There have been 27 players in Major League history to reach the vaunted 500-homer plateau, but back in 1971, only 10 players had ever reached that mark -- including Harmon Killebrew, who hit his 500th long ball on Aug. 21 of that year. One month later, on Sep. 13, Frank Robinson joined the party as well, and he did so in unprecedented fashion.
Robinson's team, the Orioles, had a home twi-night doubleheader that day against the second-place Tigers. Baltimore was running away with its third straight AL pennant, so while the Tigers were a very good team, the focus at Memorial Stadium was on Robinson's pursuit of No. 500.
Although Robinson had just turned 36 years old, he was still an elite hitter. He hit .281/.384/.510 with an impressive 153 OPS+ that year, was named to his 13th career All-Star team and would finish third in AL MVP voting. So despite his age, he still planned to play both ends of the doubleheader. "Each day I go to the park, I expect to see my name in the lineup," he said to the Associated Press. "I like to play every game."
In the opener, Robinson was part of an early offensive attack that gave the Orioles a decisive advantage. He had been stuck on 498 homers for three days, but in the first inning, he struck No. 499 against Mike Kilkenny, a three-run blast that put the Orioles ahead, 3-0.
Robinson didn't go deep again, but Dave McNally threw a five-hitter and the Orioles won in a rout, 9-1. With barely any time between the games, the focus was on Robinson as the teams prepared for the nightcap. Could he hit his 500th home run on the very same day?
For a while, it seemed like it would have to wait. Robinson was held hitless in his first four plate appearances -- despite constant chants of "Hit it now!" from the stands -- and the Tigers smoked Baltimore starter Pat Dobson, building up a 10-2 lead. Entering the bottom of the ninth, the Orioles would need a rally simply for Robinson to get another shot.
Thankfully for the loyal Baltimore fans still in attendance, they came through. Down to their last out, Boog Powell singled off Fred Scherman to keep the game going with Robinson coming up.
And, with one last chance on the day for No. 500, he connected:
Even for a 16-year veteran like Robinson, it was a special moment. "This is a big honor and thrill for me," he said. "This is something that will stand after I'm out of baseball, and I guess it puts me in pretty select company."
It was a thrill for the fan who caught it, too, a young man named Leo Resop, who grew up only three miles from Memorial Stadium. He had been going to Orioles games for years, and yet, as he recounted, this was the first home run ball he'd ever caught:
"When Frank was in the on-deck circle, the six of us moved out to the left-field foul pole area. The next thing I remember is seeing this giant baseball floating down like a parachute. I caught it, as all the newspapers said the next day, 'on the fly.'
We all went crazy, screaming and jumping all about ... This 21-year-old felt like a six-year-old kid. And why not? I had just caught my first ball."
Resop later met Robinson, snapped a picture and traded the ball to him for one of his bats and another ball.
Never before had a player hit his 499th and 500th homer on the same day, but then again, there have never been many players quite like Frank Robinson.