Henry Louis Aaron. The name alone demands respect, though he was popularly called “Hank” during his Major League Baseball career. He was also affectionately known as Hammering Hank, and well he should have been as he slugged 755 career home runs. These homers stand as a milestone that is glaring in its purity, clear in its integrity, and Mr. Aaron rightly has his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he will be forever remembered as one of the greatest baseball players who ever played the game.
In short, Hank Aaron holds MLB’s all-time homer record; another guy named Barry Bonds has higher numbers but his achievement will be forever questioned with an asterisk, tainted by the juice he pumped into his body to make him morph into a bloated caricature of himself. There is no denying that Bonds hit those home runs – all 762 of them, but it is how he came to hit them that is the problem here. Knowing that many of those homers were hit while he was juicing negates their authenticity, even if he is still left holding the title with an asterisk for all-time most homers.
When you look at Hank Aaron’s record , you marvel at the consistency, the power, and the total ball player that he was on the field and at the plate. Finishing with a lifetime .305 batting average, Aaron also holds the records for most RBI (2297) and Total Bases (6856). With lifetime numbers that include a .374 On Base percentage and .555 Slugging Percentage, you get the picture of Aaron’s total impact as a player. There is also the average of 69 walks per season as opposed to just 68 strikeouts (unthinkable in this era of the strikeout). This helps create a portrait of a patient, deliberate, intelligent hitter who knew his craft well.
On April 8, 2014, the 40th anniversary of hitting home run number 715 that put him ahead of legendary Babe Ruth as baseball’s all-time homer king, Aaron was honored at Atlanta’s Turner Field before the season opening game pitting the Atlanta Braves against the New York Mets. It is fitting that Aaron is a humble man, nothing like the bombastic men who came before him and after him. Ruth was like a rock star, a huge man with an even larger appetite. Bonds somehow became a physically “big” man from the steroid use and had an ego to match.
Perhaps that is why fans gravitate back to Aaron – for his simplicity, his decency, and his pristine legacy. Aaron speaks today as eloquently as ever, and when he said, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth, I just want them to remember me,” you immediately understood that Aaron not only respected baseball history but was proud to have made such a significant contribution. One always got the feeling with Bonds that it was not just about numbers but more all about him. He would create his legacy, no matter what it took, and he was going to be the king of the hill no matter what it took to climb to the top and that was that.
Now, all these years later I recall watching the game on TV, a young kid who was excited to be watching history. There was such a feeling of anticipation, knowing Aaron had played the first three games away in Cincinnati to start the season without hitting a homer. Most everyone felt like this was going to happen on this night, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Watching it again I recall the moment, seeing Al Dowling of the LA Dodgers serve up the pitch. Dowling wore the number “44” too, and you will hear the announcer mentioning an “omen.” I don’t recall that now; I don’t recall anything but seeing that ball go out and the crowd cheer. Aaron was the newly crowned homer king.
All these years we all salute Mr. Henry Louis Aaron, the undisputed baseball homer king. As for Bonds, many years from now he will be an anomaly, something that is spoken of in hushed tones and with sadness. Perhaps we can never erase those tainted homers that he hit into San Francisco Bay from the record books, but we sure can overlook them and honor the man who did it the right way. Hank Aaron’s 755 is the real homer record and everyone knows that except the one guy who still can’t handle the truth.
Now we can savor that homer as part of the rich history of MLB. Like all families and organizations, there are always dark moments – and the steroid era cast a shadow for a number of years that was pernicious and tenacious. But looking at moments like this one makes us think of baseball how it ought to be – then, now, and always.
Photo credits: AP, Wikipedia, Britannica.com[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B008079Y3O, B008079Y3O]