I think of Mays and Aaron as the most tightly coupled of any of the top two dozen players in MLB history: Mays played from 1951 to 1973 (22 years, subtracting his Korean War stint in 1953), Aaron played from 1954 to 1976, 23 years. They were the last two great players to emerge from the Negro Leagues, they both came back to their original MLB city for the last two years of their career. Mays and Aaron each won 1 World Series, and their career offensive numbers are not absolutely parallel, but are very similar, especially if we add in the stats Mays didn’t compile due to missing all of 1953 and most of 1952. Mays was in the top 5 on the MVP ballot in nine seasons; Aaron made that level eight times.

Here are a few stats to note from their careers: Aaron’s batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage: .305, .374, .555. Mays’: .302, .384, .557.

Mays’ homers per plate appearance rate: 5.28%. Aaron’s: 5.415%. Applying Mays’ homer percentage rate to Aaron’s 13,941 plate appearances gives you 736 projected homers for Mays; applying Aaron’s homer percentage rate to Mays’ 12,496 plate appearances gives you 677 projected homers for Aaron.

The low-high swing for Mays’ homers total in a season from his debut in 1951 through 1971 (not counting his 4 homers in 1952) was 13 to 52. (Mays had 14 homers in his last two seasons.) Aaron’s range was 13 to 47, also excluding his last two seasons (when he had 22). Aaron had 8 years in the 40s for homers; Mays had 4 in the 40s and two in the 50s. Mays’ peak steals tallies were 40 and 38 in 1956 and 1957; Aaron got to 31 steals in 1963 and 28 in 1968. Mays’ best five-season homer tally was 226 from 1961 through 1965; Aaron’s best five-season homer tally was 203 from 1969 through 1973.

Aaron’s walk rate was 10%; Mays’ was 11.72%. Mays had five seasons of at least 10 triples, one of them with 20, and Aaron had three seasons of at least 10 triples. Aaron’s OPS+, as measured by Baseball-Reference, was 156; Mays’ was 155. Mays has 13 sacrifice hits on his record, five of them in 1972 and 1973; Aaron has 21, 18 of them in 1954-1956, when he hit a total of 66 homers. Mays was intentionally walked 192 times; Aaron 293 times. (It’s helpful to remember here that Barry Bonds had 688 intentional walks, including 120 in 2004.) As for fielding, leaving other measures aside, Mays won 12 Gold Gloves in a row, 1957-1968, and Aaron won 3 Gold Gloves in a row, 1958-1960. Neither won a Gold Glove outside of those streaks.

Rather than go on, I’ll just say that you can do some more comparisons for yourself by checking Mays’ career stats against Aaron’s career stats.

Compare both players’ peak years to those of Mantle.

When considering peak performance only, Mantle was the superior player of the three.

My favorite method for determining greatness is to take a guy’s top five years. I realize that’s controversial but it’s my preferred method – I think longevity has its place (to quote ML King) but is kind of over-rated. Based on that approach, Mantle is my choice among these three great players. (Similarly, Koufax is my number one choice for pitcher.)

This is all splitting hairs. I’ve seen stats used to make arguments for Mantle as the better of the three or Aaron and here and elsewhere Willie. If it’s done in the spirit of fun rather than seriousness it harkens back to the days when we were kids and we all defended how great our favorite player was and argued all the time about it.

But these three men were in their way so close in their varied excellence that it really means so little to use stats as a way of saying one was better than the other. Seeing them play, day after day counts for something more than stats do. But beyond that, when you reach such high levels of greatness, can’t we just enjoy them without trying to make one less than the other.

Neither were my favorite players. I idolized Roberto Clemente all of my youth. But I knew he was not on the level of Mays, Aaron and Mantle. That was clear. It didn’t lessen my love for him. He was great enough in his own way and could do things neither men could do. Mays, Aaron and the Mick each could do things the others could not do. Let’s leave it at that, but heck you merely proved that the two men were almost exact in most of their offensive categories. Leave it at that and appreciate the greatness of each.

Please! Aaron had 400 more hits, 400 more RBI’s, 100 more HR’s, more total bases and struck out less! F-Mantle! Aaron and May’s careers were during the same era! Apples-to-Apples!