Congratulations to Barry Bonds for surpassing Hank Aaron's all-time total of 756 home runs this month. If you are a sports fan you have heard the story at least 100 times: "After the age of 35 ‘at a time that should have been the end of his career" his home run production skyrocketed; astonishingly between ages 35-39, he posted five of his six most prolific home run seasons[1] in his career; and coincidentally, the very year before his sudden rise there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that he took performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) "perhaps even out of jealousy of one of his baseball peers receiving more adulation." Of course, we are talking about Hank Aaron.

1) The Holy Hank Myth: Usually history waits for Americans, particularly African-Americans, to die or become disabled before anointing sainthood or revising their legacy in a way that distorts their true modern day relevance. Martin Luther King has been transformed from relentless confrontational activist into a hopeful dreamer. In this 60th anniversary of the breaking of baseball's color barrier, people pay homage to Jackie Robinson's on-field integration, but forget about his ongoing fight against discrimination in sports management right up until his premature death. And like Dr. King on Vietnam, we don't have to listen to Muhammad Ali rail against the war in Iraq, nowadays we could just cuddle with him instead. However, because of their urgent need for the ultimate "anti-Bonds", the mainstream sports media has grown restless on waiting for the 73 year old Aaron to kick the bucket or slip in the bath tub.

And while Aaron's legacy has been largely ignored for the last 30 years[2], honors, tributes, and magazine covers have flourished that now endlessly praise the "dignity", "honor", and "grace"of "The People's King". Fortunately, these pieces by Tommy Craggs from Slate and D.K. Wilson and Jonathan Weiler from The Starting Five (TSF) have cut in on the canonization-in-progress. Not surprisingly, it was on one of my daily blog check-in with TSF, where I first learned that Hank Aaron once tried amphetamines. Technically speaking, I knew about Hank's not-so-hidden-secret way back in 1992! That was when I first bought, read, and subsequently forgot his excellent autobiography ("I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story"). To refresh my memory I dug up and dusted off, my yellowed, dog-eared, and old-book-smelling paperback this past week. On page 268, Aaron states:

"The 500thhome run came against Mike McCormick of the Giants, which meant that Willie Mays was on the field at the time. Willie elected not to have his picture taken with me that day, saying it wasn’t appropriate for him to fraternize with a player whose team had just beaten the Giants. For years Willie had been king and I'm sure that he wasn't crazy about me elbowing into his territory. Most fans and critics still considered Willie to be a better player than me. It seems like the only ones who took up my cause were my teammates. Guys like Uecker and Boyer used to argue with the visiting writers who didn't think I belonged in the class with Mays. It made me feel a little awkward to sit by my locker and hear them going on like that, but don't think I didn't appreciate it. [new paragraph begins] Actually, the 1968 season wasn't the best time to present my case. It was the first time since my rookie year that I didn't drive in or score 100 runs. I was so frustrated that at one point I tried using a pep pill ”a greenie” that one of my teammates gave me. When that thing took hold, I thought I was having a heart attack. It was a stupid thing to do". 

Hank is not the only author with a personal confession: When I was 19, susceptible to peer pressure, and in the middle of an emotional slump, I was offered and tried cocaine for the only time in my life. When that thing took hold, I thought that I was having a heart attack. It was a stupid thing to do…

It would be nice to state that my "strength of character" was greater than other continuing-users who had, let's just say, a less adverse reaction. But the plain truth is that I was easily able to blow off "blow"because of that initial negative experience. This personal flashback and many questions came to my mind when reading page 268, including: "Why have hardly any mainstream sportswriters mentioned this Aaron passage? What if Hank had LIKED the effect of "greenies"  the performance enhancer of choice back in his day? And even if one believes that Hank discontinued its use beyond that one time, doesn't the fact that he TRIED them during slumping hard times tell us that his psychology around PED's from a moral perspective is no different from today's steroid user? Finally, if Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, co-authors of the "Game of Shadows", were writing an Aaron expose, would they open their book with the same juicy Aaron as jealous of Mays"soap opera narrative as the "Bonds-Mark McGwire" one? So many questions, so few answers! So instead of speculating away, let's get to the concrete meat and potatoes on what we do know about for sure: HOME RUNS.

2) The Hank Home Run Consistency Myth: From nearly every sports-writing quarter and even Aaron himself, we have heard that the primary reason for Aaron’s mark of 755 is because of his yearly home run “consistency”. However, statistically speaking, a stronger case can be made that Aaron was an INCONSISTENT home run hitter. From '56-'58, he went from 26 to 44 to 30 home runs; from '63 to '64 he dropped from 44 to 24; and from '68 to '69 he went from 29 to 44 [3]. A look at the world's most valuable sports website– Baseball-Reference.com will show that Aaron's yearly home run totals jumped or declined by at least 12 home runs on EIGHT separate occasions despite a remarkably consistent number of year-to-year at bat totals. In contrast, neither Bonds, Ruth, nor Mays exceeded five yearly 12-HR fluctuations[4]. So how exactly did he end up with 755? The GREATEST SINGLE REASON that Aaron became home run king is his late career home run production.

3)The Post-35 Production Myth and The New 700 Club: Carlton Fisk shattered his previous home run high (26) by smacking 37 at age 37; Ted Williams hit .388 at 38, and Hank posted his career-best home-run-or at-bat ratio when he belted 40 while approaching 40.  Hank’s personal achievement came some 30 plus years before the Game of Shadows’ authors made the phrase “at what should have been the end of his baseball career…” part of the lexicon and PowerPoint slide show of sports journalists across the land. J.C. Bradbury – of SABERNOMICS– reminds us that Hank’s 1973 season capped off his most prolific 5-year power stretch of his career. But more specifically:

– During his first 15 years, Aaron averaged 34 home runs by belting 1 per 17.4 at-bats.

– Between ages of 35 – 39, Aaron averaged 41 home runs a year on 1 per 11.8 at bats.

In 2007, this data alone might signify an open-and-shut steroids case. Aaron hit 245 home runs after the age of 35, more than any other player in baseball history prior to Bonds. To illustrate the significance of this growth, Aaron’s latter-career home run production has been substituted for the post-35 totals of many other all-time home run greats. With adjustments, here is our brand new 13 member 700 Home Run Club:

787 – Willie Mays
784 – Sammy Sosa
772 – Jimmie Foxx
761 – Babe Ruth
755 – Hank Aaron
746 – Ken Griffey Jr.
741 – Mickey MantleÂ
738 – Eddie Matthews
732 – Harmon Killebrew
720 – Frank Robinson
709 – Lou Gehrig
708 – Mel Ott
702 – Mark McGwire
690 – Barry Bonds

Once again, Willie steals Hank's glory!

The list also casts early career burnouts Jimmie Foxx and Eddie Matthews (who batted behind Hank for most of his career) in a more respected historical light. The new list also proves that Aaron, to his credit, became king by outlasting the rest. While some players age differently (Mays), many greats decline because they drank too much (Ruth, Foxx, Mantle); had ongoing injuries (Ott, Killebrew, McGwire), or contracted Lou Gehrig's disease (Lou Gehrig:-).

Also, prior to the late 1980s, weight-training in baseball was shunned upon, nutrition was spelled H-O-T- D-O-G, and booze was as much a part of baseball as chewing tobacco, peanuts, and crackerjack. When Aaron hit #755, he established this new record by hitting 47 more than Ruth after age 35. Beyond Ruth, Aaron more than DOUBLED history's next nearest post-35 home run competitor at that time (Mays at 118). If Bonds were to distance himself with Aaron by the same exact post-35 home run margin (127) that Aaron did with Mays, he would end his career with 817 home runs. From a statistical perspective, Bonds has taken Aaron's crown in the very same fashion that made Aaron the home run king in the first place.

Conclusion: The personalities of Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds might be different, but just about everything else about their career trajectory is uncannily similar. But the mainstream sports media has omitted half of Hank's story and distorted the other half. Barry gets non-stop journalistic investigations into his potential use of performance enhancing drugs, and Aaron's admitted use, and what that admission signifies, does not get any thoughtful or meaningful attention, if even mention. Aaron's home runs become a mark of consistency, when the data shows the exact opposite to be the case. And while Hank's unprecedented late-career home run prowess is only viewed with reverence, Barry's before-unseen post- 35 power is only viewed as evidence.

How much Bonds may or may not have benefitted from performance enhancing drugs is up for debate, but whether Aaron has benefitted from performance enhancing coverage is not. A closer look at Hank helps us to discover the truth about our national sports media. When history is reviewed not revised, when Aaron is restored as human not holy, and when home run statistics are analyzed for precision not prosecution, we also discover the truth about Hank: Aaron is not the "anti-Bonds", he is "the pre-Bonds".

 

Related: Barry Bonds 101: The Starting Five Rolls 12 Deep… TWICE!: This link is the MIA in MSM Barry Bonds primer. 

Sports Illustrated’s Curious COVERage of Barry Bonds Series

PART 1 – The Pre-BALCO Covers (above link)

PART 1A – Giving Sports Illustrated* and Rick Reilly Their DueÂ

PART 2Â -Â The Asterisk Covers (coming soon)

PART 3Â -Â The Home Run Covers (715 & 755)

OTHER -Â Rick Reilly is a Dork and Why it Matters


[1]Home runs totals as defined as percentage of home runs per at bat.

[2] Up until his two cover appearances this past year, Hank Aaron has never made the cover of Sports Illustrated since his retirement. That might not seem like a big deal when you realize that since Hank's retirement Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle have made the cover 5 times with Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, and, of course, Babe Ruth each making appearances.

[3] It should also be noted that the pitching mound was lowered that year which also might have contributed to this increase. However, it should also be noted that his longtime contemporary Willie Mays experienced no increase in production.

[4] This data does not include thruway season where player had major decrease/increase in at-bats (minimum of 100) due to injury (i.e. Bonds 2005), war (i.e. Mays 1952, 53); or other (Ruth 1918; 1925).