Baseball royalty gathered Saturday at the Riviera Country Club, where 1,623 home runs in the form of Henry Aaron and Sadaharu Oh sat side by side in a cramped news conference room, the long-ball count swelling to 2,209 when Frank Robinson walked in a little late.
Both Aaron, 77, and Oh, 71, in Los Angeles for a World Children’s Baseball Fair 20th anniversary luncheon, were introduced as “home run kings,” even though Oh, who used his trademark “flamingo” leg kick to hit 868 homers in Japan from 1959 to 1980, is the only crown-holder of the two.
Aaron slugged 755 homers for Milwaukee and Atlanta from 1954 to 1976, surpassing Babe Ruth’s record of 714 amid hate mail and death threats in 1974 and holding the top spot for 33 years.
That mark was surpassed in 2007 by Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants slugger who in April was convicted of obstruction of justice for impeding a grand jury investigation into illegal steroid distribution.
The trial capped a seven-year probe that focused on Bonds’ denial under oath about knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs.
Though Bonds escaped more serious charges -- the jury deadlocked on three counts of perjury -- most consider his record of 762 homers tainted and believe Aaron to be the true standard bearer.
“There is a player who hit more home runs than I did -- I feel like it’s his record, and that’s the end of it,” Aaron said. “Records are made to be broken, and it just so happens Barry broke mine. Whatever things he has to live with other than that, that’s his problem. I have no other problem with it.”
“In my mind, Hank is the home run king, no question,” said Robinson, who ranks ninth all-time with 586 homers. Asked to elaborate, Robinson said, “I don’t want to get into that.”
Aaron, who is walking with the help of a cane, has tread lightly on the topic of Bonds, at least publicly.
He distanced himself from Bonds’ pursuit of the record, rejecting numerous overtures to be on hand for the event, and he declined most interview requests as Bonds closed in on his mark.
As Howard Bryant wrote in his 2010 biography, “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron,” if the slugger spoke out against Bonds “he risked the criticism that he was a bitter old man who could not deal with his record being broken.”
And if Aaron supported Bonds, “he would be tacitly condoning steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.”
Muddling the situation was the fact that Aaron’s friend of 50 years, Commissioner Bud Selig, who also attended Saturday’s luncheon, was under attack for not acting swiftly and decisively to purge steroids from the game.
“A blistering indictment of steroid use would indirectly be a criticism of his ally and Selig’s handling of the situation,” Bryant wrote.
Aaron agreed to tape a congratulatory message to Bonds, which played on the stadium video board in San Francisco after the milestone homer, but he was asleep in his Atlanta-area home when Bonds hit it.
Aaron on Saturday declined to answer a question about players snubbed by Hall of Fame voters for admitted (Mark McGwire) or alleged (Rafael Palmeiro) steroid use, but made clear his opinion about cheaters when asked what he tells kids.
“The No. 1 thing you want to instill in them is there are absolutely no shortcuts in life,” Aaron said. “If they start thinking that to be successful you have to do something crazy like drugs and all this other stuff there are no shortcuts.”
Aaron and Oh co-founded the WCBF in 1990 but have been friends since 1974, when the two staged a home run derby in front of 40,000 in Korakuen Stadium, now the Tokyo Dome.
“I didn’t even bring a bat -- I thought I was going over there to have a good time,” Aaron said. “When we got off the plane, there must have been 5,000 reporters at the airport and another 5,000 at a press conference.”
The New York Mets were playing an exhibition series in Tokyo, so Aaron borrowed an Ed Kranepool bat for the derby, which he won, 10-9.
“It was more fun than anything else,” Aaron said. “Since that day, we’ve stayed in touch. We’ve made commercials together. I made a lot of friends in Japan.”
Aaron said he has no doubts Oh “could have held his own in the major leagues,” and Oh recalled being very impressed by Aaron that night.
“A lot of people were concerned about winning the derby,” Oh said through a translator. “I was just grateful for his presence in Japan, for Hank to be in uniform, to show the Japanese fans and kids how great a person and player he is.”