My Tribute to Lou Brock

It’s usually a losing argument to claim that a player in baseball’s Hall of Fame is underrated, and this must be doubly true when his nickname was “The Franchise.” Still, I will do just that with Louis Clark Brock. This speedy left fielder first came to my notice through two Topps Highlights/Record Breaker cards any player would love to be on.

Brock_1975_RB   Brock_1978_RB

NOT BAD FOR AN OLD GUY!

Let’s start with the first, Brock’s (then) single season record for stolen bases. Here is a look at the top ten single seasons since 1900, with the player’s age noted as well.

MOST STOLEN BASES, SEASON, SINCE 1900

Rank Player Stolen Bases Year Age
1 Rickey Henderson 130 1982 23
2 Lou Brock 118 1974 35
3 Vince Coleman 110 1985 23
4 Vince Coleman 109 1987 25
5 Rickey Henderson 108 1983 24
6 Vince Coleman 107 1986 24
7 Maury Wills 104 1962 29
8 Rickey Henderson 100 1980 21
9 Ron LeFlore 97 1980 32
10 Ty Cobb 96 1915 28

The two things that stand out to me are 1) that Lou Brock set his single season record when he was 35 years old, and 2) that he still holds second place even after an era that featured such speedsters as Rickey Henderson, Willie Wilson, Tim Raines, and Vince Coleman.

Regarding the first point, here are the top single season stolen base totals by players age 33 and up. Half the list is Lou Brock!

MOST STOLEN BASES, SEASON, SINCE 1900, AGE 33 AND UP

Rank Player Stolen Bases Year Age
1 Lou Brock 118 1974 35
2 Lou Brock 70 1973 34
3 Rickey Henderson 66 1998 39
4 Lou Brock 63 1972 33
5 Honus Wagner 61 1907 33
6 Otis Nixon 59 1997 38
7 Ozzie Smith 57 1988 33
8 Lou Brock 56 1975 36
9 Lou Brock 56 1976 37
10 Bert Campaneris 54 1976 34

THE CAREER MARK

Next, let’s look at Brock’s (then) career record for stolen bases. When Brock finished the 1977 season as the career leader in stolen bases, here was the top 10, again restricting data to post-1900.

MOST STOLEN BASES, CAREER, 1900-1977

Rank Player Stolen Bases Notes
1 Lou Brock 900 active beyond 1977 season
2 Ty Cobb 897
3 Eddie Collins 741
4 Max Carey 738
5 Honus Wagner 639 excludes 84 SBs from 1897-1899
6 Maury Wills 586
7 Bert Campaneris 580 active beyond 1977 season
8 Joe Morgan 554 active beyond 1977 season
9 Luis Aparicio 506
10 Clyde Milan 495

What stands out in this table is that players 2-5 (Cobb, Collins, Carey, and Wagner) were all long retired before Lou Brock was even born. And as for players 6-10, none were even within 300 steals of Brock’s record.

Just how unusual was it in Brock’s time to hold the single season and career records in a major category? The 1979 Topps “All-Time Record Holders” subset answers that question, with Lou Brock being the only player to fill two halves of the same card.

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THE 3000 HIT CLUB

brock_yaz
1980 Topps

While his 1979 Topps card was his final standard issue card in a major release, Brock was featured along with Carl Yastrzemski on a “1979 Highlights” card within the 1980 Topps set. Brock and Yaz had become members 14 and 15 respectively of one of baseball’s most celebrated clubs. Given the 100+ year history of Major League Baseball to that point, it might have seemed a rarity for two players to crack the club the very same year. Oddly, of the 13 members preceding Brock/Yaz, there had already been three such pairings, and there would subsequently be two others:

  • 1914 – Honus Wagner/Napoleon Lajoie
  • 1925 – Tris Speaker/Eddie Collins
  • 1970 – Hank Aaron/Willie Mays
  • 1979 – Lou Brock/Carl Yastrzemski
  • 1992 – George Brett/Robin Yount
  • 1999 – Tony Gwynn/Wade Boggs

MR. BROCKTOBER

On June 15, 1964, Lou Brock was part of one of the worst trades in baseball history, so much so that the phrase “Brock for Broglio” is still used today to refer to an entirely lopsided transaction between clubs. Brock proved to be just the spark the Cards needed, batting .348 with St. Louis that year and leading them to their first World Series since 1946. While hardly a one-man team, Brock nonetheless would play a key role in the Cardinals mini-dynasty that won rings in 1964 and 1967 and lost a squeaker to the Tigers in 1968. With all three series going the full seven games, Brock amassed 21 World Series games to his name, an impressive total for a player not on the Yankees or Dodgers.

Brock’s postseason numbers were pretty amazing: a .391 batting average (including .464 in 1968), 4 home runs, 13 home runs, and 14 steals. Here are Lou Brock’s World Series numbers, including a projection to 162 games:

Year G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG
1964 7 30 2 9 2 0 1 5 0 0 3 0.300 0.300 0.467
1967 7 29 8 12 2 1 1 3 7 2 3 0.414 0.452 0.655
1968 7 28 6 13 3 1 2 5 7 3 4 0.464 0.516 0.857
TOTALS 21 87 16 34 7 2 4 13 14 5 10 0.391 0.424 0.655
162 Game Avg 162 671 123 262 54 15 31 100 108 39 77

ONE OF THE BEST EVER!

Recognizing that today’s Hall of Fame is so large as to be considered bloated, here are some criteria that could certainly restrict membership to a far more elite collection of players:

  • Member of one of baseball’s celebrated “clubs” (3000 H, 500 HR, 300 w, 3000 K)
  • Holder of single season (modern era) or career record in major offensive (H, HR, RBI, BA, R, SB) or pitching category (W, K, ERA) at time of retirement
  • Multiple World Series rings

While I certainly am not proposing such strict criteria be adopted, here are the only members of this ultra-elite circle:

  • Babe Ruth
  • Lou Brock
  • Pete Rose
  • Rickey Henderson

I certainly would not confuse the list above with a list of baseball’s four greatest players ever. However, I do believe that all on the list but Ruth are somewhat underrated and that Lou Brock is the most underrated of the group.

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Could baseball cards help Ferguson?

This is an odd title for a post and one that I hope doesn’t do a disservice to the very real life issues that impact the Ferguson community.

The 3700s block of Military Avenue in Los Angeles where I grew up looked very different than Ferguson, Missouri or just about anywhere else I’ve lived since. On the same block, there were white families, black families, and Mexican families; there was a Korean family another block down; and the kids my sister and I played with were from all of them. My neighbor on one side, Helen, was a woman in her 60s whose son, John, was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. John would pull up from time to time on his police motorcycle, say a quick hello to his mom, maybe grab a bite, and head back to work. In the summer of 1980, these visits were the highlight of my day.

1980_dodgerspolice_guerrero
1980 LAPD Pedro Guerrero

1980 was the year the police began giving out trading cards of the L.A. Dodgers as part of a community relations and early education program. While the front of each card resembled a standard baseball card, the back included a message warning kids of the dangers of drugs, street gangs, playing with guns, etc. The cards were free for the asking, and John was one of many officers I received cards from in the early 80s. Though I was a shy kid, I was also a big enough fan of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, and Ron Cey that I had no reservations at all about approaching any cop in uniform and asking, “Do you have any baseball cards?”

I know life really is more complicated than all this, but for me–in the small world I lived in as a ten-year-old boy obsessed with the Dodgers–these card sets (and maybe Officer Byrd also) made me a big, big fan of the police. I have to imagine this was true for thousands of other young boys as well. These men and women (and birds!) not only kept us safe but gave us Dodger trading cards to boot!

1981 LAPD Rick Monday
1981 LAPD Rick Monday with anti-graffiti message

I was five years removed from Los Angeles and just out of college when Rodney King was brutally beaten by police in April 1992. Perhaps because of the positive experiences I had with LAPD as a kid, I was certainly inclined to believe the “bad apples” storyline–that what happened was outrageous but not representative of how LAPD operated. However disgusting the actions of these officers were, I tended to think 99.9% of L.A. cops were truly there to protect and serve.

Fast forwarding to the present, I am certain there are communities like Ferguson today where the police are no longer respected or trusted. As I read news stories and statements by union spokesmen in St. Louis, Cleveland, and New York, it almost sounds like police departments are at war with their own citizenry. Where there are opportunities to mend relations and build bridges, it seems that the more common response is to double down by driving wedges between the police force and the public.

Just last night, outside of Ferguson, an African American teenager was fatally shot by officers as they either responded to a robbery call or went about their standard business checks, depending which account you read. According to the officers, and possibly corroborated by gas station video, the victim was shot after pointing his own weapon at an officer. If this is indeed how the scene played out, the shooting may well have been a justifiable use of lethal force. The police may well have done exactly the right thing. However, the actions of the officers ignited protests just as if the shooting had been of an unarmed man.

A better future than this is possible in communities like Ferguson, but nothing good will happen until the public are able to trust the police who they pay to protect and serve them. It will not be enough for police to simply do the right thing (halt racial profiling, exercise zero tolerance for brutality, end harrassment, support freedom of expression, etc.) although that all needs to happen too. As important is the establishment and maintenance of the public trust.

There are kids in St. Louis, Cleveland, and New York today too innocent to have already made of their minds about the police. I am certainly not recommending that cops buy off these kids by handing out trading cards of Tavon Austin (St. Louis Rams), LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers), and Carmelo Anthony (New York Knicks). However, if coupled with genuine positive changes to policing, I do think the cards would be an easy and small step in the right direction and one that would pay dividends as today’s kids grow into tomorrow’s taxpayers, voters, teachers, community organizers, and parents.

Baseball Card HOF, 1933-1969

Back in college, my roommate and I made wall displays we called “Boards” for our top baseball cards.Staring at and talking about these Boards never got old. And if we made it to a card convention with a little bit of cash, the goal was always to find a card that could go on the Board, i.e., be good enough to displace a previous Board dweller. When I moved into my new place this past Spring, I decided to revive my Board, using a 50-card dispay case made by Pennzoni.

Here are the cards currently on my “Top 50” Board, which features 50 of the greatest players to appear on baseball cards while active between 1933 and 1969. The Ruth card from 1952 is a stand-in until maybe someday I land a 1933 Goudey card of him. Some notes are below the card slideshow.

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Building a Board like this is a bit like operating a Hall of Fame. There are always some borderline players let in and some very, very good players left out. I’m curious to know who you think the best missing players (1933-1969) are, aside from Gehrig, DiMaggio, and a real Ruth

The Great Home Run Hitters of the National League

1952 Topps Look n See
1952 Topps Look n See

When we think back to the home run record before Hank Aaron and Roger Maris (or, if you prefer, Barry Bonds and Barry Bonds), all roads lead back to New York Yankee great and American Leaguer, Babe Ruth. His 714 career home runs, including 60 in 1927, are among the most famous achievements in the history of any sport. Without any attempt to overshadow the Bambino and his fellow A.L. sluggers, I thought I’d shine the spotlight on the Senior Circuit and highlight the great home run hitters of the National League, featuring a handful of my cards in the process.

DEADBALL ERA

The National League began in 1876 and its home run leader was George Hall, an Englishman from Stepney who stood 5’7″ and weighed all of 142 pounds. His 5 home runs that year for the (then) National League’s Philadelphia Athletics not only led the league but–since it was the league’s inaugural season–briefly gave Hall the career home run record as well. Unfortunately, Hall would not hit another home run after the 1876 season, leaving both his records open to rival sluggers.

Three years later, in 1879, Boston Red Stockings outfielder Charley Jones shattered the single season mark, nearly doubling it with 9 home runs. Jones fit the part of the modern day slugger a bit more, standing 5’11” and weighing in at 202 pounds. Despite his large strike zone, Jones managed to lead the league in walks as well, in addition to runs batted in and runs scored. Though the home run was still not regarded as the game-changer it is today, one can only wonder if fans of the 19th century game believed this mark would last forever or if maybe…just maybe…someone would eventually crack double digits.

Then along came the versatile Buck Ewing, catcher/outfielder/second baseman/shortstop/third baseman for the New York Giants. Despite entering the 1883 season with a high of two home runs, Ewing blasted 10 roundtrippers to go with 80 singles, 11 doubles, and 13 triples. Yes, it was the National League’s first ever quadruple double! Perhaps we would still be reading about Buck Ewing today (oh wait, you are!) were it not for a rule change that took place in Chicago the very next season.

Lake Front Park was a slugger’s paradise, boasting a right field fence less than 200 feet from home plate. The official scoring through 1883 was to count balls over the right field fence as ground rule doubles, and the White Stockings hit quite a few. However, in 1884, a rule change was introduced, and balls over the fence would count as home runs. Suddenly, baseball had its first Murderers Row. Ned Williamson, Fred Pfeffer, Abner Dalrymple, and Cap Anson swatted 27, 25, 22, and 21 homers respectively, not only sweeping the top four spots on that year’s leaderboard but boasting the four highest home run totals in the lofty nine year history of the National League. Their mightly lineup was the deadball equivalent of having Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and two Mark McGwires on your team, only the power hitting didn’t stop there. The 1884 White Stockings had seven players finish among the top ten in home runs–all of their position players except outfielder George Gore, who only missed by two.

THE ROARING TWENTIES

Hornsby_1934-36_DS
1934-36 Diamond Stars

Williamson’s record would stand as the major league record until 1919 when outfielder/pitcher Babe Ruth, in his final season with the Red Sox, would belt 29. However, no National Leaguer would top Williamson until 1922 when Cardinals second baseman Rogers Hornsby would enjoy one of the finest hitting seasons imaginable. The Rajah would coast to the Triple Crown that year, belting 42 home runs, knocking in 152, and batting .401. The number two finisher in home runs that year, Cy Williams, hit only 26 home runs, ever so shy of the Williamson mark.

Klein_1940_PB
1940 Play Ball

Hornsby’s 42 home runs would survive as the record for most of the decade, finally falling in 1929 to Phillies slugger Chuck Klein. Much like Williamson, Klein’s totals were greatly aided by the park he played in. The Baker Bowl was a friendly 280 feet to right field, and Klein took advantage to hit 25 of his 43 home runs at home. (One can certainly argue that Klein’s home/road differential is barely statistically significant. However, it has definitely proved ample fuel for the haters out there. You know who you are!)

WHAT THE HACK??

Wilson_1933_Goudey
1933 Goudey

Standing 5’6″ but weighing 190 pounds, the barrelesque Chicago Cub, Lewis “Hack” Wilson, entered the 1930 season as a three-time home run champion (1926-1928) and the league’s reigning RBI king (159 in 1929, the most since Sam Thompson drove home 167 runs for the 1997 Detroit Wolverines). Wilson’s 1930 season, however, is the one for which he will always be remembered. His 56 home runs would remain the National League standard into the steroid era, and his 190 runs batted in (later updated to 191) remain the major league record. That he batted .356 that year makes him one of only four members–along with Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Mickey Mantle–of baseball’s elite .350/50 club.

MOST NL HOME RUN TITLES

While no player outside the steroid era has matched Wilson’s NL record of 56 home runs, these players each won four or more NL home run titles. An odd fact, though clearly Baker Bowl-assisted, is that of the 51 seasons listed, 28 of them were accomplished in the state of Pennsylvania.

  • Mike Schmidt led the National League in home runs a record eight seasons (1974-1976, 1980-1981, 1983-1984, 1986) over a thirteen year stretch.
  • Ralph Kiner led the National League in home runs his first seven seasons (1946-1952)! He also topped the 50 home run mark twice (1947, 1949).
  • Mel Ott, the senior circuit’s career leader in home runs until Hank Aaron, led the National League in home runs six times (1932, 1934, 1936-1938, 1942).
  • Gavvy Cravath led the National League in home runs six times (1913-1915, 1917-1919), though his total over those six years was only 96. And yes, like Chuck Klein, he also played his games in the Baker Bowl.
  • Cy Williams led the National League in home runs four times (1916, 1920, 1923, 1927), the final three of these coming in the Baker Bowl.
  • Chuck Klein led the National League in home runs four times (1929, 1931-1933), all in the Baker Bowl.
  • Hack Wilson led the National League in home runs four times (1926-1928, 1930)
  • Hank Aaron led the National League in home runs four times (1957, 1963, 1966, 1967) along his way to 755 career home runs, 733 coming in the National League.
  • Willie Mays led the National League in home runs four times (1955, 1962, 1964-1965), topping the 50 home run mark twice (1955, 1965).
  • Johnny Mize led the National League in home runs 4 times (1939-1940, 1947-1948)

CAREER HOME RUN LEADERS

Much has changed since George Hall held the NL lifetime home run record with five. Fans today recognize (or explicitly don’t recognize) Barry Bonds’ 762 home runs, all with the National League, and Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs, all but 22 in the National League, at the top of the leaderboard. But if Bonds broke Aaron’s record for NL four-baggers, whose record did Aaron break? And who were the career home run leaders even before that?

Roger Connor was the first National Leaguer to top the century mark, in 1894, retiring in 1897 with 138 home runs, 124 of them in the National League. While Connor’s major league record would stand more than 25 years and ultimately be broken by no less than the Sultan of Swat, his National League mark did not last long at all.

Neck and neck with Connor was Detroit Wolverine Sam Thompson, who surpassed the century mark and Connor as well during the 1895 season and finished his career in 1898 with a total of 126 home runs, all in the National League. (He would much later play in 8 games for the 1906 Detroit Tigers but not add to his home run mark.)

Thompson’s NL mark would hold up for just over 20 years, ultimately giving way to four-time home run champion Cy Williams, who hit his record breaking 127th home run during the 1923 season and finished his NL career with a then-amazing 251 home runs. Given that the league’s top pitchers are awarded the Cy Young Award, perhaps a case could be made that the top home run hitters should win the Cy Williams award. (I know, sigh!)

Williams would see his mark fall in 1929 to the great Rogers Hornsby, who went on to extend the NL record for career homers to 298. (Three home runs with the St. Louis Browns of the AL also made Hornsby only the second member of the 300 club.) Eight years later, Mel Ott would establish himself as the league’s home run king, passing Hornsby in 1937 and ultimately finishing his 22-year New York Giants career with 511 home runs.

Musial_1953
1953 Bowman Color

It would be many years before any National Leaguer even threatened Ott’s mark. Into the mid-1960s, Stan Musial was the closest such challenger. Like Ott, he spent his 22-year career with a single team–in Musial’s case the St. Louis Cardinals. Musial retired as the only member of the 300/3000 club, finishing his career with 475 home runs and a then NL record 3630 hits. Still, Ott’s mark proved durable as Musial ended up 36 home runs shy.

Mathews_1953
1953 Topps

Another close honorable mention went to Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews who finished his career with 512 home runs, one more than Ott, but had his final nine come with the AL’s Detroit Tigers. Still, Mathews’ 503 NL home runs through the end of the 1966 season stood as the league’s third highest total ever. Third, not second, because it was also during the 1966 season that Willie Mays passed not only Mathews but Ott as well. By season’s end, Mays not only held the new NL mark of 542 but passed Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx to stand second all-time to only Babe Ruth.

It was in the 1972 campaign that Mays’ fresh NL mark was surpassed by Hank Aaron, and the two players would go on to retire as two of the three greatest home run hitters ever to play the game.

So there it is…the passing of the torch went (among 100 HR hitters) from Connor to Thompson to Williams to Hornsby to Ott to Mays to Aaron…and Bonds if you like. And today, here is the NL 500 club, a club that didn’t even exist until 1945 and had only a single member for the next 20 years.

500 HOME RUNS AS NATIONAL LEAGUER

Player NL HR MLB HR
Barry Bonds 762 762
Hank Aaron 733 755
Willie Mays 660 660
Mike Schmidt 548 548
Sammy Sosa 545 609
Willie McCovey 521 521
Ernie Banks 512 512
Mel Ott 511 511
Eddie Mathews 503 512

From Father to Son…maybe!

One of the great joys of growing up was collecting baseball cards, even regardless of the many tragedies that beset my collection over and over again. It was in my card collecting prime, around the age of 11 or 12, that the hobby seemed to change considerably. What I had always done for fun and spent money on was becoming something a great many people were now doing to make money. On the bright side, it meant that card shops started springing up in neighborhoods and conventions became more frequent; and on the downside, the cards I had hoped to someday add to my collection grew more expensive. Concurrently, the hobby’s focus shifted over the years from established Hall of Famers like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays to rookie cards of whoever might be the next big thing…Ron Kittle, Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, Jerome Walton, etc., at least until he wasn’t anymore.

On my end, I never really caught the entrepreneurial or speculative fever and continued to collect cards simply because I liked having them. At the same time, with the amount of money I was spending–sometimes $100 a month, which was a ton of money to me back then, I did feel I needed to confront the question of what I was planning to do with my cards eventually. Surely at some point I’d be a full-fledged grownup with family and career, far too busy to take out my boxes and binders of cards. Still, selling my collection always seemed out of the question, so I got the idea then that I would someday hand my collection off to my son. The only problem was that I didn’t have one.

Well, here I am in 2014 with a seven-year-old boy, just the very same age I was when I fell in love with card collecting. The only problem now is that he hates baseball, especially the Dodgers! Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “Have another!” But I am taking a different approach. I’m trying to meet Jaden halfway.

While he probably couldn’t name a single baseball player, he is a huge fan of Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. And as luck would have it, I was able to find some cards of these guys.

Galileo_1952_Topps Look n See    Einstein_1952_Topps Look n See   Newton_1952_Topps Look n See

These cards are from the 1952 Topps set (no, not THAT 1952 Topps) called “Look ‘n See.” The set included a total of 135 trading cards including a single ballplayer, Babe Ruth, and numerous artists, scientists, heads of state, and other luminaries. I suspect this was a very fun set for kids to collect back then as the reverses of each card feature bios that are often humorous. Einstein’s bio featured his distaste for wearing socks while Galileo’s bio ended with the following:

He insisted that the planets revolved around the sun and…for saying this…he was almost put to death!

When I first discovered these cards, all in pretty nice shape for $5-$10, I enjoyed the thought of having purchased rookie cards of three of the greatest geniuses of all time for less than the cost of bad seats at Wrigley. I was wrong, however. Some eBay and Google searches turned up a few other cards to add to my…I mean Jaden’s…collection.

Newton_1924_Ogden's   Newton_1935_Carreras   Newton_1936_Godfrey Phillips

These three Isaac Newton cards are from 1924, 1935, and 1936 respectively and share the same smaller size and shape of old turn-of-the-century tobacco baseball cards like the famous T206 Honus Wagner. Indeed, all were distributed with cigarettes; Ogden’s, Carrera, and Godfrey Phillips. The third one is particulary amusing in that it fell within the “famous minors” subset. The reverse of the card showcases many of Newton’s most ingenious discoveries, though most were as an adult. While Newton is mainly famous for his discoveries as a young adult (Laws of Motion, Law of Universal Gravitation, the calculus, reflecting telescope, properties of light, etc.), the reverse of the card highlights a mouse-powered windmill Newton apparently invented as a youth. There are other vintage Newtons, not to mention Einsteins and Galileos, in circulation, but the ones above are the ones I was able to find in the $2-$10 range.

Finally, just in case the cards are a bust with Jaden, what kid doesn’t like money? Sir Isaac Newton was featured on the British pound note between 1978 and 1988 and–nearly 200 years earlier–was featured on certain “Conder tokens” of 1793.

Newton_1978-1988_Pound Note     Newton_1793_Conder Token

My main dilemma now is how to give these uberphysicist collectibles to Jaden. I am proud of the nice condition I found these in, but I don’t want these gifts to be hands-off. Jaden’s enjoyment of these items is what’s valuable here, so I am okay if he destroys them in the process. Still, I am thinking there may be some middle ground. At the moment, since he is not at all intrigued by cards and collectibles, I may put everything into a shadowbox art display that can simply hang in his room as a poster. Over time, I can share with him the ages of these items and also point him to other Galileo/Newton/Einstein cards we can add to his collection.

If he never does share my love of collecting, I am totally okay with that. I see my main job here as opening his eyes to something new he might enjoy. If he truly enjoys it and even crosses that bridge into sports collectibles, there will be one big baseball card collection waiting for him when I go–if not sooner. And if not, this fools’ gold that I put so much of my love and energy into for so many years may simply prompt him and his wife to quip someday, “What the hell are we gonna do with all these cards?” And by then, maybe their own son will take over the mantle…or is that the Mantle?

The Improbability of Hank Aaron as Told through Magazine Covers

AaronSI715HANK AARON, HOME RUN KING

The quintessential Hank Aaron magazine cover is definitely this one, the April 15, 1974, issue of Sports Illustrated commemorating Aaron’s record breaking homer only a week earlier. Aaron is shown, right arm raised above his head, holding the home run ball returned to him by pitcher and teammate Tom House, who caught it in the outfield bullpen.

Aaron’s expression must be a mixture of triumph and relief, and behind him are the bright lights of the stadium and a crowd bearing witness to the moment. The cover shot is such that the reader/buyer/viewer might even place himself or herself in that same crowd, face to face with the Hammer in his greatest moment.

The cover story is not a collection of words or even a single word–just a number. And for that matter, it was a number that didn’t even exist when Aaron came into the league, at least not in a baseball sense. Where home runs were concerned, Babe Ruth’s record of 714 was essentially infinity.

AaronSport715ThouAaronJetRuthgh not as iconic as the SI issue, Jet magazine (April 25, 1974) took a similar approach. Again no headline–just that number 715–this time with an exclamation point and the ghosted outline of Babe Ruth in the background. And not to be outdone, next came the May 1974 issue of Sport magazine, again letting that number tell the story. This time, the number is greater than even the man himself, his name and his images dwarfed by its supersized depiction.

20141202_213455Taking a different angle and an important one was Black Sports magazine. It’s June 1974 issue, a very tough find, portrayed a larger than life “Henry the Great” behind a bleacher of mostly white fans, with the cover story, “Will White America Accept this Black Hero?” The same issue also contains a wonderful side story, “Aaron’s the Coolest,” based on an interview with James “Cool Papa” Bell who the publication flew down to Atlanta from St. Louis to be as its guest at the historic game. But let’s go back to that number again, 715, aka infinity plus one. One of the best ways to grasp the impossibility of that number is to look at the record book the year Hank Aaron came into the league.

CAREER HOME RUN LEADERS THRU 1953

  1. Babe Ruth, 714
  2. Jimmie Foxx, 534
  3. Mel Ott, 511
  4. Lou Gehrig, 493
  5. Joe DiMaggio, 361
  6. Johnny Mize, 359
  7. Ted Williams, 337 (active)
  8. Hank Greenberg, 331
  9. Ralph Kiner, 329 (active)
  10. Al Simmons, 307

The 500 club, which now contains 26 members, was only three players strong; Ruth’s 714 was nearly as many home runs as the fifth and sixth place hitters combined; and no active player had even half this number of home runs. The fact that none of the players was African American (this possibility notwithstanding) was obvious but still notable. Race aside, 714 didn’t look like a number ANYONE was likely to get to, but now let’s look at Major League Baseball’s career home run leaders among African Americans.

CAREER HOME RUN LEADERS THRU 1953 – AFRICAN AMERICANS

  1. Roy Campanella, 158
  2. Larry Doby, 144
  3. Jackie Robinson, 104
  4. Hank Thompson, 78
  5. Monte Irvin, 64
  6. Sam Jethroe, 49
  7. Minnie Minoso, 29
  8. Willie Mays, 24
  9. Jim Gilliam, 6
  10. Ernie Banks, 2
  11. Willard “Home Run” Brown, 1
  12. Don Newcombe, 1

OurSportsLooking at THIS list, Ruth’s record seemed all the less likely for an African American player to surpass, if for no other reason than the fact that there were so few African Americans even playing Major League Baseball. In fact the list above shows nearly every African American in MLB through the end of the 1953 season and (I believe) lists all 660 home runs (combined!) hit by African Americans. Perhaps only Jackie Robinson himself, in his part-time job of magazine editor, had the boldness of imagination to see differently, making the cover story on his May 1953 Our Sports magazine, “Larry Doby…He Can Challenge Ruth’s Home Run Record, if–”

While Doby himself finished his career with “only” 253 home runs, roughly one third of the Bambino’s total, it was of course Hank Aaron, at that time playing minor league ball in Jacksonville, Florida, who would best Ruth’s record in the first week of his 21st season, ultimately surpassing it by 41 home runs. Improbable as this was, Aaron was also a player–albeit the most successful player–in a generation filled with sluggers who would put together long careers. By the time Hank Aaron broke Ruth’s record, the 500 club had grown to include 11 members, 7 of whom began their careers in the same decade as Aaron–in order, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott.

HANK AARON AND THE 3000 HIT CLUB

sporting news aaronIt was four seasons earlier, however, that Hank Aaron made his mark in a different chapter of baseball’s record book. On May 17, 1970, Hank Aaron singled against Wayne Simpson of the Cincinnati Reds to become only the ninth member of baseball’s 3,000 Hit fraternity. The Sporting News put this achievement front and center on the cover of their May 23, 1970, issue. However, I think it was the May 25, 1970, issue of Sports Illustrated that really put the achievement in perspective.

AaronSI3000Here are the eight other members of this rather monochrome fraternity, along with the years they were born:

3,000 HIT CLUB – MAY 1970

  1. Ty Cobb, 1886
  2. Stan Musial, 1920
  3. Tris Speaker, 1888
  4. Cap Anson, 1852
  5. Honus Wagner, 1874
  6. Eddie Collins, 1887
  7. Napoleon Lajoie, 1874
  8. Paul Waner, 1903

Of these men, one was a teenager in the Civil War (!), and only Stan Musial was even still alive when Hank Aaron joined the club. In this very issue of SI, Stan himself, a longtime hero of Aaron’s, expressed his relief at no longer being the club’s only living member!

“It was getting awfully lonely in the club,” Stan Musial said last week in Cincinnati, “and when you are the only living member of it, you wait around for someone to join you so at least there will be somebody to talk to.”

AaronMusialAs with the 500 Home Run club, the 3,000 Hit club was on the cusp of getting a bit more crowded as well. Within 10 year’s of Aaron’s entry, the following players would all rap out their 3,000th hit: Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Pete Rose, Lou Brock, and Carl Yastrzemski. There would even be a single ten-year stretch from 1992 to 2001 in which ten players joined the club, an average of one per year. Still, at the time of Aaron’s 3,000th hit, that 1970 SI cover showed the entire club while this Sports Review – Baseball magazine from 1959 covered its only living players.

HANK AARON’S PLACE TODAY

To say the game is very different today from when Hank Aaron made his major league debut (1954), picked up his 3,000th hit (1970), or hit his 715th home run (1974) is a huge understatement. The 500 HR club has 26 members, and the 3,000 hit club has 28–too many in each club to even fit on a major league roster. At the same time, Hank Aaron and his records still stand out above this now crowded field. Here are the career hit leaders through the end of the 2014 season.

MOST HITS, CAREER

Rank Player Hits HR Behind Aaron
1 Pete Rose 4256 160 595
2 Ty Cobb 4189 117 638
3 Hank Aaron 3771 755
4 Stan Musial 3630 475 280
5 Tris Speaker 3514 117 638
6 Derek Jeter 3465 260 495
7 Cap Anson 3435 97 658
8 Honus Wagner 3420 101 654
9 Carl Yastrzemski 3419 452 303
10 Paul Molitor 3319 234 521

The other nine players on the list average more than 500 fewer home runs than Hank Aaron, and the closest player, Stan Musial, is still nearly 300 home runs behind.

I know and I understand the arguments that Willie Mays may have been more talented, Babe Ruth certainly put up gaudier stats, and all kinds of Yankees won more rings. Regardless, I have come to recognize Hank Aaron as the greatest player in the history of the game and the game of baseball’s greatest ambassador–equal parts Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, and as the Howard Bryant biography states, the last hero.

Atlanta mag