Henry “Hank” Aaron, who died Friday at the age of 86, was a Hall of Famer’s Hall of Famer. He reached international renown in 1974 by breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark, which had stood unchallenged for four decades, but that was just the crowning achievement of a career that spanned 23 years and saw Aaron set all manner of records. Along the way, few players have ever garnered more respect from their peers: “Aaron is the best ball player of my era,” Mickey Mantle once said.
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Still fewer persevered in the face of such pressure and prejudice as Aaron did in pursuit of Ruth’s record. At the height of the record chase, Aaron received 3,000 letters per day, many of which carried death threats and hate on a scale no person could prepare themselves for. “This changed me,” Aaron would later say of the letters and the racism they contained. But he fought against the ugliness, both with his performance on the field and as a symbol for civil rights as a Black player excelling in the South — and later by becoming one of the game’s first executives of color as a vice president for the Atlanta Braves.
Throughout it all, one of the most important factors in Aaron’s career was his consistent greatness. Great players are often consistently great, of course … but nobody in the history of the game is really in the same neighborhood as Aaron in this regard.
How do you get to 755 home runs without ever cracking 50 in a season? Unrelenting consistency. Aaron hit 20 or more home runs in a season 20 times (!!), the most of any player in MLB history. He also hit at least 24 home runs every single season from 1955 (age 21) to 1973 (age 39) — a streak of 19 consecutive years. No other player in history has done that for more than 15 straight years. (Ruth and Barry Bonds, who eventually broke Aaron’s all-time record, both did it exactly that many times in a row.)
But Aaron was consistently great at more than just power hitting. He won two batting titles, in 1956 and 1959, and finished his career with a .305 batting average — second only to Ruth among players with at least 600 home runs.1 Aaron also won three Gold Glove awards for his defense in right field; advanced metrics generally consider him to have been an excellent fielder until he reached his mid-30s, at which point he still held his own upon shifting to first base and left field. Aaron had a record 21 All-Star seasons (missing out only twice during his entire career) for a reason.2
The all-around nature of Aaron’s greatness was also — you guessed it — historically consistent. If we use wins above replacement3 to get a holistic view of Aaron’s overall contributions, we see that he eclipsed 4 WAR (the mark of a very good player) in 19 straight seasons, from 1955 to 1973; 5 WAR (the mark of an All-Star-level season) in 17 straight seasons, from 1955 to 1971; and 6 WAR (verging on the MVP conversation) in 15 straight seasons, from 1955 to 1969. Nobody else — either batter or pitcher — has ever broken any of those thresholds so many times in a row as Aaron did:
|4+ WAR||5+ WAR||6+ WAR|
Aaron’s legacy extends far beyond mere statistics, but his playing career was defined in large part by his metronomic ability to perform at near-MVP levels or better for almost two decades in a row. While there are other athletes who have been as good at age 35 as they were at 25, Aaron was unique in the fact that he never had an “off” season. Year in and year out, Aaron showed up and played at an incredibly high level every day. That’s a testament to the same skill, work ethic and unyielding spirit that allowed him to become a trailblazer in countless other ways. Even in a hellish year-plus that has cost us so many legends, the one we lost Friday was truly one of a kind.