McGwire Breaks Maris’s Home Run Record Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs battled throughout the 1998 baseball season to break Roger Maris’s thirty-seven-year-old record of sixty-one home runs. Both passed Maris by mid-September, and McGwire’s seventy home runs shattered the old record, revitalizing baseball’s waning popularity and turning McGwire and Sosa into baseball’s biggest stars.

Summary of Event

By late in the twentieth century, American baseball’s major leagues had struggled with declining fan support for several decades, and a player’s strike that canceled the World Series in 1994 looked to be one of the final nails in baseball’s coffin. A sudden surge in home run totals sparked a renewal of fan interest, however, so when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals began the 1998 season after hitting fifty-eight home runs the year before, many were anticipating that 1998 could be the year when Roger Maris’s thirty-seven-year-old record of sixty-one home runs in a single season would fall. Sports;baseball Baseball Major League Baseball;records [kw]McGwire Breaks Maris’s Home Run Record (Sept. 8, 1998) [kw]Maris’s Home Run Record, McGwire Breaks (Sept. 8, 1998) [kw]Home Run Record, McGwire Breaks Maris’s (Sept. 8, 1998) [kw]Record, McGwire Breaks Maris’s Home Run (Sept. 8, 1998) Sports;baseball Baseball Major League Baseball;records [g]North America;Sept. 8, 1998: McGwire Breaks Maris’s Home Run Record[10150] [g]United States;Sept. 8, 1998: McGwire Breaks Maris’s Home Run Record[10150] [c]Sports;Sept. 8, 1998: McGwire Breaks Maris’s Home Run Record[10150] McGwire, Mark Sosa, Sammy Maris, Roger

McGwire quickly elevated those hopes when he hit a grand-slam home run on the season’s opening day, then another in each of the next three games. When he hit three in a single game ten days later, four more by the end of April, and sixteen more in May, he soon found himself halfway to Maris’s record a month before the break for the All-Star Game, the traditional midpoint in the season. In mid-August, in a torrid three-week surge, McGwire surpassed what had once been Babe Ruth’s Ruth, Babe record of sixty home runs, and on September 7, he hit his sixty-first, tying Maris’s record.

A day later, on September 8, 1998, McGwire met with representatives of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the same Cardinals clubhouse where Maris had finished his career. The representatives had brought the bat Maris had used to hit his sixty-first home run in 1961. McGwire touched the bat, placed it over his heart, and then went out to play that evening’s game against the Chicago Cubs. On the Cubs bench sat Sammy Sosa, a slugger who had spent the season chasing McGwire, and at times catching him, in the race to surpass Maris’s record. Unlike McGwire, Sosa was not considered a home run hitter, having never hit more than forty in a season, but in the 1998 season he had already set the record for most home runs in a single month by clubbing twenty in June, and on the night of September 8, he came into the game with McGwire’s Cardinals with fifty-eight home runs, just three behind McGwire.

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In the first inning, McGwire worked Cubs pitcher Steve Trachsel Trachsel, Steve for a three-ball, no-strike count. Although most hitters are coached to let the next pitch go by with such a count, McGwire swung at the delivery and grounded out to the Cubs shortstop. Trachsel shut down the Cardinals for the next three innings, so McGwire did not bat again until the fourth inning. When McGwire came to the plate in the fourth, the umpire gave Trachsel a special baseball, as had been the case every time McGwire batted since his fifty-ninth home run, marked with a number in invisible ink that would identify it as the ball McGwire had hit if he connected for the record home run.

Trachsel’s first pitch, clocked by radar guns as traveling at eighty-eight miles per hour, was a low sinking fastball on the outside of the plate. McGwire bent low at the knees to reach the pitch, driving the ball on a line drive directly toward the top of the fence in Busch Stadium’s left-field corner. The trajectory was so low that McGwire immediately sprinted out of the batter’s box, assuming the ball would stay in the field of play and that he would need to run the bases. The ball never seemed to drop, however, and in little more than a second or two, it cleared the wall by five feet just inside the foul pole, bounced hard off an advertising sign, and fell quickly out of sight, into a concourse that ran around the playing field under the stands, where it was recovered by a member of the Cardinals groundskeeping crew.

As the ball cleared the wall just as he reached first base, McGwire saw the ball disappear and leaped into the air, missing first base; he was thus forced to backtrack and touch the bag. By the time he reached home plate, the entire Cardinals team had assembled there with McGwire’s ten-year-old son, Matthew, who was wearing a Cardinals uniform and holding McGwire’s bat. McGwire picked Matthew up in a celebratory hug, then ran to the first row of seats beside the Cardinals dugout and hugged each of Maris’s six adult children, who had attended the game in anticipation of the event. At that point, Sosa ran in from his position in right field, and he and McGwire engaged in an ecstatic handshake and embrace, a symbol of their mutual respect and admiration. The home run had traveled only 341 feet, McGwire’s shortest home run of the season.

After the game, which the Cardinals won with a score of six to three, a ceremony was held at second base in which McGwire presented the Baseball Hall of Fame with the home run ball, his bat, and the uniform he had been wearing, including his spikes and cap, and the Cardinals presented McGwire with a red 1962 Corvette. Acknowledging the support that Maris’s four sons and two daughters had given him during his race to surpass their father’s record, McGwire asked them to join him during the ceremony.

On September 13, 1998, Sammy Sosa hit his sixty-second home run, and on September 25, his sixty-sixth, passing McGwire for the second time in the season. He would not hit another home run that season, however, and McGwire caught fire for the final week, finishing with seventy home runs. Sports Illustrated named McGwire and Sosa its 1998 “Sportsmen of the Year.”

Significance

Interest in Major League Baseball had been waning among the American public for two decades when a player’s strike canceled the final two months of the 1994 season, including the World Series, and put the sport’s future in jeopardy. Two years later, home run production suddenly rose by 25 percent, setting the stage for the 1998 pursuit of Roger Maris’s home run record by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The race produced a dramatic surge in the game’s popularity, helped fill stadiums around the country, and put the sport back on the front pages of American newspapers. Home run production continued to soar throughout the major leagues for another decade, with Sosa surpassing Maris’s old record twice more and record numbers of players posting fifty home runs in a season, including even light-hitting journeymen such as Baltimore Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson. Finally, San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds Bonds, Barry broke McGwire’s short-lived record with seventy-three home runs in the 2001 season.

Eventually, widespread rumors of anabolic steroid use throughout Major League Baseball exploded into the mass media after several public confessions of steroid use by prominent former players and a high-profile criminal investigation of steroid distribution by a nutritional supplements company utilized by major-league players. In 2005, the Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings at which McGwire and Sosa offered unconvincing denials of steroid use, leaving their records and reputations tarnished and leading Major League Baseball to adopt stringent rules banning steroid use. Sports;baseball Baseball Major League Baseball;records

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarver, Tim, with Danny Peary. The Perfect Season: Why 1998 Was Baseball’s Greatest Year. New York: Villard Books, 1999. One of American baseball’s most outspoken analysts argues persuasively that the 1998 season was the greatest in sports history. Foregrounds the McGwire-Sosa home run race.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNeil, William. The Single-Season Home Run Kings: Ruth, Maris, McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002. Presents a history of Major League Baseball’s single-season home run record, with an emphasis on the players who set the records and the social contexts in which those players performed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paisner, Daniel. The Ball: Mark McGwire’s Home Run Ball and the Marketing of the American Dream. New York: Viking Press, 1999. Provides an account of the history of the baseball that McGwire hit for his seventieth home run as an illustration of Americans’ obsession with the commodification of cultural items such as sports memorabilia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schell, Michael J. Baseball’s All-Time Best Sluggers: Adjusted Batting Performance from Strikeouts to Home Runs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. Presents an in-depth and technical comparison of Major League Baseball’s power hitters across history, utilizing performance statistics adjusted for differences in eras and playing situations. Includes graphs, tables, and charts.

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