The McGwire-Sosa home run chase helped make 1998 one of MLB’s wildest seasons

Maybe the most remarkable aspect of the Great Home Run Chase of 1998 was that everyone expected Roger Maris’ record to fall. Mark McGwire hit 58 the previous season and Ken Griffey Jr. 56, putting Maris’ mark of 61 in obvious jeopardy.

Sports Illustrated put McGwire on the cover of its baseball preview issue with the headline “Get Ready for a Slugfest.” The cover story was a paean to a homer-happy era featuring “beefy, pumped-up maulers ready to tear down fences,” and it extolled the virtues of protein shakes spiked with creatine as well as fish oil supplements and weight training.

What followed was an exhilarating summer that saw Maris’ record not just broken but shattered, with a surprise combatant battling McGwire and Griffey for home run supremacy. McGwire appeared on the covers of not just Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine but also Newsweek and Time. Collector Todd McFarlane, creator of the Spawn comic books, spent more than $3.4 million on home run balls. Columnist Mike Lupica later authored a book titled “Summer of ’98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America.”

Watch the 30 for 30 film “Long Gone Summer” on June 14 on ESPN.

That all seems ridiculous now, of course, with what we later discovered about rampant steroid use within the sport. The summer of 1998 is now viewed more as a big con than as a season for the ages. That’s understandable, but here’s something else: It was a thrill ride even beyond the home run chase.

The New York Yankees began what would be a three-peat with a dominant season. The Atlanta Braves won 106 games and didn’t have the best record. The San Diego Padres‘ Greg Vaughn hit 50 home runs … and finished fourth in the majors. Roger Clemens won the Cy Young Award … with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Florida Marlins lost 108 games … as defending World Series champs. Cal Ripken’s streak ended, Alex Rodriguez went 40-40 and Rickey Henderson stole 66 bases at 40 years old. There was a perfect game thrown by a 35-year-old and a record-setting strikeout performance authored by a 20-year-old rookie.

It was, perhaps, the greatest, most amazing, craziest season ever. Let’s take a look back at the events of 1998 and how those events impacted the future.


March 31: Mark McGwire homers on Opening Day.

In a sense, the season began with a death and a birth. Legendary broadcaster Harry Caray died in February, and the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their first games on Opening Day. McGwire’s homer that day was a grand slam off the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ Ramon Martinez, Griffey homered as well and the chase was on.

Lasting impact: The league record for home runs was crushed in 2019, as the game has become even more homer-dependent than it was in 1998, with launch angles all the rage and singles fewer and farther between.

April 6: The Yankees fall to 1-4.

The Yankees were the…

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