Marking the 500 HR Creation

80 years ago today, on August 11, 1929, Babe Ruth stepped in against Willis Hudlin and hit his 30th home run of the season, on his way to 46 that season. That home run also marked the 500th of Ruth’s career, the first time (by a wide margin) that anyone in Major League history reached that feat.

Ruth would remain alone on that list until Jimmie Foxx joined him on September 24, 1940 off George Caster. Mel Ott would become the third member of that club August 1st, 1945, two weeks before the official end of World War II. Nobody else would reach 500 home runs in their career, likely at least in part due to the service time during World War II and Korea, until Ted Williams did it in 1960. Williams remains to this day the oldest player to reach 500 home runs, doing so at nearly 42 years of age.

The 1960s saw, in addition to Williams, the entrance of Willie Mays (1965), Mickey Mantle (1967), Eddie Matthews (1967) and Hank Aaron (1968) in perhaps the greatest decade of hitting talent that is still revered today. Williams is commonly regarded as the best pure hitter of all time, Aaron the best non-tainted slugger (yet), Mays perhaps the most valuable hitter (combining his offense with his center field play) and obviously Matthews and Mantle are well regarded as well, though Matthews sometimes seems lost in the shuffle more than he should.

Three more players joined in the first two years of the 1970s: Ernie Banks (1970), Harmon Killebrew (1971) and Frank Robinson a month after Harmon. All told, between September 13th, 1965 (Mays) and September 13th, 1971 (Robinson), seven players hit their 500th career home run. Seven, in six years. Remember that.

Things really slowed down after that with Willie McCovey coming next in 1978, Reggie Jackson in 1984, Mike Schmidt in 1987 and Eddie Murray in 1996. And then came the steroid-era sluggers. Over the just-under-ten-year period from August 5th, 1999 (when Mark McGwire hit number 500) and April 17th, 2009 (when the latest member, Gary Sheffield, joined), ten players (those two included) made it past 500 all time home runs.

This era is largely being remembered for it lessening the importance of the 500 home run club. That is understandable in the sense that we now view most everything from the 1990s and 2000s with an air of suspicion and that the list of members did grow from 15 to its present 25 in just ten years. However, looking back to the 1965-71 period, does ten new members in ten years look much different than seven in six years?




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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.


31 Responses to “Marking the 500 HR Creation”

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  1. Joe R says:

    Really not much to add to this blog post but…

    +1

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  2. Matt B, says:

    I would have to think pitching is also tougher as the decades passed. Specialized bullpens etc. Heck, Babe Ruth was an impressive pitcher in his day (career 2.79 FIP, lol). Imagine what Gary Sheffield’s pitching stats would look like….

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  3. Zachie V says:

    No mention of Jr. huh? With all the taint in the 90s and 2Ks, I thought he would be the one hopeful that you would have stuck in there.

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    • B says:

      Why do you assume Jr is clean any more than any other player not yet linked to steroids? Heck, Griffey was an extremely healthy player throughout his career until the point where steroid use is thought to become really rampant, then all of a sudden he started tearing hamstrings and ligaments/tendons…hmm…yet we’re supposed to assume for some reason he’s cleaner than anyone else who hasn’t been caught?

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      • A says:

        Ignorance comes in all forms. If you truly think Junior would have ever used PEDs you’re either delusional or just plain ignorant. My vote is for the latter.

        Unless it makes sense for a guy to inject himself w steroids who shuns working out and lifting weights, never stretched a day in his life, and can’t even drink a protein shake because he’s lactose intolerant. Oh, and his head is proportioned to his body and he has all of his hair.

        Nice rationalization, Einstein. Next time, try doing your homework.

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      • B says:

        Wow, you certainly proved your point there.

        “If you truly think Junior would have ever used PEDs you’re either delusional or just plain ignorant.”

        True. Because he smiles to the media and they like him, he clearly could not have taken ‘roids. Or is there some other aspect of his clearly infallible persona I’m missing? Do you have any actual reasons to think this, or do you just like Griffey?

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    • U-God says:

      As opposed to Frank Thomas, the man who called for tougher testing his whole career? The point of the article wasn’t to mention the clean guys of the steroid era.

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  4. Chris says:

    Looking ahead we may be due for another slowdown too. Delgado is close at 473 but nobody else looks likely to get there until Pujols at 355. After that it’s Dunn at 302 and down from there.

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      • U-God says:

        do you really think he’ll make it?

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      • He’s signed for 3 more seasons, and he needs 78 to make it. That’s 26 a year, and he’s never hit less than 20 in a season in his career, even in recent years when he hasn’t be able to stay on the field for 162 games. I wouldn’t say he has a greater than 50% chance, but I’d say it’s definitely possible. Honestly, until we know how well Delgado comes back from hip surgery, I might be inclined to say Chipper has a better chance.

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      • Good Morning, This response is not to your comment but to an order for METS tickets that were placed by someone with your name. The tickets were sent to the wrong address. If you are the person they belong to please email me with the info on the order placed. Account #, Game Dates, amount of tickets, etc. So I know they’re yours. I will respond as soon as I get your email so you may pick them up. If I don’t get an immediate response the tickets will not go to waste.

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    • I was going to say “Yeah, but we’ll see a whole bunch more over the next decade, too” and then I took a look at the active leaderboard at baseball-reference:

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/HR_active.shtml

      Delgado (37 – 473) would seem a safe bet, but is definitely no the guarantee we would have marked down prior to 2009.

      Chipper (37 – 423) needs 77 more; he’s hit 77 in his previous three full seasons (excluding 2006-2008), which would mean he likely needs to play into his 40s.

      Vlad (34) appears a very long 100 homers away, and Andruw Jones (32) a very long 112 homers.

      Pujols (29 – 356), Dunn (29 – 308), Teixeria (29 – 232) and Howard (29 – 203) are the only other guys with at least 200 homers that aren’t yet 30 years old, though Cabrera (26 – 198) is very close.

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  5. Nick Kapur says:

    I think the answer to the question you ended on is that, yes, it does look different, given some of the specific people who entered, and how so many of them suddenly had these huge spurts of homerun hitting, in some cases extremely late in their careers.

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  6. I don’t disagree with the basic premise, that the effect of steroids on the game and the record books, both in this specific instance and in general, are treated with an unnecessary degree of hyperbole and hysteria, but I will say that 10 new members in 10 years does look significantly different than 7 in 6 years, because although it’s a slower rate, it’s a 43% increase in the raw number. These things come in bursts, so it’s hard to compare it on a rate basis; saying 7 new members in 6 years is cherry-picking, in a sense, ’cause it’s also 7 new members in 10 years. So, in other words, the previous 10 years saw a 43% increase in the number of new 500 homer hitters over the formerly most active 10 year period. That’s definitely a difference.

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  7. Lasorda says:

    What’s missing in this analysis are the park effects. The alleged “Steroids Era” also covers the construction of new ballparks, many of which have been quite hitter-friendly (e.g., Coors Field). While I don’t think we will ever know (or if we should even care) how much to allocate to Park vs. Biochemistry, it still is part of the conversation.

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  8. Deel says:

    I’m sure none of “the clean” players ever took greenies either. Can’t we just drop the whole “air of suspicion” stuff when first it’s not an air, it’s a vastly held belief of the majority, and second it’s largely meaningless anyway. We know that (as a group) athletes do whatever they can to succeed, and there’s really no point in endless second guessing eras, regardless of whether they’re steroid, amphetamine or color-barrier skewed.

    Anyway, enjoyed the article overall good stuff, particularly the last paragraph.

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  9. andy says:

    I think people overestimate the effects of steriod use on the game. People want to think players started juicin in 1998 and everyone before that was clean. People forget that in 2000 Bonds started playing in a park where it was 309ft down the line( wind usually blows out to right-center), in candlestick it was more like 335 (wind blowing IN from right). We need to compare players to their peers in the era they played in. Baseball’s records were never sacred, a 3.00 era in 2009 is not the same as it was in 1909. I hope no one’s confusing larry walker with mickey mantle. I think the problems are not comparing different era players but ones both from the steroid era. Example: Where does jeff bagwell rate in this era, he’s never been linked to steroids and his numbers are awesome.

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  10. Bob R. says:

    Wasn’t there also a study made of the balls in use in the majors sometime in the early or mid-1990s that determined conclusively that the balls were juiced?

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  11. aweb says:

    I was just laughing about how you mention Matthews as being overlooked during his era (“lost in the shuffle”), and then didn’t provide a link to his stats like everyone else.

    Also overlooked in the current era is the expansion effect. No, no, not the often overstated dilution of pitching talent, but the fact that there are a lot more games being played by a lot more players. 7 players in 6 years accumulating stats during an era of 16 teams playing 154 game schedules is a much larger anomaly as compared to 10 players in ten years during an era of 30 teams playing 162 games (8 extra games a year means an extra season during a long career).

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  12. Bill says:

    Important to remember is that it isn’t just players reaching 500 home runs though, it’s players reaching 600. There only had been 3 in history before 1999, and following this year, there probably will have been 4 in 10 years.

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    • Chuck says:

      Great point. Also for reference, someone hit 50 HRs or more in a season a total of 18 times between 1936 and 1995.

      Since 1995, it has been done 22 times.

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  13. B says:

    Good point by aweb about the number of players and the total number of games they’re playing. I also think not enough is made about the ball being juiced (and changes in bats), though it’s probably because it’s hard to find any real evidence on the subject and the effect (not like that stops people with regards to steroids, but whatever). It’d also be interesting for someone to do an in depth study on ballpark effects – Nick Kapur says:
    “I think the answer to the question you ended on is that, yes, it does look different, given some of the specific people who entered, and how so many of them suddenly had these huge spurts of homerun hitting, in some cases extremely late in their careers.”

    But the question is, are these actual differences or just false perceptions? Hank Aaron had a late career home run surge – his highest career total came when he was 37 – but at that point he was also playing in a launching pad of a stadium that moved the fences in specifically for his home run race. So how much did ballparks play into these numbers? People like to think there’s something unsual about the so-called steroid era (nevermind steroids have been in baseball since at least the early ’70’s), and that it’s all chemistry related, but I think not enough work has been done to find out the effect of the other factors – ballparks, balls, bats, number of players/games to really make any conclusions. After all, if McGwire and Sosa saved baseball with their home runs, would you really put it past Selig to juice the balls to create an offensive era?

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    • FYI, I was not aware of this comment when I finished mine up.

      I think ballpark and other effects do add to things, but not enough to suddenly bunch up a number of 500 HR achievers.

      Look at the data at the link I provided, I think it makes a clear argument that something happened in 1993 to change the game, and the only thing that could affect the game so widespread would be a change in the bats or a change in the balls. Given that it would be hard to make a change to something as fundamental as a particular type of wood used to make bats, I think balls has to be the answer.

      Sort of off-topic, but I think that ballpark effects make ballpark factors laughable. Look at what happened to the Royals Stadium. Nothing really changed there over the years but suddenly it went from a neutral park to a hitters park. Why? Because pitchers parks were added to their division, making their park a hitter’s paradise, relatively. Basically for every bump up in their factor, a new pitcher’s park was added to the division or the schedulers went to the unbalanced schedule, giving you more games within your division.

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      • aweb says:

        I seem to recall the Royals moving the fences in when they went to grass, and then moving them back in 2004. Fences were lowered slightly too, I don’t think they raised them again. The lack of turf would favour the defense/pitching, I would think.

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      • B says:

        I would imagine weather issues would affect ballpark ratings over the years. Not every year experiences the same weather. Maybe a weather pattern shifts completely, or maybe a skyscraper is constructed nearby or some other variable comes into play that has an effect on weather/wind, and thus indirectly on park factors. This is all speculation, though in theory it makes sense, but then again it may have a very minimal effect and essentially be a non-factor, I dunno…

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      • B says:

        “Given that it would be hard to make a change to something as fundamental as a particular type of wood used to make bats”

        Bonds started the shift towards maple bats in the late 90’s/early 00’s, so yes, the particular type of wood has changed, though I dunno what actual effect (if any) it’s had…

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  14. Great article!

    I would note that Williams, per your point about the wars, probably would have challenged and perhaps passed the Babe before Aaron, had he not spent so much time serving our nation.

    A factor that might have helped out in the 50’s and 60’s, leading to the explosion of 500 HR hitters, is that the use of amphetamines probably rose a lot during that period.

    Though it is odd, however, because the 60’s was more a period of pitching dominance, leading to the lowering of the mound in 68 and the addition of the DH soon after in the AL.

    FYI, an alternative theory about the recent boom in HR hit is being promulgated by Eric Walker, of the Sinister Firstbaseman fame, at his High Boskage House website: he posits that it is the “Silly-Ball” era, not the Steroid era, in terms of the offensive explosion. He explains it much better there, but I think the main point is that if steroids was responsible, there should have been a gradual rose over time, but instead the data shows that offense suddenly peaked upward one year and has been at the same high level since then. That implies that something fundamental to all games changed that year and the only thing that would make sense there is if the MLB used a new baseball that reacted more when hit. http://highboskage.com/juiced-ball.shtml

    And that makes some sense. If I were a baseball marketer, making the game more offensive minded, like the revolution that happened after Babe Ruth came along, would be the best thing for generating interest in the game. The game, as Walker sees it, changed during the 1993 season, and, I would add, Selig took over as acting commission late in the 1992 season.

    If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say that they had the ball ready for the 1993 season but waited until around the All-Star game to bring it out, because otherwise things would look pretty weird with suddenly there being so much offense between one year and the next. This allowed a transition between the end of the old-ball era in 1992 and the new-ball era in 1994.

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