19to21: September 20, 2007
Jim Thome and the Circuitous Road to 500 and Cooperstown
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many players have hit 500 home runs, it’s,
Baseball...Then and Now
A total of 23 players in the history of major league baseball have now hit 500 or more home runs. That number may well come as a shock to those fans who grew up in the early Sixties, having memorizing the foursome who first accomplished that feat – Babe Ruth (714), Jimmie Foxx (534), Ted Williams (521) and Mel Ott (511). Some might even remember the fuss made when Teddy Ballgame made it a foursome in 1960, since, after the Babe cleared the mark in 1929, only Foxx (1940) and Ott (1945) had even gotten to 500. And, although another quartet of sluggers – Willie Mays (1965), Mickey Mantle and Eddie Matthews (both in 1967) and Hank Aaron (1968) joined the first four in the latter part of the Sixties, 500 home runs was still a remarkable rarity.
Nowadays, some will tell you it’s no longer a mark of distinction… that 600 home runs is the new 500 home runs. There may be some logic to that, since 15 more players have joined in in the 39 years since Aaron reached 500. But, let’s look at it another way. You have four players hitting 500 home runs in the 31 years between Ruth and Williams, and then four more in just three years. So why didn’t 600 home runs become the new 500 home runs in 1968? No, 500 home runs is still a true mark of distinction. If you have any doubts, ask the 13 players who hit between 426 (Billy Williams) and 493 (Fred McGriff, who’s tied with Lou Gehrig) home runs. Or ask Manny Ramirez or Gary Sheffield, both of whom are close enough to start marking their 2008 calendars.
Or better yet, ask Jim Thome. As noted on MLB.Com, Thome is only one of the 23 whose 500th (a 426 footer yet) also produced a walk-off victory for his team. (It also took place on Jim Thome Bobblehead Day.) The closest anyone else has ever come to such an historic 500th was Mike Schmidt, whose top of the ninth inning 500th off of Don Robinson in Pittsburgh in 1986 gave the Phillies a come from behind win after the Pirates went out in the bottom of the inning.
Still, the dramatics of Thome’s historic blow are ultimately just a footnote to history. The lead story in this drama is really the man who hit the home run. A classier individual has never played baseball, let along hit 500 home runs. A lot has been said and written – all of it for the good -- over the years as to Thome’s character and professionalism on and off the field. Scott Merkin, writing for MLB.com, put it this way…
“It was classic Jim Thome, a man with humble Midwestern charm and values, whose ability with the bat plays pretty well across the entire country… `He takes a lot of pride in that fact that he represents this game that has been so good to him and he's passing it down the line,’ [White Sox hitting coach Greg] Walker said. `The generation that has got to see him play, big league players idolize this guy, and not just for his talent and his achievements, but how he goes about his business. Jim is revered by other players for being a competitor but also for being a great guy. He's passed this game down the line and done it the right way.’"
Maybe the most telling point about Thome’s character is his plan for the historic ball. Having retrieved same (in exchange for a big package of gifts) from fan Will Stewart after the game, Thome and his dad Chuck will be driving the ball to Cooperstown during the off-season to personally present it to the National Baseball Museum in the ultimate father/son experience. Now that’s class.
Given Thome’s sterling character and 149 career OPS+, it might seem strange to future baseball fans who note that Thome was traded to the White Sox at a point in his career when he was just 35 years old and had already hit 430 home runs. Given that there is still a certain cachet about having someone in your uniform hit a 500th home run – another sign that it continues to be a significant milestone – it might indeed seem odd that the Phillies shipped Thome off to the White Sox for a rather average centerfielder and two minor league pitchers after the 2005 season. Among Thome’s 22 compatriots in this accomplishment, only four had switched teams closer to hitting number 500, namely Eddie Murray, Willie McCovey, Frank Thomas and Eddie Matthews. However, of those four, McCovey and Thomas were free agents when the changed teams, and Murray was a special case. Very near the end of the line, he was sent “home” to Baltimore by the Indians so that he could hit his 500th home run in the uniform where he found fame. That’s the exact opposite of what happened to Matthews. Having turned 35 at the end of the 1966 season, and having still posted a 109 OPS+, the only person to play for the Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves was summarily sent packing to Houston on the last day of 1966, despite the fact that he had at that point hit 493 home runs. What did the Braves get for the player who was, at that time, the greatest third baseman in the history of the game (having been passed only by Schmidt in the interim)? Dave Nicholson and Bob Bruce. So, it wasn’t as though they were offered a deal they couldn’t refuse.
The Phillies after the 2005 season faced a somewhat different dilemma, and it was one they couldn’t refuse, or ignore. They had a big problem. At 6-3, 250 pounds, Thome really couldn’t play anywhere on the field but first base. Likewise, the equally large (6-4, 230 pounds) Ryan Howard, who was only the top power-hitting prospect in the minors, couldn’t really play anywhere else either. And, since you can’t very well have two first basemen on the field at the same time, somebody had to go. It turned out to be Thome, who would hit 42 home runs for the 2006 Sox while Howard would hit 58 for the 2006 Phillies and become the NL MVP. A pretty good deal for both teams.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on the Braves. After all, 18 of the 23 500 home run hitters did change teams at least once during their careers. In fact, these 23 superstars played for 69 teams during their careers, an average of 2.9 teams per player. Only Schmidt (who still holds the record for most home runs by a single-team player), the Mick, Teddy Ballgame, Mr. Cub (who was probably untradeable anyway) and Ott hit 500 home runs and played for one team during their entire major league careers.
Contrast that with the travels of Sammy Sosa, Frank Robinson, Raffy Palmeiro, Reggie Jackson, and especially Murray. Although there was some aspect of “coming home” in four of their five careers (with Robinson the exception), they all played for five teams (meaning they changed teams four times, not that they played for five different teams), except for Murray, who bounced around from the Orioles to the Dodgers to the Mets to the Indians to the Orioles to the Angels to the Dodgers. In fact, the Orioles seem to be addicted to dealing for big home run hitters. Note the travelogues of the other four players in question…
Thanks largely to Palmeiro and Murray, the O’s have, over the course of their 50+ history, had seven visits from 500 home run hitters (or future 500 home run hitters), one more than the Athletics, who in addition to Reggie Jackson’s two trips in green and gold, also at one time or another had Foxx, McGwire, McCovey and Thomas. Still, the team most identified with 500 home runs is… not the Yankees, but their one-time landlords at the Polo Grounds, the Giants. The Bronx Bombers have had four, 500 home run hitters on their roster, three of whom (Ruth, Mantle and Rodriguez) actually hit their 500th home runs wearing pinstripes. (Jackson hit his 500th with the Angels.) The Giants though, have had five, 500 home run hitters on their roster, and no team has topped their four actual 500th hitters. Bonds, Mays, McCovey (who played for the Giants twice) and Ott all hit 500th home runs with the Giants.
True, Lou Gehrig would have hit his 500th with the Yankees, had not illness forced him out of the lineup seven home runs short. But, that’s the point. Baseball may have a fascination with round numbers, but there’s no denying that Gehrig did not hit 500 home runs, any more than Fred McGriff did. So the roster of 500 home run hitters is up to 23… well, 23 pitchers have also gotten 300 wins. And 15 pitchers (soon to be 16) have 3000 strikeouts. Twenty-seven hitters have 3000 hits. No less than 36 thieves have passed 500 steals. This is history we’re talking about. Time, if you will. Even if you don’t count the National Association as a major league, MLB has been around for 132 seasons, so naturally career counting numbers are going to pile up. It’s inevitable, and in no way cheapening or demeaning of the feats of those who have come before. So, viva Jim Thome! You’ve hit 500 home runs, and, even if you’re not going to Disney World, you are going to Cooperstown.
- John Shiffert