I used to have talks with Jackie Robinson not long before he died, and he impressed upon me that I should never allow myself to be satisfied with the way things are. I can’t let Jackie down—or my people, or myself. The day I become content is the day I cease to be anything more than a man who hit home runs. …
I have a moral responsibility to do whatever I can. With all of my worldly advantages, how can I look the other way? If I did that, how could I face the people I come from? How could I justify who I am?“I Had a Hammer,” Hank Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler, pp. 4-5
The past year has taken so much from us. Numerous Hall of Famers have been among the 400,000 Americans who have died in the pandemic, and so much of our former normal life has been reft of us. On Braves Journal, baseball has always brought us together virtually, which is a big reason why this blog has been more important to me than ever this year.
Today, we lost Henry Aaron, the heart and soul of the Braves. Over the 150 years of the club — Red Stockings, Beaneaters, Doves, Miracle Braves — Henry is the best we’ve ever had, and the best we ever will. From the minor leagues to the front-office, Henry was associated with the club for nearly the past 70 of those years.
For 13 years after his retirement as a player, he was the Braves’ Vice President of Player Development, and was (sadly) one of the highest-ranking Black executives in baseball. More than that, he was around. One of my happiest childhood memories was the day that he signed autographs in a mall. My mom drove me to get my photo taken with my hero. He never left baseball, and he never left us.
The back of his baseball card is so famous that it is easy for your eyes to glaze over just how extraordinary his career truly was. I can’t do a better job of summarizing it than Mac could, of course, so I’ll just do what I always do and quote him at length:
What to say about a legend? Well, to begin, I think the Hammer is actually a little underrated. There’s a tendency to see him as a very good player for a long time. He was a great player; he won only one MVP award but earned four or five more. From 1955 to 1975 he made the All-Star team every year; he got MVP votes every year from 1955 to 1973. His 76 Black Ink points are eighth all-time. But all those league-leading seasons are drowned out by his many, many seasons among the leaders; nobody has finished in the top ten so much, in so many different things, as Hank Aaron. Only Cobb ranks ahead of him in the Grey Ink test, and Cobb didn’t have quite the breadth of contributions.
He didn’t play in a basestealing era like Cobb, but he was a career 78 percent basestealer who stole as many as 31 in a season, which was good for second in the league. He was a Gold Glove outfielder who played 293 games in center, and would have played more except that the team had good glove men and could afford to keep him in right. The power you know something of; he hit line drives with the best of them, and a whole lot of those left the park. He won two batting titles and finished in the top ten twelve times. The only thing Hank didn’t do was draw a lot of walks, but his isolated OBP is a little better than the league. …
Two more points of possible interest are that Aaron was a middle infielder when he entered organized baseball, moved off second base soon after (though he did play over 40 games at the position in the majors) and that at first he batted cross-handed — that is, righthanded but with a grip more like a left-hander’s. He’s speculated that if he maybe would have been even better had he been a switch-hitter, since he had a head start on the grip. Anyway, he started hitting the “right way” while with Indianapolis, I believe; Bill James speculates that the early hitting the “wrong way” might have helped Aaron gain his phenomenal wrist strength. …
A year-by-year summary of Aaron’s career would be really long, and fairly repetitive; he was great, and consistently great, for twenty years. Hitting the highlights… He made the first of those twenty-one consecutive All-Star teams in 1955. In 1956, he won the batting title. In 1957, at the age of 23, he won his lone MVP award, hitting .322/.378/.600 with 44 home runs, as the M-Braves won their only World Series title. Lew Burdette won three games to take the Series MVP, but Aaron was the offensive star, hitting .393 (the team as a whole hit .209) with three homers and seven RBI.
Those Braves teams were really talented, but never could get over the hump again. Hank just kept hitting — and fielding, winning the Gold Glove from 1958 to 1960. In 1958 he hit well again in the Series, but the team lost in seven. In 1959 he had his greatest year, leading the league in batting average (at .355), slugging, OPS, hits, total bases, and runs created, finishing third in homers and RBI. They gave the MVP to the shortstop of a last-place team, while the Braves lost a three-game playoff to the Dodgers, losing the last game in the twelfth inning. In 1963, he came closest to the Triple Crown, finishing third in batting average and leading in homers and RBI (and also in runs).
In 1966, the Braves moved to Atlanta; Hank was not crazy about this for obvious reasons, plus he liked Milwaukee. At the same time, he recognized that the different conditions in Atlanta called for a different approach, and started pulling the ball more. He’d won two home run titles in Milwaukee. He won two in his first two years in Atlanta. At the same time, he was no longer a threat to win the batting title, finishing out of the top ten when he led the league in homers and RBI in his first Atlanta season. Considered just for his time in Atlanta, I would still rank Aaron second among hitters, behind Chipper but ahead of Murphy and Andruw.
He faded a little in 1968, but who didn’t? He came back strong and at 35 was the offensive star of the 1969 NL West champs, and hit well again in a losing cause in the NLCS. (In three career postseason series, seventeen games, Aaron hit a combined .362/.405/.710 with six homers and sixteen RBI.)
Aaron was just about the only Brave who didn’t have a bad year in 1970. In 1971, he hit a career-high 47 homers, and at that point, with 639 homers, people started to take notice. After a bad-by-his-standards 1972, he came back with 40 homers in 1973, finishing the year with 713 homers.
Major League Baseball, then as always, was basically run by jackasses, and they decided to put the Braves on the road to start the season, the traditional season-opening series at Cincinnati. Eddie Mathews was managing the Braves and had no intention of letting Hank break the record anywhere but at home. Bowie Kuhn ordered Mathews to put Aaron in the lineup for at least two games in Cincinnati; I don’t know if it was unprecedented for the commissioner to make out the lineup card, but it’s certainly unusual. Aaron tied the record on opening day. In the home opener, he broke it.
1974 was otherwise pretty much the end of the road; he hit only 18 more homers and wound up with a .268/.341/.491 line, and couldn’t really play the field anymore. Bud Selig — speaking of jackass commissioners — arranged to acquire Hank for the Brewers (the Braves got Dave May, plus a minor leaguer who never played in the bigs) where he could serve as part-time DH. Aaron didn’t play well in two seasons in the AL.
In 1977, Hank took over as the Braves’ VP for Player Development, a position he held until 1989. He isn’t considered to have been successful in the job, but the team’s actual drafts in this period look pretty good to me, and the core of the 1991 squad was largely acquired on his watch — Gant, Justice, Glavine, Avery, and Blauser in the draft, Smoltz through trade.https://bravesjournal.us/2006/11/15/no-1-hank-aaron/
If you haven’t read Howard Bryant’s biography, “The Last Hero,” do. It’s very good. And while it’s not a hagiography, I came away with the love and admiration I had going in. I also came away with one other thing: I learned that he actually didn’t particularly like being called “Hank.” That was a nickname the writers gave him (an allusion to Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg). Everyone in his life called him Henry, at his preference. Since reading that book, I always have.
But when I was growing up, my two favorite books were The Lord of the Rings and I Had a Hammer. When I heard the news this morning, I immediately went to my shelf and pulled out my old yellowed paperback copy. What comes through is the voice of a man who endured extraordinary challenges, vicious racism, and never lost his clear sense of conscience, demanding the best of himself, and expecting no less of others. Never willing to rest on his laurels nor to take injustice as it was, Henry helped to make a better Atlanta.
I know that the only reason anybody listens to me is that I had 3,771 hits and 755 home runs. I also know that while it’s great to help a politician and to maybe have a small part in a little civil rights strategy, my field is baseball. And that’s okay, because people pay attention to baseball. Baseball counts. It counts a lot.
Some day, I might get out of the game. Maybe even soon. But I know that even if I do leave baseball in an official capacity, I’ll still be in it up to my neck. I’ll still love it as I always have and want to strange it sometimes. And whatever I’m doing, I’ll still be trying to carry on the job that Jackie Robinson started.
I once read a quote from Jackie that speaks for me, too. He said, ‘Life owes me nothing. Baseball owes me nothing. But I cannot as an individual rejoice in the good things I have been permitted to work for and learn while the humblest of my brothers is down in the deep hole hollering for help and not being heard.’ All I can add to that is, Amen.“I Had a Hammer,” pp. 456-7
Amen, Henry. Farewell.
And thank you.