40 years ago today, a new home run king was crowned. Hank Aaron, 40 years old at the time took Al Downing deep for the 715th home run of his career, breaking Babe Ruth's record. In the four decades since only one other player--Barry Bonds--has hit as many in his career. Bonds, of course, would up with 762, seven more than Aaron.
Both needed late career surges to get there. Bonds averaged 52 home runs per year from age 35 through 39, belting 258 in all. Aaron averaged 41 per season over the same age span, adding 203 to his career total. Ruth was not far off, hitting 192 from age 35 to 39, though his run followed a more natural age pattern as his home run totals dropped every year, falling from 49 at 35 to 22 at 39.
(Ruth was very nearly matched by the ageless Rafael Palmeiro, who cranked 190 big flies from ages 35 to 39 and has the fourth most home runs in that age bracket. I never would have guessed who was fifth: none other than Andres Galarraga)
It's not surprising that the three greatest home run hitters of all-time were also the three best home run hitters from age 35 to 39. Most sluggers begin to experience a power drop-off in their early 30s, so anyone who can average 40-50 home runs in his late 30s is truly remarkable.
I guess my point is that in order to have what can be considered one of the best careers of all-time, you have to remain elite into your late 30s. It's not enough to be great when you're young because almost all great players are great when they're young. What separates the best from the rest is the ability to stay healthy and retain your skills as you approach 40. Most players fall apart and retire. The best keep plugging along without skipping a beat.
Aaron always said the home run chase was incredibly draining and took a lot out of him. Based on his numbers in the years leading up to his achievement, you wouldn't have thought so. But I do find it interesting that after Aaron broke the record, he got old very quickly. He hit 20 home runs in 1974--half as many as the season before--and posted the second-lowest batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS, and OPS+ of his career. The Braves, perhaps sensing he was slipping, traded him to the Brewers so he could finish his career in Milwaukee. In his time with the Brewers he was merely a shell of his former self--not even DHing could revive his bat--and he called it quits at 42. Starting the day after he broke Ruth' record, Aaron hit .244 and slugged .397 over the remainder of his career. I guess even the best old players get too old at some point.