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The People's King (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday July 17, 2007 1:05PM; Updated: Tuesday July 17, 2007 2:44PM
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Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron eyes the flight of the ball after hitting his 715th homer to break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.
Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron eyes the flight of the ball after hitting his 715th homer to break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.
Harry Harris/AP
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The home run king never did majesty well. His home runs left the park in a hurry and with an economy of scale, rarely bothering to travel much farther or higher than needed. Aaron could do everything on a baseball field with ease, but because his game and his words lacked unnecessary ornamentation, he never invited attention to himself.

They called him Hammerin' Hank, an encomium to his bluntly effective hitting but one that works just as well as a tribute to his overall ethos. Hammering is the life's work of commoners, not kings. It is generally not a pursuit to which heroic movies, elegiac poems or, apparently, magazine covers are dedicated. (Aaron appeared on three SPORTS ILLUSTRATED covers in his 23-year career.) In hammering as in Aaron, however, there is an understated nobility that only the passage of time adequately reveals.

For instance, not one of Aaron's single-season home run totals is among the 68 highest of all time, yet he pounded more in his career than any other player in history -- and without suspicion of chemical enhancement. None of his single-season RBI totals rank among the top 100 of all time, but he's the career leader in that category as well. His best season for extra-base hits cannot be found in the top 40 alltime, but he leads that career list too. What he did was build the Egyptian pyramids of a baseball career, the finished product a monument as much to man's persistence as to his reach.

Aaron was such a masterly hitter that he would have passed 3,000 hits even if he had never hit a home run. Pick any star who ever played the game and give him 180 additional homers, and Aaron still would have more total bases. He won three Gold Gloves, received MVP votes for 19 straight years and stole bases at a 76% success rate. He did as much for the racial integration of the sport as any man who followed Jackie Robinson. Yet Aaron, in the pantheon of baseball gods and in the fabric of American culture, is an underrated and underappreciated presence. It must have been the monotony of all that hammering.

"As a [teen] I was watching a game in Milwaukee from the seats behind the third base dugout," says Yankees manager Joe Torre, who would become Aaron's teammate with the Braves from 1960 through '68. "Henry was batting, and I distinctly remember watching the pitch pass behind him and he still hit it out of the park. He hit it that late and still hit a home run. He was the most amazing wrist hitter I ever saw."

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