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What We’ve Got Here is Failure to Communicate

August 4, 2022

Hugh Atkins

Henry Aaron and Paul Newman had something in common. They both lost out on major awards they should have won. Aaron should have won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1959, and Newman should have won the Best Actor Oscar in 1968. I will make a strong case for Aaron just by looking at the numbers, and all you have to do to see that Newman got robbed is watch Cool Hand Luke and In the Heat of the Night.

I have been thinking about Aaron’s 1959 season since the Atlanta Braves radio crew first mentioned that Austin Riley and Matt Olson have a chance at becoming the fourth and fifth players in franchise history to accrue 85 extra base hits in a season. Aaron had 92 in 1959, Chipper Jones had 87 in 1999, and Ed Mathews had 86 in 1953.

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In 1959 Aaron led the majors in hitting with a .355 average, total bases with 400, hits with 223, and slugging percentage at .636. He had 39 home runs, 46 doubles, seven triples, scored 116 runs, and drove in 123; his on base percentage was .401. Despite such a strong season, Aaron finished third in the balloting for the NL MVP Award, which means two other players must have had better years than he did. Well, maybe not.

Mathews finished second in the MVP race. He led the majors in homers with 46. He knocked in 114 runs, batted .306, scored 118 runs, had a .390 on base percentage and a slugging percentage of .593. That’s impressive, but Aaron clearly had a better season.

Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs won the NL MVP Award in 1959. He hit 45 home runs and led the league with 143 RBIs. But Banks had a lower batting average (.304), a lower on base percentage (.374), a lower slugging percentage (.596), had 49 fewer total bases, and scored 19 fewer runs than Aaron. So, why was Banks the MVP?

Sometimes voters take into consideration the contribution a player makes to their team winning, or almost winning, the pennant, but that wasn’t a factor in 1959. The Milwaukee Braves finished the regular season in a tie for first place before losing a tiebreaker series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cubs finished the season in fifth place.

Sabermetricians might look back and argue that Banks led the majors in wins above replacement (WAR) that season, but all that really means is there was a bigger gap between Banks’ stats and those of his fellow shortstops than there was between Aaron and the other right fielders.

Banks likely won the MVP Award because he played in Chicago and Aaron played in Milwaukee, so Banks benefited from a larger media market. Aaron and Mathews, playing on the same team, likely split the Milwaukee vote, so that also hurt Aaron’s chances.

© Warner Bros. Ent.

Getting back to Riley, he was the Player of the Month for July after hitting .423 with 15 doubles, 11 home runs, and 25 runs batted in. If he continues to do well, he could be the NL MVP this year–unless, of course, someone playing in New York has almost as good a season as Riley does.

Henry Aaron won his only MVP Award in 1957. In addition to 1959, I could make a strong argument that he also was the league’s MVP in 1956, 1963, and 1971 and that Paul Newman also should have won the Best Actor Oscar for The Hustler, Hud, and The Verdict–but I’ll leave the last part of that argument to someone who blogs about movies.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference.)

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