It was once the highest perch in baseball, the most exclusive fraternity in sports, the place reserved only for the best and brightest. Most everyone in it was a Hall of Famer as soon as he got there, if not before. It is the 500 club, and it has changed and will continue to change.
In the first 120 seasons of major league baseball, which brings us through the 1995 season, 14 players hit 500 home runs. From 1972 through 1983, only one player, Willie McCovey, joined The Club. And from 1988 through 1995, nobody reached 500 home runs. In only three years in history have as many two players hit their 500th home run in the same season: 1967 with Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews, 1971 with Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson, and 2003 with Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro.
But this season, four players likely will hit No. 500: Frank Thomas (491), Alex Rodriguez (478), Jim Thome (477) and Manny Ramirez (475). If all four do, 10 members will have joined the 500 fraternity in 12 seasons after having only 14 in 120 seasons.
This could suggest that the 500 club has been watered down and has lost its exclusivity. That would be wrong. Is there a current 500-homer hitter who doesn't belong? Absolutely not. Should any of the 2007 class be viewed as undeserving of entrance? No.
Thomas is a Hall of Famer. Many have forgotten his first 10 years in the big leagues, but he was Jimmie Foxx reincarnated. Thomas is among 20 players in history with a .300 average, .400 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage; 13 of the 20 who are eligible for the Hall are in the Hall.
Ramirez is a Hall of Famer. He has been an RBI machine for 14 years, and he is in the .300/.400/.500 club. Rodriguez is a Hall of Famer; he was on his way to supplanting Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop ever when he switched to third base. Thome is closing in on Hall of Fame status. He is a lifetime .282 hitter with a .410 on-base, a .566 slugging, as many 100-RBI seasons (nine) as McCovey and Willie Stargell combined, and as many 40-homer seasons (six) as Willie Mays.
But more 500-homer guys are coming. We count 20 more active players, all with at least 200 career home runs, who have a chance -- granted, an outside chance for some -- to hit 500. It would be safe to assume that Gary Sheffield (459) will get there next year, and Carlos Delgado (408) at the end of 2009. Mike Piazza, 38, has 420 homers; he might not make 500.
But Andruw Jones will: He has 347 home runs at age 30. So will Vlad Guerrero. He is 31 and has 347 home runs. And, although massive statistical projection is needed here, it's a virtual lock that Albert Pujols will hit 500 home runs -- he has 256, and is only 27 years old.
That's five more. Chipper Jones might make it to 500, also; he has 367 homers at age 35. Jason Giambi has less of a shot, it would seem, with 355 at age 36. From there, it gets even more difficult to project. Richie Sexson has 277 home runs at age 32. Todd Helton has 289 at age 33. Is Helton done as a big-time home run hitter? Maybe so. Does Sexson sound like a 500-home run threat? Probably not. But with as long as players' careers last today, if he plays 10 more years and averages 23 home runs a year, he'll reach 500 home runs. Adam Dunn has 208 home runs, and he's only 27. At this rate, he has a shot at 500.
Then there are the guys at 30 and 31. In theory, most have five more prime years in them and maybe 10 years total. So with 30 homers a year for five years, then 20 on average for five more, they will be near 500 home runs. Included in that group: Troy Glaus has 263 home runs at age at 30; Paul Konerko 249 at 31; Miguel Tejada 242 at 30; David Ortiz 239 at 31; Lance Berkman 228 at 31; Carlos Lee 226 at 30; Derrek Lee 218 at 31; Carlos Beltran 210 at 30; and Alfonso Soriano 210 at 31.
Maybe none of the 30/31 guys will reach 500. Maybe only Ortiz sounds like a name worthy of the 500 mark, and he isn't halfway there. But no one could have predicted back in 1995, when Palmeiro was 31, that he would reach 500, yet he blew past it in 2003. It seems logical that of the 20 active players with 200-plus homers mentioned above, half of them are going to hit 500 home runs. That likely would happen in the next 10 years. With the four expected to reach the mark this year, that would make 20 new members in 22 seasons after only 14 in the first 120 seasons of baseball.
Fourteen in 120 seasons.
Twenty in 22 seasons.
By that time, the 500-homer club surely will have lost its exclusivity. By then, perhaps, we will be keeping 500-home run guys out of the Hall of Fame, guys who had no connection to steroids, because we will know them only as home run hitters as opposed to all-round players. Remember, Killebrew was fifth on the all-time home run list when he retired after the 1975 season, and it took him until his fourth year of eligibility to make it to Cooperstown. He never should have had to wait that long. Ten years from now, other 500-home run hitters are going to have to wait longer. Some might wait forever.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" has been published by St. Martin's Press and just became available in bookstores Tuesday. Click here to order a copy. In addition, click here to subscribe to The Magazine.