You know the sports expression “Great player, better person”?
No one turns down that description. It can, however, carry the unintended consequence of underplaying an elite performer’s excellence at his actual job.
Which brings us to the legendary Hank Aaron, who died in his sleep Thursday into Friday at the age of 86 and rightly earned plaudits as a bona fide American hero. As a humble man who endured this country’s worst yet never stopped being gracious or generous.
Enough bandwidth exists, though, so that we can salute Aaron’s magnanimity without slighting his brilliance as a baseball player. Home run king or not, Hammerin’ Hank belongs among the best of the game’s best.
“He played for the galactic All-Stars. We’re just mere earthlings,” Chipper Jones, Aaron’s fellow Hall of Famer, said Friday on a Zoom call arranged by the Braves. “He was on a different level. When you can take all of those home runs away and he’s still got 3,000 hits. He won Gold Gloves. [Appeared in] 25 All-Star Games. To this day, I have to look at the back of that baseball card and remind myself because some of the numbers just get lost. You’re talking about a transcendent baseball player right here.”
Another Cooperstown honoree, Reggie Jackson, listed Aaron among a list of all-time greats spanning a spectrum of sports: Frank Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Bill Russell and LeBron James.
“When you see one of them,” Mr. October said, “you see a bald eagle.”
Jones underlined some of the numbers that made the proverbial back of Aaron’s baseball card “stupid,” as per Braves manager Brian Snitker, a longtime Aaron friend. Indeed, if you remove Aaron’s 755 homers, second all-time to the controversial Barry Bonds, he still owns 3,016 hits. His 6,856 total bases put him 722 ahead of the guy with the second-most, Stan Musial (6,134), who has just 595 more than the guy in 10th place, Carl Yastrzemski (5,539). His 2,297 RBIs and 1,477 extra-base hits also top the charts.
Among all position players, his 143.1 wins above replacement set him behind just Bonds, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ty Cobb, as per Baseball-Reference.com.
After Bonds passed Aaron as the all-time home run leader, such a perch called into question because of Bonds’ alleged usage of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, the Braves made a point of introducing Aaron on the field, whenever a ceremony called for it, as the game’s true homer king. Should that have occurred? As Atlanta resident Mark Petralia pointed out, “It’s a real shame the Braves organization felt the need to amplify those debates. Hank’s legacy never needed that crutch.”
Because whether you believe he’s number one or number two for homers — or number three, if you want to consider Josh Gibson’s case — no one disputes that Aaron belongs among anyone’s top 10 all-time in the game.
Joe Torre, another Hall of Famer, appeared on the MLB Network Friday morning to discuss his former Braves teammate and good friend. The former Yankees manager marveled at Aaron’s ability, thanks in part to his quick wrists, to hit the ball the other way. At how he always hit the cutoff man from the outfield. At how he stole bases only when the situation called for it; he went 240-for-313 in steal attempts, an impressive 76.7 percent.
“I hope the youngsters who never saw him play take time to Google Hank Aaron highlights, go on YouTube and see that those numbers don’t lie,” said YES Network broadcaster Ken Singleton, who opposed Aaron with the Mets, Expos and Orioles. “He was a great, great baseball player and should be somebody who is regarded as one of the greatest players to ever walk on a baseball field. He did it with class and grace and a style that was all his own.”
All-time person. All-time player. The total package. A fitting description.