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MLB - Bonds Joins the Pantheon

By Mason Williams
Wednesday, August 7th, 2002
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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 silent assassin.

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.

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