500 home runs not what they used to be; 21 now at that figure

In 1960, only Babe Ruth,
Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx and
Ted Williams reached 500.


There was a time — long, long ago — when 500 home runs meant immortality. Honest. Kids, ask your dad about it.

Only the best got to 500 home runs. Only the ones sure to give speeches in Cooperstown. Heck, Lou Gehrig didn’t even hit 500.

But a lot of people have lately. Twenty-one in all, the latest being Frank Thomas last week. Fittingly, it didn’t seem to generate nearly as much buzz as Craig Biggio’s 3,000th hit, achieved the same night.

“When I became a baseball fan in 1960,” e-mails Bill James, “only three players had 500 career homers — Babe Ruth, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx. But Ted Williams hit 500 that year, and within 15 years there were 10 players who had 500 plus ... Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, Killebrew.

“So obviously, hitting 500 home runs didn’t have the same impact in 1975 that it had in 1960.”

Because it’s home runs, and because we are now officially knee-deep into the Steroids Era, the easy thing is to say drugs have ruined the mystic power of 500 home runs.

And it’s true that the 500-homer club may be a little tainted by finger-wagging Rafael Palmeiro, can’t-talk-about-the-past Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who once momentarily forgot his English on Capitol Hill.

All not linked to steroids

But Thomas has never been linked to steroids. And neither have the three other players who may hit No. 500 this season — Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. If all three reach 500, it will mean 10 new members to the 500-homer club in 12 seasons after just 14 in the first 120 or so years of major-league baseball.

So, forgive baseball fans if they’re just a little too homered out to throw a big party for No. 500 anymore.

“One consequence of the BALCO era is a change in the Hall of Fame standards,” wrote Ted Robinson on baseballthinkfactory.org. “Hitting 400 home runs used to mean automatic entry into baseball’s shrine. Dave Kingman and Darrell Evans were the first to cause the bar to be raised to 500 home runs. In future elections, when the achievements of this era are judged, home-run inflation will likely raise the level to 600.”

Ballplayers respect 5o0

There is one group of people who still feel strongly about the importance of 500 home runs: ballplayers.

Ken Griffey Jr. is at 585 and counting, so he’s got some credibility here.

“I hear a lot about the pitchers and the parks,” he says, “but you still have to hit the ball, hit it hard and hit it far.”

Thome might end up the unwitting Cooperstown test case of 500 home runs. He will likely retire without any MVP awards to boost his candidacy like Thomas, nor any steroid allegations to taint it like Palmeiro, McGwire and Sosa.

His election will likely ride on the importance voters give 500 home runs. He says it’s not for him to decide whether he’s a Hall of Famer, but he’s not about to apologize for whatever his career home-run total ends up being.

“I know how hard it’s been to get to this point,” he says. “I know how much work you have to put in — in good and bad times. People are always going to have their opinions. I think it’s something, if you look at the guys who’ve done it, it’s not an easy number to get to.”

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