Year Inducted: 1982 (BBWAA, ballot #1, 406/415)
Bobby Thompson is forever known as the player that hit the “Shot Heard Round the World”, a home run to win the 1951 NL Pennant for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers on the last game of the season. Three years later, Thompson found himself on the Milwaukee Braves. In Spring Training of 1954, Thompson broke his leg. While he was sidelined, the Braves decided to give one of their young players a chance in the outfield. Twenty years later, that player stood taller than anyone ever thought possible as he passed Babe Ruth for career home runs.
Hank Aaron may be remembered for breaking Ruth’s record for homers, but he accomplished so much more in his career. He played 23 seasons for the Braves and Brewers and starred as one of the most consistently great hitters of all-time. Beginning in his second season, 1955, until 1973 Aaron was worth at least 4.3 fWAR every year. In that stretch of time he had 5 fWAR twice, 6 fWAR four times, 7 fWAR seven times and 8 fWAR four times. It was on the back of that stretch, one of the longest periods of dominance in the history of the game, that Aaron built his case for Cooperstown.
In all, Aaron hit .305/.374/.555 for a wRC+ of 153. While renowned for the home run record (which he should be, as 755 homers are an amazing total), Aaron was really a complete hitter. He led the league in average and hits twice and doubles four times. Aaron holds the career record for total bases, collecting 624 doubles and 98 triples in addition to his 755 homers. Aaron also set the career record for RBI, driving in 2297 runs in his career and leading the league in RBI four times. Not to be known only as a hitter, Aaron was a solid defender and base runner as well.
The night that Aaron broke Ruth’s record is one of baseball’s proudest moments. Aaron had tied the record in Cincinnati earlier in the year, and came home to face the Dodgers in Atlanta. In the fourth inning, after singling in his previous at-bat, Aaron belted a homer off of Al Downing to ascend to a place that no one thought possible. It was incredibly noteworthy due to the stresses that Aaron went through. As an African American chasing a legendary baseball player, while playing in the Deep South, it isn’t hard to imagine all the hatred that was thrown at Aaron either in private via letters (of which the Hall of Fame has quite a collection), or in public via taunting and ranting at the ballpark. To Aaron’s credit, he kept playing, and kept playing well, excelling through some of the most difficult circumstances any player had to face of all-time.
Aaron often gets criticized for the amount of at-bats and games he had compared to Ruth. It’s true that Aaron had never reached the heights that Ruth did and that Aaron had roughly 14000 plate appearances compared to Ruth’s 10600, but that only goes to show how rare and unique Aaron was. Aaron was rarely hurt, kept himself in great shape, and was consistently one of the top players in the league for two decades. A common refrain among some historians would be “If Ruth had that many plate appearances…” but that doesn’t change the fact that Aaron actually did have those plate appearances due to how he took care of himself. No, he wasn’t Babe Ruth, but he didn’t have to be in order to put up an amazing career.
No player showed the longevity and consistency that Aaron did in his career. In addition to all the records, Aaron was easily inducted on his first ballot with only 9 people failing to vote for him. Aaron, like Stan Musial before him, should have had no demerits against him as any character doubts could be erased by the fact that he never fought with or sought out any of the people who threatened him; he just kept his head down and played better than nearly anyone else on the field. Aaron’s resume speaks for itself, and he will always be one of the most important players in baseball history.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck 12/20/16:
You know who it is.