A Brief History
On August 11, 1929, George Herman “Babe” Ruth hit his 500th home run at Cleveland’s League Park, the first major league baseball player to achieve that lofty status. Obviously, Ruth was the greatest long ball slugger of his day, and his career total of 714 home runs was not eclipsed until Hammerin’ Hank Aaron beat it in 1974. Since then, the much reviled Barry Bonds of steroid induced mega-muscles has surpassed Ruth and Aaron both, ending his career in 2007 with an all time best 762 career homers. Today we are going to compare the top 10 sluggers on the all time career home run list, hitting some of the highlights and interesting facts about their careers. You decide who the best homer hitter was. (We say Babe Ruth.)
1. Barry Bonds, 762.
Not only the all time Major League career home run hitter, Bonds also won an incredible 7 National League MVP awards. With a career batting average of .298, he lags a little behind notables such as Ruth and Aaron. His Wins Above Replacement number is second only to Babe Ruth all time (see, second, that is another reason why Ruth is Numero Uno in our estimation). Bonds had never hit 50 home runs in a single season before he exploded with a record 73 homers in 2001, a record that still stands. Unfortunately, Bond’s accomplishments are tainted by his use of steroids and possibly other performance enhancing drugs. Not only did Bonds change from a slender and wiry athlete to a muscle bound juggernaut, even his hat size and shoe size grew significantly! Aside from the obvious and extreme reliance on steroids, Bonds is an unlikable sort famous as a braggart and as an anti-hero. Baseball fans were saddened by Bonds passing the thoroughly respected Hank Aaron as the all time home run leader.
2. Henry “Hank” Aaron, 755.
Hank Aaron was the personification of consistency, never hitting 50 homers in a season and yet piling up his massive total of home runs. He ended the 1973 season with 713 career home runs, one short of Babe Ruth’s then record. A sad commentary on American life at the time, Aaron received numerous death threats during the 1973 season when it was thought he might catch and then break Ruth’s record, and then over the off season and into the 1974 season. Aaron actually feared he would be killed before he could finally eclipse Ruth’s career totals. His .305 career batting average and 2 batting titles are exemplary among these big swingers. Hank is 1 of only 2 batters to hit 30 or more homers in 15 separate seasons. Aaron was the major league career home run leader for 33 years until passed by Bonds. Aaron’s experience with racism also goes back to when he was a player in the old Negro Leagues, in fact, he is the last major leaguer to have been a Negro League player. Now 84 years old, Aaron has a wonderful reputation as a great person as well as a remarkable baseball player. During his career he broke many of Stan Musial’s career National League records, and still has several career Major League records.
3. George Herman “Babe” Ruth, 714.
In our book this Sultan of Swat is the Greatest Baseball Player of All Time, and we consider him the best homer hitter as well. When he was a pitcher, he was one of the very best left handers in the game. In fact, at the age of 35 in 1930, he pitched a complete game shut-out after not having pitched in 9 years! He led the league in homers 12 times, and had a lifetime batting average of .342, by far the best on this list, in fact, an incredible feat for someone that was swinging for the fences virtually every at bat. His career slugging percentage was the all time record .690! His OPS (on base + slugging percentage) is an all time record 1.164. He hit over 50 homers in a season 4 times. His at bats to homer ratio is a second best all time of 11.76, bested only by steroid using Mark McGwire. A terrific bit of Babe Ruth lore is that Ruth, a lumbering ox of a man, actually stole home 10 times in his career. Ricky Henderson achieved the feat only 4 times in his record breaking base stealing career! Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs in 1927 stood for 34 years until Roger Maris slammed 61 taters in 1961 (in a 162 game season vs. the 154 game season Ruth played). In 1927 when he hit those 60 home runs, Ruth batted .356 and had a slugging percentage of .772. The Bambino’s slugging percentages of .847 and .846 in 1920 and 1921 respectively were even better! If Babe Ruth had been an outfielder right from the start of his major league career and had paid even a little bit of attention to health and nutrition, his homer totals may never have been equaled. Another factor in naming Ruth our pick as the greatest homer hitter, is that he hit the longest homers of his day and played in ball parks with longer home run fences than today’s fields. Had he played in modern stadiums, it is estimated he may have hit scores more home runs. Ruth’s pitching career? A record of 94 wins and 46 losses, with a career ERA of 2.28!!! the Babe pitched 3 World Series games, winning all 3 with an ERA of .87. (Not a typo, really, point eight seven.) Ruth was the major league career home run leader for over 50 years, obviously longer than anyone else and broke the single season home run record 4 times in his career. Ruth won a single batting championship with a .378 average in 1924, but only came in second when he hit .393 in 1923! Ruth’s 162 game average of 46 home runs is tops on this list (although Mark McGwire posted 50 homers per 162 games total for his steroid assisted career).
4. Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez, 696.
Another guy caught up in the steroids scandal, A-Rod will forever be cast in a negative light because of his cheating. Too bad, because his career totals are stellar, with a batting average of .295 to go with his 3115 hits and 2085 RBI’s. He won a pair of American League MVP awards, 1 batting championship, and has the all time career record of 25 Grand Slams. He led the AL in homers 5 times and the entire Major Leagues in RBI’s twice. He was a 14 time All Star and did much of his heavy hitting as a shortstop, extraordinary production from that position. A-Rod missed his chance to rank higher on the all time homer list because of being suspended for the entire 2014 season due to involvement with steroid use. He was also a 2 time Gold Glove winner. Even his own team (the Yankees) snubbed A-Rod when he reached the milestone of passing Willie Mays in 2015, creating a controversy about their refusal to honor the accomplishment which included a promised payment of $6 million to the slugger. Yankees’ management claimed they did not have to make the payment because of A-Rod’s full season suspension for Performance Enhancing Drug use (PED) in 2014. Like Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and some other notable players caught up in the PED scandal, Rodriguez may not be inducted into the Hall of Fame for many years to come, if ever.
5. Willie Mays, 660.
Considered by many baseball pundits to be the best all-around player in major league history, Mays was an incredibly enthusiastic player and a hustler, providing a great example for young players. His involvement with a gambling casino after his retirement kept him from participating in baseball events for years, although he was never accused of doing anything wrong. Along with Hank Aaron and Stan Musial, Mays is tied for the all time record of 24 All-Star Game appearances. He also won a record tying 12 Gold Glove Awards. Mays twice hit 50 or more home runs in a season, in 1955 and 1965, that 10 year gap being the longest stretch any player has ever gone between 50 homer seasons. Mays won 2 NL MVP Awards and 1 NL batting championship, ending his career with a sterling .302 batting average, .557 Slugging percentage and a .941 OPS. He drove in 1903 runs. Mays did not put up big numbers of doubles, although one year he managed to leg out 20 triples while only chalking up 26 doubles that season. Mays led the NL in home runs 4 times.
6. Albert Pujols, 632.
Big Al is still an active player in his 18th season as of August 2018, and can still move up a couple notches before retiring. He has been a model of consistency, hitting an average of 38 home runs per year, though he only hit 23 in 2017, though he is hitting dingers at a slightly better rate in 2018 with 18 as of August 9. His career batting average of .303 and slugging percentage of .556 are good marks, but he has never hit 50 homers in one year. Pujols has one batting championship and 2 home run titles to his credit, as well as 3 (NL) MVP awards. Officially 38 years old, Al might really be 40, as his actual date of birth is contested. If Albert stays healthy and plays at a high level long enough, he may be considered as the Homer Hero, but so far he has a ways to go before challenging for the title of Greatest Home Run Hitter.
7. Ken Griffey, Jr., 630.
Like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr. is the son of a pretty good major league ballplayer. Griffey exceeded his father in a fantastic 22 year career but managed only one homer per every 15.5 at bats keeping him off the pace of luminaries such as Babe Ruth. Griffey did have exceptional bat speed, often scoring as the fastest bat in baseball. Oddly enough, this super-star’s actual name is George Kenneth Griffey, Jr. Junior is tied for the most consecutive games with a home run (8) with 2 other players and won 10 Gold Glove Awards. Griffey was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with an all time record 99.32% of the vote, eclipsing the previous record held by pitcher Tom Seaver, so you can see the extreme high regard Ken Jr. is held in. A 13 time All Star and 1 time MVP, Griffey is the father of an NFL player, Trey Griffey (wide receiver) and his daughter Taryn plays college basketball. At the age of 18, Griffey almost prevented his fantastic baseball career by taking almost 300 aspirin tablets in a suicide attempt, but luckily was taken to a hospital and recovered. Baseball fans are forever grateful for the emergency team!
8. Jim Thome, 612.
From Peoria, Illinois, Thome would exasperatedly say, “I’m a city boy!” when fans and sportscasters would refer to him as some sort of hayseed because of his “aw shucks” way of talking and down home good old boy demeanor. A nice guy in real life, Thome was no nice guy to opposing pitchers, as his 600+ homer total indicates. Thome lacks some of the credentials of the other hitters on this list, earning only 5 trips to the All Star Game and 1 Silver Slugger Award. Playing in both the National and American Leagues, Thome was a 1 time NL Home Run Champion, but batted only .276 for his career. Of course, he has been inducted into the Hall of Fame and is also an inductee to the Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies Halls of Fame. Thome also is renowned for his humanitarian efforts. His career OPS of .956 ranks #19 all time. A home run record for Thome to be proud of is the most “walk off” home runs in history, with a career total of 13 such game winning hits. Thome played longer for Cleveland than any other of his total of 6 major league teams.
9. Sammy Sosa, 609.
Sosa only played 18 years of major league baseball, while many of the others at the top of the home run heap played 20 or more years. Sammy slammed 42 homers for every 162 games played, and had an incredible stretch of home run producing years from 1998 to 2002 when he hit 66, 63, 50, 64 and 49 home runs each season. Sosa’s 3 seasons of 60+ homers make him the only major leaguer to ever achieve that level of homer hitting explosiveness in major league history. Can you believe with his numbers Sosa only won 2 home run titles in his career? He was an All Star “only” 7 times and won 1 MVP Award. Sammy twice led the NL in RBI’s, but his accomplishments are tainted by allegations of the use of PED’s. His career batting average of .273 ranks among the lower end for the top sluggers, and his Slugging Percentage and OPS are not competitive with the top marks.
10. Frank Robinson, 586.
Robinson broke into the majors by hitting the then rookie record of 38 home runs his first season in 1956 (broken by Mark McGwire with 49 in 1987 and then Aaron Judge with 52 homers in 2017). Frank went on to a terrific career, including winning the 1966 Triple Crown (Homers, Batting Average and RBI’s) and taking the MVP Award in both the National and the American Leagues, the only player to have done so. Robinson was a 14 time All Star and was the first African American manager of a major league baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, in 1975. Like other Black players of his era, Robinson suffered racial abuse despite his excellence on the field. He did win a Manager of the Year Award and in high school played on the basketball team with future NBA great Bill Russell. Robinson played high school baseball with future major league players Curt Flood and Vada Pinson. When Robinson retired as a player after the 1976 season, he was the 4th most prolific home run hitter in major league history. In 1966, Robinson hit a ball all the way out of Memorial Field in Baltimore, the only time that feat had ever been accomplished. The homer measured 541 feet, one of the longest measured homers in history.
Note: #11 on the list is Mark McGwire, with 583 home runs and the all time best at bats per home run ratio of 10.61 at bats per home run, the only batter to best Babe Ruth in this particular statistic. McGwire also belted 50 home runs per every 162 games played, the all time record in that measure. McGwire’s admitted use of steroids lumps him with the other cheaters and makes him ineligible for the all time homer hitter title in our estimation. How about yours?
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For more information, please see…
Editors. Sports Illustrated Baseball’s Greatest. Sports Illustrated, 2013.
Burleigh, Robert. Home Run: The Story of Babe Ruth. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013.