Hall of Fame: McGwire, Sosa, Griffey and the Great Chase


Growing up, I looked forward to getting home from school to check the box scores in the newspaper. I woke up far earlier than necessary in order to get my hour of ESPN in before the bus picked me up for my hour-long trek to school. And for as long as I can remember, baseball has been a mainstay in my life.

But above all else, the summer of 1998 and the famous home run chase involving Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa stands out in memory. It brought excitement, energy and life back to the game I loved growing up. Big Mac and Slammin’ Sammy trading blow for blow in the season’s final month – with the attention of the entire nation focused on the battle.

Now, here we are 17 years later and players from that same era are beginning to make their way into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. However, notably absent among those players are both Sosa and McGwire. And odds are, the duo will never see the inside of the Baseball Hall of Fame – at least not as anything more than a visitor.

More from Call to the Pen

That season began with the introduction of two new expansion teams – one in each league – the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Rays. History, however, would quickly take center stage as both McGwire, the first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Griffey Jr., an outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, began the season on a historic tear.

Through the season’s first month, McGwire slugged 11 homers, adding another 16 in the month of May. By June 1, the St. Louis slugger had 27 home runs and 68 runs batted in. Griffey Jr. was dead-even with McGwire in April, also hitting 11 long-balls, but he hit just eight in May. A fourteen-homer month of June propelled him back into the chase of Roger Maris‘ single-season record of 61 home runs and by the All-Star Break, he sat at 35 home runs and 79 RBI.

Griffey, a former first overall pick of the Mariners, was coming off a season in which he hit 56 home runs – narrowly missing out on Maris’ mark of 61 and Babe Ruth‘s former record of 60 homers – and at the mid-point of the 1998 season, he appeared poised to make a serious run at that mark once again.

Sammy Sosa came into the hunt later than his slugging counterparts – hitting a collective 13 home runs between March, April and May. However, a historic month of June changed everything. That month, the Chicago Cubs outfielder launched a record 20 home runs, topping the half-century-old mark of 18 set by Rudy York – pulling him into the race for baseball lore.

By the time the second half began, Griffey was sitting at 35 home runs, while McGwire and Sosa had hit 37 and 33, respectively. And, as we all know by now, the show was just beginning.

More from MLB News

July saw all three sluggers tail off a bit before coming back in a roaring fashion in the month of August. The Cardinals’ slugger launched 10 homers that month, with Sosa adding 13 of his own and Griffey Jr. hitting just six. That trend would continue for the Mariners’ star, as he would tail off – hitting just 21 home runs in the season’s second half, finishing, once again, with 56 on the year.

The National League Central sluggers, however, brought the rivalary between the Cubs and Cardinals to an all-time high in the season’s final month. The two traded blows to start the month of September, with McGwire, who was in his first full season as a member of the Cardinals, launching four in his first two games to pull within two of Maris’ mark of 61. This set up history as the two teams squared off in a brief, two-game stint, during which McGwire tied, and subsequently broke, Maris’ record.

Later that month, Sosa also eclipsed the record, making baseball history. The two would finish the season with more than 65 home runs – the first time such an accomplishment had ever occurred in the history of the game. McGwire finished the season with 70 home runs and 147 runs batted in, finishing second to the Cubs’ Sosa, who hit 66 home runs and drove in 158 runs.

Now, with BALCO, the Mitchell Report and countless disgraced players sprinkled throughout the past decade-and-a-half, our memories of that historic season are often different. McGwire, now a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ coaching staff, admitted to using steroids that season and Sosa, although never publicly named, has been surrounded by PED allegations since he left the game. He’s fallen into such disfavor that the Cubs didn’t even bring him back as part of the team’s celebration of Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary last year.

The summer of 1998 saved baseball. It restored confidence and faith in a game that saw its pinnacle, the World Series, canceled less than five years’ prior after the players’ strike ended the 1994 season early. So, for that, it served its purpose.

But now, the season and some of the biggest names in it – including both McGwire and Sosa  – appear doomed to the appendices of history books with asterisks in tow.

Next: A look at Randy Johnson's six best seasons