By Dan Schlossberg
As a kid growing up in Northern New Jersey, I was such a Hank Aaron fan that my classmates called me “Hank.”
I became a fan of the then-Milwaukee Braves in 1957, when they beat the Yankees in the World Series. The Dodgers and Giants were leaving New York for California, the Mets didn’t exist, and all my friends rooted for the Yankees (which I thought was like rooting for U.S. Steel).
Aaron won his only MVP award in ‘57, when he hit the homer that clinched the pennant against an otherwise-forgotten Cardinals pitcher named Billy Muffett.
But he should have won many more.
Sidelined only by a broken leg suffered near the end of his rookie year in 1954, Henry Louis Aaron made the All-Star team 25 times in 23 seasons (the leagues played two games for four years to raise money for the players’ pension fund).
He also hit more home runs, knocked in more runs, and collected more total bases than anyone else — at least until a certain Barry Bonds came along.
Originally a second baseman who batted cross-handed, Aaron moved to left field when Bobby Thomson — yes, THAT Bobby Thomson — broke his leg during 1954 spring training. He wore No. 5 that season, then switched to 44 a year later because he believed a double-digit number would bring good luck.
Apparently, it did.
He led his league in home runs, slugging, and runs batted in four times each, runs scored three times, and batting twice. By the time he retired after the 1976 season, the soft-spoken outfielder had a .305 batting average, 755 home runs, 2,297 runs batted in, and 6,856 total bases — a figure that separates him from the pack by leaps and bounds.
Aaron also won three Gold Gloves and had a 30/30 season (that many steals and homers in the same season). He had six home runs, including three in the ‘57 Series, in post-season play.
But because he didn’t play in New York, Aaron never got the recognition he deserved. In fact, nine voters left his name off their 10-man Hall of Fame ballots in 1982. He was an easy first-ballot winner anyway but he should have been a unanimous selection.
Never suspended or even suspected of cheating, Aaron trained his sights on Babe Ruth’s home run record the minute he laid eyes on Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, a ballpark nicknamed “the Launching Pad” by Braves pitcher Pat Jarvis. Rather than spraying hits around the field, as he did during a .355 season for the 1959 Milwaukee Braves, Aaron began to pull — with predictable results.
He and Eddie Mathews, another Hall of Famer, combined for 863 home runs, a record for teammates. He and Tommie Aaron, his younger brother, combined for 768, a record for brothers. Hank and Tommie even homered in the same inning once, with the elder Aaron connecting with the bases loaded after T-Bone led off with a solo shot as a pinch-hitter.
Hank Aaron started and ended his illustrious career in the same city, with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954 and Milwaukee Brewers in 1976. Don Drysdale, for one, was glad to see him retire; Aaron hit more home runs against him (17) than anyone else.
It was Drysdale and fellow Dodger standout Sandy Koufax who gave Aaron his “Bad Henry” nickname. “He was so good that he was bad,” Drysdale explained.
Forget Willie, Mickey, and The Duke. Hank Aaron had them all beat.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ interviewed Hank Aaron many times and did a book on him called Hammerin’ Hank: the Henry Aaron Story. He is also the author of 39 other baseball books. E.mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.