There’s a reason that baseball is known as “America’s Game,” and that billions of ravenous fans worldwide can’t seem to get enough…and it’s called the Home Run.
Fans love the long ball. And today’s generation of fans are the luckiest ever because they have the pleasure of watching the game’s greatest power hitters “do their thing” in person…not to mention in primetime, hi-def, big screen, surround-sound splendor.
Nine prolific sluggers have joined baseball's most elite fraternity, the 500 Home Run Club, since 1999; allowing baseball fans worldwide to revel in the anticipation and share in the glory from the comfort of their own living room: Mark McGwire (1999), Barry Bonds (2001), Sammy Sosa (2003), Rafael Palmeiro (2003), Ken Griffey, Jr. (2004), Frank Thomas (2007), Jim Thome (2007). Alex Rodriguez (2007) and Manny Ramirez (2008).
In addition, Gary Sheffield (485) and Carlos Delgado (447) are within striking distance of joining the club this season or next.
Here’s what the “Living Legends of Baseball” said when asked about the significance of hitting 500 home runs for today’s fans:
“The Man” Manny Ramírez (507+) who became the newest member of The 500 Home Run Club on May 31st - in his inevitable style which has his coaches and players oft explaining that his exotic behavior is just "Manny Being Manny" - downplayed this growing home run tally, saying "I don't worry about my numbers. If you start thinking too much about this or that and you start putting too much pressure on yourself, you can make yourself crazy. You only live one time, so you want to make sure you go out there and play hard and have fun. That's what it's all about." “Hammerin” Hank Aaron (755) says: After someone asked him if he got a good pitch to hit, when smacking his 500th home run off the Giants’ Mike McCormick on July, 14th 1968, Brave's Superstar Hank Aaron commented that “Guessing what the pitcher is going to throw is eighty percent of being a successful hitter. The other twenty percent is just execution…and tonight I got it right when it counted.” Aaron said recently: "Hitting 500 home runs still should be recognized as something to be proud of. They’ve still got to swing the bat and make contact."
After hitting his 500th homer, "Big Mac" Mark McGwire (583) said: "I've exceeded everything I expected of myself." “Without a doubt, the home run is the game's most exciting play. When I hit number 500, I was so shocked because I didn't think the ball had enough to get out. It's an absolutely incredible feeling. I can honestly say I did it."
"It was a big hit and I knew I had done two things," observed Eddie Murray (504) after hitting his 500th career home run on September 6, 1996. “It tied the game and we need some wins.” The Camden Yards crowd responded by giving Murray a nine minute standing ovation and a banner reading, “CONGRATULATIONS EDDIE 500" was lowered over the ivy covered wall in centerfield. Murray contends that more home runs are hit now because the kids are bigger and stronger. "Today, you see more opposite-field home runs, which tells you the parks are a little smaller but also that the players are stronger. Even the little guys are strong."
"It's been a lot of fun," Ken Griffey Jr. (605+) said after hitting his landmark 500th homer on Father's Day with his dad, Ken Griffey Sr., looking on. "It was awesome. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd ever accomplish something like this. All the aches and pains that I've had this year were gone while I rounded the bases." Regarding the growing ≈number of hitters who are approaching (and surpassing the 500 Home Run mark, Junior said: “I hear a lot about [how] the pitchers [aren’t as dominant as in the past] and the parks [have been built/modified to increase the number of home runs], “but you still have to hit the ball, hit it hard and hit it far.”
Despite his cool demeanor, Willie Mays “The Say Hey Kid” (660) recalls that it meant a lot to him to see legendary pitcher Warren Spahn - who had given up the first home run of Mays career - there to greet him as he returned to the dugout after hitting his 500th home run. "Warren asked me if it was anything like the same feeling of my first home run, and I told him it was exactly the same feeling."
While some would argue that every home run Babe Ruth (714) ever hit was big, even “The Bambino” himself was impressed by the achievement. After hitting his 500th career home run over the right field fence onto Lexington Avenue outside of Cleveland’s League Park, Ruth told Detective H.C. Folger, "I'd kinda like to have that one." The detective found the young boy who had caught the ball and brought him to meet the sports biggest star. The boy exchanged the historic ball for an autographed ball and a twenty-dollar bill, and was quoted in the next day’s newspaper as saying, "Gee, Ruth's a swell guy."
When asked what it felt like to hit his 500th home run, “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks (512) said: "When you catch it right, it's a perfectly wonderful feeling. You practice, you change bats, change stances, get a little more history on the opposing pitcher, all in search of that feeling. It's an unbelievable feeling, when you hit the ball right and it goes out of the park. Then, when you round the bases, the feeling is still there, the memory of it. When you touch home plate, it's still there. When you get to the dugout, it's still there. It lingers throughout the game, throughout your ride home. I'm telling you. It's amazing." Banks believes that today’s athletes are better conditioned, better trained and have a lot more talent than when he played the game. “There’s a lot more depth with all of the teams in the major leagues, and there are a lot of great young players that are doing it every day on the field. I enjoy watching these tremendous players and figure in another 10 years we’ll have thirty players that hit over 500 home runs or more.”
Mr. Cub would get no argument from another 500 HR Club member, Reggie Jackson (563), who famously stated that “Hitting a home run was better than sex.” On the September 17, 1984, “Mr. October” celebrated the seventeenth anniversary of his first Major League round-tripper, by connected off of KC pitcher Bud Black for his 500th career home run. When asked about hitting so many home runs, Jackson was quoted as saying “God do I love to hit that little round sum-bitch out of the park and make 'em say 'Wow!'.”
“Slammin” Sammy Sosa (609) said hitting number 500 was truly special. “I was very pleased to go where no Latin American ballplayer had ever gone before. That's something that I never will forget." Sosa, who went on to surpass the 600 home run mark and retired with 609 long balls, has nothing but respect for his fellow players past, present and future. “I’ve worked so hard all my life to be who I am, but I'm not going to be the only one," Sosa said. "I know there's more Latin players coming after me who will also make history with their bats.”
Rafael Palmeiro (541 homers) doesn't believe the smaller-parks or weaker-pitching theories, but he agrees players are better prepared than when he broke into the majors. As a rookie in 1986 with the Chicago Cubs, Palmeiro found no weight rooms to visit after a game. But there were plenty of guys sitting around with a few beers. "We didn't have a trainer, a strength coach and nutritionist like we do today. Home runs are not easier; it's just that players are better prepared."
“The Thomenator” Jim Thome (524+) "It's hard to explain what's going through me right now," he said. "What a great day. It's tough to hit home runs when people want you to." Thome said he hoped his milestone could come during a victory, and it did. Chicago rallied from a 7-1 deficit to win the game 9-7. “When you see you’re teammates there at home plate waiting for you, it’s like something straight out of a movie script,” Thome thinks that, despite having so many active players reaching and/or nearing the 500 home run mark, it is still an amazing achievement. "I know how hard it's been to get to this point,'' he said. “I know how much work you have to put in -- in good and bad times. People are always going to have their opinions. If you look at the guys who've done it, it's not an easy number to get to. It's definitely kind of neat because you know what good players the 500 Home Run Club members are."
“Big” Frank Thomas (520+), who hit his 500th home run on June 28th, 2007 couldn’t agree more. In an interview after the record-setting occasion, Thomas shook his head in amazement when he talked about joining the likes of his childhood heroes and lifelong role models, such as Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew. "It's an unbelievable class of talent," said Thomas, who has 520 homers and counting. "I saw a lot of them play. I have the utmost respect, and I'm very happy to be here because it takes a long time to hit 500 home runs and I think I've paid my dues long enough through numerous injuries.
After hitting his 500th, Barry Bonds (762) said: “When I hit it, I couldn't believe I hit it. Everything was in slow motion. It looked like it was stopped in midair. After I saw it went past those people I thought, 'Wow! I did it!’ I just felt like a whole lot of weight was lifted off my chest.”
“Iron” Mike Schmidt (548) believes that the game, and today’s players, have changed. “Harder balls, maple bats, small strike zones, fewer inside pitches, elbow pads, and yes, bigger biceps, all combined to increase home run totals,” said Schmidt, who also observes that baseball architects are modifying and designing parks to appeal to long-ball loving fans. “More than 100 of the balls Hank Aaron hit to outfield warning tracks during his career would be home runs today,” maintains Schmidt, who estimates he would have hit an additional 10 homers a year if he were playing now. "It's the same in every sport. They serve harder in tennis, hit a golf ball farther, they run the 100 faster."
Frank Robinson (586) took advantage of a doubleheader versus Detroit on September 13th, 1971, to hit his 499th home run in game one and his 500th in game two. Robinson was in a rare groove that day, and also hit several deep fly balls that almost made it to the outfield stands. When asked about his amazing day, he casually said: “Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades.” Robinson says home runs are still the most exciting "instant" in baseball, and he agrees with Schmidt about the changing nature of today’s major leagues. I most certainly would have hit more home runs if I played today,” he claims. "I don't want to put a number on it. I would probably be too modest.”
Willie McCovey (521) said of approaching the 500 homer plateau: “There was a lot of pressure on me. A lot of media was following me around and I wanted to get it over for their sake so I could start playing normally. At the time I hit it I was very exciting because I was a member of the 500 class,” McCovey said. “But passing Mel Ott [with his 512th homer] meant more to me to become the greatest left-handed hitting home run hitter in the National League was the biggest milestone for me.” Ken Griffey, Jr. (605+) says "500 is 500" and that baseball is too concerned with numbers. He would have rather played in the '70s, when the focus, he says, was on winning.
As “A-Rod” Alex Rodriguez (537+) continues his accelerated home run hitting, he is taking the time to enjoy his achievements. Never, as a kid, did I ever think I'd hit even one," Rodriguez said, “I knew it would come at some point in 2007, but with two days remaining before we go on the road, I wanted to make sure we did it at home." Rodriguez admitted he had tried to will himself to just slug one more, a task that proved more difficult than anticipated. "I've conceded the fact that you can't will yourself to hit a home run. I tried hard for about five days. I hadn't hit one in so long, but the energy of the fans put it in perspective a little bit. It seemed like they cared more about it than I did. So I knew that I had to hit #500 in Yankee Stadium.”
“The Man” Manny Ramírez (507+) in his inevitable style which has his coaches and players oft explaining that his exotic behavior is just "Manny Being Manny" downplayed this growing home run tally, saying "I don't worry about my numbers. If you start thinking too much about this or that and you start putting too much pressure on yourself, you can make yourself crazy. You only live one time, so you want to make sure you go out there and play hard and have fun. That's what it's all about."
Mel Ott (511) hit the magical number 500 deep into the grandstands of the cavernous Polo Grounds on August 1st, 1945. Later, when he was signing autographs and grudgingly accepting accolades for his achievement, Ott said: “Every time I sign a ball, I thank my luck that I wasn’t born Coveleski or Wambsgnass or Peckinpaugh.”
Harmon Killebrew (573) said the Sosa-McGwire home run race of 1998 was good for baseball and knows what an impact those games had on fans. He talked regularly on the phone that summer to his good friend, the late Ted Williams, but only when the Cubs or the Cardinals weren't on TV. "Whenever those games would come on, Ted would want to end the conversation," Killebrew says. "He said, 'I have to go watch the game.' "