On September 8, 1998, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire hits his 62nd home run of the year, breaking Roger Maris’ record for most home runs in a single season. McGwire was celebrated as a hero at the time, though allegations that he used performance-enhancing substances have since led some to question the legitimacy of his accomplishments.
McGwire had hit 52 home runs with the Oakland Athletics in 1996 and a combined 58 in 1997 after a mid-season trade to the “red birds” in St. Louis. As the 1998 season began, speculation ran rampant among baseball fans about whether or not McGwire, known as “Big Mac” for his bodybuilder physique, would be able to break the 27-year-old record of 61 home runs in a season. By June, it became clear that both McGwire and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs were on pace to hit the target, and fans watched intently as the sluggers traded the home-run lead back and forth between them. On August 10, Sosa tied McGwire by hitting his 46th of the season. Nine days later, he took the lead with his 48th homer in a game against McGwire’s Cardinals. It didn’t take long from McGwire to respond: He hit his 49th home run of the year in the 10th inning of the same game.
Finally, on September 7, in front of an exuberant home crowd in St. Louis in a game against their archrival Cubs, McGwire hit his 61st home run to tie the record while Sosa stayed stuck on 58 home runs. The next night, McGwire’s Cardinals again faced Sosa’s Cubs in Chicago. In the fourth inning, with Sosa in right field, McGwire hit his shortest home run of the season, 341 feet into the left-field stands. The slugger was cheered on by Cubs infielders as he circled the bases, and as he crossed home plate, he was greeted by his son, who was serving as a bat boy for the game, before being surrounded by his celebrating teammates. Meanwhile, Sosa ran in from right field to offer his congratulations. After the game, McGwire declared to reporters, “My bat is going to the Hall of Fame alongside Roger Maris’ bat–and I’m damn proud of it.”
On September 25, Sosa took over the major league lead and set his own record with his 66th home run. That would be Sosa’s last, while McGwire would hit five more home runs in his final three games to finish the 1998 season with 70 home runs, a record many thought would last longer than Maris’. However, it stood for only three seasons: Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants broke it in 2001 on his way to 73 home runs.
McGwire was known to be on androstenedione, a then-legal performance-enhancing supplement, in 1998 but denied using any illegal substances. In 2003, the publication of retired baseball star Jose Canseco’s book Juiced, in which he pointed fingers at a number of well-known baseball players and alleged that he and McGwire had used steroids together, resulted in a firestorm of steroid-related controversy. The U.S. Congress responded by holding a hearing on the subject. By then retired, McGwire’s eyes welled with tears as he repeatedly stated to the committee, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” Many disappointed fans saw his refusal to deny outright that he had used performance-enhancing drugs as tantamount to an admission of guilt.
While McGwire was once considered a shoo-in for the Baseball Hall of Fame, he was passed over in 2006-07, his first year of eligibility.