The 1998 Major League Baseball home run chase was the race between first baseman Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals, and right fielder Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs that resulted in McGwire and Sosa breaking Roger Maris's long-standing and highly coveted record of 61 home runs. McGwire broke Maris's record on September 8 against the Cubs and finished with 70 home runs. Sosa finished with 66.
Several players had come close to breaking Maris's record in the years before 1998. Before the 1994 season was cut short by a labor dispute, Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants and Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners were both on a pace which threatened Maris's record: they hit 43 and 40 home runs respectively in a season which was shortened by approximately 50 of the scheduled 162 games.
In 1995, Albert Belle became the first player since Cecil Fielder in 1990 to hit 50 home runs in a season. Belle was only the 4th player in the previous three decades to reach the 50 home run milestone (George Foster hit 52 in 1977, following Willie Mays in 1965).
In 1996, Brady Anderson of the Baltimore Orioles hit 50 home runs, twice the number he hit during any other season. Of more note was Mark McGwire of the Oakland Athletics, who first drew attention by hitting a league-leading 52 home runs that season while only playing in 130 games. The 1997 home run chase featured McGwire and Griffey, but neither reached it that year. It was during that season that full-fledged interest over the record kicked in as both players were on record pace well into the summer. McGwire finished the 1997 season with 58 home runs following his mid-season trade to the St. Louis Cardinals, besting Griffey's total of 56 that year.
Speculation on the potential of McGwire or Griffey breaking Roger Maris' home run record was a popular story heading into spring training, and was even promoted by MLB itself, in an effort to draw fans back to the game who felt disenfranchised by the 1994 strike and cancellation of the World Series. With the spotlight still on Griffey and McGwire (entering his first full season as a Cardinal), the latter opened the 1998 season by hitting home runs in each of his first four games. McGwire would ultimately find himself ahead of record pace for all but two games of the season; his pace hit a low of 58.9 on May 7 following a five-game drought. After hitting 16 home runs in May (only two short of Rudy York's ill-fated record of 18 home runs in August 1937), McGwire led the league with 27 home runs, ahead of Griffey's 19 and on pace for more than 80.
June, however, would be Sosa's month to catch up. His 13 home runs entering the month represented less than half of rival McGwire's total. Sosa had his first of four multi-home run games that month on June 1, and went on to break Rudy York's record with 20 home runs in the month of June, a record that still stands. By the end of his historic month, the outfielder's 33 home runs tied him with Griffey and left him only four behind McGwire's 37.
The three remained competitive entering August, a period which saw McGwire go on a season-high eight-game home run drought. After hitting a home run on August 8, McGwire's lead had dwindled to two, his 46 home runs just above Sosa's 44 and Griffey's 41. His relative lull in production continued, hitting only three home runs over the next ten days. His pace at the end of August 18, 61.9 would be his lowest for the rest of the season. On August 19, he returned to form, hitting two home runs and beginning the stretch that would see him hit 23 home runs in his final 39 games. Sosa, meanwhile, had followed up his 20 home runs in June with a combined total of only 22 for July and August. At the end of the month, however, the two sluggers were locked at 55 home runs, putting them on pace for about 65 in total and, for the first time in 37 years, leaving the single-season home run record in imminent jeopardy. They were also each one short of Hack Wilson's National League record. By this point, Griffey's total of 47 home runs left him well behind the pace of his two rivals, indicating that even in the event he could pass Maris's total, it would be unlikely that he would also be able to beat McGwire and Sosa. Griffey would finish the season with 56 home runs, matching his total from the previous season but still 5 home runs short of Marris' record.
McGwire began September with four home runs in his first two games against the Florida Marlins and took back the lead, 59–56. His September 5 home run set the stage for one of baseball's classic moments, as he sat on 60 home runs entering a two-game set against Sosa's Chicago Cubs. On September 7, McGwire hit a Mike Morgan pitch 430 feet to become the first player since 1961 to hit 61 home runs in a season. The next day, September 8, 1998, in a nationally-televised game against Sosa's Cubs and with members of the Maris family in attendance, he hit Steve Trachsel's pitch 341 feet - his shortest home run of the season - just over the left field wall, breaking the record for the most home runs ever hit in a single season. The ball did not even make it to the stands, and was caught by Tim Forneris, who worked as a member of the Busch Stadium grounds crew while attending law school at Saint Louis University. Forneris declined multiple million-dollar offers to sell the ball and instead gave it to McGwire. In what was a show of both admiration as well as respect, Mark Grace, the Cubs first baseman shared a half-hug high five as McGwire rounded first, and after he touched home, Sosa charged in from right field and engaged McGwire in a celebratory embrace.
Afterwards, however, McGwire went six consecutive games without a home run, allowing Sosa to tie him again at 62 after hitting four home runs in three games against the Milwaukee Brewers. The two battled back and forth for the lead, and entering the final series of the season on September 25, were tied at 65 home runs. Sosa hit a 462-foot home run off Houston Astros pitcher José Lima for his 66th home run of the season. McGwire, however, would hit five home runs against five different pitchers during a Cardinals homestand against the Montreal Expos, and would set the single-season MLB home run record at 70 with a 370-foot home run off Carl Pavano.
Throughout the season, Sosa gave a "V" sign after every home run, dedicating it to the memory of Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray, who died that February.
The Cardinals, despite McGwire's efforts, finished the season 83–79, 3rd place in the Central and behind division rival Chicago who finished 90–73, earning them 2nd in the Central and a wild card berth. In winning the NL MVP award, Sosa finished with a .308 batting average, 66 home runs, and 158 RBI, besting McGwire, who finished with a .299 batting average, 70 home runs, and 147 RBI. The Cubs, however, were swept in the first round of the 1998 playoffs by the Atlanta Braves.
In 2001, only three years after McGwire and Sosa finally toppled Maris's record, the mark fell again, this time to San Francisco Giants left fielder Barry Bonds. Bonds broke the record on October 5 against Chan Ho Park of the Los Angeles Dodgers and, two days later, hit his 73rd home run of the season off the Dodgers pitcher Dennis Springer. Bonds' record continues to stand today.
The '97 and '98 home run record chases are widely credited by sports analysts as having restored Major League Baseball among its fan base in the preceding years, as many had lost interest and felt betrayed by the strike in 1994, although others contest this.
The embrace, along with the constant praising of one another between McGwire and Sosa was spoofed in the fall of 1998 on Saturday Night Live by Will Ferrell (as McGwire) and Tracy Morgan (as Sosa) who try to one-up praising each other endlessly and then begin to slow-dance.
The Sosa-McGwire home run chase occurred during the steroid era. Bonds' record still stands, though the controversy over possible use of performance-enhancing drugs by McGwire and Sosa gained momentum when Bonds hit his 73 home runs despite having never hit as many as 50 in any other season. In the Congressional Hearing on Steroids, McGwire stated that any answer he gave regarding his alleged steroid use would not be believed by the public at-large anyway. Sosa seemed to not understand the questions.
Bonds has also been linked to steroids. He admitted to taking them, but he claims that he did not know what he was taking was steroids. Bonds and Sosa have been linked to illegal use of steroids in the Mitchell Report and other sources. McGwire has never been named by any official investigation; however, on January 11, 2010, McGwire admitted to Bob Costas of the MLB Network that he did take steroids throughout his career, including during the 1998 season where he broke the record.
The following table outlines home runs that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit during 1998 season.
|March 31||McGwire||364||Ramón Martínez||Los Angeles Dodgers||1||0|
|April 2||368||Frank Lankford||2||0|
|April 3||364||Mark Langston||San Diego Padres||3||0|
|April 4||419||Don Wengert||4||0|
|Sosa||371||Marc Valdes||Montreal Expos||4||1|
|April 11||350||Anthony Telford||4||2|
|April 14||McGwire||424||Jeff Suppan||Arizona Diamondbacks||5||2|
|April 15||Sosa||430||Dennis Cook||New York Mets||7||3|
|April 17||McGwire||419||Matt Whiteside||Philadelphia Phillies||8||3|
|April 21||437||Trey Moore||Montreal Expos||9||3|
|April 23||Sosa||420||Dan Miceli||San Diego Padres||9||4|
|April 24||430||Ismael Valdez||Los Angeles Dodgers||9||5|
|April 25||McGwire||419||Jerry Spradlin||Philadelphia Phillies||10||5|
|April 27||Sosa||434||Joey Hamilton||San Diego Padres||10||6|
|April 30||McGwire||371||Marc Pisciotta||Chicago Cubs||11||6|
|May 1||362||Rod Beck||12||6|
|May 3||Sosa||370||Cliff Politte||St. Louis Cardinals||12||7|
|May 8||McGwire||358||Rick Reed||New York Mets||13||7|
|May 12||527||Paul Wagner||Milwaukee Brewers||14||7|
|May 14||381||Kevin Millwood||Atlanta Braves||15||7|
|May 16||545||Liván Hernández||Florida Marlins||16||7|
|Sosa||441||Scott Sullivan||Cincinnati Reds||16||8|
|May 18||McGwire||478||Jesus Sanchez||Florida Marlins||17||8|
|May 19||440||Tyler Green||Philadelphia Phillies||18||8|
|May 22||425||Mark Gardner||San Francisco Giants||21||8|
|Sosa||440||Greg Maddux||Atlanta Braves||21||9|
|May 23||McGwire||366||Rich Rodriguez||San Francisco Giants||22||9|
|May 24||397||Robb Nen||24||9|
|May 25||433||John Thomson||Colorado Rockies||25||9|
|Sosa||410||Kevin Millwood||Atlanta Braves||25||10|
|May 27||460||Darrin Winston||Philadelphia Phillies||25||12|
|May 29||McGwire||388||Dan Miceli||San Diego Padres||26||13|
|May 30||423||Andy Ashby||27||13|
|June 1||Sosa||430||Ryan Dempster||Florida Marlins||27||14|
|June 3||370||Liván Hernández||27||16|
|June 5||McGwire||409||Orel Hershiser||San Francisco Giants||28||16|
|Sosa||370||Jim Parque||Chicago White Sox||28||17|
|June 6||410||Carlos Castillo||28||18|
|June 7||380||James Baldwin||28||19|
|June 8||McGwire||356||Jason Bere||29||19|
|Sosa||340||LaTroy Hawkins||Minnesota Twins||29||20|
|June 10||McGwire||409||Jim Parque||Chicago White Sox||30||20|
|June 12||438||Andy Benes||Arizona Diamondbacks||31||20|
|June 13||Sosa||410||Mark Portugal||Philadelphia Phillies||31||21|
|June 15||420||Cal Eldred||Milwaukee Brewers||31||22|
|June 17||McGwire||437||José Lima||Houston Astros||32||24|
|Sosa||430||Bronswell Patrick||Milwaukee Brewers||32||25|
|June 18||McGwire||449||Shane Reynolds||Houston Astros||33||25|
|June 19||Sosa||380||Carlton Loewer||Philadelphia Phillies||33||26|
|June 20||366||Matt Beech||33||28|
|June 21||380||Tyler Green||33||30|
|June 24||McGwire||433||Jaret Wright||Cleveland Indians||34||30|
|Sosa||390||Seth Greisinger||Detroit Tigers||34||31|
|June 25||McGwire||461||Dave Burba||Cleveland Indians||35||31|
|Sosa||400||Brian Moehler||Detroit Tigers||35||32|
|June 27||McGwire||431||Mike Trombley||Minnesota Twins||36||32|
|June 30||472||Glendon Rusch||Kansas City Royals||37||32|
|Sosa||364||Alan Embree||Arizona Diamondbacks||37||33|
|July 9||432||Jeff Juden||Milwaukee Brewers||37||34|
|July 10||428||Scott Karl||37||35|
|July 11||McGwire||485||Billy Wagner||Houston Astros||38||35|
|July 12||405||Sean Bergman||39||35|
|July 17||511||Brian Bohanon||Los Angeles Dodgers||41||35|
|Sosa||440||Kirt Ojala||Florida Marlins||42||36|
|July 20||McGwire||452||Brian Boehringer||San Diego Padres||43||36|
|July 22||Sosa||365||Miguel Batista||Montreal Expos||43||37|
|July 26||McGwire||452||John Thomson||Colorado Rockies||44||37|
|Sosa||420||Rick Reed||New York Mets||44||38|
|July 27||347||Willie Blair||Arizona Diamondbacks||44||39|
|July 28||McGwire||408||Mike Myers||Milwaukee Brewers||45||40|
|Sosa||390||Bob Wolcott||Arizona Diamondbacks||45||41|
|July 31||375||Jamey Wright||Colorado Rockies||45||42|
|August 5||374||Andy Benes||Arizona Diamondbacks||45||43|
|August 8||McGwire||374||Mark Clark||Chicago Cubs||46||43|
|Sosa||400||Rich Croushore||St. Louis Cardinals||46||44|
|August 10||361||Russ Ortiz||San Francisco Giants||46||45|
|August 11||McGwire||464||Bobby Jones||New York Mets||47||46|
|August 16||Sosa||360||Sean Bergman||Houston Astros||47||47|
|August 19||368||Kent Bottenfield||St. Louis Cardinals||47||48|
|McGwire||398||Matt Karchner||Chicago Cubs||48||48|
|August 20||369||Willie Blair||New York Mets||50||48|
|August 21||Sosa||430||Orel Hershiser||San Francisco Giants||51||49|
|August 22||McGwire||477||Francisco Córdova||Pittsburgh Pirates||52||49|
|August 23||393||Ricardo Rincón||53||49|
|Sosa||440||José Lima||Houston Astros||53||50|
|August 26||McGwire||509||Justin Speier||Florida Marlins||54||51|
|Sosa||438||Brett Tomko||Cincinnati Reds||54||52|
|August 28||414||John Thomson||Colorado Rockies||54||53|
|August 30||McGwire||501||Dennis Martínez||Atlanta Braves||55||53|
|Sosa||482||Darryl Kile||Colorado Rockies||55||54|
|August 31||364||Brett Tomko||Cincinnati Reds||55||55|
|September 1||McGwire||450||Liván Hernández||Florida Marlins||56||55|
|September 2||497||Brian Edmondson||58||55|
|Sosa||363||Jason Bere||Cincinnati Reds||59||56|
|September 4||374||Jason Schmidt||Pittsburgh Pirates||59||57|
|September 5||McGwire||381||Dennys Reyes||Cincinnati Reds||60||57|
|Sosa||417||Sean Lawrence||Pittsburgh Pirates||60||58|
|September 7||McGwire||430||Mike Morgan||Chicago Cubs||61||58|
|September 8||341||Steve Trachsel||62||58|
|September 11||Sosa||464||Bill Pulsipher||Milwaukee Brewers||62||59|
|September 12||430||Valerio de los Santos||62||60|
|September 13||480||Bronswell Patrick||62||61|
|September 15||McGwire||385||Jason Christiansen||Pittsburgh Pirates||63||62|
|September 16||Sosa||434||Brian Boehringer||San Diego Padres||63||63|
|September 18||McGwire||423||Rafael Roque||Milwaukee Brewers||64||63|
|September 20||423||Scott Karl||65||63|
|September 23||Sosa||344||Rafael Roque||65||64|
|September 25||462||José Lima||Houston Astros||65||66|
|September 25||McGwire||375||Shayne Bennett||Montreal Expos||66||66|
|September 26||403||Dustin Hermanson||67||66|
|September 27||377||Mike Thurman||69||66|
Since Caray died at the start of spring training, Sosa has honored him with a 'V' sign after every home run this season, along with his heart thumps and kisses for the Sosa family.