The Braves’ Ten Greatest Hitters
Hank Aaron (1954-74)
Although the steroids era has reduced Aaron’s standing among the all-time home run leaders, many still regard him as number one on the list of “legitimate” home run hitters; lists aside, he certainly is one of the most popular and gracious players to play the game and has remained so in retirement.
Born in Mobile, Alabama—a hotbed of future big league sluggers that also produced Willie McCovey and Billy Williams—Aaron came to emergence in the Negro Leagues and chose the Braves over the New York Giants (who were also interested) because he felt he’d have a better chance to play everyday. Ironically, it was an injury to a former Giant-turned-Brave (Bobby Thomson) that created room for Aaron and gave him that everyday chance in 1954 as a 20-year-old rookie. Aaron quickly developed into a MVP-caliber player, winning the NL honor in 1957 while leading the Braves to their first world title in 43 years—and their only one while in Milwaukee.
Using quick wrists that made up for an unassuming body frame, Aaron muscled up on an almost robotic basis, eclipsing 40 homers eight different times while keeping his average over the .300 mark as pitching dominated the 1960s. Age would not slow Aaron down; he launched a career-high 47 homers in 1971 at the age of 37, and two years later parked another 40 over the fence in just 396 at-bats as he closed to within one homer of Babe Ruth’s all-time career mark. Under intense media scrutiny and a myriad of death threats mainly from those who didn’t want to see a black man overtake Ruth’s record, Aaron surpassed Ruth in the first week of the 1974 season and held the record for 33 years until Barry Bonds surpassed him under controversy of a different kind. (Aaron grudgingly accepted the steroid-tainted Bonds as the new home run king.) For the final two years of his career, Aaron—finally showing his age—fittingly returned to Milwaukee as the Brewers’ designated hitter in a move that seemed more ceremonial than strategic.
Aaron remains the all-time leader in runs batted in with 2,297 and is third in hits (trailing only Ty Cobb and Pete Rose) with 3,771; he was named to a record 21 All-Star Games, all in succession.
Eddie Mathews (1952-66)
For the bulk of his career, Mathews was best known as Aaron’s slugging partner in crime, though his 512 career homers certainly deserved better than second billing. Mathews’ time with the Braves spanned 15 years, and he’s the only player to wear a Braves uniform in all three cities represented by the franchise: Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta.
Signed by the Braves the day after graduating from high school, Mathews attracted a great deal of buzz in the minors with a swing that Ty Cobb labeled as one of the very few he saw to be “perfect.” In his second year at the major league level—and the Braves’ first in Milwaukee—Mathews exploded, hitting .302 with 47 homers and 135 RBIs. Mathews’ pre-Aaron fame peaked in 1954 when he appeared on the cover of the very first issue of Sports Illustrated—but he suffered no cover jinx, belting 40 or more home runs four times through the 1950s; he ended the decade with his second home run title thanks to a two-game tie-breaking playoff against Los Angeles that counted as regular season results. Typically quiet, Mathews nevertheless wasn’t afraid to get in opponents’ faces when the moment required it, as star players like Frank Robinson and Don Drysdale found out when they played too rough against him. Mathews’ overall productivity was permanently curtailed in 1962 when he suffered a shoulder injury; he was traded to the Houston Astros in 1967, just seven homers shy of 500 for the Braves.
Dale Murphy (1976-90)
When the Braves broke out of mediocrity in the early 1980s, it was the lumbering, clean-cut and baby-faced Murphy, a devout Mormon, who led the way offensively. And while the team’s rise to the top would be short-lived, Murphy would continue as an A-list talent for much of the decade, winning back-to-back NL MVP honors in 1982-83.
Murphy was brought up as a 20-year-old catcher in 1976, was converted to a first baseman and, when that led to a few too many errors, moved quickly to the outfield—where he eventually won five Gold Glove awards. At his peak, Murphy was an all-around force at the plate, hitting for average and power with a discernable eye that led to many walks; he also was deceptively quick, stealing 30 bases in 1983 to become only the second player in franchise history (after Aaron) to collect at least 30 homers and 30 steals in the same year.
After hitting a career-high 44 homers in 1987, Murphy’s star quickly declined, hitting well below .250 for each of the next three seasons before being traded to Philadelphia in 1990.
Chipper Jones (1993-2012)
The talented and brash switch-hitting third baseman staked a legitimate claim to be remembered as the most popular player to perform his entire career in a Braves uniform. His entry into the majors was delayed a year after suffering a season-ending spring training knee injury in 1994, but his mild 1995 rookie campaign was highlighted with a terrific postseason performance in which he hit .364 with three home runs to give the Braves their only championship in the Bobby Cox era. Jones’ overall numbers improved throughout the 1990s, culminating in a sensational MVP performance in 1999 when he hit .319 with 45 homers, 110 RBIs, 41 doubles, 126 walks and 25 steals. His clubhouse leadership emerged in the 2000s as his numbers leveled off, reprising his peak play from 2006-08 when he hit a collective .342—including his lone batting title in 2008 at age 36, batting .364—and set a major league record in 2006 when he put together a string of 14 straight games with at least one extra base hit. Jones’ .303 career average, 468 home runs, 1,623 RBIs, 1,512 walks and eight All-Star Game appearances make him a sure bet for the Hall of Fame.
Wally Berger (1930-37)
Few, if any, major leaguers have carried an entire team on their backs offensively as Berger did for the Braves in the 1930s. As a 24-year-old rookie in 1930, Berger crashed onto the scene with 38 homers with 119 RBIs, both rookie records that have since been broken. The rest of the team hit only 28 homers, starting a trend that would continue for much of Berger’s reign in Boston as he slammed 45% of the team’s round-trippers from 1930-35; only Babe Ruth has ever managed to hit a higher percentage of a team’s total home run output over a six-year period. When an aging, overweight Ruth himself appeared with the Braves at the end of his career in 1935, his six blasts were second on the team to Berger’s NL-best 34. Berger’s own power soon began to fade and the Bees (as the Braves were known between 1936-40) correctly sensed that his career was on the downslope, so they shipped him off to the New York Giants in the midst of the 1937 season, never able to regain his stroke.
Freddie Freeman (2010-present)
Durable and dependable, the young first baseman from California has been a loyal servant who’s given the Braves a sure and steady diet of offense in the 2010s, prompting the organization to reward him with a $135 million contract extension that will keep him in Atlanta through 2021.
A sizeable (6’5”, 225 pounds) presence, Freeman hit a respectable .282 with 21 homers and 76 RBIs in his 2011 rookie campaign that placed him second in the NL Rookie of the Year vote—trailing only teammate closer Craig Kimbrel. After an agreeable sophomore campaign, Freeman sprung to a stellar 2013 effort when he hit .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs, landing him in fifth place in the NL MVP vote. With many of the veteran stars he grew up under now elsewhere, Freeman looks to be the guy to take the mantle as the Braves’ clubhouse leader—and why not, given that his comic namesake goes by the superhero alias of Captain Marvel Jr.
Tommy Holmes (1942-51)
The Brooklyn-born outfielder was a wartime star for the Braves who enjoyed a tremendous career year at the expense of (mostly) replacement players filling in for absent veterans beholden to the war effort in 1945. But Holmes was consistently solid for the latter, postwar half of the 1940s when major league rosters returned to full strength. Originally signed by the New York Yankees, he was granted a wish to go elsewhere when his pinstriped future was blocked by that team’s veteran star players; Holmes quickly became an everyday force for the Braves, always hitting around .300. But it’s Holmes’ 1945 campaign that starkly stands from the stat sheet; he hit .352, hit a NL-high 28 home runs, knocked in 117 runs and, most memorably, hit safely in 37 straight games to set a NL record that stood for 33 years. Holmes briefly (and unsuccessfully) managed the Braves from 1952-53.
Bob Elliott (1947-51)
Acquired from Pittsburgh in 1947, Elliott took over for Holmes as the Braves’ premier offensive force. He immediately established a strong presence in Boston, capturing the 1947 NL MVP award with a .317 average, 22 home runs and 113 RBIs; he followed that set of numbers with a .283-23-100 campaign in 1948, adding in a league-leading 131 walks as he helped lead the Braves to their first pennant since the fabled 1914 Miracle Braves. Nicknamed “Mr. Team” by his teammates for his dominant play, Elliott played at peak form through 1951 before age finally caught up to him and prompted a trade to the Giants.
Andruw Jones (1997-2007)
A product of the Netherlands Antilles, Jones burst into the national spotlight at the age of 19 when, in Game One of the 1996 World Series, he became the first player under 20 to hit a home run in the Fall Classic (he would, in fact, belt two in that game). Superstardom seemed certain to follow, and Jones fell just short of fulfilling that destiny. Jones wielded consistent power, muscling 363 homers in 11 full-time seasons in Atlanta, though he struggled to hit for a sound average. Defensively, Jones patrolled a wide range of center field with uncanny ease, earning ten consecutive Gold Glove awards. After leading the majors with 51 homers in 2005 and following it up a year later with 41 (to go along with 129 RBIs), Jones suffered from bad timing and engaged in a year-long slump during his walk year; the Los Angeles Dodgers took a chance and signed him to a two-year deal, only to witness the play of an overweight Jones erode so badly, they let him go after just one year.
Ron Gant (1987-94)
Ron Gant was a talented but maddeningly inconsistent threat for the Braves during a critical seven-year period that saw the team quickly transform from doormat to championship contender.
After a promising 1988 rookie campaign, Gant collapsed to a .177 average in 75 games—then followed that up in 1990 by hitting .303 with 32 homers, 84 RBIs and 33 steals. He went 30-30 again in 1991—becoming only the third player, after Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds, to do it twice—but his average sank back to .251. In 1992, Gant’s power also diminished with just 17 total homers, but then he rebounded yet again, collecting a career-high 36 homers and 117 RBIs in 1993. Just one week after being rewarded with a then-record $5.5 million, one-year deal via arbitration for the 1994 season, Gant broke his leg in an ATV accident and was declared out for the entire year; an angry Atlanta club terminated the contract. Gant spent the final nine years of his career playing for seven different teams.
Atlanta Braves Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Braves, decade by decade.
The Braves' Ten Greatest Pitchers: A list of the ten greatest pitchers based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Braves' Ten Greatest Games: A list of ten memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Braves' history.
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