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Don’t diminish Hank Aaron’s greatness by calling him The Home Run King

Apr 8, 2014, 5:25 PM EDT

Hank Aaron AP AP

Henry Aaron is NOT The Home Run King. That sounds like I’m going to follow with some rant about Barry Bonds breaking his record and how terrible that was … but I’m not. My thought here has nothing to do with that. Henry Aaron is not the Home Run King because that silly title would do nothing but diminish his greatness.

Pete Rose IS The Hit King. That title fits him, and it fits his career which was a relentless pursuit of hits. That’s really what it comes down to. Rose loved playing baseball, but hits were his business just as sausages were Abe Froman’s business and burgers are that king’s business and horror novels are Stephen King’s business. Rose needed to keep score, that was his great strength and tragic flaw, and his ambition was to be The Hit King. Other things did not play out as he had hoped. But he got his 4,256 hits and he had his coronation.

Henry Aaron was not a great home run hitter. To call him that diminishes him. Frank Howard was a great home run hitter. Harmon Killebrew was a great home run hitter. Reggie Jackson was a great home run hitter. Henry Aaron was a great HITTER — any qualifier put before that word cheapens his genius. Henry Aaron’s singular achievement is that he was great EVERY SINGLE YEAR from 1955 to 1973. That’s 19 consecutive seasons without anything resembling a down season. There really isn’t a record quite like it in baseball history.

Here’s just one way to look at it: In those 19 seasons, Aaron created 100 runs or more run 18 times. Nobody else in baseball history had 100 runs created 18 times in a career. But here’s the thing that tells you about Aaron: The one year in that stretch he did NOT create 100 runs? That was 1972. He had a down year at age 38. He ONLY hit .265/.390/.514 with 34 homers. He ONLY created 92 runs. His worst season would be almost anybody else’s best.

See, Henry Aaron gained fame for breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record — it’s unquestionably the most famous accomplishment of his career. And the story of him breaking it in the face of racism and furor is a great American story. But, in truth, the home run record was merely a side effect of two decades of brilliance. He never came especially close to hitting 50 homers in a season, much less 60. He only hit more than 45 in a season once — even his teammate Eddie Mathews did it twice.

But Aaron was not a home run hitter. He just hit the baseball as hard for as long as anybody in the game’s history. The balls that went off the fence were doubles. The balls that went over were home runs. It was all the same to Aaron. His job, the way he saw it, was to hit baseballs hard and whatever followed, followed.

Aaron hit .362 against Koufax and slugged .579 against Drysdale; he hit more home runs against Bob Gibson than any other right-handed hitter and so thoroughly owned the brilliant young lefty Don Gullett (.462/.586/1.346 in 36 plate appearances) that it felt like there was no escape.

He spent the first half of his career in a pitcher’s ballpark. He hit. He spent the second half of his career in a hitter’s ballpark. He hit. He played in the years when the strike zone was from the top of the knees to the armpits. He hit. He played in the years when the strike zone was the knees to the top of the shoulder. He hit. He played when the mounds were low, when they were high, when they were in between. He hit. He cracked Nolan Ryan’s fastball, he cracked Steve Carlton’s slider, he cracked Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckleball. He came to the park every day with a plan and sense of purpose and the quickest wrists anybody ever saw. He relentlessly pounded against the shore.

He was the ocean.

To think of Aaron as The Home Run King is to think of the ocean as that powerful body of water that knocks down sand castles.

It was 40 years ago today that Aaron hit Homer No. 715, the one that passed Ruth, and so we are now getting that spate of stories and tweets about how Aaron — not Barry Bonds who hit more home runs — is the TRUE home run king. This is because Bonds used steroids. I must admit: This is one of my least favorite lines of sports conversation, and not just because of the steroid talk or the questionable mathematics involved. No, the big thing is that this suggests that Barry Bonds’ 756th home run in some odd way reduced the greatness of Henry Aaron. I did not — no more than John Unitas was reduced when Drew Brees broke his record or Jesse Owens is reduced every time someone run 100 meters faster than he did. Aaron’s career wasn’t the home run record. Aaron’s greatness had nothing to do with that number.

For that matter: Ruth’s greatness was not touched in any way when Henry Aaron hit 715.

This is an example of when numbers get in the way. We count things in sports because it adds meaning to the games. But those numbers do not sum up. If Tiger Woods somehow did win 19 majors — Jack Nicklaus said Tuesday he still believes Tiger will — that would not alter one thing about Nicklaus’ greatness, just like Jack’s amazing record did not change the wonderful golfing history of Bobby Jones.

Anyway, with Aaron, if you DO want to talk about numbers, home runs was never the right thing to count anyway. Several players through the year — Alex Rodriguez, Jimmie Foxx, Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Sammy Sosa and Eddie Mathews — were all ahead of Aaron’s home run pace through age 32. Aaron aged better than any of them, and he finished his career in a home run park so good it was called “The Launching Pad” and he set the record.

But let’s just say this: Nobody’s breaking Henry Aaron’s total bases record. Nobody. Ever. Aaron’s 6,856 total bases is 700 more than second-place Stan Musial. Barry Bonds, for all those splash balls he hit into the water and all those MVP awards, still finished his career about NINE HUNDRED total bases shy of Henry Aaron. Alex Rodriguez would need more than 1,400 more total bases to get into the Henry Aaron stratosphere. That record is just about untouchable.

Henry Aaron’s 2,297 RBIs hasn’t been touched either — it’s 300 more RBIs than Bonds had.

There have been a lot of kings in sports. Arnold Palmer is called the King. Richard Petty is called the King. Hugh McElhenny was called the King, LeBron James is called the King. Pele is the King, Jerry Lawler is the King. In baseball we’ve had King Felix, King Carl, King Kelly, King Kong, and a shlep of a third baseman out of Villanova named Fred Lear who played during Deadball and was called King for obvious reasons. And of course Pete Rose is the Hit King, just like the people yell when they’re trying to get people to come into the store in Las Vegas and get an autograph.

We don’t need any more kings in the castle. Henry Aaron is not the Home Run King. Barry Bonds has the record. He will have the record for a long time. Cy Young has the most wins. Ty Cobb has the highest average. Rickey Henderson has the most stolen bases. Barry Bonds has the most home runs. Baseball would probably have to change pretty dramatically for any of those records to get broken anytime soon.

But Aaron’s legacy is not a record. His legacy is a near-perfect baseball career. It is hitting for average, hitting for power, running the bases, playing good defense … every day. It is not easy to be near your best every single day. Some would even say it’s impossible. We’re all just human beings. But it’s not impossible. Henry Aaron did it.

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