It’s nearly impossible to appreciate all of the ways that members of the 500 Home Run Club, LLC have influenced and furthered the sport of major league baseball worldwide. One way that is seldom discussed is their early and continued role as Designated Hitters (DH).
In 1973, the American League voted to use a “designated pinch hitter,” whose only duty would be to hit for the pitcher without that pitcher having to be removed from the lineup. In the 1970s, some veteran players extended their careers by becoming a DH for a team and thus not having to play defense on a regular basis.
Frank Robinson was the first member of the 500 Home Run Club to hit a homer as a designated hitter. He spent most of the 1973 season as a DH for the Angels and hit his first at that position (and the 524th of his career) on April 18, 1973. Robinson smacked 58 homers as a DH, including many while serving as a playing manager in Cleveland.
Other 500 Home Run Club members who played games as a DH in the 1970s include Hank Aaron, who moved to the American League after setting the career record in 1974. He played two seasons in the AL and hit all 22 homers in that league as a DH.
Harmon Killebrew hit 21 as the DH from late 1973 through the end of his career in 1975.
Reggie Jackson hit 101 of his 563 home runs as a designated hitter, which was the most by any of the members of the 500 Home Run Club for many years.
Eddie Murray hit the first 12 homers of his career in 1977 as a designated hitter and most of his blasts towards the end of his career at that position. Jackson and Murray are two examples of players who extended their careers by not carrying a glove.
Rafael Palmeiro topped Jackson’s total by hitting 107 home runs as a designated hitter in his career. Most of Palmeiro’s four-baggers after 1999 came as a DH.
A comparison of the careers of Frank Thomas and Alex Rodriguez, the two newest members of the 500 Home Run Club, show a great difference. Thomas, who hit #500 on June 28, 2007, has hit approximately half of his career homers as a designated hitter. His total is more that twice that of any other 500 Home Run Club member.
Alex Rodriguez, who hit #500 on August 4, 2007, has only smacked two blasts as a DH. Thomas, who played first base for much of his career, has benefited from being a hitter who does not take the field. Rodriguez more closely matches players from previous eras who played defense as well as hit in the game. Many hitters like to DH since it is less taxing on them during the game. However, there are also players who prefer to play the field as it keeps their mind in the game more than by just hitting.
Jim Thome, who is closing in on the 500 home run milestone, is also approaching 100 home runs as a designated hitter. Eventually, Thome should be the fourth member of the 500 Home Run Club with at least 100 homers as a DH.
This increase in the number of designated hitters joining the 500 Club is a reflection of one of the changes in the game in the last 35 years. It should not be viewed in a negative (or positive) sense, but merely as the way the game is played in the 21st Century.
David Vincent, “The Sultan of Swat Stats,” is the recognized authority on the history of the home run. He is the author of Home Run: The Definitive History of Baseball’s Ultimate Weapon, published by Potomac Books, Inc.