The Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, N.Y., has one of the ritziest guest lists in baseball history this weekend. Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, with some help from Happy Chandler and Travis Jackson, have seen to that.
Seldom has the Hall of Fame had more prestigious gentlemen entering its shrine on the same day than these four who will be inducted Sunday. It is equally true that it would be hard to find four baseball men whose true and fair place in their sport's history is so hard to pin down.
In one sense, Aaron is among the greatest players in baseball history, yet, in another perspective, he's one of the more overrated. To appreciate Aaron's gifts properly takes the sort of dispassion that the magnitude of his records makes difficult.
Robinson is also a troublesome question. Excellent as his statistics--such as 586 homers--are, it's necessary to insist that he was even better than his numbers. In a sport of stats, it's always suspect when a player is pushed toward a greater eminence than his raw Baseball Encyclopedia totals indicate for him. But Robinson, perhaps the meanest, hustlingest, most hardnosed of the game's great hitters, deserves even more glory than he gets.
Although Chandler and Jackson aren't as fascinating as Bad Henry and Frank Robby--to whom we'll return later--they are, nonetheless, interesting and elusive figures.
The gregarious Chandler, who, at 84, still could charm a thousand people with his tall tales at the All-Star luncheon two weeks ago, was commissioner of baseball from 1946 to 1951. Chandler left the job in disgrace, of a sort, forced into resignation by a winter-meeting owners' coup in 1950. Chandler's commissionership has grown in retrospect. Now, while the squabbles of his day are forgotten, Chandler is remembered as the commissioner who helped implement a then-radical pension plan for players and who backed Branch Rickey in integrating baseball. It's always nice when slew-footed history catches up with a lively old man in time to give him his due.
Jackson, the shortstop on many of John McGraw's New York Giant teams from 1922 to '36, is also one of baseball history's little puzzles. Jackson, now 78, is exactly the type of shortstop who gets into Cooperstown: good field, good hit. On the other hand, several shortstops of equal or probably even greater total team value--such as Pee Wee Reese and Luis Aparicio--remain outside the Hall because their skills had a slightly different, and less glamorous, balance; i.e., great field, fair hit.
Jackson hit .291 for his career and once had 101 RBI. Yet, during his 13 best seasons, he averaged a modest 10 homers and 69 RBI. By all accounts, Jackson had a great arm, but his range was limited and he had seasons of 58, 45, 43 and 40 errors in that small-gloved era. Travis Jackson probably belongs in the Hall, although it's a close call. But if he does, then there are several shortstops locked out who deserve it every bit as much. And a few deserve it more. Start with Reese.
The knottiest of these Cooperstown conundrums is, as always, Aaron. Hammerin' Hank, who won just four home run titles in 23 seasons, was never primarily a home run hitter until late in his career, yet he'll always be remembered first for his 755 home runs.
Above all, Aaron probably should be treasured for his temperament. He seldom wasted a swing or a drop of sweat or a word. If the fence was 375 feet away, then Aaron's fly balls seemed to drop over comfortably, but not ostentatiously, with just a few yards to spare. Not cheap homers, but not showy, either.
That disinclination to anger foes or challenge inanimate objects was the reason he was almost never injured, almost never exhausted, and played in 3,298 games.
Standing safely off the plate, then striding into the pitch, Aaron understood one of the boring kernels of wisdom at the core of baseball: no one time at bat, or game, is of much significance; only the totality counts.
Consequently, for his first 18 or so seasons, Aaron only got a fraction of the respect he was due. He had amassed 300 or more total bases 15 times--perhaps the most emblematic of his all-time records--before his career stats reached such a plateau that, of necessity, he was made an institution. Then, for his final five years, Aaron received such excessive attention that it frequently sickened and soured him; he was given fame in almost terminal dosages.
The last years of Aaron's career were more a chore than a joy; his gentle, spontaneous smile came harder. That's why it was such a pleasure to see him in Washington at the recent Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic. Fat, sassy and six years retired, Aaron lined a single off the left field wall, had a routine fly ball hit him in the chin, and made the play of the game with a stumbling, shoe-string catch. That night, all Aaron's sense of embattlement seemed gone. He used his grin until it was in danger of going on the disabled list.
The notion of comparing Aaron and Ruth always has seemed preposterously inappropriate since it manages to diminish both men simultaneously. Ruth's whole private life was an attack on his own chances for athletic longevity; Ruth was a creature of the big game, the huge season. Ruth's slugging average and homers per at bats are the stats that show his true place, not the accident that his career homer total happened to stop at 714.
As a slugger, Aaron never rivaled Ruth, nor has he ever claimed such rank. On the other hand, when will we ever again see a player so in tune with the mellow mood of his sport that he will amass 6,856 total bases and 2,297 RBI--both records--and do it with just a philosophical flick of the wrists.
Frank Robinson is the perfect counterweight to Aaron. They were, and are, opposites. Robinson, who spent much of his career relegated to the second echelon of outfielders of his era, behind Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Aaron, is hard to weigh because his greatest attribute was intangible. Robinson was the most intractably combative great player of his time, a genuinely inspirational teammate.
Aaron glided to walls, then plucked balls off them; Robinson ran into the blasted things. Aaron gave away the plate, then took it back at the last instant; the defiant Robinson stood all over it and led the league annually in getting drilled by pitches. Of course, that just gave him an excuse to hit a prodigious home run next time up and get his whole club excited for about a week.
Aaron stole bases untouched and almost unnoticed; Robinson's slide bordered on being a criminal act. When Robby hit the dirt, people got out of the way or people got badly hurt. Sometimes the hurtee was Robinson, who once played for a year and a half with double vision after trying to break a second-baseman's knee with his face.
That Robinson should go into Cooperstown on the same day as Aaron is appropriate, because, in truth, there was and is almost nothing to choose between their respective careers. After all, Robinson won two MVPs to Aaron's one, and played in five World Series to Aaron's two.
If Aaron was the better of these two antithetical right fielders, then it was by an almost immeasureably small margin.