The Year That Saved–and Stained–Baseball

Despite PED use, Mark McGwire (and Sammy Sosa) will always be credited for helping to save baseball following the 1994 strike. (via Rick Dikeman)

It’s spring of the next-to-last year of the decade. Political talk is of a high-level investigation of the president, his amours and the people around him. Baseball talk is of home runs.

This is 2018. That, however, was 1998.

Just 20 years ago? It seems like longer since Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were names you knew regardless of whether you were into politics, baseball or neither.

But this is about baseball, and all agreed in that summer of 1998 that this was the year the game was saved from the doldrums. And the saviors were McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, whose home run feats captivated the nation. From the Washington Post in the first week of September:

…in an era of disillusionment with heroes, in a summer of soiled role models, McGwire and Sosa–who hit his 57th homer Friday night–have captivated millions of erstwhile fans who had soured on baseball. A generation of parents who watch their children grow up with non-competitive soccer, a nation of fans who shake their heads as professional athletes eschew any obligation to behave responsibly, has joyfully embraced the polite redhead with the Popeye muscles and the self-deprecating Dominican.

… whichever slugger ultimately claims the record, which now stands at 61, the increasing likelihood that Roger Maris and Babe Ruth will be relegated to third and fourth places in the history books has reminded the nation of baseball’s uncanny ability to capture hearts and bridge generations.

For a third of a century, if you had memorized any American sports record, it was Ruth’s nice round number 60 home runs of 1927. Then, in 1961, an era of home run ascendance peaked with an all-time-high homer rate and a chase after Ruth’s standard by two latter-day Yankees, Maris and Mickey Mantle.  Maris hit 61 home runs that season. The accomplishment seemed to make no one happy, not even Maris.

Those who kept track as generations of sluggers chased Ruth’s record were dutifully reminded that being on pace to beat it in June, July, August was meaningless because 17 of the Babe’s home runs had come in September of 1927. As on the horse track, front-runners faded in the stretch.

Maris didn’t. But, but, but.

For all of major league baseball’s modern history, the regular season schedule had consisted of 154 games. In 1961, the American League added two teams, and eight games, to the schedule. As Maris closed on the record (with Mantle not far behind), consternation broke out. Ruth had hit his 60 home runs in 154 games. Would it be fair?

Baseball commissioner Ford Frick, who once had been a ghostwriter for Ruth, declared in the middle of the season that anybody trying to break Ruth’s record would have to do it in 154 games. The implication was that a 61st home run in Game 155 or later would have an asterisk in the record books. (In fact, Frick didn’t use that word, and it doesn’t.)

Frick wasn’t alone in looking askance at Maris’ quest. If anyone was going to break the record, people wanted Mantle to do it. He was the golden boy, the career Yankee, the good-time party guy. Maris, only two years a Yankee, was a dour figure who grew more and more uncomfortable as the publicity over the chase intensified. As Jane Leavy chronicles in The Last Boy, her superb biography of Mantle, “Maris lost gobs of hair; the circles under his eyes appeared etched in charcoal. Mantle basked; he became the beloved.”

Maris broke the record–on the last day of the season (an early season tie game made it No. 163 for the Yankees).

At the end of April, 1998, McGwire already had 11 home runs. Three of them came on one day against the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, who were playing just the 14th game in franchise history, 12 of which they’d lost. McGwire was far ahead of the pace of Ruth, and of Maris (who hit just one in April of 1961). Sosa had six homers.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Baseball went on strike in mid-August of 1994. The team owners, led by acting commissioner Bud Selig, insisted on tying their revenue-sharing proposals to a cap on player salaries. The players, led by union chief Donald Fehr, would not accept a salary cap under any circumstances, and the owners would not entertain any proposal that did not include a cap.

Each side misread the other’s determination. Neither side thought the stoppage would go on as long as it did. It wiped out the rest of the season and the postseason. It also alienated fans, as empty stadium seats demonstrated when play finally resumed–late–the next season.

In 1994, attendance per game averaged 31,256. In 1995, after major league baseball reappeared, it was just 25,008, a 20-percent decline. Three years later, baseball still hadn’t regained its pre-strike seat sales. But in 1998, undoubtedly helped by the McGwire-Sosa show, attendance was up 12 percent from the prior year and finally surpassed the pre-strike ticket sales of 1993 (albeit with two more franchises).

McGwire hit 16 more homers in May, including three in one game against the Phillies. That gave him 27 already, far ahead of the record holders (Ruth 16, Maris 11). Sosa, with 13, was just getting warmed up.

Oh, what heroes they were, the modest red-headed giant from California and the exciting, excitable man from the Caribbean. McGwire was 34 that season, Sosa five years his junior.

Cubs fans of that era will recall the ritual that followed Sosa’s home runs: thumps to his heart, mimed kisses for the Sosa family, V signs for the camera in honor of Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray, who had died at the beginning of spring training. McGwire, for his part, unfailingly tried to leave the impression that he was lucky to be in this situation: “I wish that every player could feel what I’ve felt in visiting ball parks,” he said at one point. “The receptions I’ve received…It’s blown me away.”

In a side-by-side press conference with Sosa in September, McGwire said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we just ended up tied. I think it would be beautiful.” The day McGwire broke Maris’ record, in a game against the Cubs, Sosa ran in from right field and hugged him.

Sports Illustrated, whose cover then even more than now was the gauge of what was timely and being talked about in American sports, had McGwire on the front four times that summer, while Sosa was featured twice. One or the other was the cover boy three consecutive weeks in September.

Back and forth they went. They homered on the same date 18 times; 15 times from June on, as America started to pay attention to them, twice while their teams were playing each other. On August 18, in St. Louis, after McGwire had homered in the fourth, Sosa sent the game into extras with a two-run shot in the ninth. (The Cards won in 13.) Eleven days later, a Sosa home run had increased the Cubs’ lead to 6-1. But the Cardinals inched back, with McGwire’s home run in the eighth tying the game, and another in the 10th providing the winning run.

Sosa had an unprecedented month in June, hitting 20 home runs, which remains the record for a month. He was now at 33, four fewer than McGwire, whose 37 after exactly 81 games put him on pace for 74. At June’s end in their record years, Ruth had hit 25, Maris 27.

Poring over columns of statistics from 1998, one can be forgiven for noting some dissonance. Despite expansion (Arizona, Milwaukee transferring from the AL) the National League home run rate was hardly changed from what it had been annually since the strike year. (It would rise by more than 12 percent in 1999.)

But there were outliers. McGwire and Sosa were not the only major leaguers hitting homers at a near-record pace. Eleven other players had 40 or more. A dozen years earlier, that figure led the major leagues.

Looking back, one sees an explanation.

Sosa’s July 31 home run off Jamey Wright of the Rockies drew him within three of McGwire, whose lead over Sosa stood at 45 to 42 at month’s end. By comparison, Maris had 40 at that point, Ruth just 34.

On Aug. 22, the sport sections of America’s daily newspapers had at their disposal a feature story from the Associated Press wire, by AP writer Steve Wilstein. There’s no telling how many papers ran it. The article began this way:

ST. LOUIS (AP) – Sitting on the top shelf of Mark McGwire’s locker, next to a can of Popeye spinach and packs of sugarless gum, is a brown bottle labeled Androstenedione.

For more than a year, McGwire says, he has been using the testosterone-producing pill, which is perfectly legal in baseball but banned in the NFL, Olympics and the NCAA.

No one suggests that McGwire wouldn’t be closing in on Roger Maris’ home run record without the over-the-counter drug. After all, he hit 49 homers without it as a rookie in 1987, and more than 50 each of the past two seasons.

But the drug’s ability to raise levels of the male hormone, which builds lean muscle mass and promotes recovery after injury, is seen outside baseball as cheating and potentially dangerous.

No one believes this was the first use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. But it’s as good a marker as any as the public’s introduction to “The PED Era,” which would bring McGwire and Sosa before a congressional committee and scores of other players to the pages of the Mitchell report. It also has kept them and others out of the Hall of Fame.

McGwire and Sosa ended August tied for the major league home run lead with 55, better than Maris’ 51 in his record year. Ruth’s 17-homer September loomed.

McGwire nearly matched it. He hit two home runs on September 1, two more the next day, all measuring more than 450 feet in Joe Robbie Stadium against the Marlins. On September 7, with his Cardinals at home against Sosa’s Cubs, he hit No. 61 off 38-year-old reliever Mike Morgan.

The next day, with members of the Maris family in attendance, he hit starter Steve Trachsel’s pitch 341 feet–his shortest home run of the season–just over the left field wall. No asterisk needed: He was the first major leaguer to hit 62 homers in a season, and he did it in his team’s 144th game.

On September 25, as each team played its third-from-last game of the season–the Cubs at Houston, the Cardinals at home against the Montreal Expos–Sosa homered to go ahead, 66-65. It was the first time since May 14 that McGwire did not have at least a share of the major league home run lead.

Forty-five minutes later, McGwire tied Sosa at 66. He pulled ahead for good with two home runs in the next game and added two more in the season’s final game a day later, finishing with 70.

Despite McGwire’s heroics, the Cardinals finished out of the money, third in the NL’s Central Division. That 66th on September 25 was Sosa’s last of 1998, though six games remained. He hit none the last two days of the regular season, none in a Cubs playoff win over the Giants that gave them a Wild Card spot, none in a three-game Division Series sweep at the hands of the Braves.

Just before Christmas, the McGwire-Sosa saga culminated with the two, dressed in togas, posed on the cover of Sports Illustrated as Sportsmen of the Year. That same week, the House of Representatives voted on articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, accused of of lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.


The Senate acquitted Clinton.

In 2001, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs. His record still stands. He has been widely linked to PED use.

In 2005, Sosa and McGwire were among active and former players who appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform. Sosa, whose command of English deserted him as members of Congress asked questions, submitted a sworn statement in which he denied using PEDs. McGwire wouldn’t say, telling his questioners, “I’m not here to discuss the past.”

In 2006, Selig appointed George Mitchell, a former U.S. Senator and prosecutor, to investigate the use of performance-enhancing drugs in major league baseball. A year and a half later, his report named 89 major leaguers alleged to have used steroids or drugs. McGwire and Sosa were not listed.

In 2009, The New York Times reported that Sosa was among many players who tested positive for steroids in 2003. The next year, McGwire admitted he took steroids off and on for nearly 10 years, including in 1998, but insisted the drugs did not help him hit home runs.

As of this morning, Mookie Betts and Mike Trout are three home runs behind Barry Bonds’ 2001 pace; 20 years after Sosa and McGwire, we still can’t help but keep track.

References and Resources

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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5 years ago

MLB wasn’t dead or dying in 1998, the cheaters didn’t save anything.

5 years ago

What a remarkable resurgence for MLB in ’98! McGwire and Sosa were definitely the energizing face of the turnaround. It’s still fun, just to remember it – and so deflating to acknowledge that it turned to ashes as much as it did. What an innocent time it must have been for almost all of us to have thought it was real.

The PED scandal stole from me, even more than the strikes, my exuberance as a fan that had started in the 50’s. I sorely miss what I had thought the ‘National Pastime’ was.

Las Vegas Wildcards
5 years ago
Reply to  BobDD

There were red flags before 1998, in terms of players getting bigger, so many of us were uneasy about the authenticity of that season. Afterwards, it was depressing to see the player’s union drag their feet on drug testing. Since the PED era, some players linked with usage have died, which isn’t a huge surprise, given the lack of knowledge about these substances.