Hammerin’ Hank didn’t start as homer king in the making

Published 9:49 pm Tuesday, July 3, 2007

For Bud Selig, the greatest of Hank Aaron’s 755 homers is easy to pick out.

No, it’s not the one that pushed him past Babe Ruth as the most prolific home run hitter in baseball history. It’s one that Aaron launched much earlier in his career, when no one could have envisioned a skinny kid from south Alabama taking down the Sultan of Swat.

On Sept. 23, 1957, while a commissioner-to-be watched from the upper deck at County Stadium, Aaron came through in the 11th inning with a two-run homer off St. Louis’ Billy Muffett that clinched the NL pennant for the Milwaukee Braves.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“One of the greatest moments of my baseball career, of my life really,” Selig recalled. “So dramatic. So emotional.”

That was Aaron’s prime, when Hammerin’ Hank was so much more than a power hitter.

Fielding, you say? Aaron won three straight Gold Gloves in right field, gliding along with a smooth style that made the tough catches look easy, while keeping runners at bay with his strong right arm.

What about baserunning? He had nine straight seasons with double-figure steals and became just the third member of the 30-30 club — 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in the same year.

Could he hit for average? Even while playing in an era of dominant pitching, Aaron put up 14 seasons at .300 or better, going as high as .355 one year and nearly winning the Triple Crown another time, which he still laments as the only real void on his resume.

“Hank was such a great player when you saw him in the ’50s and ’60s, when he wasn’t pulling everything,” Selig said. “I never saw a guy hit so many line drives all over the ballpark. … What an absolutely magnificent career.”

For some reason, though, it’s a career that never seemed to spark the adulation that followed Ruth, or the wonder inspired by Willie Mays, or even that scornful disdain that Barry Bonds — the soon-to-be home run king — faces in every ballpark but his own. (Of course, it should be noted that Aaron got plenty of racist hate mail as he closed in on Ruth, the burden of being a black man who dared to break a white man’s hallowed mark.)

Sure, Aaron was respected. But in his time, and even today, few would think to put him at the top of a list for the game’s greatest players, or even anoint him the most fearsome slugger. Never mind those 755 homers, a number that has reigned supreme for more than three decades.

“When it comes to home runs, we think of guys who hit those monumental blasts,” said Cal Ripken Jr., who will join Aaron in the Hall of Fame this summer. “He generated a lot of power with his hands and wrists. Many of his home runs were line drives, not those towering blasts like some other guys did.”

When Tony Gwynn was growing up in Los Angeles, he spent a lot of time watching Aaron and the visiting Braves from the right-field bleachers at Dodger Stadium.

“He might be the greatest player of all time,” said Gwynn, who also will be inducted into Cooperstown this summer. “Just look at his numbers. Everybody characterizes him as a home run hitter because he’s held that record so long. But he was a great baserunner, a great defender, a great player period.”

When Aaron came to the big leagues in 1954, Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts quickly speculated: This might be the next guy to hit .400.

“He didn’t look like he was going to be a home run hitter,” Roberts said. “He was quite slender. He hit for a good average and hit a lot to right field. But when he decided to start trying for home runs, he was quite good at that, too.”

Roberts said he was the victim of the “hardest ball I ever saw him hit — not only off me, but anyone else.” It was a line drive that cleared the farthest wall at Philadelphia’s old Connie Mack Stadium, nearly 450 feet from home plate.

“It went right over my head,” Roberts said, “and into the center field seats.”

Aaron undoubtedly circled the bases with that unpretentious trot of his, befitting a quiet, even shy man who’s never seen any reason to bring extra attention to himself. He certainly didn’t mind playing in the relative obscurity of Milwaukee at the beginning of his career, then Atlanta for most of his remaining years.

Mays was running out from under his hat on both coasts and Mickey Mantle was hitting 500-foot blasts in the spotlight of New York City, Aaron just went about his business. He never hit 50 homers in a season, but he hit at least 20 a year for an astonishing two straight decades.

“He is underrated,” Selig said. “Part of that is he played in Milwaukee and Atlanta. And he’s not flamboyant. But in all the years I saw him play, I never saw him make a mistake throwing to the wrong base or running the bases. He played right field brilliantly. Not just well. Brilliantly.”

Atlanta-based broadcaster Ernie Johnson Jr. said his father, a former teammate of Aaron’s, put it best when summing up the nearly parallel careers of Mays and the Hammer:

“Henry could do everything Willie does — except Henry’s hat doesn’t fall off.”

Yet another member of the Hall of Fame club, Mike Schmidt, had his first big season in 1974 — Aaron’s final year with the Braves. He was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers that winter, wrapping up his career in the city where it started. He retired in 1976.

“Aaron was — and still is — an unassuming, easygoing man, a quiet superstar, that a 70’s player like me emulated,” Schmidt, who finished with 548 career homers, wrote in an e-mail. “He was one of my heroes as a kid, and will always be an icon of the baby boomer generation. In fact, if you weigh all the elements involved and compare the game fairly, his career will never be topped.”

In fact, Aaron also holds another career record that’s not nearly as glamorous as the homer mark, but may be more important: 2,297 RBIs. Bonds, by comparison, has yet to reach 2,000.

“(Aaron) always hit in the clutch, and Hank had the leadership qualities to lead,” former NL president Len Coleman said. “People looked to Hank as a leader.”

With Bonds closing in on the home run record, Aaron has remained true to form and diligently avoided the spotlight.

Many have speculated that he’s taking a not-so-subtle swipe at his pursuer, who’s dogged by allegations that many of his homers were powered by performance-enhancing drugs. But it’s just as likely that Aaron is approaching this moment like so many others in his career: low-key and dignified.

He could have ripped the impending home run king over the steroids allegations, but he won’t. He could have made the rounds with all sorts of gushing praise for the accomplishments of another, but that’s not his style, either.

This is Bonds’ moment, so Aaron is graciously stepping aside.

“Hank is an understated person,” Selig said. “There’s no question that Hank was a great player, given the magnificence of his career. He’s just not a flamboyant personality. In my mind, that makes him a great human being.”

Aaron has turned down nearly all interview requests and made only a handful of public appearances in recent months, always vigilant about avoiding any discussion of Bonds. He won’t be there when the record is broken, either, but insists it’s not a slight to Mays’ godson.

“I traveled for 23 years, and I just get tired of traveling,” said Aaron, now 73. “I’m not going to fly to go see somebody hit a home run, no matter whether it is Barry or Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or whoever it may be. I’m not going any place. I wish him all the luck in the world.”

No matter how many homers Bonds finishes with, Aaron won’t lose his special place in baseball history.

“The only thing Hank did was just go out there and be the most consistent home run hitter of all time,” Ripken said. “He just hit ’em over the fences.”


AP Baseball Writers Ronald Blum and Ben Walker in New York contributed to this report.