A Tribute to Hammerin' Hank: Revisiting the Home Run Record 35 Years Later

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A Tribute to Hammerin' Hank: Revisiting the Home Run Record 35 Years Later

Thirty-five years ago today, on Apr. 8, 1974, Hank Aaron turned on a fastball from Dodgers' pitcher Al Downing and sent it over the outfield fence for his 715th career home run. The image of an old, tired-looking Aaron jogging around the bases is now part of baseball lore.

With that one swing of the bat, Aaron overtook The Great Bambino for sole possession of the most coveted record in all of professional sports.

 

And he did all this despite enduring heavy racism, criticism, and even death threats in the months leading up to this day.

 

Aaron also played in a tougher era than Babe Ruth, competing against players of more races, while having difficulties that Ruth didn't—relief pitchers, night games, a longer season, and so on.

 

Aaron's home run record has since been surpassed.

 

Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run on Aug. 7, 2007, and later finished his career with 762, but rumors of steroids have tarnished Bonds' record.

 

Many fans feel Aaron is the true home-run king, for doing so without the aid of any illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

 

The current home run era has seen many of the game's top sluggers—Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmerio, Mark McGwire, and Alex Rodriguez—fall victim to use of steroids, all further strengthening the legacy of Aaron.

 

A-Rod—the likely successor to break Barry Bonds' home run record years down the road—has been found guilty of using steroids, tainting a record he hasn't even broken yet.

 

All this speaks volumes of Aaron, who managed to hit 755 home runs while remaining clean.

 

Is it possible to hit 755 home runs and still be underrated?

 

That's Aaron for you.

 

He was low-key and under the radar, and while he wasn't always flashy, there's no denying Aaron was spectacular nonetheless. Aaron isn't even the greatest player ever at his position, thanks to Babe Ruth.

 

Aaron probably wasn't even the best player in his particular league during his career, as he had the misfortune of playing during the same time period as Willie Mays, a player who is often regarded as the greatest all-around baseball player in history.

 

But Aaron is one of the top five, or at the very least, 10 players in major-league history.

 

Owner of the quickest wrists that ever lived, Aaron topped 40 home runs eight times in his career, including four seasons of leading a league that featured sluggers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, and Mike Schmidt. He holds the major-league record with 15 seasons of 30 or more home runs.

 

In addition to 33 years with the home run record, Aaron still holds major-league records in runs batted in (2,297), total bases (6,856), and extra-base hits (1,477). People forget about marks like that, but it is a testament to Aaron's consistency, durability, and pure talent as a hitter.

 

Aaron didn't get those records with Ruthian-like numbers. He never hit 50 home runs in a season (his career high was just 47). He never slugged .700 in a season, a mark Ruth topped nine times. He didn't hit tape-measure home runs, as did guys like Ruth, Mantle, Foxx, and McGwire.

 

And he never had that one defining year, like many greats have had.

 

Ted Williams had .406. Ruth had 60. Bonds had 73. Cobb hit .420. Mantle won a Triple Crown. So did Gehrig.

 

Aaron never had a year like that.

 

His best season in terms of adjusted OPS, perhaps the best individual statistic to measure the effectiveness of a hitter, was 194. Ruth bettered that mark in 12 of his own seasons.

 

Aaron's 194 OPS, achieved in 1971 at the tender age of 37, would have been a below average season for Ruth, whose career adjusted OPS is 207.

 

What Aaron did have was consistency—year in and year out.

 

Few players in history have been as consistent and dominant as Aaron. Aaron posted an adjusted OPS of at least 140 19 consecutive seasons during his career. No other player has ever done that. Not Bonds.

 

Not even Ruth.

 

Aaron made 24 All-Star teams during his career and while he only earned National League MVP honors once, he finished in the top five on eight occasions and the top ten 13 times.

 

Aaron was also a quicker-than-average runner on the basepaths, who swiped 240 bases in his career, including six seasons of 20 stolen bases and nine straight seasons of double-digit steals.

 

Of the 24 guys in the 500 home run club, only three (Bonds, Mays, A-Rod) have more stolen bases than Aaron. And Aaron is eighth all-time in power-speed number, a category that ranks a hitter based on his combination of power and speed.

 

In addition to being a dynamite hitter, Aaron was also a good defender in right field, winning three Gold Gloves. Few people know this, but he was versatile enough to play nearly every position during his career.

 

Aaron was primarily a right fielder, but also played a few seasons in left field, center field, first base, and even 304 innings at second base and 51 at third base. Aaron contributed 104 fielding runs above average for his career in right field, a solid total for a guy who also spent much of his life as the owner of baseball's most prized hitting record.

 

Braves fans will never forget his performance down the stretch in 1957. On Sept. 23, Aaron hit a two-run walk-off home run in the 11th inning to clinch the pennant for the Milwaukee Braves.

 

In the World Series that year, Aaron batted .393 with three home runs and seven RBI, as he helped to bring a World Championship to Milwaukee, the only one Aaron would win during his 23 seasons in the big leagues.

 

Aaron isn't remembered as a clutch player per se, but his .320 career batting average with runners in scoring position—a full 15 points higher than his career—and his .314 mark in close and late situations showed his ability to step his game up a notch when it really mattered.

 

Beyond all the numbers, Aaron has a pretty impressive legacy. He is one of the most well-respected men in all of professional sports and a true gentleman if there ever was one.

 

And he held the most sacred record in all of sports.

 

755.

 

Everyone knew who the all-time home run champion was. I remember as a kid being in awe of Hank Aaron's 755 home runs, more than Babe Ruth or Willie Mays had ever hit in their career.

 

It wasn't until I was older however, that I began to fully respect and appreciate what 755 meant for Aaron.

 

755 isn't just a number: it defines Aaron as a player.

 

No one knows how many receiving yards Jerry Rice compiled in his career. No one knows how many points Michael Jordan scored. No one knows how many goals Wayne Gretzky scored.

 

EVERYONE knows the home run record.

 

It's like DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Cy Young's 511 wins.

 

Aaron's 755 home runs remain a standard for integrity in a game that is desperate for a true American hero like Aaron, who did it the right way and with no regrets.

 

Aaron never spoke out against Bonds during Bonds' mission for 756. Rather than get involved in the controversy that threatened to ruin the game of baseball, Aaron offered nothing more than a video congratulations to Bonds on the night Aaron saw his record surpassed.

 

My hat is off to Aaron, a man of class, and a true role model.

 

Aaron's 755 home runs may have been broken, but it will never be forgotten. It's a part of baseball lore, and will forever remain a part of baseball lore.

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