The mythology is that old-time players, who did not lift weights and knew nothing about nutrition, had mercilessly short careers. And that today’s players, who condition themselves year-round — often with the help of private trainers, the most up-to-date scientific methods, nutritionists and massage therapists — play longer and have more years of peak performance. It makes sense. It’s also not true.
With more rigorous drug testing, a typical baseball career is beginning to look again as it did throughout the game’s history. Journeymen players stay in the game until their early- or mid-30s, and all-star-level players maybe a couple of years beyond that. A handful of superstars retain enough skills to make significant contributions into their late 30s. Those with the most talent almost certainly lose their skills at the same rate as lesser players, but they stay in the game for a long time because 85 percent of a superstar is still a very good player.
The rotund, hard-living Babe Ruth was a productive player until age 39. Older baseball fans remember Willie Mays’s sad last years with Mets, when he was past 40 and couldn’t play anymore, and may assume that he hung on far too long. But at age 40, while still playing for the San Francisco Giants, Mays led the league in on-base percentage and stole 23 bases.
Even the game’s greatest players, though, cannot defy biology. However long they play, their best seasons occur when they are still strapping young men in all their fast-twitch glory.