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The 500 Club

Gary Sheffield joins the club

Gary Sheffield hitting his 500th home run

Gary Sheffield hit his 498th and 499th career home runs last September 26th as a Detroit Tiger, but just before the start of the 2009 season a few weeks ago, the Tigers dropped him. The Mets signed him soon thereafter, and on Friday night he hit his 500th home run, becoming the 25th member of the 500 club. It’s still a fairly exclusive club, but everyone knows it ain’t what it used to be, and many blame steroids. Perhaps one should simply blame the passage of time.

In recent years, as each new member has entered the club, I’ve recalled how I once thought it would always be limited to a handful of players. I used to know every member and his home run total. Indeed, what I remember is when there were exactly four members. I thought of their home run totals as iconic, as fixed points in the universe. Ruth 714, Foxx 534, Williams 521, Ott 511. That’s it. No room for more. No need for more. I didn’t understand how the present becomes the past, or how quickly it becomes the past. But here we are, nearly 50 years later, and I don’t even try to remember the new iconic numbers. I did for a while. I can’t do it anymore.

Yesterday I turned to baseball-reference.com to look up the admission dates. I knew the first three members entered before I was born. And I knew the fourth, Williams, would have done so just about at the point when I started following baseball avidly, though I have no memory of his entrance. I just remember taking the 521 figure as a given. I knew his last season was 1960, my first season, but I wasn’t into statistics just yet. On looking at his home run list, I found that he hit #500 in that last season, on June 17. By the time I started studying career data, the next year, 521 was already fixed in the record books.

A gap of over five years followed, five years that deepened my appreciation of Ruth and Foxx and Ott and Williams, of 714 and 534 and 521 and 511, names and numbers that would stand out forever. Then came the first big wave, great players all, squeezing through the door seemingly at once. Ruth started the club in 1929. Foxx arrived in 1941. Ott in 1945. The 15-year gap to Williams is the longest ever. But Mays arrived in 1965, Mantle and Matthews in 1967, Aaron in 1968, Banks in 1970, Killebrew and Robinson in 1971. Membership had gone from 4 to 11 in six years. Six years exactly! Mays joined on September 13, 1965, Robinson on September 13, 1971. New names to remember, famous all. And new numbers too, though I had to wait a while for them to stop hitting home runs before I could commit the new numbers to memory. 660. 536. 512. 755. 512 again. 573. 586.

The club was looking pretty full. There wouldn’t be room for more than a handful unless a new wing was built. And for a while it didn’t look like the new wing would be needed. McCovey entered in 1978, eventually stopping at one of those iconic numbers, 521. Jackson came in 1984 and Schmidt in 1987 (reaching 563 and 548). Then another extended break until 1996, when Murray slipped in before calling it quits the next season at 504.

We all know what came next. All of a sudden, that new wing was needed, but people are still fighting over the plans, with some suggesting that the new wing be built in hell. Here are the latest arrivals: McGwire (1999), Bonds (2001), Sosa (2003), Palmeiro (2003), Griffey (2004), Thomas (2007), Rodriguez (2007), Thome (2007), Ramirez (2008), Sheffield (2009). Something seems to have changed. Ten new members between August 1999 and April 2009, an average of one a year. Mind you, seven new members joined in a six-year span between 1965 and 1971, so this rate of entry is not in itself damning. But there were those steroids, and the numbers are tainted. Several of these players are still active, so their final numbers aren’t in yet, but here are the numbers through yesterday: McGwire 583, Bonds 762, Sosa 609, Palmeiro 569, Griffey 613, Thomas 521 (another 521!), Rodriguez 553, Thome 543, Ramirez 527, and of course Sheffield 500.

The rush would appear to be over, steroids or not. I forgot to mention a fifth iconic number. 493. That’s where Gehrig stopped in 1938. He would play 8 games in April of 1939, but then his eponymous illness forced his retirement. McGriff would stop at that same total in 2004. Musial and Stargell stopped at 475. Delgado should get in, late this year or early next year. He hit 38 last year to reach 469 and has 3 already this season. Chipper Jones is next among active players at 409. I’m guessing he won’t make it. I’m guessing the next few active leaders won’t either. We’ll have to wait a few years after Delgado joins, but then Albert Pujols (now at 323) will arrive. That might just be it for the next decade.

Meanwhile, we can turn our attention to the 600 and 700 clubs.

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