Along with being the players that generations of fans have looked up to, 500 Home Run Club® LLC members were [are], themselves, baseball enthusiasts - as in awe of their heroes [and their contemporaries] as other fans.
When you spend your life playing the game you love, at a very high level, it makes you even more appreciative of the challenges and hurdles that must be overcome to continue to play in the major leagues year-after-year. "When you're a kid, what fun the game is! You grab a bat and glove and ball, that's it," said an admiring Braves great Eddie Mathews during the twilight of his outstanding career. "I [now] know what Ted Williams meant when they said it got tougher to get in shape every year."
Mathews, a teammate of Hank Aaron with the Braves said: "I don't know where Hank Aaron will break (Babe) Ruth's record but I can tell you one thing - ten years from the day he hits it three million people will say they were there."
During their time in Milwaukee, Mathews and Aaron fed off of each other's success and were each other's biggest supporters. "We (Eddie Mathews and he) weren't jealous of each other at all. That's one reason we were so successful," Aaron said.
But even "Hammerin Hank", one of the most awe inspiring sluggers to ever hold a bat, modeled himself after other players. "I had read so much about Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson, that I had put those guys on a pedestal. They were something special. I really thought they put their pants on different, rather than one leg at a time," Aaron said.
When the opportunity presented itself, young Hank was happy to showcase his skills for his hero. "The first time I saw Ted was when I hit a homer in an exhibition game against the Red Sox. Ted came up to me after the game and said 'I was in the clubhouse when I heard the crack of the bat and I said - Lord, I've gotta go look!" said an appreciative Aaron. "I'd always heard about Williams' baseball savvy, and right then and there, I could appreciate exactly what he meant."
Contemporaries of "Hammerin' Hank" certainly appreciated his skill and the positive impact that he had on the game. "Aaron is the best ball player of my era," said Mickey Mantle. "He is to baseball of the last fifteen years what Joe DiMaggio was before him. He's never received the credit he's due."
Mantle, himself, was honored by a passing comment by Jackie Robinson after the 1952 World Series. "You're going to be a great player kid," Robinson said. "That meant a lot to me at the time, and even more later on," said The Mick. "Jackie had a certain grace and natural talent. He was born to play ball."
Willie McCovey and Willie Mays were good friends and mutual admirers during their days with the San Francisco Giants. But "Willie Mac", who was known for his quick wit, joked about his legacy compared to the "Say Hey Willie". "Somebody asked me why my statue was taller than Willie's Mays' and I asked him 'Haven't you ever seen us standing side by side? I'm taller than Willie Mays. That's why.' "
It says a lot about your game when Ted Williams is a fan. "They invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays," Teddy Ballgame was heard to say. And Reggie Jackson, who grew up admiring Mays batting prowess said: "You used to think if the score was 5-0, Willie Mays would hit a five-run homer."
For his part, Mays couldn't help but boast about another Giants great, Barry Bonds, who just happens to be his god son. "Barry Lamar Bonds was the best player of the 90's," Mays said. "His combination of power and speed have been matched only by his godfather."
The other player who was arguably the best player of the 90's, Ken Griffey, Jr. shys away from comparisons with the all-time greats. "Anytime you are mentioned with Hank Aaron, it is the ultimate compliment, not only as a hitter, but obviously, the great ballplayer that he was and gentleman that he is," said The Kid.
The ever-diplomatic Aaron was also hesitant to steal the glory from his predecessors. "I don't want them to forget (Babe) Ruth, I just want them to remember me!" Aaron said. Of course no one ever will.
Likewise Red Sox legend Jimmie Foxx wasn't about to speak ill of Ruth's legacy in Boston. "If I had broken Ruth's record it wouldn't have made any difference. Oh, it might have put a few more dollars in my pocket, but there was only one Ruth."
That sentiment was echoed decades later by Mark McGwire, when he was asked about his attack on (and eventual acquisition of) the single-season home run record. "Babe Ruth, what can you say? You are almost speechless when people put your name alongside his name. I wish I can go back in time in meet him. Obviously, he was probably the most important sports figure in the world at that time. Hopefully, someday when I pass away, I get to meet him, and then I can really find out what he was really like" - Mark McGwire
"Mr. October" Reggie Jackson, couldn't help but express his awe of Ruth's achievements. "Babe Ruth was the greatest home run hitter who ever lived. I'm just lucky. There will never be another Babe Ruth. Jackson said, before adding with a smile. "They named a candy bar after him."
While spending the second half of the 1998 season joined in a lock-step pursuit of Roger Maris' single season MLB home run record, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Slammin' Sammy Sosa formed a two-man mutual admiration society.
"What he and I have been doing is fantastic. What we've done nobody in the game has done for thirty-seven years. I'm pretty happy with the way things have been going," McGwire observed. Wouldn't it be great if we just ended up tied? I think it would be beautiful," said a smiling Big Mac, before adding seriously. "Sammy's a September player, so you have to watch out for him. It's crunch time, time to make history."
Sosa's made his feelings about McGwire known with his simple, and often repeated saying ""Mark (McGwire) is the man." After the year, Sosa showed that he had no hard feelings for being beat about by his friendly advisary when he said: "Mark (McGwire), you know I love you. It's been unbelievable. I know you are watching me and I know you have the same feelings for me as I have for you in my heart."
Other 500 Home Run Club members couldn't help by chime in with their observations of the dynamic '98 duo. "Mark McGwire's arms are bigger than my legs," Harmon Killebrew said with genuine esteem. "
While McGwire and Sosa dominated the headlines, Ken Griffey, Jr. quietly kept moving up on the all-time leader board, and his evident joy on the field make him extremely popular with other players.
"We love Ken Griffey, Jr. because he is everything we would like to be. He's young, he's good-looking, he's got the best smile in the world, and he's a heroic athlete. He is a shot in the arm for baseball," said Reggie Jackson. "He comes to work with more tools in the box than anybody in the game, and he is precisely what this game needs right now. He's creating excitement and making headlines just by his presence. There hasn't been anyone like that since...Reggie Jackson."
When asked about his favorite current MLB slugger, Ken Griffey points to the man who is following his up the active leader list and who shared a clubhouse with him in Seattle, A-Rod. "Alex is playful, enthusiastic, and cheerful. He's fun to have around." Junior says. "The sky's the limit with Alex. He is a natural."
Rodriguez's Yankees' teammate Derek Jeter couldn't agree more. "If he stays healthy, I'm sure he'll have a crack at hitting 800 home runs," said the All-Star shortstop.
Another shortstop who was known for his prolific homers, as well as his love of the game, "Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks is also a member of the A-Rod fan club. "I'm here to watch, to me, the greatest shortstop that ever played this game," Ernie was quoted during a recent All-Star game. This is a joy for me personally."
Of course Mr. Cub is loved by one and all. When the Chicago Cubs dedicated a statue in his honor outside Wrigley Field on opening Day 2008, Hank Aaron was there to make sure nobody underestimated the impact that Ernie Banks had on the game of baseball in Chicago - and across the nation. "I just wish [the statue] had been done 15 years ago," Hank Aaron said during the ceremony. "Be that as it may, I for one am going to be very proud of the fact that I had the opportunity not only to play baseball with you but to share in your dream. You were the greatest ambassador for baseball, and you still are a great ambassador."