Henry Aaron was so ridiculously good at baseball that all you’d really need to know about his brilliance could be learned in a short visit to his Baseball Reference page. It scans just as impressively if you didn’t know what all the numbers meant; just look at it and marvel at the fact that all the numbers in every column are essentially the same.
Especially that last column, with his list of honors. The “AS” there stands for All-Star, an honor Aaron achieved 21 consecutive times at a time when being an All-Star wasn’t the result of the player ahead of you begging out for a fishing trip, and “MVP,” in which he received votes in 19 straight years.
But the one people focus on the most, understandably enough, is how Aaron hit the second-most home runs in history without ever hitting more than 47 in any given season. They fixate on his seamless consistency because, in an era in which even the awful teams had a Hall of Famer, Aaron was the one who excelled while out of sight, at least until he started closing in on Babe Ruth’s home run record.
It was then, near but not quite at the end of that long career, that Henry Aaron taught the post-Jackie Robinson generation how racism works. He received and saved boxes upon boxes of mailed-in death threats, from the same kind of folks who decided to invade the Capitol building last week (you can read some here). Not much has changed there; our politics are just mostly where the uglies camp out now. He endured the angry bleats of baseball writers defending Ruth’s fading memory, and even sweated out the two college students who joined him on his run around the bases when he hit his 715th home run, the one the death threats were intended to prevent. Aaron couldn’t be sure if they hadn’t come to celebrate him, stop him, or worse. They meant no harm, as it turns out, and he ended up ignoring them and completing the task anyway.
Aaron died this morning at 86, having lived what anyone of his generation would have described as a glorious life, unless you measure it by notoriety. He played in Milwaukee and Atlanta at a time when all sports were local except for New York, and so his rightful place in Terry Cashman’s cobwebbed old novelty song “Talkin’ Baseball” would have put his name in the coda instead of either Mickey Mantle’s or Duke Snider’s. In fact, of the 34 players who were mentioned, Aaron’s reference was only a throwaway line: “Hank Aaron was beginning.” Always the quiet monster, ever the afterthought.
And yet Aaron’s very beginning as a player contains an item that nobody can quite fathom, even though by a number of eyewitness accounts is true. The legend, printed many times, is that Aaron made his way to the Negro Leagues, at age 17, before anyone bothered to change the way he held the bat—which was cross-handed, left hand over right. Dewey Griggs, a scout for the Boston Braves, had been told to sign him by general manager John Quinn no matter what; Aaron was good enough to covet as a teenager, and already good enough not to mess with stylistically until Griggs dared to remake his career trajectory with the suggestion that he try gripping the bat like everyone else.
Many folks thought that story apocryphal, but it was indeed true. One longtime scout once suggested to me that had Aaron remained cross-handed, he wouldn’t have had nearly the career he did. He would only have played “maybe 15 years,” he said, “and he’d have kicked our pitchers’ asses for every one of them.” That might be the apocryphal part. Maybe he only plays 12, or maybe he plays 18.
One way to think about this is that Aaron somehow managed not just to blend in but excel such that he was nearly driving age before someone dared correct such an obvious flaw in his approach. Anyway, in his first at-bat with the right hand on top, he homered. For the next few decades, he never stopped.
Aaron never did effervesce quite like Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente or Frank Robinson, but his crushing consistency made him a perpetual shoo-in when the best three outfielders of the age are mentioned. It’s Mays, it’s Aaron, and then it’s dealer’s choice. Aaron had only two shortcomings in the fame-chaser’s game—his laconic nature, and the one thing he regretted not having done as a player, which was winning the triple crown two or three times. And not in that conspicuously Russell Westbrook triple-double way, either.
It wasn’t that Aaron didn’t know how good he was. He did, every bit of it. But he was great in a way that was without any extraneousness, and so would have been condemned these days as too boring to be great. Even Aaron himself seemed to believe that, up to a point. In Joe Posnanski’s love letter to Aaron in The Athletic, he quotes him as having once said, “You know, if I had to pay to go see somebody play for one game, I wouldn’t pay to see Hank Aaron. I wasn’t flashy. I didn’t start fights. I didn’t rush out to the mound every time a pitch came near me. I didn’t hustle after fly balls that were 20 rows back in the seats. But if I had to pay to see someone play in a three-game series, I’d rather see me.”
In the end, Aaron is most famous for hitting home runs, year after year after year, and for being threatened with death for having done so too many times for some idiots’ comfort. That experience, as exhilarating and frightening as it was, defined him. It even allowed him to find his voice on issues of race, in and out of baseball, while being careful not to be drawn into fights that weren’t his to have. Asked repeatedly what he felt about Barry Bonds hitting more homers than him, Aaron remembered his own burden and settled on sending a scoreboard video congratulating Bonds. Nothing fancy or elaborate, but he wasn’t going to contribute to the vitriol Bonds faced even though this time he was the icon whose own greatness was being used to diminish Bonds.
His passing leaves only Mays and Sandy Koufax from the sport’s golden era of the 1960s, which looks now like the final end of baseball’s hegemony atop the sporting landscape. That can be directly tied to the tardy integration of the game; Aaron was among the very last stars in the sport who played in the Negro Leagues that were made necessary by baseball’s segregated past. All of this was almost too easy to miss as it passed into history. In baseball’s best time for extraordinary players, Aaron was the most extraordinary player who looked like he wasn’t extraordinary at all. He just did all the things, all the time.
More’s the pity. If only he’d shown the gumption to have a few triple crowns, maybe batting cross-handed while he did it. Then we might have had something.