Updated: May 5, 2020
In his autobiography, “I Had a Hammer,” Hank Aaron said the most important statistic in evaluating a hitter is total bases. “The reason I put so much stock in total bases is that it combines the ability to get on base with the power to move base runners around. You can’t excel in total bases unless you are an all-around hitter.”
This is certainly true, but some might say OPS is a better indicator of an all-around hitter. The difference is that OPS only requires a hitter to qualify with a minimum number of plate appearances, meaning hitters can take days off to avoid more challenging matchups. To be a leader in total bases, a hitter has to be out there every day producing at a high level. This is the story of Hank Aaron’s career.
Aaron made his major league debut on April 13, 1954 at the age of 20. The Milwaukee Braves prized prospect had a solid but unspectacular rookie campaign before establishing himself as an All-Star in 1955, hitting .314 with 27 home runs, 106 RBIs and 105 runs scored.
Aaron was a batting champion in his third year, leading the National League with a .328 average. He also led the league with 200 hits, 34 doubles and 340 total bases.
The next year, 1957, would find Aaron at the top of the baseball world. At 23, he won NL MVP, leading the league with 44 home runs, 132 RBIs, 118 runs and 369 total bases, but more importantly, he brought Milwaukee its first World Series championship. In what was billed as a “David vs. Goliath” matchup against the mighty New York Yankees, Aaron hit .393 with three home runs and seven RBIs, leading the Braves to victory in a thrilling seven-game series.
1958 would bring a second straight National League pennant for the Braves, with Aaron hitting .326 with 30 homers, 95 RBIs, and winning his first Gold Glove award. He had a solid World Series, hitting .333 with nine hits, but this time the Braves came out on the wrong end of another classic seven-game series against the Yankees.
In 1959, the Braves lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a best of three series to determine the NL pennant, but Aaron had perhaps the finest season of his career. He won his second batting title with a .355 average, hit 39 home runs and drove in 123. He led the league with 223 hits, 400 total bases, a .636 slugging percentage and a 1.037 OPS. Aaron’s career was on a Hall of Fame path, and he was still only 25 years old.
The Braves would not win another pennant in Milwaukee, but they continued to post winning records led by their superstar outfielder. In the next six seasons, Aaron maintained his assault on National League pitching, leading the league in multiple categories. 1963 was especially memorable, as he led the NL with 44 home runs, 130 RBIs, 121 runs, 370 total bases, .586 slugging and a .977 OPS. He also recorded his first 30-30 season, showcasing his often overlooked speed by stealing 31 bases.
1966 brought a change of scenery as the Braves moved to Atlanta. Despite the different locale, The Hammer continued to hit, leading the NL with 44 home runs and 127 RBIs in his first season in Atlanta. 1967 would bring a second straight home run title with 39 round trippers.
In 1969, Aaron found himself back in the postseason, this time in the newly-created National League Championship Series. He once again produced on the big stage, hitting .357 with three homers and seven RBIs. Unfortunately, the Braves were swept in three games by the eventual champion New York Mets.
Aaron was still one of the NL’s most feared sluggers as he approached his late 30s. He set a career high in 1971 with 47 home runs at the age of 37. Two years later at 39, he had his eighth career 40-homer season.
On April 8, 1974, Aaron had a chance to break arguably the most cherished record in American sports, the all-time home run mark held by Babe Ruth. The time leading up to this day should have been joyous, but it was unfortunately beset by numerous racist threats toward Aaron. But with the same grace and dignity he exhibited throughout his entire career, Aaron ignored these negative voices and hit number 715 off Dodgers pitcher Al Downing.
In 1975, the newly-crowned Home Run King returned to the place where it all started, as Aaron would play his last two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. It was an appropriate ending to an unbelievable career.
The overall numbers are astounding. In 23 seasons, Aaron hit .305 with 755 home runs and 2,297 RBIs. The RBIs are still a record, as are his 1,477 extra base hits. He ranks third all-time with 3,771 hits and fourth with 2,174 runs. His home run record was broken in controversial fashion by the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds in 2006.
The one record that will likely never be broken is total bases, that often overlooked statistic we spoke of earlier. Aaron’s 6,856 total bases are 722 more than second place Stan Musial. That difference translates to 12.3 miles of base running.
Total bases is the statistic that represents Aaron’s career more than any other, since it shows his sustained greatness. As a hitter and outfielder, no player in Major League history was more prolific. Hank Aaron was truly the total package.