January 25, 2021
One of the greatest sluggers in major league history, Hank Aaron, died on Friday at the age of 86. The outpouring of emotional tributes to "Hammerin' Hank" was quite remarkable, and very fitting. Unlike many other sports superstars, Aaron was never an attention-grabbing prima donna, and throughout his career and his post-baseball years, he remained friendly, modest, and sincere. His class and dignity were in sharp contrast to the ugly insults that were hurled at him by racists over the years. When he was closing in on Babe Ruth's career record of 714 home runs late in the 1973 season and early in the 1974 season, he received death threats, and his family members were given special security protection. Incidents like that probably built his character.
Henry Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama on February 5, 1934. After two years in the minors, he came up with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, one year after they moved from Boston. Almost immediately he distinguished himself, and in his fourth year (1957) he was chosen as the National League Most Valuable Player. That was the year that the Braves won the World Series against the Yankees; the same two teams had a rematch the following October, but the Yankees won that one. Aaron's only other postseason MLB appearance was in 1969 (the first year of divisional playoffs), when the "Amazin'" New York Mets swept the Atlanta Braves three games straight, on their way to winning the World Series. Aaron batted .357 and homered three times in that series; the rest of the Braves homered twice.
Aaron led the National League in home runs four times, in runs batted in three times, and in batting average twice. In all but two years from 1955 through 1973 (1964 and 1968), he hit at least 30 home runs, and yet the most he hit in a single year was 47; that was in 1971, toward the end of his career. Consistently productive to an amazing degree, he was was selected for the All Star Game in all but the first (1954) and final (1976) years of his 23-year career. With a batting average of .305 over that long span, it is no surprise that he ranks #3 in the list of total hits, with 3,771, behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. His record of 755 career home runs stood for 33 years until Barry Bonds* broke it in August 2007, and some say it still does stand...
The defining, glorious moment in Hank Aaron's life came on April 8, 1974, when he hit home run #715 to surpass Babe Ruth's career total. It landed in that open space between the fence and the seats in left-center field, and every time I see that film clip I wonder why they didn't use that space for more seats at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Actually, they did add outfield seats near the foul poles that year, as well as new scoreboards, new dugouts, and extra rows of infield seats, but there was still unused space even after that. (Same thing for RFK Stadium, which had a similar configuration, but I digress.) The Braves finished in third place in the NL West (!) Division in 1974, the third and final year Eddie Mathews was their manager. Having turned 40 and no longer fast enough to play good defensively, Aaron was released at the end of that year, after which he returned to Milwaukee, where he played (in a 44-numbered uniform) two more years as a designated hitter. Those two years raised his home run total from 733 to 755.
The back page of the sports section in today's Washington Post was full of images of Hank Aaron baseball cards from 1954 through 1976, along with basic statistics for each year. As a final footnote to Aaron's career, he appeared on the TV sitcom Happy Days in February 1980, playing himself. I always thought it was strange that a show about Milwaukee in the late 1950s did not have more frequent references to the Braves, because they were extremely popular in that city during those years. High school guys in Milwaukee would have been talking about the Braves all the time.
Over the past six months, many other baseball greats have departed this life, including two other Atlanta Braves stars, so I will try to give them each proper recognition in reverse chronological order. It is an astonishing list, and one wonders if some of them had been afflicted with the covid-19 virus. Hank Aaron had his first dose of the vaccine early in January, and was waiting for the second dose. The brief career summaries below are based on obituaries in the Washington Post, as well as statistics in The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, 2003. You can also research the players' stats on baseball-reference.com. Most of these players are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame pitcher (and long-time broadcast announcer for Braves games on TBS) Don Sutton died of cancer last week at the age of 75. During his 16 years with the L.A. Dodgers (1966-1980, 1988), he played in three World Series. (He did not pitch in the 1988 World Series, which the Dodgers won.) From 1981 to 1987, he played with a variety of teams. Altogether, he pitched a total of 5,280 1/3 innings, just behind Phil Niekro (see below), Nolan Ryan, and Gaylord Perry. His lifetime win-loss record was 324-256, and his career strikeout total was 3,574.
Los Angeles Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda passed away in earlier this month at the age of 93. He pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies in the late 1940s and then joined the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, but spent almost all his time in the minor leagues. After working as a scout and later a coach with the L.A. Dodgers, he was named manager in 1976, and achieved instant success in that role. An old-school, gruff kind of manager (like Earl Weaver, perhaps), he maximized the use of the talent on the teams and led the Dodgers to World Series victories in 1981 (over the Yankees) and 1988 (over the Athletics). He lived just long enough to see his beloved Dodgers win the World Series again.
Top slugger Dick Allen, who spent most of his career with the Philadelphia Phillies, passed away in early December at the age of 78. Although of average size, he carried a big bat and instilled fear in opposing pitchers. He was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1964, but got in a fight with team mate the next year, and was not always on friendly terms with local fans. Racial prejudice may have been a factor. Managers complained that they couldn't handle him, and he was traded to the Dodgers after the 1969 season. In 1972 he joined the Chicago White Sox, where he seemed more welcome, and he won the AL MVP award that year. He later returned to the Phillies and retired after playing for Oakland in 1977. He had 351 home runs during his 15 years in the majors.
Braves' pitcher Phil Niekro passed away in late December at the age of 81. He started in Milwaukee in 1964, and played for the team in Atlanta until 1983, after which he played for other teams until retiring in 1987. The durable knuckleball-thrower won 318 games over the course of his long career, pitching a total of 5,403 1/3 innings. No other pitcher since the early 20th Century had pitched so much, but Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry were close behind in that category.
Infielder (and long-time broadcast announcer on Fox Sports) Joe Morgan passed away in mid-October at the age of 77. Although he started with the Houston Colt 45s (later Astros) in 1963, he was best known for being a key part of the "Big Red Machine" in the 1970s, when the Cincinnati Reds won two World Series titles and two additional NL pennants. (He joined the Reds until two years after their 1970 pennant.) He had a career batting average of .271, with 689 stolen bases. I was recently watching a video of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series (against the Red Sox, when Carlton Fisk hit that famous home run), and was impressed by Morgan's superb physical fitness and his tight, efficient swing of the bat. That team was a "machine" indeed! In 1980 he returned to Houston for one year, and then played with three other teams in the early 1980s.
New York Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford passed away in early October, two weeks short of his 90th birthday. He was called "Chairman of the Board" for his smooth, reliable command of the game while on the mound, helping the Yankees win 11 American League pennants and six World Series titles during his career. He signed with the Yankees in 1950, but was then drafted during the Korean War and spent two years in the military. During his 15 full years in the majors (1953-1967) he won 236 games, struck out 1,956 batters, and had an ERA of only 2.74.
St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson passed away in early October at the age of 84, exactly 52 years after he set a World Series record of 17 strikeouts in one game. That was Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against the Tigers. He had a 22-9 win-loss record that year, with an ERA of only 1.12, the lowest in MLB since 1914. Gibson first pitched for the Cardinals in 1959, and epitomized the late-1960s era of dominant pitchers, striking fear in batters by throwing bean balls on several occasions. He was perhaps a factor in the decision to lower the pitchers mound from 15 inches to 10 inches in 1969. Gibson struck out 3,117 batters and had an ERA of 2.91 during his career.
The star for the 1966 St. Louis Cardinals Lou Brock passed away in early September at the age of 81. He joined the Cardinals in June 1964, after being traded away by the Chicago Cubs. (!) The left fielder soon gained a reputation for stealing bases, and led the National League in that category eight times. During the 18 years he played in the majors, he stole 938 bases. It helped that he was a consistent, solid batter, with 3,023 total hits in his career, and a .293 batting average. His hitting and base-running were a big help to the Cardinals' World Series wins in 1964 and 1967, plus their NL pennant in 1968, when the Tigers won the World Series.
The ace pitcher for the 1969 "Miracle Mets," Tom Seaver, passed away in late August at the age of 75. Covid-19 was listed as a contributing cause of death, but he was also suffering from dementia. When Seaver joined the Mets in 1967, they were a bunch of losers, but his background in the U.S. Marine Corps instilled in him leadership qualities that quickly turned things around. Though slight of build, "Tom Terrific" developed his pitching skills to such a degree that he is ranked by many experts as among the very best pitchers ever. A defining moment came on July 9, 1969, when retired all but one of the Chicago Cubs that he faced over nine innings: a one-hit "imperfect" game. That may have played a big role in the huge psychological shift by which the Mets caught up to the Cubs in the NL East race, ending the season eight games ahead of them. And the rest was history: ticker tape parade in Manhattan, Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, Cy Young Award (first of three), etc. The Mets made it to the World Series again in 1973, and even though Seaver put up even better pitching numbers than before, they lost to the Oakland A's. After a contract dispute in 1977, Seaver was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, where he played for six years. He later played for the Mets again, then for the White Sox, and finally (July-September, 1986) the Red Sox. He pitched his last MLB game one month before his team won the 1986 American League pennant and then lost to -- guess who? -- the New York Mets! How about that? Seaver threw 3,640 strikeouts in his career, and had a 2.86 ERA.
Even though it happened nine months ago, I should also mention that Detroit Tiger right fielder Al Kaline passed away as well, at the age of 85. He had 3,007 hits and 399 home runs in his lengthy career (1953-1974), with a .297 batting average. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1980. It was because of an injury he suffered colliding with the grandstand wall near the right field corner in Tiger Stadium that the grandstand was reconfigured with a more gradual curve in 1955.
For the record, I made a few tiny tweaks to the Milwaukee County Stadium diagrams. The most noticeable change is the direction of the compass, which now properly corresponds to the southeast orientation of the diamond. (The first base line was virtually straight north-south.) Also, some of the entry portals and support beams (visible in the lower-deck and upper-deck diagrams only) changed slightly. Finally, when I mentioned last week that foul territory was a little too big in the previous version of the diagram(s), I forgot to indicate how much it changed in my latest revision. It went from about 28,300 sq. ft. to 28,100 sq. ft., a decrease of just 200 sq. ft.
My brother Dan challenged my other siblings and me to a sports history query: Which THREE U.S. cities (defined broadly to include the entire metropolitan areas) have been the home to both an NFL team that has made two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and an MLB team that has appeared in two consecutive World Series? One is fairly obvious, though counter-intuitive, a second case only qualifies if you include World Series from before the Super Bowl era (which began in 1967), but figuring out the third one will give you fits. You can use the comment feature in this blog (for which you have to register, risk free) or else share it on Facebook or other social media.