Who Can Catch Hank Aaron?

by David Fleitz

Can anybody break Hank Aaron's record of 755 home runs?

It's got to be the most difficult undertaking in sports. Lots of players have started out their careers with a lot of home runs, but all have fallen off the pace sooner or later. About fifteen years ago people were saying that Darryl Strawberry might break Aaron's record; look what happened to him.

For example, Albert Belle has hit 321 home runs in his career, and in the last four years has hit 50, 48, 30, and 49 home runs. But because Aaron began his career at age 20 and Belle didn't get to the majors until he was nearly 23, Aaron got a huge lead early. Belle's total of 321 home runs is 77 home runs behind Aaron's total at the same age. Belle will turn 33 years old in August and he's not even halfway to 755! See how difficult it is?

How about Mark McGwire? Aaron, as you can see from the table below, had a head start of almost three years:

   Age      Aaron      McGwire
    20        13          
    21        27          
    22        26           3
    23        44          49
    24        30          32  
    25        39          33
    26        40          39
    27        34          22
    28        45          42
    29        44           9
    30        24           9
    31        32          39
    32        44          52
    33        39          58
    34        29          70

  Total      510         457

It's going to be nearly impossible for McGwire to catch Aaron from behind. He's 53 homers behind at this point, and Aaron had some of his best seasons after his 34th birthday. If only McGwire hadn't been injured in 1993 and 1994, he'd probably be almost even with Aaron right now.

If McGwire plays till age 40, he would have to average 50 homers a year for six years to catch Aaron, which no one has ever done in baseball history. Aaron played the late part of his career in Atlanta's "Launching Pad", while McGwire plays in the much larger Busch Stadium, which doesn't help McGwire at all. If McGwire played in Wrigley Field or Coors Field he'd have a chance, but it looks like he'll end his career with about 600 to 650 home runs.

The most likely player to catch Aaron is Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey was born in November 1969, which made him 28 years old at the end of last season. He's ahead of Aaron at this point of his career:

   Age      Aaron      Griffey
    19                    13
    20        13          22
    21        27          22
    22        26          27
    23        44          45
    24        30          40
    25        39          17
    26        40          49
    27        34          56
    28        45          56

  Total      298         350

Despite missing most of the 1995 season with a broken wrist, Griffey's total of home runs stands at 52 in front of Aaron's total at age 28. By way of comparison, Willie Mays had 250 home runs at age 28, and Mickey Mantle had 320.

Mays (age 28)     250 home runs
Aaron (age 28)    298
Mantle (age 28)   320
Griffey (age 28)  350

Griffey is often compared to Mays; if he merely matches Willie's career home run total from here on out he'll finish with 760 or so home runs. Why? Because Mays ended with 660 home runs, and Griffey is exactly 100 ahead of Mays at the same age. (Willie's total is low because he spent most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the military. If Mays had played those two seasons he, and not Aaron, may have been the first to pass Babe Ruth's record of 714.)

Of course, Willie Mays played until he was 42 years old. Players make so much money now that they don't have to play into their forties to get financial security. Griffey may retire at 35 or so like Michael Jordan did. Still, if Griffey plays until age 40 and averages only 34 homers a year, he'll pass Aaron late in the 2010 season.

Juan Gonzalez was born only one month before Griffey, and also made his major league debut in 1989 at the age of 19. He's ahead of Aaron also:

   Age      Aaron     Gonzalez
    19                     1
    20        13           4
    21        27          27
    22        26          43
    23        44          46
    24        30          19
    25        39          27
    26        40          47
    27        34          42
    28        45          45

  Total      298         301

If Gonzalez plays to age 40, he'd have to average 38 home runs a year to pass Aaron.

Hank Aaron holds one other important major league record. He drove in 2,297 runs in his career, the highest total ever. At the same age, Griffey is ahead of this record, but Gonzalez is behind:

     Mays (age 28)        709 RBI
     Mantle (age 28)      935 RBI
     Gonzalez (age 28)    947 RBI
     Aaron (age 28)       991 RBI
     Griffey (age 28)   1,018 RBI


Press here to return to the Baseball Home Page.

Created: 4/26/99 Updated: 4/26/99