Hank Aaron was one of the five best MLB players ever
So much of Henry Aaron’s baseball legacy is attached to three numbers — 715, 755 and whatever Barry Bonds’ career home run total ended up at — that we too often overlook his all-around brilliance on the field. Put it this way: If you turned his 755 home runs into outs, he still finished with more than 3,000 hits. Or another way: He played 23 major league seasons and was a 25-time All-Star (there were multiple All-Star Games early in Aaron’s career).
Even though he is widely regarded as one of the top five players in MLB history, Aaron has remained underrated among the all-time greats. He played most of his career in the shadow of Willie Mays, his contemporary who was the more visually breathtaking player thanks to Mays’ defense in center field. Many still consider Babe Ruth the greatest right fielder. So Aaron ranks merely as the second-best player of his generation and the second-best right fielder of all time.
When experts and fans talk about the best hitters in the game’s history, they usually talk about Ruth and Ted Williams and Bonds, or even singles hitters such as Tony Gwynn, before Aaron’s name comes up. No player, however, played with such sustained, consistent excellence for so long as Aaron.
Showing up every day isn’t glamorous, but it’s one way you topple Ruth and hit 755 home runs. As a rookie with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, Henry Aaron fractured his ankle in early September, ending his season at 122 games. Maybe he wasn’t quite Cal Ripken as an Ironman, but Aaron didn’t miss many more games after that. From 1955 to 1968, he played 2,157 out of a possible 2,214 games, missing an average of just 4.1 games per season. In 1969 and 1970, then 35 and 36 years old, he fell all the way down to 147 and 150 games.
Along the way, he never had even a single bad season. His only MVP award came in 1957, but Aaron finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting 13 times during an era in which the National League was packed with future Hall of Famers vying for the award and finished in the top three in three different decades. Here’s one way to look at his high level of play for nearly two decades:
Most 6-WAR seasons
Tris Speaker 14
Most 7-WAR seasons
Lou Gehrig 11
Mays is right up there with Aaron, but even Mays faded in his late 30s. Mays’ last 30-homer season came at age 35 in 1966. From age 36 on, he hit 118 home runs. Aaron hit a career-high 47 home runs at age 37, and from age 36 on he hit 201 home runs.
That’s another testament to Aaron’s consistency. Forty-seven other players have hit at least 47 home runs in a season — 15 of them more than once — but Aaron is still second all-time in home runs. Since he finished his career in 1976, four players have hit more home runs through age 30 than Aaron. None of them could keep it going in their 30s:
Up to age 30
Alex Rodriguez: 464 HR, 85.0 WAR
Ken Griffey Jr.: 438 HR, 76.2 WAR
Albert Pujols: 408 HR, 81.4 WAR
Andruw Jones: 368 HR, 61.0 WAR
Henry Aaron: 366 HR, 80.7 WAR
After age 30
Rodriguez: 232 HR, 32.5 WAR
Griffey: 192 HR, 7.6 WAR
Pujols: 254 HR, 19.4 WAR
Jones: 66 HR, 1.7 WAR
Aaron: 389 HR, 62.4 WAR
In 1955, in his second season in the majors, at just 21 years old, Aaron hit .314 with 27 homers, 105 runs and 106 RBIs, his first great season. In 1973, at 39 years old, he hit .301 with 40 home runs — in just 120 games. But Aaron wasn’t just a slugger. He finished with a .305 career average, hitting .300 14 times, even though many of his peak seasons came in the 1960s, in the most difficult hitting conditions since the dead-ball era. In an interview with MLB Network just last month, Aaron said the thing he was most proud of was that “I didn’t strike out.”
Indeed, he never struck out 100 times in a season and finished with more walks than strikeouts. Keep in mind that Ruth, playing in an era with far fewer strikeouts than even Aaron’s era, led his league five times in strikeouts. Ruth fanned in 12.5% of his plate appearances, Aaron in just 9.9% of his. Maybe that’s why Aaron was such a good clutch hitter and RBI guy. He hit .324 in his career with runners in scoring position, and in “late and close” situations when the game is most on the line, he hit .318/.407/.576 — better than his overall line of .305/.374/.555.
Tim Kurkjian remembers the impact of Hank Aaron, which extended far beyond the baseball diamond.
Bonds might have passed Aaron on the home run list, but Aaron is still the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases. Using the unofficial list at Baseball-Reference.com (RBIs are considered official only since 1920), Aaron’s 2,297 outpace Ruth’s 2,214. Pujols stands at 2,100, but 2021 will likely be his last season.
Years ago, Aaron stepped into the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball booth. At one point, there was a runner on second base with no outs. Joe Morgan asked Aaron how often he tried to move the runner along to third — expecting, perhaps, Aaron to say he played the game the “right way” and hit the ball to the right side. Aaron let out a big, hearty laugh. “Never,” he said. “I always tried to knock the guy in.”
The total bases record might be even more unbreakable. Aaron has 6,856 — well ahead of Stan Musial’s 6,134. If another player came along and replicated Musial’s numbers, he would still need to hit 181 home runs to break Aaron’s record.
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Aaron wasn’t just a dominant hitter, but also an outstanding fielder and baserunner. He won three Gold Gloves, and while fielding metrics from his era are informed estimates, Baseball-Reference rates him ninth among right fielders in runs saved at plus-98 for his career. He stole 240 bases with an excellent success rate, and when he hit 44 home runs and stole 31 bases in 1963, he became just the third player to go 30-30 in the same season (after Ken Williams and Mays). Joe Torre, his longtime teammate with the Braves, said he never saw Aaron make a mistake on the field. To top it off, while he appeared in just three postseasons (the 1957 and 1958 World Series and 1969 National League Championship Series), he hit .362/.405/.710 with six home runs in 17 games.
He’s fifth all-time among position players in career WAR:
Ty Cobb: 151.0
You can add Ted Williams to the conversation (121.9 WAR despite missing several prime years due to World War II and the Korean War) — although Williams wasn’t the fielder or baserunner that Bonds, Mays and Aaron were. So, yeah, top five is accurate, probably ahead of Cobb once you make a timeline adjustment, and you can judge what you want to do with Bonds.
What about playing at the same time as Mays? OK. Sure. Mays’ greatness did seem to make Aaron a little underappreciated, even back in their playing days. Not everyone from that time necessarily agreed, however. Here’s a quote from Hall of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor in 1964: “I’ll take Hank Aaron any day over Mays. Give me a guy who’ll go out there and play every game, never get tired, doesn’t complain and won’t faint on you. … You don’t hear much about Hank, yet he’s just as good a fielder, runner and a steadier and better hitter.”