Homer Happy: Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron had so many ways to beat National League pitchers that his prowess as a home run hitter was nearly overlooked until he passed Babe Ruth in career home runs in 1973. But he was the second most productive home run hitter in the 1960s, and of course, he was the most productive home run hitter in the Twentieth Century.
Twice in the 1960s, Hank Aaron led the National League in home runs and runs batted in: in 1963 (44, 130) and in 1966 (44, 127). He also led the league in slugging percentage in 1963 (.586) and in 1967 (.573).
The fact that he was so skilled in so many facets of the game, so complete a hitter, and so quietly consistent throughout most of his 23-year major league career, probably contributed to his lack of promotion by the sports press as a home run hitter in the class of Mays and Mantle and Killebrew. But NL pitchers knew better.
The numbers don’t lie.
Aaron averaged 37.5 home runs per season during the 1960s. He led the National League three times both in home runs and in runs batted in during that decade. Altogether, he drove in more runs during the 1960s than any other major league player.
After showcasing his talent briefly in the Negro League, the 18-year-old Aaron was signed by the Boston Braves in 1952. He was nothing short of spectacular during his two seasons in the minor leagues, and made his debut with the now Milwaukee Braves in 1954, batting .280 with 13 home runs and 69 RBIs. He led the National League in hitting with a .328 average in 1956, and would win a second batting title in 1959 with a .355 batting average.
Entering the 1960s, Hank Aaron already had hit 179 home runs … and he was only 25.
Aaron led the National League with 44 home runs and 132 runs batted in to win the Most Valuable Player award in 1957. Surprisingly, it would be the only MVP of his career. At the close of the 1950s, he had already accumulated 179 home runs, and he was only 25 years old. As a slugger, he was just getting warmed up.
Aaron hit 40 or more home runs five times during the 1960s. He drove in more than 100 runs six times, his lowest total during the decade coming in 1968 when he managed “only” 86 RBIs. His most productive season during the 1960s – amid so much productivity at the plate – came in 1963. He batted .319 and led the National League in home runs (44), RBIs (130), runs scored (121), total bases (370) and slugging percentage (.586). Despite those “Ruthian” statistics, Aaron finished third in the MVP voting behind Sandy Koufax and Dick Groat.
As talented and productive as he was, Aaron was under-appreciated (and even under-rated) by the press. He was too quiet, too polite and too lacking in controversy to garner sustained media attention. And he played for a Braves team that finished middle-of-the-pack for most of the 1960s. He was so good, so consistently, that it was easy to take him for granted. Aaron was simply a gentle man, with a brutal bat.
Of course, by the end of his career, Aaron had racked up career records for home runs, RBIs and total bases, and ranked in the top ten in nearly every hitting category. His numbers define his legacy.
Excerpt from Legends of Swing: The Home Run Hitters of the 1960s. Available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.