On This Date in Sports September 8, 1998: Breaking Marris

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The great home run race reaches a crescendo, as Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals breaks Roger Maris’ single-season record by hitting his 62nd home run off Steve Trachsel of the Chicago Cubs. McGwire had been in a duel with Cubs star Sammy Sosa to get to the record. Both men would pass Maris as McGwire ended the season with 70 and Sosa with 66 homers.

In 1961, baseball’s first year of expansion, the longstanding record of 60 home runs set by Babe Ruth came under assault by a pair of New York Yankees, with Roger Maris ending the season with 61 homers, while Mickey Mantle had 54. In the first season of the expanded 162-game schedule, the record was hit with an asterisk, which was removed in 1991. In 1994, the record appeared to be in reach by Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners and Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants. However, a strike ended the season on August 12th, with Williams at 43 and Griffey at 40.

As the 1998 season began, there was a sense the record would fall as expansion further watered down the pitching staffs, while players were using less than honest means to get stronger. The juicing of players went along with the juicing of baseballs to help boost attendance and help the game recover from the 1994 strike. This led Commissioner Bud Selig and the rest of Major League Baseball to look the other way and say no evil, speak no evil, and say no evil when it came to Performance Enhancing Drugs, which in part signaled to players that are was approved.

As the season began, all eyes were on Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. In 1997, McGwire, splitting the season between the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals, hit 58, while Griffey in an MVP season with the Mariners hit 56. As the season began, McGwire took aim and was locked on 61, with 11 home runs over the first month and 16 in May, to sit at 27 as June began. Griffey, meanwhile, was off to a good start but lagged behind the record pace. June saw the emergence of a dark horse, as Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, whose previous career-high was 40 in 1996, went on a record tear. Sosa hit a record 20 home runs, most for any single month in MLB history. At the start of June, Sammy Sosa had 13 homers but suddenly was in a race with McGwire, who hit ten dingers and sat 37 as July began, with Sosa only four behind. The race stayed hot through July, with Sosa hitting nine to sit a 42, while Big Mac had eight and was leading with 45. As August ended, the Cubs Dominican Slugger caught McGwire at 55, with 13 home runs, while McGwire had ten. As the final month began Mark McGwire, went on a tear, hitting six home runs in seven days to equal Maris’ record of 61. The record-tying home run came off Mike Morgan of the Chicago Cubs on Labor Day, while Sosa watched from the outfield with 58.

All eyes were on St. Louis, as a special primetime broadcast was set at Busch Stadium as Mark McGwire sought to break the record with Sammy Sosa also in pursuit, with the Maris family in the front row. Sosa singled off Kent Mercer, who Tony LaRussa gave the start for the Cardinals as the Cubs led by Jim Riggleman had Steve Trachsel on the mound plated two runs in the first inning. McGwire, meanwhile, ended the inning with a grounder to short. In his second at-bat, Sammy Sosa hit into a double play to end the third inning as the Cubs maintained the 2-0 lead. Mark McGwire came up again in the fourth inning, and history was made as he hit a low line drive that barely cleared the fence in left, setting the new single-season record with 62 home runs. After a long celebration that featured Sosa personally congratulating McGwire, Trachsel was able to strike out Ray Lankford to end the inning. Sammy Sosa walked in the fifth as the Cubs continued to lead the game 2-1. In the sixth inning, McGwire was intentionally walked two outs and a runner on second after Delino DeShields tied the game with a single. The next batter made the Cubs pay as Ray Lankford hit a three-run blast to put St. Louis in front; the next batter Ron Gant also went deep to make it 6-2. Sammy Sosa flew out to left in the seventh inning, while McGwire was walked again in the eighth as the Cubs added a run in the top of the inning. In the ninth, Sammy Sosa struck out in his final at-bat as the Cardinals won 6-3 with Juan Acevedo recording the save.

Mark McGwire was the first to break the record, but the home run chase was not over. Over the next six days, McGwire was stalled at 62, while Sammy Sosa hit four home runs and again moved into a tie on September 13th. Mark McGwire went in front again on the 15th, while Sosa answered one day later. Big Mac hit the next two homers and sat at 65 on September 20th; Sosa meanwhile hit a pair on the 23rd to once again move into a tie for the record as the final weekend began. On September 25th, Sosa moved in front for the first time with a home run against Jose Lima with his 66th home run. A short time later, McGwire hit one off Shayne Bennett of the Montreal Expos to even the race again. Over the final two days of the regular season, Mark McGwire hit two homers in each of the final two games to end the season with 70, with the final blast coming off Carl Pavano. Sammy Sosa, meanwhile, did not hit another home run, even while having an extra game by playing the San Francisco Giants in a one-game playoff to earn the Wild Card in the National League. Despite not getting the record, Sammy Sosa earned MVP honors, with the Cubs making the playoffs.