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Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Happy 80th birthday, Hank Aaron

By David Schoenfield

When I was in second grade, my teacher, Mr. Nichols, gave me an old, beat-up poster of Willie Mays. I think it had been run through a washing machine because it was all wrinkled and full of creases. I hung it on my wall anyway. At the same time, my grandmother gave me the first baseball book I remember reading, a biography of Mays.

I was a Willie Mays fan, if forced to choose between him and Hank Aaron. (Although, I'm not sure if that ever discussion ever came up much when I was a kid, considering both players were retired by the time I was in second grade.)

You get the impression that for kids of the '60s, it was Mays over Aaron, as well. That's part of the Aaron story: underrated, perhaps not fully appreciated until it was he, and not Mays, who broke Babe Ruth's home run record. Even then, he had to deal with the racism from people who didn't want a black man breaking Ruth's record. As Vin Scully described it at the time, "What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us."

The dignity and quiet strength Aaron displayed as he chased down Ruth is also a big part of his story, but even then nobody really said Aaron was better than Ruth, never mind that Ruth played in a segregated era. When Barry Bonds later passed Aaron, a new generation of fans learned about Aaron and his remarkable career, and we old-timers were reminded once again of one of the best ballplayers who ever played.

Aaron turns 80 today and I'm sure those who grew up in Milwaukee or Atlanta watching Aaron hit all those home runs and perform with consistent greatness year after year can't believe he's that old.

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It's almost too bad that the signature highlight of Aaron's career is the home run off Al Downing to pass Ruth. He was 40 then, a little thicker around the middle, no longer the lithe, young athletic right fielder. Our lasting image of Mays is his impossible catch in the 1954 World Series, racing back, back, back. For Aaron, it's a middle-aged man rounding the bases.

Because of that, it's easy to forget what a terrific all-around player Aaron was in his prime, hitting for power (he led the league four times in home runs), batting average (he twice led in average and hit above .320 eight times), stealing bases (he ranked as high as second in the NL in steals) and playing a great right field (he won three Gold Gloves and Baseball-Reference credits him with the sixth-most runs saved on defense among right fielders).

Several years ago, Aaron voiced the thought that he should have won more than one MVP Award, suggesting writers didn't vote for him because they didn't want a black player winning. Aaron won his MVP Award in 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves won the pennant and he hit .322 while leading the league with 44 home runs, 132 RBIs and 118 runs. Here's Aaron hitting the pennant-clinching home run that year.

Should he have won another one or two? He finished third in the voting five more times after that (plus 1956), but he wasn't necessarily robbed of any awards. First off, many black players were MVP Award winners in those days; from 1953 through 1969, 14 of the 19 NL MVP winners were black and two were Latin Americans (Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda). Aaron didn't win, in part, because the Braves won just one more pennant (in 1958) and one division title (in 1969) during his career. You can argue that the Braves of the late '50s and early '60s -- with Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, Joe Adcock and Joe Torre -- should have won more than two pennants, but they didn't.

Not that it was Aaron's fault. He was great every year. Baseball-Reference rates him as above 7.0 WAR every season except two between 1956 and 1969; he slipped all the way down to 6.8 in 1964 and 1968. B-R rates him as the best player in the NL just once, in 1961 (Frank Robinson won the MVP Award while Aaron finished eighth in the voting). It rates Aaron as the second-best player three times and third-best four times, usually behind Mays. The NL was loaded with talent in those days: Aaron, Mays, Robinson, Clemente, Mathews, Ernie Banks, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal -- not just Hall of Famers, but top-tier Hall of Famers. It was hard for anyone to win multiple MVP Awards.

My favorite Aaron story is a famous one: As a kid, he used a cross-handed batting grip. The story goes that he kept hitting this way even while he played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues before he signed with the Boston Braves in 1952 and was sent to Class C Eau Claire, where coaches finally corrected his hitting style.

I doubt the story is true. For one thing: Try hitting that way. I don't see how you could generate enough power, but Aaron did hit five home runs in his stay with the Clowns. Plus, I can't see any coach letting a player hit that way. In Howard Bryant's biography of Aaron, "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," he writes of Aaron's time in Eau Claire, but makes no mention of Aaron changing a cross-handed grip. The story is a good one but unlikely to be true.

What is true, however, is that Mays and Aaron nearly played together. The New York Giants, who already had Mays, were also scouting Aaron, but the Braves reportedly offered $50 more a month, so Aaron signed with them. Think about that on Aaron's 80th birthday.