On February 5 — incidentally, during Black History Month — Hank Aaron turned 86 years old. He is a living monument to greatness in the MLB. He spent his career with the Atlanta Braves, punctuated by a short stint with the Milwaukee Brewers. In that time, from 1954 to 1976, he was one of the best hitters to ever pick up a bat.
He remains a singular phenomenon. For most baseball fans, he’s the home run king. The guy who took a look at Babe Ruth’s mind-boggling ability to send balls into the stands, and took it even further. But there’s much more to Hank Aaron’s baseball accomplishments than his 714 home runs.
In fact, after revisiting Aaron’s amazing career, we’ll have the context necessary to truly appreciate a surprising home run stat. Imagine: what would Hank Aaron’s accomplishments look like if he never hit a single past the outfield?
From humble beginnings
Hank Aaron goes by a lot of names. His given name, Henry Aaron, rarely comes up anymore in favor of the more affectionate “Hank.” But there’s one nickname he had to earn: “Hammerin’ Hank.”
There was a time when Aaron wasn’t hammerin’ very much at all. He came up in Mobile, Alabama sandlot baseball, noted more for his wiry frame and speed than his power. Through his stint in the Negro Leagues with the Minneapolis Clowns and his Minor League Baseball grind, base hits were more Hank’s style.
As a right fielder, Aaron was noted for his efficient routes and consistent hustle. He mostly hit balls to gaps in left and center field. While playing winter ball in Puerto Rico to stay sharp, that changed. Following advice from manager Mickey Owen, Aaron starting flicking his wrists at the same time as his follow-through.
Balls started flying farther. Much farther.
A recap of the Hank Aaron most baseball fans know
Few modern baseball fans know Hank Aaron as a guy knocking out doubles. They know him for sending balls sky high and out of the park. Really far, including knocking one so far out at the Polo Grounds that only four players total ever put one in that spot.
On April 8, 1974, Aaron etched his name in baseball history as the first to break Babe Ruth’s long-standing home run record. When Aaron hit career home run number 715, he seemed to be at the “twilight of his career,” as announcer Vin Scully called it.
He had a few more in the tank. As a designated hitter with the Milwaukee Brewers, he cranked out dozens more home runs. He ended his career with an incredible 755 home runs. It stood until 2007, when Barry Bonds broke through.
A surprising home run stat that reveals Hank Aaron’s true depth
Hank Aaron is one of the greatest home run hitters of all time. Or, depending on one’s views of performance-enhancing drugs, the greatest home run hitter of all time.
He did a lot more than that. So much more. His records are uncommonly resilient, surviving several subsequent generations of players. The PED era of the late ’90s was tailor-made to shatter older home run records. The rest of his resume is surprisingly untouched.
He still has the most RBIs, with 2,297. Aaron took more bases than any player since, at 6,856. He was named to more All-Star teams than any other player, ever: 25 times.
And here, finally, is the strange home run thought exercise that ties this incredible player’s career together. Hank Aaron is known mainly for his home runs. But if you took every single home run he ever hit and tossed it out of his career stats entirely, he would still have 3,016 total hits.
He was an exceptional player. A difference maker. A generational talent. Undoubtedly, Hank Aaron is one of the best baseball players of all-time — not just the guy who beat out Babe Ruth.