The 500 Crowd Sammy Sosa is the latest to hit his 500th home run. With lots of others in line, is the number losing its luster?

April 13, 2003

In hard currency more than prestige, the value of 500 home runs
has been a source of recalculation ever since Aug. 11, 1929. On
that day Babe Ruth belted a baseball onto Lexington Avenue
outside Cleveland's League Park and, just after crossing home
plate, said to a police officer, "I'd kinda like to have that
one." The officer found the ball to be in the possession of a boy
who didn't want to yield it. So he brought the young man into the
stadium to meet Ruth, who offered him another ball that he had
autographed, and a $20 bill. The Sultan of Swap got his historic
ball. ¶ The first to hit 500, Ruth, who lived to see only Jimmie
Foxx and Mel Ott follow him, could not have known that the 15th
500-homer ball, stroked by Eddie Murray in 1996, would fetch
$500,000. Even so, the Bambino knew the attraction of a number
rounder than himself. Five hundred is the J.Lo of three digits,
with even more curves. The Indy and FORTUNE 500s co-opt the
connotation of power from the number.

Seventy-four years after Ruth founded the 500 Home Run Club,
however, the prestige of the number is being doubted for the
first time in baseball circles. A reassessment is under way, not
just because the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa, member No. 18, joined
the club last Friday with an opposite-field homer off Cincinnati
Reds reliever Scott Sullivan at the week-old Great American
Ballpark. (A 22-year-old fan, Zach Kirk, snagged the ball in the
crowd, rejected an offer of $20,000 from someone in the pile-on
before the blood was dry on his knuckles and has since decided to
sell it on the open market, but apparently Sosa won't be making a
Ruthian-type purchase. "What matters to me is I got 500," the
34-year-old Cubs slugger said. "He caught the ball. Whatever he
wants to do with the ball, God bless him.")

No, the recalibration is due to Doppler-like forecasts that show
Sosa is merely the leading edge of a front in which 500-homer
balls could be dropping like hailstones. Rafael Palmeiro (nine
jacks shy at week's end), Fred McGriff (21) and Ken Griffey Jr.
(31) could join Sosa in an unprecedented foursome this year.
(Griffey's troubled quest suffered yet another setback last
Saturday, when he dislocated his right shoulder while trying to
make a diving catch in a loss to the Cubs, sidelining him for at
least six weeks.) Never before have more than two players hit
number 500 in the same season.

There's more. A dozen additional players, if they maintain their
average home run output from the past four years, are on track to
hit their 500th home run before the decade is up; none will be
older than 38 at the start of his 500th-homer season (chart, page
58). Plus, Larry Walker of the Colorado Rockies will join that
group if he maintains his pace through age 41. All of which
means, when you count Barry Bonds, who whacked number 500 in
2001, there could be more players hitting their 500th home run in
this decade (18) than there were in the previous century (16).

Mike Schmidt, member No. 14, with 548 homers, has suggested that
home runs have become so common that 600 is the new 500 as the
definitive status symbol. Frank Robinson, member No. 11, with
586, has called home run inflation "a disrespect" to greats of
less hitter-friendly generations, such as Hank Aaron and Willie
Mays.

"Inside of 10 years' time," says Cubs president Andy MacPhail,
"we will have reassessed what 500 means, especially as it relates
to getting into the Hall of Fame. It's likely that [hitting 500
home runs] is not going to be automatic anymore."

All 15 members of the 500 Club eligible for the Hall are
enshrined. (Mark McGwire, who will appear on the 2007 ballot, is
a shoo-in after hitting 583; Bonds and Sosa are still polishing
their Fame-certain resumes.) In actuality, the demarcation for
getting your ticket to Cooperstown punched has been 450 home
runs-all 20 Hall-eligible players to reach that number have been
enshrined. That streak will be in jeopardy when Jose Canseco and
his 462 homers come before voters of the Baseball Writers'
Association of America beginning in 2007. A repudiation of
Canseco, who after turning 27 had one 100-RBI season while
appearing in 71% of his games as a DH, would amount to a major
redefining of the elite home run hitter.

McGriff may present the thorniest challenge yet to 500's
prestige, if only because he never hit more than 37 homers in a
season and has played for six organizations. But even in a world
in which Brady Anderson can hit more homers in one season than
Aaron ever did and Jay Buhner can hit 40 dingers more times than
Ted Williams, Willie McCovey or Reggie Jackson did, can there be
any illegitimacy to sustaining power long enough to hit 500?

There can be no doubting that we are witnessing the greatest
extended era of power hitting, a run that began in 1993 with the
first of two expansions in five years. On a per-game basis home
runs last year (2.09) were up 45% from only 10 years before
(1.44). The number of 30-homer hitters has grown from four among
16 teams in 1922 to six among 16 teams in 1952 to 14 among 20
teams in 1962 to 28 among 30 teams in 2002.

For a player to maintain that kind of pace over a long career,
however, remains difficult. Of the 16 players following in the
tracks of Bonds and Sosa toward 500 this decade, how many will
get derailed? Surely some will ultimately be compared less to
Sosa and likened more to Canseco, Albert Belle, Dale Murphy and
Darryl Strawberry--all of whom failed to sustain their power or
health through their 30s.

"Five hundred is legit, still," Cubs manager Dusty Baker says. "A
lot can happen over a career. There are no guarantees. I remember
when Bob Horner was supposed to be a lock. To get that many
you've got to continually make adjustments, and you've got to
keep doing it year after year. It doesn't happen by accident."

Canseco and Palmeiro were born less than three months apart in
Cuba in 1964. By age 24 Canseco had outhomered Palmeiro 111-25.
It was at that time that the Cubs traded Palmeiro to the Texas
Rangers in a nine-player deal in which Chicago's key acquisition
was reliever Mitch Williams. "They didn't give me the chance to
develop," Palmeiro says of the Cubs. "That's O.K. I'll give them
the benefit of the doubt, because they didn't know what they had."

At week's end Palmeiro had hit 466 home runs since that trade.
McGriff had hit all 479 of his homers after the New York Yankees
traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1982. Sosa had hit 499
home runs since future Commander in Chief George W. Bush, then
general partner of the Rangers, oversaw his trade to the Chicago
White Sox in 1989. Of course, on Jan. 3, 1920, after hitting 49
homers with the Boston Red Sox through 1919, Ruth was traded to
the Yankees, for whom he swatted 659. Seventy years later Boston
traded Jeff Bagwell, who has hit all 382 of his homers with the
Houston Astros and someday may join the distinguished company of
500-home-run hitters given up on too early.

Palmeiro, McGriff, Sosa and Bagwell all were first traded before
ballparks, favoring offense and more intimate seating, grew
smaller, and players, through advances in nutrition, training and
supplements, grew bigger. "The way the game is going," New York
Mets lefthander Tom Glavine says, "I think it's safe to say
you're going to see fewer pitchers win 300 games and more and
more hitters hit 500 home runs."

As recently as 1986, 300-game winners outnumbered 500-home-run
hitters 19 to 13. This may become the first season ever in which
the two clubs have equal membership rolls (chart, right), even if
Roger Clemens gets the five wins he needs to become the 21st
300-game winner. Greg Maddux (273 wins) might join him next
season, but only two other pitchers are even on the radar screen
for the rest of this decade: Glavine, 37, who estimates he would
need four or five seasons to get the 57 wins he needs, and Randy
Johnson, 39, who would need to average more than 15 wins a year
through age 44 to pick up the 76 he needs for 300.

In Ruth's day, when the 300 Club outnumbered the 500 Club 11-1,
did anyone devalue 300 wins? And is Sosa less deserving than the
lefthanded-hitting Ott, who hit 63% of his homers in the Polo
Grounds, where the rightfield foul pole stood only 258 feet from
home plate? (No other 500 Club member hit more than 57% of his
home runs at home.) Did anyone suggest that 500 home runs had
become too easy in 1971, when Robinson and Harmon Killebrew
capped a run of seven new members in a seven-year window?

Each of Sosa's 16 plate appearances this season before he slammed
number 500 were charged with excitement, even if Sosa stayed
cool. "It's not like it's going to be my last game," he said two
days before the milestone. "I've got a lot more to do."

Like walking on the moon, becoming a millionaire or running a
sub-four-minute mile, hitting 500 home runs has, no matter its
familiarity by now, an indomitable distinction. "Why do people
want to change what 500 means?" says Mets coach Don Baylor. "Five
hundred is like 2,130 or 56. It's still magic."

For a photo gallery of 500 Home Run Club members, plus Sammy
Sosa's career home run log, go to si.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN GREEN POWER PARADE Sosa (connecting last Friday) could be one of 18 players to reach the 500-homer mark in this decade. COLOR PHOTO: JON SOOHOO (MCGRIFF) GETTING CLOSE McGriff (far left) and Palmeiro (left) may belt their 500ths this year, but Griffey's quest is on hold for now. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO (PALMEIRO) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: AARON HARRIS/AP Clemens

Sluggers ON DECK

Sixteen players hit their 500th home runs in the 20th century.
Eighteen have a chance to do so in this decade alone. Barry Bonds
joined the list in 2001, Sammy Sosa did so last Friday, and here
are the 16 other players who, based on their average homer output
over the past four years, are on track to hit their 500th before
2010 (career home run totals through Sunday).

ETA CAREER AVG. HRs
FOR PLAYER HRs 1999-2002 AGE*
500 THE LINE

2003 Rafael Palmeiro 491 44 38
Still has the same sweet swing
Ken Griffey Jr. 469 30 33
Latest injury may push him to 2004
Fred McGriff 479 30 39
Nearing the end of the line
2004 None
2005 Juan Gonzalez 408 26 35
Pace slowed with 65 HRs in past three
years
Jeff Bagwell 382 40 36
Seven straight years of 30-plus HRs
2006 Frank Thomas 377 23 37
Inconsistency, injuries are concerns
Jim Thome 334 43 35
HRs have increased four straight years
2007 Mike Piazza 347 37 38
Catcher eventually needs position switch
Gary Sheffield 341 35 38
Has made 500 homers a career goal
Manny Ramirez 310 39 34
Signed with Red Sox through 2008
Alex Rodriguez 301 48 31
On track to be youngest to reach 500
2008 Larry Walker 335 28 41
Interest in playing past age 40 a
question
2009 Carlos Delgado 264 39 36
Future DH has six straight 30-HR seasons
Chipper Jones 253 36 36
Has hit 40 homers only once
Shawn Green 235 39 36
Three 40-HR seasons in past four
Jason Giambi 231 39 38
Yankee Stadium porch will help his bid

*Opening Day age for ETA season

A Question of EXCLUSIVITY

The 500 Home Run Club has never had more members than the 300 Win
Club. But even with Roger Clemens (295 wins) and Greg Maddux
(273) on track for 300 and Tom Glavine (243) and Randy Johnson
(224) still in the hunt, that should change this decade as a wave
of sluggers make a run at 500. Broken down by decade, here is a
look at when the 20 pitchers gained their 300th wins and the 18
players hit their 500th home runs, as well as projected numbers
of new members in each club by the end of this decade.

300th 500th
DECADE Win HR
1880s 1 0
1890s 4 0
1900s 2 0
1910s 2 0
1920s 2 1
1930s 0 0
1940s 1 2
1950s 0 0
1960s 2 5
1970s 0 4
1980s 5 2
1990s 1 2

Totals as
of 2000 20 16

Projected
for 2000-09 3 18

Projected totals
through '09 23 34

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)