available to fans (and media alike). Today people would have had a greater appreciation for the player Aaron was turning into.

Aaron also played in a star-driven era. He came up in the mid 1950s when New York heroes captured baseball’s imagination. The Dodgers had Robinson, Snyder, and Campanella. The Giants had Mays. The Yankees had Mantle, Ford, and Berra. Big Apple teams played for the championship every year for a decade (1949-1958).

The press also began comparing Aaron to his National League contemporary, Willie Mays. That almost seemed unfair: Mays was the “Say Hey Kid” and played with panache; he made the game fun, was quick with a quote, and became beloved by New York (and later San Francisco) fans and media alike.

Highlight reels showed Mays making his unbelievable catch in the 1954 World Series. They showed the charismatic young man playing stick-ball with kids in New York. People loved Willie.

They admired Aaron; respected the man, but always saw him as aloof and distant. The press glorified those attributes when they came from Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper was described as graceful and elegant on the field and fastidious in his private life. Aaron never received such glowing praise; instead, the press portrayed Aaron as dark and difficult.

The comparisons between Aaron and Mays grew as the Braves slugger approached Mays’ home run total. But Mays’ body began breaking down as the decade wound down. He kept playing in hopes of surpassing Ruth’s home run record, but ended up a shell of himself. The Giants traded him back to New York in 1972, and he finished his career infamously with the Mets. The shot of Mays falling down in center field during the 1973 World Series remains one of the saddest moments in sports history.

Aaron, meanwhile, soared during the same period. From 1969-1973 (ages 34-39), he hit 203 home runs and kept his batting average near .300 (.298 to be exact). He finished his twentieth big league season with 713 home runs, one shy of the all time mark. The Braves opened up 1974 in Cincinnati. Aaron homered his first time up to tie Ruth. On April 8, he became the record holder.

But as the season wore on, age began to take its toll. His average plummeted to 268, the lowest since his rookie season. He hit only 20 homers for the year. And his relationship with the Braves began to deteriorate.

After Aaron passed Ruth, the Braves had little use for a $220,000 aging ballplayer. Sure they wanted him to stick around in a ceremonial capacity, but they didn’t interview him when the team’s managerial position opened up during the middle of the year. Management also refused to guarantee him a spot in the front-office. So Aaron looked to greener pastures.

Aaron homered in his last at-bat with the Braves. But he received a muted response from the crowd of 11,000. The Home Run King had made it known that he was moving on.

He finished up his career back in Milwaukee. He hung on for two (forgettable) seasons, a shell of his former self. His average sunk to .234 in 1974 and even further, to .229, in his final year. He hit 22 homers for the Brewers, finishing his career with 755.

That number defined Aaron for the next thirty years. But that number hardly did justice to the man’s career in whole. He hit .305 over his twenty-three seasons and his on-base plus slugging was .928; he collected 3,771 hits (3rd all time) and drove in more runs (2,297) and scored more runs (2,174) than anyone in baseball history.

Numbers alone don’t define a man’s legacy. Hank Aaron didn’t become “The Last Hero” because he was a great ball-player- he did so because of how he handled himself off the field. As Albert Einstein once noted, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Aaron showed that when he watched his home run record come under assault from steroid user, Barry Bonds.

Throughout the affair, Aaron remained a gentleman and handled himself with dignity. When Bonds passed Aaron’s mark in August 2007, Aaron offered a brief taped tribute of congratulations to his successor. It took seven takes to get the message just right. After a few attempts, a young technical staffer asked why Aaron didn’t seem more enthusiastic about congratulating Bonds. “Young man,” Aaron replied, “Do you think I have anything to smile about?”

Baseball fans outside San Francisco surely didn’t. Most watched it with dread, as a performance enhancer re-wrote the record books. Many hoped Commissioner Bud Selig would suspend Bonds and save the sanctity of the record. Selig demurred, and the joyless saga unfolded throughout the summer of 2007.

The Associated Press called the Aaron residence shortly after Bonds broke the record. A woman answered the phone and told the reporter: “Mr. Aaron is asleep,” and promptly hung up the phone.

Maybe that’s the moment fans should remember. This admirable man had the decency to turn away from the travesty that unfolded in San Francisco. Such actions defined Aaron the man. He lived by a code and let his actions (oftentimes in lieu of his words) do the talking for him.

Howard Bryant captured that moment, and hundreds like it, in his captivating biography of Henry Aaron. Thanks to Bryant, a new generation can appreciate and applaud Aaron’s remarkable journey.

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