The 2018 season is the 20th anniversary of the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run chase in which they traded dingers back and forth in a quest to be the first to pass Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61, set in 1961. McGwire would reach 62 first, and then finish with 70, but Sosa’s second-place finish of 66 was enough to be the second-highest all-time single-season total in the game’s history, too.
It’s 20 years later, and baseball, as an industry, as a sport, is now ashamed of McGwire and Sosa where they were once enthralled with them. As it became clearer and clearer that performance-enhancing drugs, legal and not so legal, were used by Big Mac and Sammy, the rapt, adoring crowd became an angry mob, led by the same media that was devoted to them just a few years before.
McGwire fell off of the Hall of Fame ballot after the 2016 vote, his 10th attempt to gain entry into Cooperstown, while Sosa is still on, but barely: He received just 7.8 percent of the vote in 2018 — his seventh appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Barry Bonds, who broke McGwire’s record just three years later with 73 dingers, also has not made the Hall of Fame after seven attempts. He’s in much better shape, and might actually sneak in, but the fact another player associated with performance-enhancing drugs isn’t in yet, in spite of their accomplishments on the field, tells you where we are with grappling with those issues.
So, if we can’t accept and respect Bonds as the single-season home run king, and it doesn’t fall to McGwire or Sosa for similar, tainted reasons, then where does that leave us? Your familiarity with this narrative might lead you back to Maris, but that’s not right, either.
Ryan Howard is the single-season home run leader, the true dinger king, and it’s about time he gets the respect he deserves for that feat.
Alright, alright, I’ll show my work. Let’s just work our way through history and sort this out.
The Steroid Era
Barry Bonds hit 73 homers in 2001, sure, but there was a literal book written on his steroid use and the era he lived in. Whether he should be in the Hall of Fame is an entirely separate discussion from whether 73 homers is the most ever in a single season, but going by our little dinger inquisition here, where impurities are disqualifying, we’re tossing out his 2001 campaign and officially stripping him of his crown. Return that and the scepter at your earliest convenience, Barry.
Similarly, McGwire and Sosa aren’t going to have their single-season highs of 70 and 66 homers recognized, either. McGwire openly had androsteniodone in his locker in ‘98, and gave a non-confession confession to Congress about his steroid usage years later. Sosa was on the 2003 Mitchell Report, which was supposed to be anonymous and never supposed to be shared with the public, but let’s not get into that whole discussion right now. The point is, Sosa is disqualified. Good day, sirs.
It’s not just Bonds’ 73-homer season, nor McGwire and Sosa’s top campaigns that are wiped from the record books, either. McGwire ranks fourth all-time in a single season with 65 homers, Sosa fifth and sixth with 64 and 63. That’s the first six entrants in the single-season all-time list, gone, poof. And good riddance, too!
The Amphetamines Era
Before there were steroids in baseball — or, at least, before there were outcries about steroids — there were amphetamines, which made their way into professional sports following World War II.
And if you think steroids were rampant in the late-90s, you should have seen the peak of greenies usage in Major League Baseball in the 1960s. None of your heroes are free from their clutches, either: there are claims that Willie Mays was a user; Hank Aaron admitted to trying them once; Mike Schmidt is on the record in his own book talking about amphetamines; Mickey Mantle supposedly ruined his own chance at the home run record in 1961 because of a botched injection that included amphetamines.
You basically can’t trust anything from this era in the same way the late-90s and early-2000s are sketchy as hell, because there is a significant chance that whatever was accomplished was accomplished while a player was on amphetamines.
There are a few reasons greenies were banned in one of baseball’s early drug policies back in 2005, and sure, part of it was simply public relations. Another part, though, was that with the beginning of testing for performance-enhancing drugs, MLB didn’t just want players to start going back to greenies constantly.
So, sorry Roger Maris. Maybe you were clean, or maybe you were as powered by amphetamines as the rest of the league. We just don’t know for sure, so we have to disqualify you from being the home run king, too. Better safe than sorry, you know. Mickey Mantle probably could have used that advice before ruining his chances at history.
The Pre-Integration Era
Imagine claiming that any record set when Major League Baseball was just a bunch of racist white dudes should still be recognized as the record today. Just a league intentionally setup so that the best players in the world couldn’t compete against each other; so that all the best white players could be in their little white players club. Couldn’t be me. And that’s why Babe Ruth as the single-season home run king has to be met with a hearty laugh and quick dismissal.
Ruth, with 60 homers in 1927 and 59 in 1921, was the standard bearer for the long ball for decades until Maris showed up and amphetamines were just sitting in a bowl in MLB’s clubhouses. Babe Ruth also retired after the 1935 season, 12 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by joining the Dodgers in the majors, so FOH with treating his 60 homers like they’re equal to what anyone in the league was doing post-Robinson.
The Juiced Ball Era(s)
Next up is Giancarlo Stanton, who also hit 59 homers like Ruth, and did so post-integration. However, he did it during a season in which MLB was basically designing baseballs with rockets attached so they’d leave the stadium more often. It even came up in the World Series last year, with pitchers speaking their minds on the subject. Because of that, don’t get any ideas about Aaron Judge’s rookie season of 57 homers, either, as he got to benefit from the same slick balls that reacted to contact like a golf ball hit with a metal bat.
The most recent era of juiced balls isn’t the only one, of course. The late-90s and early aughts not only featured the steroids buffet, but they were also full of baseballs that were maybe, probably, intentionally altered so that they’d, seemingly randomly, fly a whole lot farther.
Jay Jaffe has been on that beat for years, and here’s the Deadspin story that’s an excerpt of a Baseball Prospectus book to prove it. So, you can toss out the 1997 and 1998 Ken Griffey Jr. years where he hit 56 homers, even if he was steroid-free. Luis Gonzalez’s 57 dingers in 2001 are also suspect, whether you believe he was using or not.
The Post-Steroids, Pre-Juiced Balls Era
It might sound like we’ve eliminated everyone to the point that the true home run king is going to be someone who hit 37 homers in 1948, after Jackie Robinson debuted and before greenies were rampant, but that’s only true if you already forgot I told you the true home run king is Ryan Howard. Please, do try to keep up.
Ryan Howard, as the pure numbers will tell you, currently ranks 11th all-time on the single-season home run list thanks to swatting 58 dingers in 2006. He’s first in our hearts, though, and here’s a handy checklist to explain why:
- Howard’s 58 home runs came post-integration.
- Amphetamines were banned and tested for by Major League Baseball in time for the 2006 season.
- There was testing for steroids in 2006. The first joint drug agreement in decades was announced in 2002, and in January 2005, there was an even more strict set of drug testing rules put into place following pressure from Congress, and another enacted for similar reasons that November (that’s the one that included amphetamines).
- The era of juiced balls was over by 2006, and the next one wouldn’t begin for nearly another decade.
Howard hit 58 homers in 2006, and that’s the most anyone has ever hit as far as this argument is concerned. Sure, Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park was friendly to power hitters, but not obscenely so — not enough for us to write an entire section about how smaller ballparks also helped increase homer totals. Howard didn’t test positive for performance-enhancing drugs, he wasn’t on amphetamines, the baseballs were standard baseballs, and we were decades beyond the integration of the game.
Can you say the same about Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, or any of the other players I’ve already told you don’t deserve to be recognized as the single-season all-time home run leader? Again, no. No you can’t.
Really, if you can’t accept Ryan Howard as our benevolent home run leader, then maybe baseball history just isn’t for you.