Hank Aaron combined consistency with productivity as nobody else has.
Aaron, who died in January at age 86, was the game’s ultimate offensive force for much of his 23-year Major League career and from 1974-2007 held the title as baseball’s all-time home run leader. He topped 100 runs scored and recorded slugging percentages exceeding .500 for 13 consecutive seasons (1955-67). He also hit 20 or more home runs for 20 consecutive years (1955-74).
On the anniversary of the most memorable moment in Aaron’s career, here’s a list of his top 10 performances.
1. Step aside, Babe
April 8, 1974
Facing Dodgers left-hander Al Downing, Aaron unleashed his sweeping stroke at a 1-0 slider and drove it over the left-field wall at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with Darrell Evans on first base and nobody out in the fourth inning. It was Aaron’s 715th career homer, eclipsing the record total Babe Ruth amassed from 1914-35. It was an epochal event for big league baseball, which ended a ban on African-American players only 27 years earlier. Aaron received hate mail by the tens of thousands as he drew closer to Ruth’s hallowed mark. Yet Aaron ignored the ugliness, which included death threats, and kept on hitting. If anybody was more powerful than Aaron at this historic moment, it was his mother, Estella. She burst through the circle of teammates surrounding her son at home plate to give him a lovingly crushing hug.
2. Next stop: World Series
Sept. 23, 1957
Though the first-place Braves led St. Louis by five games with six to play, it was obvious the Cardinals wouldn’t give up easily as this opener of a three-game series extended into extra innings. With Johnny Logan on first base and two outs in the 11th inning, Aaron drilled a curveball from Billy Muffett — who hadn’t yielded a home run all season — over the center-field barrier. Aaron’s walk-off drive sent the 40,926 fans at Milwaukee County Stadium into a frenzy. It also propelled the Braves into the World Series, where they defeated the Yankees in seven games. Aaron did his part in the Fall Classic by batting .393 with three homers and seven RBIs. It was the only World Series championship team Aaron played for.
3. Tied at the top
April 4, 1974
Having finished the 1973 season with his career total standing at 713 homers, Aaron had all winter to brood over the one he needed to tie the Babe’s record. Aaron settled the issue swiftly, lining Jack Billingham’s 3-1 fastball over the left-field barrier at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium in the first inning of the ’74 season opener. The homer’s aftermath quickly dissolved into controversy. Two games remained in the series, followed by a 10-game homestand for the Braves. Naturally, Aaron wanted to break the record at home. But Commissioner Bowie Kuhn forbade Atlanta manager Eddie Mathews from resting Aaron in Cincinnati, citing the integrity of competition. A compromise was reached: Aaron took the second game off and played the third game, going 0-for-3.
4. A baseball first
May 17, 1970
With a first-inning single off Wayne Simpson at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Aaron became the first player to amass 3,000 hits, as well as 500 home runs. Hall of Famer Stan Musial, one of the eight players who preceded Aaron to the 3,000-hit plateau, was on hand to offer congratulations. Observers finally began to realize that Aaron, prolific as well as powerful, truly was a singular hitter. Until this juncture, he always was obscured by Willie Mays, his more charismatic contemporary who stroked his 3,000th hit nearly two months later, on July 18.
5. A franchise player
Aug. 6, 1972
Aaron again victimized Simpson, this time at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, to hit his 660th career homer. That established a record for most homers by a player for a single franchise. (Ruth socked 659 with the Yankees.) Incidentally, that was Aaron’s first homer of the afternoon. He hit a second, off left-hander Don Gullett, to break a 10th-inning tie and lift the Braves to a 4-3 triumph. Aaron ultimately accumulated 733 homers with the Braves.
6. Never too much
Sept. 21, 1958
Taking command, Aaron drove in four runs in Milwaukee’s 6-5 victory over Cincinnati that clinched the Braves’ second consecutive National League pennant. Subduing a crowd of 27,213 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, he belted a two-run double off Brooks Lawrence in the fifth inning before adding a two-run homer in the seventh off Tom Acker. That widened the Braves’ lead to 6-0 and proved necessary when Cincinnati scored five runs in the bottom of the seventh.
7. Three of a kind
June 21, 1959
Aaron’s lone three-homer game — each was a two-run drive — proved he could hit any type of pitching. Before a sellout crowd of 22,934 at San Francisco’s Seals Stadium, he connected in the first inning off left-hander Johnny Antonelli, the Giants’ ace. Aaron waited until the sixth inning to strike again, this time against right-hander Stu Miller, an offspeed specialist. Aaron concluded his big day with a seventh-inning clout off righty Gordon Jones. Final score: Braves 13, Giants 3.
8. It should have been a big hit, but …
Oct. 4, 1969
The Braves confronted the New York Mets, surprise winners of the East Division, in the first NL Championship Series. Aaron celebrated the occasion by slugging a seventh-inning homer off eventual NL Cy Young Award winner and Hall of Famer Tom Seaver in Game 1. It broke a 4-4 tie and seemed like the kind of hit that a team rides to victory. Instead, New York scored five runs in the eighth and cruised to a 9-5 win that ignited a three-game series sweep. Aaron did all he could, homering in each game. He thrived in his all-too-rare postseason appearances, batting .362 with a 1.116 OPS, six homers and 16 RBIs in 17 games.
Aaron finished his career where he began it: Milwaukee. Clearly past his prime, he batted .232 with an uncharacteristic .360 slugging percentage in two seasons with the Brewers. Primarily serving as Milwaukee’s designated hitter, he added just 22 homers and 95 RBIs in 222 games to his career totals. In the second game of a doubleheader against the Texas Rangers, however, Aaron reminded a County Stadium audience of 28,149 how things used to be when he drilled a one-out, 10th-inning homer off Rangers relief ace Steve Foucault to give the Brewers a 5-4 victory. The crowd rejoiced loudly as Aaron rounded the bases, grateful for one more opportunity to celebrate a legend. He hit one more home run — No. 755 of his career — before he retired at the end of the season.
Listed at 6-foot, 180 pounds, Aaron didn’t fit a slugger’s physical stereotype. But his remarkably quick wrists enabled him to turn any pitch into a roaring line drive, and photographs indicate that he seemingly possessed an extra layer of muscle in his forearms, if that’s possible. On this Monday night against the Mets, Aaron sent a ball where few had traveled before, propelling a Jay Hook pitch into the center-field seats at the Polo Grounds. The drive traveled an estimated 470 feet. Too bad only 9,132 showed up for the Braves’ 7-1 win.