Why 500 Home Runs No Longer Guarantees Admission to the Hall of Fame
On Friday, April 18, Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield turned on a 3-2 pitch from Brewers pitcher Mitch Stetter and sent it 385 feet over the left field fence for his 500th home run. The hit tied the game for the Mets in the seventh inning and ultimately proved to be the margin of victory in a 5-4 win.
With that one swing of the bat, Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield guaranteed himself induction into the most coveted place in all of baseball—the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
It has long been an unwritten rule in baseball.
Hit 500 home runs and you're in. No questions asked. Fall short of 500 and there's a pretty good chance you won't make it. Ask Fred McGriff, who rests at 493 home runs.
No other sport has these milestones. 40,000 passing yards doesn't guarantee the Hall of Fame. Just ask Vinny Testaverde. He's sixth all-time in passing yards (46,233) and he won't make the Hall. Same with Drew Bledsoe, who ranks eighth (44,611) among career leaders in this stat.
There's not a certain number of rushing yards a player needs for the Hall of Fame. Or points scored in the NBA.
But as long as we have known, 500 home runs is a player's ticket to the Hall.
Times are changing.
500 home runs is an incredible milestone, captured by years of dedication, hard work, and success. Sheffield is just the 25th player in the long history of the game to join this elusive club.
Hit 30 home runs for 15 straight seasons and you're still two years short of 500. Hit 40 home runs for 12 years and you still haven't reached 500. Home runs are the first things kids pick up on when they're learning the game of baseball. A home run is the best thing that a player can do each and every time he steps up to the plate.
A home run is perhaps the greatest aspect of the game and hitting 500 of them is an incredible feat.
But this milestone has lost the glory it used to have.
No disrespect to Sheffield—a nine-time All-Star in his own right—but he is not one of the game's premier home run hitters. Think of power hitters and Sheffield most likely won't come to your mind first.
His success can be credited to loads of talent, but also steroids, and the home run era in which he played. Put him in the '60s and he might hit 400. Maybe.
Of the 25 guys with 500 home runs, 10 have been active this decade.
Look at the game as of 1989, two decades prior.
There were just 14 guys in the 500 home run club and every single player truly deserved the Hall of Fame. You have names like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Reggie Jackson.
There were legendary home run hitters who fell short of this mark. Lou Gehrig ended his career with 493. Stan Musial hit 475. So did Willie Stargell.
If these guys—some of the game's greatest players, who combined for home run titles—couldn't reach 500 home runs, then this milestone was truly a milestone.
There are several reasons as to why 500 home runs no longer guarantees admission to the Hall of Fame.
I hate getting into the whole steroids discussion.
Actually, I just hate steroids. They've tarnished the game and discredit any achievements a modern day player may accomplish.
Many of the game's current records can be credited to steroids. The single-season home run record (73). The career home run record (762). The single-season on-base mark (.609). In fact, the top six single-season home run marks are by players who were juiced.
Look at some of the guys who have recently hit 500 home runs. Gary Sheffield. Sammy Sosa. Rafael Palmeiro. There's not a chance in the world these guys would have reached this mark had it not been for performance-enhancing drugs.
Sammy Sosa had a career high of 40 home runs and was coming off three straight seasons of 36 home runs in 1995, 40 in 1996, and 36 in 1997. All of a sudden, he exploded for 66 in 1998, 63 in 1999, 50 in 2000, and 64 in 2001, and as of now, he stands sixth on the all-time list with 609 home runs.
Coincidence? Or the result of some performance-enhancing drugs?
Rafael Palmeiro currently rests at 10th on the career home run list with 569 but I don't ever think he was one of the top five or six most dangerous hitters in the game.
Imagine if some of the older guys had used steroids. Babe Ruth would have hit 1,000 home runs. Same with Aaron. Jimmie Foxx won three MVPs and two Triple Crowns without steroids. With them, he probably would have destroyed every record alive.
We all saw what Bonds did from 2001-'04. Or McGwire and Sosa with their multiple 60-home run seasons in the late '90s. Steroids do wonders to the human body. And a lot of the guys in the 500 home run club can credit their success to these.
2. The Current Era
This is the 21st century. The game is different than it was 30, 40, and 50 years ago. For one thing, the ballparks are smaller.
Remember the old Polo Grounds? The center field wall was something like 485 feet away from home plate. Try hitting a home run there and it will most likely just end up as a long long fly out. Just ask Vic Wertz.
The pitching is worse in today's game than it was in your grandfather's day. Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, two of the game's top four career home run hitters, played through the '60s. The strike zones were larger and pitching dominated the games.
Teams only implemented three or four man pitching staffs, which would mean something like 60 to 80 starting pitchers in the game. In today's era, there are five-man pitching staffs for each of the 30 teams, which is upwards of 150 starting pitchers in the game. The quality of the starting pitching just isn't as impressive in today's game.
The ERA for all of the major leagues in 1965 was 3.50. In 2008, it had skyrocketed to 4.32. The average team hit 134 home runs in 1965, as opposed to 161 home runs for the average team last year.
And modern players are more durable. It's not that uncommon for a guy who is in his upper 30s to still contend for the league MVP award, even for those players who aren't on steroids.
In the olden days, players were often washed up and finished by age 35. Jimmie Foxx was all but done with his career by age 33. Lou Gehrig was 35 (although to be fair, he was inflicted with ALS). Mel Ott was 36 years old.
Players nowadays are just hitting their prime at that age.
Chipper Jones won the batting title (.364) last year at age 36. Jim Thome hit 34 home runs last year at age 38. Carlos Delgado was 37 and still hit 38 home runs. Sheffield was 41 when he joined the 500 home run club, making him the fourth oldest member to ever do so.
This gives modern players a sizable advantage over guys from the '50s, '60s, and before.
3. The Future
The mark of a great club is judged by its exclusivity. And that's what hurts the 500 home run club.
There are currently 25 members of the 500 home run club, almost double the members from just two decades ago.
1929—No members of the 500 home run club
1949—Three members of the 500 home run club
1969—Eight members of the 500 home run club
1989—14 members of the 500 home run club
2009—25 members of the 500 home run club
The club increased at a steady rate from 1929 to 1949 to 1969 to 1989, before the club added 11 members in just 20 years.
Entering this season, Carlos Delgado had 472 home runs. Coming off a 38-homer season, Delgado is a likely bet to hit his 500th home run this year, which would make him the 26th member of the 500 home run club.
Bill James' 2009 Total Baseball Handbook projects several more active players to reach the 500 home run club within the next decade, including Albert Pujols, Vlad Guerrero, Adam Dunn, and Ryan Howard.
This would put more than 30 players in the club, and over half of them in the last 30 years. Who knows how many players this club will hold 30, 40, or 50 years from now?
500 is an amazing accomplishment. There's no denying that. But it can no longer be considered a benchmark for the Hall of Fame.
Guys like Sheffield, Sosa, and Palmeiro are not locks for the Hall of Fame. In fact, there is a pretty decent chance none of them will make it to Cooperstown. Same with Delgado, who is on the verge of joining the club.
And it's a little early to project for Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard, but simply hitting their 500th home run won't get them in.
Hitting 500 home runs is a tremendous achievement nonetheless, but it no longer guarantees admission to the Hall of Fame.
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