This is the fifth installment of the terrific series by Chris Mays, highlighting several times that Hank Aaron faced racism. These were originally posted on his blog, The 8 Things, and are reprinted here with permission.
One of the most common slurs hurled at African-American athletes is to call them "natural" athletes, while white athletes were portrayed as "thinking" athletes. You saw it in the NBA in the 1980s where Larry Bird was the thinking champion, but Magic Johnson was the natural athlete. You see it in the NFL, especially when talking about quarterbacks. (The single most egregious offense in the NFL is the continued bias against African-American quarterbacks.) You certainly saw it when talking about Hank Aaron the hitter.
Ted Williams is considered the most scientific of hitters, and for good reason. He broke down hitting to a science, as explained in his book, Science of Hitting. Williams broke down everything he believed a hitter needed to do in order to be a successful major league hitter. Williams would dissect the batting stance, how you shift your weight during your swing, and why your swing shouldn't be level. He was held up as the thinking man's hitter.
In the 1950s and the 1960s, the same terms were never used to describe African-American ballplayers. Hank Aaron seemed to face the bias more than anyone. Articles written about Aaron would talk about his strong wrists and the pure strength he used to whip his bat around. One particular article even had a sub-heading saying that "Hank Aaron doesn't go in for 'scientific hitting'". In a way, Aaron was a natural "swinger". He didn't worry too much about the part he played in every at-bat because he had enough confidence in his own ability to swing a bat. Don't believe that this means Hank wasn't a thinking hitter.
Aaron's main preoccupation with hitting concerned the pitchers. He would study them. He knew their release points. He knew which pitches they like to throw and when they were mostly likely to throw them. He would sit up nights thinking about the next day's starting pitcher. From the moment he would wake up every morning, he was thinking about the pitcher he would face in the evening. Aaron and Williams were both "thinking" hitters ... they just thought about different things.
One thing to consider, Aaron was not the only great hitter of the era who was more preoccupied with the pitcher he was facing rather than the mechanics of his swing. The great Stan Musial was no different. He and Aaron would meet up at the batting cages whenever the Braves would play the Cardinals and discuss hitting. Other players would get near them and keep quiet to try and learn from these two masters. If Aaron was a purely natural hitter, why would these other players be so interested in what he has to say?
My primary source for the information in this series is Hank Aaron's 1991 autobiography, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, co-written with Lonnie Wheeler.