Why Henry Aaron is Still Overlooked

Henry Aaron turned 77 on Saturday. Somehow it seemed appropriate that Aaron’s birthday, as might be expected, was overshadowed by the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Aaron’s birthday receiving almost no attention demonstrates how the he remains bewilderingly underrated in his retirement, just as he was during his career. Aaron retired as the all time leader in home runs and RBIs and among the top three in hits. His career numbers of .305/.374/.555 were good for a career OPS+ of 155 which, while not in the same ballpark as Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, are still very good. These numbers are even more impressive because Aaron accumulated them over 23 seasons and 13,940 plate appearances. This latter number is the third most ever, but was good enough for first at the time Aaron retired. However, Aaron, who was overshadowed by Willie Mays for most of his career, is still oddly underrated by most casual students of baseball’s past.

Aaron legacy is due to several things. After his fifth year he never appeared in the World Series again, only making one more post-season appearance in the 1969 NLCS. His style of play did not draw the attention of the media like that of contemporaries Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Jackie Robinson. He also was a little younger than Mays and Robinson so was not among the very first African American players to integrate the game, although he was the first African American star to play for a major league team in the Deep South. Most significantly, of course, Aaron spent his career playing in Milwaukee and Atlanta, both mid-sized media markets. It did not help that the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta midway through Aaron’s career thus forcing him to win the affection and loyalty of a whole new set of fans.

The first years of Aaron’s career were the tail end of the period when New York dominated baseball. The dominance of the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees between 1947-1957, a period when the three New York teams combined for ten World Series championships and sixteen pennants, has probably grown stronger in the decades since that time as many baseball historians have written extensively on those years. Casual baseball fans could be excused for thinking that there was no baseball outside of New York between 1947-1957; and most of the players from that era who are best remembered, including Mantle, Mays, Yogi Berra, Robinson, Pee Wee Reese or Duke Snider, played in New York. Even Ken Burns, devoted an entire inning of his nine, now ten, documentary on baseball to baseball in New York during those years. Fans who believe the media focuses too much on the Red Sox and Yankees today are right, but this pales compared to how most baseball historians focus on New York when looking at those years.

Outside of New York, there was a still a lot of good baseball and baseball players outside of New York. Ted Williams despite missing parts of three seasons during this period due to the Korean war was baseball’s best hitter from 1947-1957, hitting an extraordinary .348/.492/.644 over these 11 seasons. Neither the best NL player, Stan Musial, nor baseball’s best pitcher, Aaron’s teammate Warren Spahn, played for a New York team either during those years. Not surprisingly, Musial and Spahn also rank among baseball’s often overlooked all time greats.

The first few years of Aaron’s career were overshadowed by the New York baseball narrative, but that period came to an end when the Dodgers and Giants moved to California following the 1957 season. The Yankees continued to dominate the AL, but the center of gravity moved west with the Dodgers and Giants. In some ways 1958-1978 was the golden age of California baseball. During this 21 year period, California teams won six World Series and 11 pennants.

Aaron, of course, spent these years playing most of his games far from either California or New York. His extraordinary consistency, playing in 145 games or more every year from 1955-1970, a period when in his worst year he hit .276/.356/.539, ironically drew attention away from Aaron. Unlike contemporaries like triple crown winners Carl Yastrzemski, Mantle or Frank Robinson he never had a year in which he was perceived as absolutely dominating, but his career lacked the drama of, for example, Mantle’s battles with constant injuries or Sandy Koufax’s dominance followed by sudden retirement.

Aaron’s legacy is also evidence of the relationship between baseball and how we understand history. The 1950s were the last time hurrah of great northeastern cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, who before the decade was through would lose a combined baseball teams. The 1960s was the time California began to rival New York and the rest of the east coast as a center of population, economy and culture. Aaron, who through circumstance and his style did little to draw attention to himself outside of his extraordinary and steady play on the field, does not fit into either of those broader story lines and has accordingly not always been recognized for being the historically great player he was.