In the summer of 1998, it seemed liked everybody – and I mean everybody — was interested in baseball thanks to the famous homerun race between the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa.
The pair of heavy hitters battled to break the previous record of 61 homeruns in a season set in 1961 by Roger Maris. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for the MLB which was still struggling to bring up attendance numbers after the 1994-95 strike that resulted in the cancellation of the 94 World Series.
The homerun race between McGwire and Sosa wasn’t just sports news. It was news news followed closely by fans and non-fans throughout the summer. By the end of August McGwire and Sosa were tied at 55 home runs apiece with still a month left to reach Maris’ record of 61.
TV networks were left scrambling as they attempted to sort out what ended up being a logistical nightmare as they tried to make sure that everyone could tune in when the record was tied and broken.
In the end it was McGwire who won the homerun race, tying Maris with his 61st homer on September 7th and then blasting past the record the very next night with his 62nd homer of the season.
The record setting homer took place at Busch Stadium with Sosa and the Cubs in town. You could not make this anymore exciting if it were a Hollywood movie!
“Big Mac” celebrated with hugs for his son Matthew, his teammates, the late Maris’ family and even Sosa who ran out to celebrate with his rival and friend.
By the end of the 98 season McGwire ultimately set a new record with 70 total long balls, while Sosa slammed 66 homers. For their efforts, the pair were named Sports Illustrated Sportsmen of the Year, marking the seventh time in the 45-year history of the award that there were multiple winners.
At the time there was talk that the sudden increase in homeruns not just by McGwire and Sosa, but a bunch of MLB sluggers, was the result of players using supplements which were fairly new on the scene.
But, of course we would learn several years later that players were taking more than supplements.
In 2001, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds blew right past 70 home runs on his way to a final tally of 73. And then in 2005 Jose Conseco named names in his tell-all book about steroids in baseball, Juiced.
Initially both McGwire and Sosa denied ever using steroids, but in 2010 McGwire eventually came clean. Sosa still denies ever using performance enhancing drugs.
For more stories from the 1990s, make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at Curiouscast.ca.