I know a good many people have become disillusioned with statistical milestones that once inspired awe–home run milestones most of all. The 500 home run club has swelled from 15 members to 25 in the last 15 seasons. Those 10 new members mark the most new members in any fifteen-year stretch of baseball history, and seven of those 10 have been connected to steroids. Three members in 15 years is no rare thing, but let’s assume that Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez would have made it to 500 on their own, which puts us at five new members in this stretch of recent history. Pujols will soon make six, since now that we are excluding Mark McGwire, the window starts with Bonds in 2001.
So what’s the difference between six and 10 new members? Both are remarkable records, but the key number here is eight. That’s how many men joined the 500 club in two distinct stretches between the 1960s and 70s (1960-71 and 1965-78). Before the steroid era, these years were the golden age of home run hitters, and the list of players who reached 500 in this span is a list of hall of famers. Most adult fans today, especially those who have risen to important positions in sports media, spent their childhoods looking up to the players of this era. I imagine some of the backlash and moral grandstanding by so many older fans is in no small part motivated by nostalgia and childhood affection. It must be maddening to see the idols of one’s youth surpassed on dubious terms.
But to forswear enthusiasm for these big round-numbered milestones with all their silly pageantry is basically to mope. Before those glorious yesteryears in the Sixties, there were only three members of the 500 club. Clearly something about baseball changed after World War II that allowed for a power explosion soon after. It might have been small new ballparks, a ball with a little more juice in it, or players taking “greenies” before each game to keep their energy and attention up. It could be a combination of those factors and others, and you could find plenty of ways to lament them. Or, you can imagine the history of baseball as a living thing, dynamic and fluid, with levels of scoring that cycle up and down depending on the rules, equipment, playing field, pool of players and innovations in strategy. Compare players within eras and try not to poo-poo an era as it happens in front of you. You don’t get to see many of these eras before you die.
Let’s take it a bit slower this time.
Good luck to you, Albert Pujols, on your run to 500, and then on your way past Eddie Murray (504) and Gary Sheffield (509). How many home runs are left in the tank?