Athletes’ Inevitable Decline with Age

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Derek Jeter’s 37th birthday raises the issue of athletes’ inevitable decline with age:

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. Stan Musial, who played till age 42, had his best home-run year at 27. Joe DiMaggio retired at 36 but his strongest season — 46 home runs, 167 runs batted in, .673 slugging percentage — came when he was just 22. Ken Griffey Jr. played through the heart of the steroid era but is one of the few sluggers from that age untouched by scandal. His four best power years were from age 26 to 29.

Steve Sailer believes that’s a bit dogmatic:

We’ve seen evidence of ballplayers in the past who extended their primes into their thirties by working out. Slugging shortstop Honus Wagner peaked in 1908 at age 34, probably because he lifted weights. Ruth got himself a personal trainer after his bad 1925 season and worked out during the winters, so he had his famous 60 homer season in 1927 at age 32.

What about more recent examples of late resurgences?

I could list some, but one of my readers has a theory that the impact of steroids on famous American sports statistics can be traced way, way back before Jose Canseco’s 40-40 season in 1988. All those great seasons from the 1970s, 1960s, or even late 1950s that you think of as shining examples of a more innocent age? All on the juice, he asserts. After all, we know Olympic shotputters and the like were using steroids in the later 1950s, so why not professional athletes?

QB John Hadl has said that the San Diego Chargers strength coach was handing out steroids in the locker room in 1965. Or how about The Juice? O.J. Simpson went from a pretty good high school player in 1964 to the most exciting college football player since Red Grange in 1967. How’d that happen? (When Ken Kesey read about O.J.’s little run-in with the law in 1994, he said: That sounds like a combination of cocaine and steroids.)

Growing up on the West Coast in the 1960s and 1970s, I assumed, like most people, that the outstanding performance of West Coast athletes was simply part of the general shift of money and talent to California. Maybe, but maybe there was also a Venice Muscle Beach / Hollywood / Castro Street gay / Olympic track & field steroids connection to West Coast pro athletes going on.

I don’t think there’s much doubt. The 1963 Chargers led the way:

As training camp approached, Gillman sent letters to his players, explaining that they would be lifting weights and turning the conventional wisdom of decades on its head at Rough Acres. On the first day of camp, he introduced a 5-foot-6 Louisiana man named Alvin Roy, the mastermind of their weight program.

“[Gillman] said, ‘This man is what every team will eventually have: a strength coach,’” says Hall of Fame offensive tackle Ron Mix.

And then Roy addressed the players.

“I still remember his speech, almost verbatim,” Mix says. “He said, ‘Because you’re going to be lifting weights in addition to working out twice a day, you’re going to need more protein.’ And he said, ‘When I was a trainer for the U.S. team in the Olympics, I learned a secret from those Rooskies.’ And he held up a bottle of pink pills, and he says, ‘This stuff is called Dianabol and it’s going to help assimilate protein and you’ll be taking it every day.’ And, sure enough, it showed up on our training tables in cereal bowls.”

Dianabol was the brand name for methandrostenolone, an artificial form of testosterone designed to promote healing and strength in patients. In 1963, it had been on the market for only five years, and used by U.S. weightlifters for fewer than three.

It was legal.

It wasn’t banned by any athletic organization.

And as the players discovered, it worked.

“It was probably at the end of the camp, people were talking: ‘Have you noticed anything?’ Yeah, I noticed,” offensive guard Pat Shea says. “The strength was there.”

This is the same era when they left “bennies” (amphetamines) in a bowl, like M&Ms, for the players to grab on their way in or out of the locker room.

From San Diego, the Chargers’ strength coach moved on to Kansas City, where the Chiefs soon gained a reputation for massive linemen.


  1. Doctor Pat says:

    The story I heard was the other way around. With improved coaching and training methods, it no longer takes a couple of decades to learn all the skills and build all the muscle, so sports stars are becoming younger and younger.

    There is also the fact of increased, consistent, competition. In a sport with a smaller following, or no professional basis, the champ may well be able to hold on for decades, because although there are younger competitors, there is a lack of depth which means there are no great younger competitors. With more and more people trying out for a sport as it becomes lucrative, these winning streaks become shorter and shorter.

  2. Isegoria says:

    If young athletes are getting more high-quality training at a younger age — which sounds perfectly plausible to me — then that would imply shorter careers with a steeper drop-off, since skill-levels wouldn’t still be climbing significantly as physical abilities began to fall.

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