Henry Louis Aaron. Mr. Consistency.
That was my first impression of Hank Aaron when I came of age as a baseball fan in the dark ages of the early ‘60s. It became a lasting impression which endures to this day.
I remember flipping over to the back of his baseball card and studying his statistics. I vividly remember my reaction after digesting those numbers: “Wow! All he does is hit .320, with 30 homers, 120 RBIs and 110 runs scored. Every year!”
From then on, I checked “Aaron” in the Braves’ box score daily. All he did was keep putting up those amazing numbers throughout his 23-year career.
A pet peeve of mine is overuse of the adjective “great.” In Aaron’s case, the usage is warranted. He was a great player.
But I believe that consistent is more complimentary in Aaron’s case. To do his job as well as he did, day after day, throughout the grind of a six-month season, for nearly a quarter-century, is just, well, it’s mind-boggling.
Just like his life after baseball. He remained the same generous, humble, consistent rock of a man. Always willing to give his time, impart his knowledge, and share millions of dollars to improve the lives of people he’d never know. You could easily argue that as great as Aaron was on the field, he was better off it.
Many articles since his passing have dwelt on his incredible statistics, but one really stood out.
Neil Paine, writing for fivethirtyeight.com, first looked at home runs. Aaron hit over 20 homers in a season 20 times, a major league record.
From ’55 through ’73, he hit at least 24 homers every single season. That would be from age 21 to age 39, a streak of 19 years. Next on the list, at 15, are Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. Willie Mays, Carlos Delgado, and Alex Rodriguez managed 13 straight.
Using modern analysis, Paine checked Wins Above Replacement. 4WAR defines a very good player. Aaron registered 4WAR seasons from ’55 through ’73, the same 19 consecutive years. Next are Tris Speaker and Rodriguez at 18, followed by Mays and Greg Maddux at 15.
5WAR defines an all-star season. Aaron registered 17 in a row, from ’55 through ’71. Speaker is next at 17, followed by Mike Schmidt at 14.
A 6WAR season puts a player in the MVP discussion. Aaron produced 15 in a row, from ’55 through ’69. Mays is next, with 13, followed by Lou Gehrig at 12. Bonds and Walter Johnson follow at 10.
Think about that. Aaron never had a bad season! The most consistent player in baseball history.
So, you might think it was readily apparent that Aaron would be a future Hall of Famer when he was an 18-year-old shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League back in 1952.
Not quite. Only the Braves and Giants were showing any interest. Back in those days, the Negro League teams stayed in business by selling player contracts to the major league teams. Sid Pollock, the Clowns owner, was no exception.
“It was in Buffalo,” Braves scout Dewey Griggs told Red Smith in a March 27, 1960 column. “They were playing a doubleheader, and here was Hank just kind of loafing over to pick up ground balls and giving it the big, easy toss to first base, throwing them out by a short step. When he ran, he ran lazy-like, on his heels, and in that first game, I never saw him go over into the hole for a ground ball.
“At the plate, though, well, they threw one high, and he powered it over the wall and out of sight. He reached out for another one outside, and pulled it over the wall, across the street, and onto the roof of a building.”
Between games, Griggs told Aaron that he hadn’t shown him anything.
“So, in that second game, he got up on his toes, and he went over in the hole to field ground balls, and he threw bullets to first base. He wanted to show me that he could run, so he dropped a bunt down and beat that out.
“He went 7-for-9 in that doubleheader, hitting a couple out of sight. After the game, I grabbed Pollock on the field and I said, ‘I’ll give you $5,000 right now.’
Pollock said to me, “Turn around and look up there behind you. Those are three guys from the Giants, and they’re going to be coming down here talking.’
I said, ‘All right, $10,000.’
‘It’s a deal,’ he said, and we closed it right there on the field. Then I phoned Milwaukee. 'You like him?’ they asked me. '
Look,’ I said, ‘If I had $10,000, I’d pay it just for his hitting, even if he couldn’t do anything else.’ So we got him, and I don’t think anybody is going to get another Aaron right away.”
The next 60 years proved the clarity of Griggs’ wisdom.
There will never be another Henry Louis Aaron.