Baseball lost another great today when Hank Aaron passed away at the age of 86. It's been a tough rough 10-12 months when it comes to losing these Hall of Famers: Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, of course, but also Whitey Ford, Al Kaline, Tommy Lasorda, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver and Don Sutton.
And now we've lost Aaron as well.
In addition to being an amazing player, Aaron was also an incredibly nice man. I had the privilege of interviewing him a few times over the years, most recently in 2011 when Mike Claiborne and I had him on the Cardinals Radio Network to celebrate Stan Musial receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom and each time was a gift. He was so gracious, so funny and so interested in talking...especially when he got to talk about his friends, like Stan.
When Barry Bonds passed Aaron as MLB's all-time home run leader on August 7, 2007 it created a massive debate about whether or not we should all refer to Bonds as the "Home Run King" because of the allegations that he used performance enhancing drugs. My argument at the time, and now, is that none of that even matters. Stats don't tell the full story of a ballplayer, only a part of it. The context surrounding the accumulation of those stats is what really matters.
Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record on April 8, 1974 - a record that stood for almost 40 years - and he did that while dealing with constant death threats because he was a black man breaking a white man's record. Think about the sheer insanity of that. It was more than just racial epithets - and those were there too - but actual threats against Aaron and his family.
You can find some of those letters if you do a simple Google search like this one.
No player in the 2000's had to deal with all of that and that's why I never thought Bonds' achievement could ever match Aaron's even if the home run leaderboard changed.
On the field we also have to remember that Hank played in one of the most pitcher-friendly times in the modern era. The bulk of his career was played in the 60's and 70's, eras not known for extreme offense or high home run totals, and yet Hank hit 755 HR. That's remarkable.
Hank is still Major League Baseball's all-time leader in Total Bases even though he retired 45 years ago. Think about that...we've just gone through some of the most hitter-friendly eras in baseball history since the turn of the century and nobody has caught Aaron yet.
He is still Major League Baseball's all-time leader in RBI, too. Albert Pujols is the only active player even close and he's 197 RBI behind Hank. The next closest after Pujols is Miguel Cabrera and he is more than 500 RBI short of Hank's total.
Hank Aaron was 86 years-old.
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