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500 Club remains a magical mark
04/04/2003 12:00 AM ET
For more than a century, a player hitting 500 home runs has ranked among the rarest of career achievements, a feat reserved only for those legends who would become the very elite of the Hall of Fame. To reach 500 home runs a player had to combine the rare qualities of great power and unwavering consistency for well more than a decade. Such a demanding marathon meant few qualified for this ultra-exclusive club.

These days the 500 Club remains the pinnacle for power hitters and the equivalent of a walk-off grand slam to a spectacular career, even if it is not as difficult to get in as it used to be.

Less than 20 years ago there were more hitters who had achieved baseball's Triple Crown than members of the sport's 500-homer club. But there hasn't been a Triple Crown hitter since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in '67, while the 500 Homer Club has added 12 of its 17 members since the end of the 1966 season, including five since the 1984 season began. There have been just 15 Triple Crowns, achieved by 13 players (Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams did it twice).

Until the decade of the 1960s, the 500 Club numbered only three: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott. Ruth was the charter member in 1929, and no members were added during the decade of the 1930s or '50s.

Since that intial trio, 15 more have joined the 500 Homer Club, with Sammy Sosa becoming the 18th member and third to join in the last four years. The proliferation of members has of course mirrored the explosion in the homer rate that began with the lowering of the mound following the 1968 season. The club has grown in part because of other factors which have been conducive to more homers, such as expansion and numerous new stadiums. Like Sosa, a good case for Hall of Fame inclusion could be made for every one of that trio. Beyond that the picture, it is not as clear as some of the potential 500 Club members are arguably not Hall of Fame caliber. Since Ruth hung up his spikes, 500 homers has meant automatic superstardom and immediate Hall of Fame favorite status. You didn't get there unless you had a household name like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Harmon Killebrzew.

Scores of superstars like Stan Musial and Willie Stargell came close but didn't quite get there. Even so, they all had more in common than an ability to hit homers. They hit for average as well and were perennial All-Stars. The ability to hit 500 homers and greatness were not mutually exclusive.

That may not be the case in the future. As more and more homers continue to fly out of ballparks there could conceivably be a newcomer to the party: A 500-homer guy who doesn't deserve to make the Hall of Fame. If Dave Kingman, who hit 442 career homers in a 15-year career that ended after his 35-homer season in 1986, can get so close to 500 despite a .236 career batting average, is it that much of a stretch to imagine a similar hitter of today's era reaching 500? What about Jose Canseco, a .262 hitter who hit 462 homers in a 17-year career that ended this spring? If Canseco had averaged just over two more homers per season he would nearly be in the 500 Club today.

Consider Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves. Jones hit 146 home runs during his first five years and did it before his 25th birthday. Barry Bonds, who recently joined the 600 homer club, hit 117 during his first five years in the league and was 26 years old at that juncture of his career. If Jones stays on his current pace and plays another 11 seasons (through his 36th birthday) he would eclipse 500 homers. But he entered the season with only a .262 career batting average, hardly a Hall of Fame number.

With Sosa there shouldn't be any debate. There is no question the Cub slugger has put up Hall of Fame caliber numbers and like his predecessors in the 500 Club, deserves inclusion on this elite rosater. If there is any argument concerning Sosa's status in history, it is whether he is the greatest slugger of his era or whether that distinction will go to Bonds or Mark McGwire.

For now, however, the 500 Club remains one of the most coveted benchmarks in sports and one Sosa should take great pride in reaching. Though not as rare as it once was, 500 home runs is still a very precious achievement.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.