Wednesday, August 7th, 2002
Barry Bonds continues to amend baseball's record book with each homerun
he launches into the stratosphere. A mystical number looms ahead of Mr. Bonds.
The number is 600. Six-hundred homeruns, that is. While 500 is an impressive
number and a e-ticket into the Hall of Fame, 600 towers over 500 like the
Hoover Dam dwarfs a beaver's dam.
If 500 is equated with Cooperstown, 600 equates to entrance into baseball's
sacred pantheon. Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Mike
Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Frank Robinson, and Mark
McGwire, all have their names associated with the number 500. 500 seems
attainable, 600 remains a figment of most baseball players imagination.
Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays -- perhaps no
three other names personify the essence of baseball. These are the only players
to traverse the 600-homerun plateau, and soon they will be joined by the
new sultan of swat, Barry Bonds. Once a player crosses the boundary of 600,
his name must instantly be inserted into the timeless debate as to who is
the greatest player of all-time. Instead of tackling that debate, let us
qualify and quantify each of the four players in terms of their own era.
Undoubtedly, Babe Ruth was the premiere player and personality of his era.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, no other sports figure, with the exception
of Jack Dempsey, commanded public attention with such flare and force.
On the field, Ruth's numbers are, for lack of a better term, "Ruthian."
His statistics make it seem as if he was playing an entirely different game
than his contemporaries. He crushed 715 homeruns in an era dominated by pitchers
and the dead ball. Experts sometimes offer Ty Cobb's name as a better
all-around player, but these statements are made just to fulfill the devil's
advocate role. Ruth was baseball, and in many old-school minds, he is.
Between the mid-'30s and the mid-'50s, baseball enjoyed its glory days. Several
of the games greats played during this era, but none ever approached Ruth.
Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Mel Ott, and Jimmie
Foxx were all outstanding. Stan Musial's numbers rank in the top
five of all major categories, but he falls short of Ted Williams, who many
people feel was the greatest of this era. Williams would have broken the
600-homer barrier, but service in two wars took him away from the game for
five years. With that said, Williams should be included as a de facto member
of the pantheon.
The mid-'50s introduced America to the new face of baseball. Entering the
league on the heels of integration, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays demonstrated
skills that were unparalleled. Both hit as hard as Ruth, but were better
defensive players and baserunners than the Babe. Mays was the dynamo to Aaron's
When they left baseball in the 1970s, Mays and Aaron amassed 660 and 755
homeruns, respectively. Aaron is in the top three in many categories, and
although his skills diminished more significantly, Mays ranks highly in all
offensive categories. These men changed baseball, defined their generation,
and rivaled the Babe in baseball stature.
The '70s and '80s offered an assortment of good players, but only four can
be considered great alongside their predecessors. Jackson, Pete Rose,
George Brett, and Schmidt are the outstanding talents of this era.
Jackson was a clutch slugger and a dynamic persona who struck out all of
the time. Rose was the ultimate contact hitter and hardnosed winner. Brett
mixed element of Lou Gehrig and Musial. Schmidt was a slugger who
hit for average and could blay great defense. Of this group, Schmidt emerges
as the best player, but none of these greats compare to the pantheon.
Now we arrive at the most recent era. While Ken Griffey, Jr. seems
to be re-finding himself, McGwire has walked away before his demise,
A-Rod is just starting out, and Sammy Sosa is playing catch
up, Barry Bonds is running laps around his contemporaries. His stats are
staggering. His skills remain at the highest level. He is a modern Babe Ruth
and Willie Mays all in one. When he hits his 600th homerun this week, his
place in the pantheon will be secure and he will then embark on the journey
toward being remembered as baseball's greatest player of all-time.