The Chase 1998
What was it like in 1998, during the nail-biting race to beat Roger Maris’ home run record? We track the big headlines and the dingers as the world watched.
Welcome to the spring of 1998: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are coming off seasons of 58 and 36 home runs, respectively, and it’s McGwire’s first full season in St. Louis. Predictions of him breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run mark of 61 are already flying. Six short months from now, McGwire and Sosa will both have accomplished the feat with the former edging the latter by four home runs to set a new record of 70.
Before that finish line, though, both men would hit more than 130 combined dingers throughout the year, and there would be magazine covers, commercials, and late-night shows tracking them the whole way. The home run race would captivate baseball fans, as well as people who wouldn’t otherwise care about the sport, and it would stay lodged in the mind of kids everywhere — some of whom grew up to be today’s stars of the game, and can still articulate how they felt during that summer.
So, whether you’re someone who remembers the McGwire-Sosa home run chase in all of its enthralling detail, or a future MLB fan who wasn’t yet old enough to recall all of the specifics of the season-long battle (hi, hello, it’s me), either way, it’s been 20 years since that race and its can’t-miss action brought fans back to baseball. Let the dingers fly!
[Note: Our tracker took into account all available recorded dates, field positions, and distances for McGwire and Sosa home runs in the 1998 season.]
McGwire steps in, wins homer contest
McGwire’s home runs were already meriting column space in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in early March, but not because of a game situation. In a batting practice home run derby against Blue Jays players, he hit all of the Cardinals’ seven homers to win. That March 8, 1998, anecdote would be a prelude of what was to come, and he even did it without his usual bat.
Sammy time: “Sosa predicted last spring he would hit 50 home runs. Now he’s out of the prognostication business”
Sosa took a step back from the confident position he had with his 1997 home run totals in the March 9 edition of the Chicago Tribune. He should have stayed with it though, since even though he wasn’t “out there to hit 40 home runs” he did that, and more. It’s safe to say he did accomplish his goal of hurting teams every day.
McGwire’s chances of breaking homer mark is among topics discussed with Reds’ minor leaguers
Someone was making predictions though, at least for McGwire. Pete Rose, joining a trend that would be a big feature of that season’s Spring Training coverage, appeared in the March 15 Post-Dispatch confidently predicting McGwire could top Maris’ mark, and offering managers advice they wouldn’t quite follow: walk him a bunch. McGwire would end the season with 162 walks, but even that many free trips to first didn’t keep him from setting the record.
While McGwire was getting all the prediction coverage, Sosa had headlines following him during Spring Training.
“Sosa’s No. 1 need: Discipline at plate”
He struck out three fewer times in 1998 than in 1997 (171 to 174) but hit 30 more home runs than the previous year. So this March 22 Tribune headline isn’t necessarily wrong, but it turns out his plate discipline didn’t matter when it came to crushing as much as everyone thought. Hey, not every preseason prediction was going to land.
Over in McGwireville that same day, the Sunday edition of the Post-Dispatch fills us in on McGwire’s opinion on all his publicity with the most 1998 reference, saying, “He has graced the cover of The Sporting News Baseball Yearbook and the Sports Illustrated special baseball issue and the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated. He is on the cover of the Cardinals’ media guid. He’s been on more covers than Monica Lewinsky. And McGwire, predictably, isn’t wild about it.”
Lewinsky name drop aside, McGwire admits he would rather not be on covers and only be written about for his feats rather than constantly having to take photos and be the center of attention. “I would rather do the articles and that’s about it.” McGwire said. “I don’t like publicity.”
That is … not a wish that will come true.
Twin towers of power
In the March 25 edition of the Tribune, with the season almost underway, a prediction of 75 or 80 homers for Sosa and teammate Henry Rodriguez gets space in the sports section. They’d combine for 97 home runs, with Sosa accomplishing the bulk of that, of course. Rodriguez did end up notching 31 of his own bombs, only five away from his career high.
In response to Cubs’ first baseman Mark Grace being tagged as the cleanup hitter and Sosa slotting in third in the batting order, Grace said in the March 27 Tribune that he’s happy with that setup because, “I want to see Sammy get as many pitches as he possibly can. Because when Sammy puts the bat on the ball, good things happen.” If you only knew, Mark Grace. If you only knew.
Players: 61 HRs before .400
Also on the 27th, a small item in the Moline, Illinois, Dispatch noted that Grace said McGwire, Sosa, or anyone on the Rockies would have a chance at reaching Maris’ threshold and then passing it, which is a pretty close prediction considering Sosa didn’t break 40 the year before. Cubs GM Ed Lynch did Grace one better and named McGwire or Ken Griffey Jr. as players who could hit 70 home runs, specifically. Hit the nail right on the head there. Hopefully he bought some lottery tickets after media availability that day.
All eyes are on McGwire as he aims at homer mark
Two days from Opening Day, McGwire still wasn’t comfortable with being the center of attention while his teammates failed to garner the same close analysis and predictions. He told the Post-Dispatch: “I know there’s a lot of eyes on me. There should be a lot of eyes on everybody else.”
Hopefully he got used to it. Because once the season began, these confident preseason predictions would look like a middle-of-the-paper footnote compared to the home run race fervor. Covers and attention, ahoy.
Everyone [remembers] right? As a kid growing up that was amazing. Sosa was just so electrifying, so fun-loving. McGwire was that classic, stoic Cardinal Way just dropping bombs into Big Mac land. Every time we play in St. Louis it says Big Mac up on the third deck and you can’t help but remember that summer. What a great time for baseball.Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros
It was very significant. You’d wake up every day and see if they hit one. I was just rooting for excitement, for homers. I wasn’t team Sosa or Team McGwire, I was just team excitement.Jed Lowrie, Oakland A’s
“Get Ready for a Slugfest: Why Maris’ record and a lot of others could fall”
McGwire’s first cover of the season came eight days before he would hit his first home run. Sports Illustrated’s March 23 cover was all Big Mac with the exception of a brief mention of NCAA Tournament upsets happening that week (10-seed West Virginia had beaten 2-seed Cincinnati, 6-seed UCLA beat 3-seed Michigan, and 8-seed Rhode Island pulled off the upset over 1-seed Kansas).
I might have been in fourth or fifth grade? But I remember watching it every night. …I think I was going for Sosa. I really liked the way he hopped. Plus I’m from North Alabama so Chicago, St. Louis, they’re right there.Craig Kimbrel, Boston Red Sox
You know things are legitimate when the brands get involved. A trip for two to the World Series from Pepsi just for guessing the home run champion’s dinger total was a sure sign the race was top of everyone’s mind, instead of just the baseball world’s.
In May, McGwire and Sosa combined for 12 home runs in a single week.
Just a lot of home runs. I actually remember on ESPN they had a count and it seemed like every other day one of them was hitting a homer so it’s just cool to look back on that, to remember that.Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies
It was amazing. Every time you watched a game when they were on the TV it was a home run and it was pretty interesting and electric to see two guys go at it for a home run title.Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
Nike’s “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” commercial, in which Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux train to hit home runs to impress fans (including Heather Locklear!!), who are more captivated with McGwire’s prowess at the plate. One of the best things to come out of the 1998 season.
I thank Sammy and McGwire for doing what they did because that brought baseball back. The fans came back to paying attention to baseball, because it was a little cold until they came in and did the home run challenge, which is almost impossible to do.
Every baseball player should thank them for doing what they did, that’s why we are where we are right now. Everybody’s having a career right now because of it.David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox (ret.)
As a kid, it was something that really drew you into the game of baseball and watching it every night. Not just those two guys, but all the fans and all the teams, you know it was definitely one of my early baseball memories.Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
I was pretty young, but I just remember every day there was something. I didn’t know really how special that was until looking back on it and seeing how many people haven’t even reached 60 homers, some of the best power hitters ever. I’m glad those guys are out of the game now so I don’t have to face them.Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks
“Slammin’ Sammy: Sammy Sosa is on a record home run binge”
The next big cover featuring either Sosa or McGwire didn’t come until June 29, when Sports Illustrated put Sosa on a cover of his own. At this point, Sosa had 32 homers to McGwire’s 36, and the race was well on its way to the top of Hype Mountain. This cover just about marks the point where the race actually turned into a race and not “just” McGwire chasing Maris.
I think I was 12 maybe. So playing little league baseball, that was really exciting to follow. I remember no matter what we were doing, if we were at somebody else’s house or I even remember times when my dad was making me mow the yard, someone from inside the house would yell, “Hey, McGwire’s gonna come up” and I would run inside real quick and watch his at-bat and then have to go finish my chores. I appreciate that part of it, it got me out of doing some extra yard work. That might have been the summer where I fell in love with the game and it became my most favorite sport.Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals
I always watched SportsCenter when I was laying in bed going to sleep. Obviously, being able to watch that race was unbelievable. I was a McGwire guy. I liked the Cardinals a little more because they were closer to home, so I’d always watch the Cardinals.J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins
With McGwire at 44 home runs and Sosa at 40, TIME issued the first cover to feature them both. Neither of them posed for this one, and based on both of their reluctance at the beginning of the season to be the absolute center of attention, it’s notable TIME went the route of having an artist draw them rather than setting up a photo shoot or using wire photos.
The eventual World Series champions get a mention here, but it’s a small one. The Yankees’ even came after the note on stadium food. But the most important part of this subhead is the phrase “baseball is back.”
The predictions and the hope of a home run spike may have been one thing, but the actual race did something better than being exciting: it gave baseball a second life that wasn’t guaranteed after the 1994 strike.
I remember it was awesome feeling. Especially when they played each other. The way that they’d go at each other. I think that baseball really grew a lot after the strike and baseball got back on top after that.Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
“The Great Home Run Chase: In pursuit of Mac, Junior and Sammy. A remarkable 72-hour odyssey”
Oh look, a Ken Griffey, Jr. reference on the August 3 edition of Sports Illustrated. Griffey would end the season with 56 home runs, a full 10 behind Sosa and a total that in most other years would have gotten him all of these covers. Instead he got this brief mention before the two main men in the race uncorked things and went on their August and September tears. At the time of this cover, he was one behind Sosa and four behind McGwire.
I just remember how much fun baseball was. Obviously, when you have two big names like that going at it with the home run race, two iconic organizations too … as a kid you can’t ask for anything better than that.Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs
I remember how far and how long they were hitting them, how excited everybody was. The Home Run Derby was something I always watched growing up as a kid and that was a special event. It was Home Run Derby every day for them.Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians
Not every current player remembers the home run race. Whether because of youth or growing up in another country, their introductions to what McGwire and Sosa did came late.
I was in Brazil so I don’t want to say I barely watched baseball, but it was hard. When I moved here, to see that. Still to this day, 60’s and 70’s? It’s like, geez. I think I might have just gotten past that career-wise and those guys were doing it in one year. It’s really cool. You heard it a little bit on ESPN Brasil but at that time, I was playing baseball but wasn’t really following baseball as much. I was more following NPB, Japanese baseball.Yan Gomes, Cleveland Indians
I didn’t have the opportunity to watch that in Cuba, we didn’t have the stations. But I heard about it and when I came here I watched videos of that. It was very special.Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
As McGwire’s record-breaking home run neared, pop culture made room for No. 62. Including Hank Hill from King of the Hill asking him to please hit the big one so their season could start. Hill’s 1998 season was delayed so FOX could make sure they aired McGwire passing Maris.
“One Cool Daddy: How Mark McGwire is beating the pressure”
There’s a lot of things about the September 7 Sports Illustrated cover that wouldn’t happen 20 years later: the pose that looks like McGwire is breastfeeding his son; the headline “One Cool Daddy” for a piece authored by Rick Reilly; and an article about golfers’ sex lives. Or at least you’d hope that all of those things are relics.
There it is, No. 62 and assured immortality in the record books. A 341-foot left field shot that just snuck over the left field wall a few feet from the foul pole. In any other context, a normal home run. But not here.
McDonald’s took advantage of the “Big Mac” nickname connection, promoting their line of baseballs with McGwire’s face on them for $3.99, and congratulating him for the achievement with that year’s “Big Mac getting a Big Mac” commercial.
It’s mid-September, both men had cracked 60 home runs and McGwire has officially passed Maris with a September 8 shot to left. So the covers are really picking up.
“The Record: What it means to Mark McGwire and to America”
McGwire, unsurprisingly, gets the cover of Sports Illustrated for breaking the record. But over on Newsweek it’s both Sosa and McGwire smiling and grinning with their arms around each other as the season nears its end.
In case you haven’t realized by now how big a deal the race was at the time, both the Swissair Flight 111 crash that killed 229 people and that summer’s market crash were demoted to the top bar with baseball getting the rest. On Newsweek!
I actually watched a little of the Sammy Sosa thing, I think it was E60. I watched that and it was showing some of the clips from that year. How they were hugging and doing that fist handshake and stuff, and it brought back some memories. Obviously being in the southeast, back then TV was WGN I think carried the Cubs and then TBS carried the Braves so that was kind of who we got. So I remembered a lot of it. It was something you probably won’t see again.Mitch Moreland, Boston Red Sox
“Suddenly it’s This Close: Sammy Sosa jumps right back into the home run race”
Just because the record was McGwire’s doesn’t mean that the race was over, and a pair of covers from September 21 celebrate both things. Sosa stood at 63 home runs to McGwire’s 65 at the time so Sports Illustrated went with “Suddenly it’s THIS CLOSE” and ESPN the Magazine, still in the first months of its existence, dubbed McGwire’s 62 “the greatest sports moment of our time.”
McGwire answers the “Where do I go from here?” question posed on this SI cover in an exclusive piece from his own pen that reflects on the night of the record, how things have changed after unseating Maris, and what his priorities are now that people look at him differently and ask more of him as the single-season home run record holder. It’s a snapshot of one man’s mind in the days immediately after his life changed — for the better, at least at that point — and re-reading can be strange knowing what we know now, but also bring forth an appreciation of McGwire doing a piece this honest.
September 26 saw Will Ferrell do a Mark McGwire impression on Saturday Night Live, the only time he would portray the athlete on the show. If getting spoofed on SNL when it was at one of the peaks of its powers isn’t a sign that this home run race was consuming all, nothing was.
What A Season!
Sometimes, the numbers do all the talking. McGwire finished with 70 homers. Sosa won the RBI battle, even though McGwire jacked more home runs. Kerry Wood had a 20-strikeout game. Cal Ripken, Jr.’s consecutive games streak ended at 2,632. Alex Rodriguez had 42 home runs and 46 stolen bases. And oh yeah, besides all of that, the Yankees set an American League record for wins in a season.
But sometimes, talking does the talking. McGwire followed up his Season of Many Covers by appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman, and later spoke with Barbara Walters for her yearly Most Fascinating People special. McGwire’s Letterman appearance included guests who were very of-the-time, like “Life Is Beautiful” actor/director Roberto Benigni and singer Bruce Hornsby.
McGwire cracks jokes in an all-black, oversized 90’s suit that would make any tailor today cringe. He’s comfortable in the chair and brags a little, Hollywood style, but also veers into “aw shucks” territory with things like shouting out friends and family, and continually saying he can hit anything that’s over the “white part of the plate.” Letterman, for his part, does the Lord’s work by asking whether McGwire calls home runs dingers, taters, or something else. The semi-disappointing answer? “Homers.”
Letterman also points out that this race was what baseball needed and McGwire answers that he and Sosa did it “for the country,” not just baseball. That it doesn’t seem like hyperbole in that context is the most incredible part.
I always get on Big Mac, because he’s our bench coach, to get him to take BP one time but he won’t do it. He can still hit bombs for sure — he just won’t do it. He’s pretty quiet about it, but he’s awesome.Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians
Sportsmen of the Year
On December 21, a pair of covers came out that featured both men but couldn’t have been more different. In one, McGwire and Sosa are named Sportsmen of the Year by Sporting News, and look like they’re going to a baseball-themed prom.
In the other, they’re named Sportsmen of the Year by Sports Illustrated and … the rest will live in infamy.
McGwire capped off his year with the Barbara Walters interview, once again taking the spotlight while Sammy preferred not to (or didn’t receive any offers to) appear on the top late-night or news magazine shows.
Walters refers to McGwire as “a gracious man” and the 1998 season as “a time we’ll all remember,” and neither description could be phrased better than that. Leave it to Barbara Walters to wrap up a season that simultaneously brought baseball back, and set baseball on a path to questioning many of its recent heroes in such an apt way.