Remembering Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron died yesterday at the age of 86. Aaron is second on the all-time home run list behind only Barry Bonds, who used steroids. Aaron is baseball’s all-time leader in total bases, far ahead of Stan Musial, who is second place.

In terms of WAR (a measure of player value that estimates wins above a hypothetical replacement player), Aaron ranks seventh. The only players ahead of him are Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, and Willie Mays, in that order.

A huge amount has been written about Aaron in the day and a half since his death. Today’s Washington Post sports section contained six articles about him, plus a front page story.

I don’t have much to add — just one point. Aaron said it annoyed him that during the time he was closing in on Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, sportswriters said he was focused on breaking that record. Aaron said he was focused on helping his team win games.

Aaron and those sportswriters were both right, in my opinion. Aaron was focused on hitting home runs, and by hitting home runs, he was helping his team win games.

No play in baseball helps teams win more than the home run. Okay, if the bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game, the batter shouldn’t be focused on hitting a home run. And yes, batters who lack power can hurt their team by constantly swinging for the fences.

But Aaron didn’t lack power. He was a threat to hit a home run every time he stepped to the plate. And his swing was conducive to hitting home runs without striking out or popping up. For example, in 1973, the season in which he pulled to within one homer of Babe Ruth, Aaron struck out only 51 times in 533 plate appearances.

Aaron was chasing home runs that year, for sure. Of his 118 hits, 40 of them left the park. In a typical Aaron season, the number of home runs would be about the same, but the hits would be much higher — in the neighborhood of 180.

But on a per at-bat basis, 1973 was one of Aaron’s best seasons. His OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) exceeded 1.000 for only the fifth time in his career. His OPS+ (which adjusts OPS for various relevant factors) was tied for fourth best in his career.

I witnessed Aaron’s 1973 home run hunt on a July day at Shea Stadium. The Mets pitcher was George Stone, who had been Aaron’s teammate in Atlanta the previous six seasons.

Stone was a finesse pitcher. His best pitches were the changeup and slider. He was said to be “sneaky fast,” which means, I think, that his fastball was ordinary, but seemed faster than it was because of the way he mixed it with his other pitches.

“Sneaky fast” wasn’t a problem for Hank Aaron. On top of that, Stone was a lefty, so his slider wasn’t likely to be a problem for the right-handed hitting Aaron, either.

I came to the game expecting Aaron to hit a home run. Aaron hit two.

They were nearly identical — a flick of the wrist, followed by a line drive down the left-field line that barely cleared the fence in the shallowest part of the ballpark.

Yes, Aaron was hunting home runs that day.

He was also helping his team win. The score was 4-2, Atlanta. The three RBIs produced by Aaron’s two home runs were the difference. (Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who died last September, got the complete game victory.)

In the 1970s, some sportswriters were still laboring under the mistaken view that there was something suspect about the home run. It was still common to rate players by adding their runs scored and their RBIs, and then subtracting their home runs — as if, somehow, it was less than kosher to drive in runs via the homer.

That’s the misguided thinking that apparently caused some sportswriters to say Aaron was hunting home runs rather than helping his team win.

In an interview late in his life, the great slugger said, unsolicited, that this still bothered him. He mentioned this before he mentioned being bothered by the racism he endured as he chased Babe Ruth’s record.

It’s sad that, like Roger Maris, Aaron couldn’t enjoy chasing and passing the Babe.

RIP.

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