Barry Bonds’ late career explosion has catapulted him into the center of the “greatest hitter of all time” debate. I was recently exchanging emails with Hank Waddles, who runs Broken Cowboy, and he suggested that a forgotten man in the great debate is Hank Aaron. Now, it’s hard to think of the all-time career home run hitter as a forgotten man, but really, Hank’s right. Aaron is rarely mentioned a the greatest hitter ever, and I have some opinions as to why; but first, let’s hear what Hank has to say:
Occasionally we come across a great player who accomplishes something which so dominates our perception of the athlete that we are blinded to the overall greatness of his career. Cal Ripken, Jr.’s consecutive games played record obscures the fact that he was one of the best all-around shortstops ever to play the game. Perhaps not coincidentally, the player whose record Ripken surpassed suffers similarly. We associate Lou Gehrig with longevity, forgetting that he was one of the most feared hitters of his era.
And so it is with Hank Aaron. We all know that he hit 755 home runs, but that stratospheric number, seemingly unreachable until only recently, overshadows an otherwise amazing career. Because the number 755 is so inextricably linked with Aaron, there is a tendency to think that all he did was hit home runs. This isn’t the case. Hank Aaron was one of the greatest hitters of all-time.
The knock on Aaron is that he didn’t have too many spectacular seasons, and this is true. He won only one MVP award (1957), but he finished third in the voting six times, and in the top ten six other times. He won two batting titles, led the league in slugging four times, and finished in the top three in OPS an impressive ten times. He even led the league in hits twice. On his way to 755 home runs, Aaron paced the National League four times and won four RBI titles.
Aaron’s strength was his consistency and longevity, two qualities that are often discounted when discussing athletic greatness. During his twenty-three seasons, Aaron amassed some amazing statistics. He is third on the all-time list for runs scored, third in hits, and of course first in home runs and RBIs.
Where Aaron gains statistical separation from the rest of the pack is in total bases. He led the league in this category eight times, and he tops the all-time list by quite a margin. The gap between his total (6,856) and second place (Musial, 6,134) is larger than the distance between Musial and the seventh spot on the list. This is one record that even Barry Bonds might have trouble reaching.
When Bonds completes his Hall of Fame career, he will likely be universally viewed as one of the greatest hitter of all-time, along with Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, but Hank Aaron deserves to be part of the conversation. He’s one of the greatest hitters who ever swung a bat.
Good stuff there, Hank. Nothing too hyperbolic, and a good argument. Having accumulated the most total bases all-time might be an even greater accomplishment than the 755 home runs, for all I know. But Aaron’s ascension to the very top level of greatest hitter of all time is held back by the simple fact that his accomplishments were amplified by a twist of fate, outside of his abilities and his control. But before we get to that, let’s look at the big three.
Babe Ruth did his hitting during a time when he was going against the grain, against convention. He essentially broke new ground for most of the first ten years of his career as a hitter, establishing himself as the standard as the best hitter of all time. At the time, baseball was not in its infancy, but had a solid track record of some forty-plus years of knwoledge about “how the game was played.” Ruth laughed at all that, and did what he wanted to. To be so outrageously different than everyone else made Ruth the target of a tremendous amount of baseball insider envy and probably anger. Yes, the fans loved him, but baseball’s inner circle of mangers, owners; and even some of the baseball writers had little positive feelings for someone who so cavalierly broke all the rules and yet succeeded so spectacularly. In his own way, Ruth was a pioneer (not unlike Jackie Robinson, though I tread upon this comparison lightly), changing everything we knew about the game of baseball in everything he did.
Ted Williams, whose boyhood dream was to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes the greatest hitter of all time,” has many accomplishments to suggest that his dream came true. But we must go beyond the numbers with Williams, because it can never be forgotten that Williams lost almost five seasons of the prime of his career to the war. In 1942, as a 23 year old, Williams threw out a .352/.499/.648, with 36 home runs, 141 runs, 137 RBI, and 145 BB’s. He then missed the next three full seasons. He returned at 27 years old, and proceeded to put together a .342/.497/.667 with 38 home runs, 142 runs, 123 RBI and 156 BB’s. If you allowed 35 home runs 125 RBI and 125 runs scored per season that he missed, he’d have had 696 home runs, 2464 RBI, 2423 runs scored, and he would have pushed Ruth aside to assume the title of the greatest hitter ever. As it is, he has been held, to a fairly universal consensus, as the second best hitter of all-time to Babe Ruth.
And now there’s Barry Bonds. It is now obvious that he has been the best hitter in baseball for almost his entire career. Bill James’ Win Shares shows that beginning in 1990, Bonds was first or second in the NL for the next 9 seasons in a row, dropped to third 1998, was out of the top five in 1999 (missed almost fifty games due to his elbow injury), and has been back on top ever since. Again, starting in 1990, he has been in the top three in OPS, top 5 in OBP, top 6 in SLG, top 10 in Total bases, top 8 in runs scored, every year but the injury plagued 1999. Right now, he holds the single season records for home runs, BB’s, OBP, SLG, and OPS. He is a 6-time MVP, and really, only Ruth could have matched that, had the award been given during his career. If he finishes his career as the number one guy in career home runs, walks, and runs scored, top ten in career OPS, SLG, total bases, RBI and extra base hits…. well, I don’t see how he hasn’t supplanted Ruth as the greatest hitter ever. It is my assertion that baseball, as it is played today, is more competitive, difficult and grueling than it has ever been before. Between the addition of night games, specialization of relief pitchers, advances in physical fitness, strength and durability, the breaking down of racial barriers; there is no doubt in mind that the game that Barry is dominating is as challenging as any game any player has ever faced.
On to Hank Aaron. When Hank Aaron’s team, the Milwaukee Braves, moved to Atlanta in 1966, Hank was 32 years old, just at the stage when most players began to see a deterioration in their skills. As Hank began what Bill James’ has called his decline phase, his team moved to “The Launching Pad,” as Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium was known. Aaron hit 233 home runs during his time in Atlanta; and I believe that he would have never gotten to 700 had he finished career almost anywhere else. Without 755, Aaron would have no claim to fame as a possible member of the greatest hitter ever debate, and consequently, historians have given him a place in the second tier of great hitters, among the likes of Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial. Great, great hitters, great players; but clearly a notch below what until recently has been the Big Two Ruth and Williams, but is now just as clearly the Big Three.