Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Orioles will use four starting pitchers during ALDS

    Sep 22, 2014, 7:29 PM EDT

    Buck Showalter Getty Getty Images

    Showalter hasn’t officially announced the specifics or order of his rotation yet, but it’s believed to be Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris.

  2. Tyson Ross will miss his final start with a strained forearm

    Sep 22, 2014, 7:01 PM EDT

    San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers Getty Images

    In his first full season as a starter Ross finishes with a 2.81 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 196 innings.

  3. Indians defeat Royals after resuming suspended game from August 31

    Sep 22, 2014, 6:43 PM EDT

    Scott Atchison Getty Getty Images

    The Royals made it interesting, but the Indians hung on for a 4-3 victory.

  4. Roenis Elias has a strained flexor bundle in his elbow

    Sep 22, 2014, 6:28 PM EDT

    Roenis Elias AP

    In other words: He won’t be an option again this season even if the Mariners make a deep playoff run.

  5. Steve Pearce reports improvement in sore wrist

    Sep 22, 2014, 6:10 PM EDT

    Steve Pearce Getty Getty Images

    Pearce has been one of baseball’s biggest surprises this season, batting .297 with 20 home runs and .932 OPS over 98 games.

  6. CC Sabathia throws for the first time since knee surgery

    Sep 22, 2014, 5:47 PM EDT

    CC Sabathia CC Sabathia

    He’s owed $23 million in 2015, $25 million in 2016, and $25 million or a $5 million buyout for 2017.

  7. Royals owner “can’t imagine” GM Dayton Moore leaving for Braves

    Sep 22, 2014, 4:50 PM EDT

    Dayton Moore, David Glass Getty Images

    “He’s a good baseball guy, and we’re in this thing together.”

  8. Masahiro Tanaka is going to pitch again on Saturday

    Sep 22, 2014, 4:40 PM EDT

    tanaka yankees getty Getty Images

    Good news for the Yankees and their once and future ace

  9. Mariners skipping “out of gas” Chris Young’s turn in the rotation

    Sep 22, 2014, 4:19 PM EDT

    Chris Young Getty Getty Images

    When injuries wrecked the Mariners’ rotation depth Chris Young stepped in and went 12-6 with a 3.07 ERA through his first 24 starts.

  10. Yankees claim Eury Perez off waivers from Nationals

    Sep 22, 2014, 3:49 PM EDT

    Chase Utley, Eury Perez AP

    Washington cut Perez loose after claiming light-hitting shortstop Pedro Florimon off waivers from Minnesota.

  11. Cubs ready to make a big play for pitching

    Sep 22, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT

    theo epstein getty Getty Images

    The Cubs know they can’t just get by on change-of-scenery guys and sign-and-flip deals.

  12. Sandy Alderson is getting a three-year deal with the Mets

    Sep 22, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT

    Sandy Alderson AP

    The Mets are staying the course. And it is probably a good idea.

  13. Desmond Jennings won’t return to play the final week

    Sep 22, 2014, 2:48 PM EDT

    Desmond Jennings AP

    He finishes the season hitting .244 with 10 homers, 15 steals, and a .697 OPS in 123 games, falling back to his 2012 production after posting a .748 OPS last season.

  14. Adam LaRoche doesn’t expect to re-sign with the Nationals

    Sep 22, 2014, 2:14 PM EDT

    laroche getty Getty Images

    LaRoche has bounced back nicely from a down season in 2013, hitting .255 with 25 homers and a career-high 80 walks on the way to an .811 OPS.

  15. HBT Daily: Who will be on the outside looking in?

    Sep 22, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    HBT Daily Logo

    The A’s? The Mariners? The Royals? Does it help if I tell you that I’m always wrong about these things?

  16. Royals finish with their highest attendance in 23 years

    Sep 22, 2014, 1:47 PM EDT

    Ned Yost Getty Images

    They’re an unshakable bunch, Royals fans.

  17. Major League Baseball creates a pace of game committee

    Sep 22, 2014, 12:13 PM EDT

    Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley

    They hope to have some measures in place to attack slow play in time for the 2015 season.

Featured video

Who's outside looking in on playoffs?
Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. R. Castillo (2974)
  2. M. Trout (2071)
  3. D. Ortiz (2068)
  4. A. Pagan (2059)
  5. A. Pujols (2015)
  1. J. Hamilton (1937)
  2. N. Arenado (1876)
  3. G. Stanton (1842)
  4. S. Pearce (1836)
  5. H. Ramirez (1829)