Right from the start, it was clear that this was going to be a close-fought battle for the spot, between Henry “Hank” Aaron and Ted Williams, with neither man ever able to hold an edge of more than a couple of votes, before being reeled back in. Going into Sunday, it was all to play for, and as I hovered over the “Close poll” option, any last-minute Larry would have provided the deciding vote. But at 5 pm yesterday, the tallies were exactly even. I initially thought about casting a deciding vote, which would have required much agonizing on my part. But then I remembered Diamondhacks’ comment on the poll:
Problem solved, in a way that will hopefully leave fans of both players satisfied, and gets me out of having to make a tough decision. It works out perfectly, with Williams being a left-handed hitter and Aaron batting right-handed. Williams was also greatest at hitting for average (though with 521 HR, wasn’t lacking for power), while Aaron is very arguably the “true” home-run champion in major-league baseball (though with a career average of .305, wasn’t lacking for average!). Covering both of the corner outfield positions, as well as first-base in the case of Hammerin’ Hank, they would seem together to form the ideal complement to our All-Time roster. So let’s take a look at the two men.
Henry “Hank” Aaron
Though Aaron spent almst his entire major-league career with the Braves, he was almost a Dodger, having tried out for the team, at that point still in Brooklyn, when he was 15. He was also almost a Giant, as they also offered him a contract in 1952. Recalled Aaron, “The Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – fifty dollars.” He signed with the Milwaukee Braves on June 12, 1952, with his old team, the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, getting $10,000 for his contract. At this point, Hank was still an infielder, but hit .345 and the 18-year-old was a unanimous choice as Class C Northern League Rookie of the Year.
The following year, he was promoted to Class A and won MVP honors with the Jacksonville Braves, batting .362. The following spring, regular Braves’ left-fielder Bobby Thomson, recently acquired from the Giants, broke his ankle. Aaron became the Opening Day starter for Milwaukee there, going an underwhelming 0-for-5. He hit .280, and was fourth in Rookie of the Year voting, before breaking his own ankle in September. It was around then that Braves’ public relations director Don Davidson began calling him Hank. Aaron answered to either, and seems to have had no preference. His ascent continued the following season, Henry making the first of 25 All-Star appearances
1957 saw Aaron win the NL MVP award after batting .322 with 44 home-runs. in a close race between him (239 points), Stan Musial (230) and Red Schoendienst (221). He clinched the NL title for Milwaukee with a walk-off home-run, and the Braves would go on to beat the Yankees in seven for the World Series. Hank hit .393 with three HR, but lost the series MVP to pitcher Lew Burdette, who went 3-0 with a 0.67 ERA. He’d return the following season, but the result was reversed, the Yankees winning in seven, despite Aaron batting .323 with four HR in his final World Series appearance. But Aaron was simply a model of consistency, with fifteen consecutive seasons posting over 6 bWAR between 1955 and 1969.
While he never again made it above third place in MVP voting, the HR in particular continued to mount, with eight years where he hit between 40 and 47 home-runs. He ended the 1973 season just one homer short of Babe Ruth’s long-standing career record, and received a plaque from the US Postal Service for having received more mail than any non-politician, almost a million pieces. Not all of it was positive, to put it mildly. But Aaron retained his calm demeanor, and tied the record with his first swing in 1974. He then broke the record in the Braves’ home opener on April 8, 1974. The team had moved to Atlanta by then, but Aaron returned to Milwaukee for his last two seasons, ending his career with 755 home-runs.
Williams’ career numbers, such as his 521 HR and 122.1 bWAR, are all the more remarkable, considering he lost close to five seasons through military service, both in World War II and the Korean War. Despite being a career Red Sox player, he signed first with his home-town San Diego Padres, then a minor-league outfit in the Pacific Coast League. But he was dealt to Boston in December 1937. The following season, he won the American Association Triple Crown, batting .366 with 43 home-runs, and became the Red Sox starting fielder for 1939. His star quickly ascended, finishing runner up in MVP in both 1941 and 1942, and was perhaps better than 1941 winner Joe DiMaggio, posting the first of his three 10 bWAR season.
That year he became the last player to reach .400 in the major leagues. He came into the last day batting .39955, which would have been rounded up to .400. Ted declined the offer of his manager to sit out the double-header, saying ”If I’m going to be a .400 hitter, I want more than my toenails on the line.” Williams went 6-for-8, to finish the season at .406. But after another 10 bWAR season in 1942, the player left to serve his country, spending 1943-45 as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Discharged in early 1946, Williams slid back into the majors without missing a beat. He hit .342 with 34 home-runs on his way to the MVP, and had an amazing 44:156 K:BB, leading to an on-base percentage of .497.
That year also marked his only post-season appearance, as the Red Sox lost to the Cardinals in seven. He suffered an arm injury in an exhibition contest days before the World Series, and hit only .200 (5-for-25). Asked later what he might have done differently in life, Williams answered ”I’d have done better in the ‘46 World Series.” However, in six seasons he played from 1941 through 1949, Williams’s OBP never dipped below .490, with an average of .505. He had almost as many home-runs (211) as strikeouts (258) during that period, and averaged 9.8 bWAR per season, winning a second Most Valuable Player award in 1949. That year, he batted .343 with 43 home-runs, and was an easy choice over Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees.
But in 1952, the military again interrupted Ted’s career, as he was re-activated to serve in the Korean war, limiting him to 122 plate-appearances across that season and the next. When he returned in 1954, he missed six weeks with a broken collar-bone, but still had a K:BB of 32:136 and an OBP of .515, his highest since 1941’s .553. Even at the age of 38 in 1957, Williams’ was still performing at the highest level, posting 9.7 bWAR and finshing second to Mickey Mantle in MVP voting. He retired at the end of 1960, with a career line of .344/.482/.634, a 1.116 OPS that equates to a 197 OPS+. His on-base percentage is the highest in MLB history, resulting from a staggering walk-rate of 20.6%.