On this date in 1998, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire hit #62 to become the single-season home run king.
The Summer of ‘98 is forever etched in the memories of baseball fans everywhere. The summer of the long ball. Or, as A.J. Schnack’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary dubbed the event, the “Long Gone Summer.”
Simply put, the summer that St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa captivated the nation and put the entire MLB back in the hearts of sports fans everywhere.
McGwire owns the most captivating moment of this summer. It was this fateful night in 1998 when McGwire hit a ferocious line-drive that crept over the left-field fence at Busch Memorial Stadium, the former home of the St. Louis Cardinals.
When this particular long ball landed, lifted off the first-pitch from Chicago Cubs righty Steve Trachsel, McGwire completed one amazing journey. This was number 62. With this swing, he broke the once impossible record of 61 home runs in a single season, set by Roger Maris of the New York Yankees in 1961.
The moment that McGwire was crowned the home run king was beautifully narrated by another all-time great, the Fox Sports MLB play-by-play announcer Joe Buck.
“Down the left-field line. Is it enough?” Buck exclaimed.
It certainly was, Joe Buck. And baseball fans will never forget it. With the entire stadium on its feet and a resounding roar from the crowd, Buck detailed the excitement of the moment with perfection.
“GONE. There it is. 62!” screamed Buck. “Touch first, Mark.”
McGwire jogged down the first-base line as he had done 61 times already that season, and lept to celebrate with first-base coach Dave McKay, missing the bag in excitement.
The St. Louis Cardinals slugger stumbled back, tapped the bag, and continued on his journey around the bases and into history.
Kerry Wood, a 14-year MLB veteran, and long-time Cub once declared that “[McGwire and Sosa] saved baseball.”
Heading into the 1998 season, the league was still staggering from its 1994 strike including the cancellation of the ’94 World Series. Attendance numbers remained down until the Sosa and McGwire tandem sent the nation on an intoxicating journey of long balls.
Throughout this “Long Gone Summer,” Sosa and McGwire traded towering home runs and monstrous blasts on what seemed like a daily basis. By September, Maris’ single-season record was in sight and the nation couldn’t get enough of it.
As NBC Sports reported, ESPN would cut away from its programming to showcase the pair’s at-bats. The result? Oftentimes a nationally-televised home run and a surge in league attendance.
According to Baseball-Reference, the league’s attendance soared from 50 million during the strike years to over 70 million at the end of 1998. And as we all know, when the season wrapped up, both Sosa and McGwire shattered the improbable record. McGwire finished with 70 and Sosa with 66.
Of course, only three years later, Barry Bonds took the crown with his 73 homer season in 2001. While these home run records are now tainted with the idea of steroid use, the 1998 season temporarily saved the sport.
Since ‘98, total baseball attendance has remained well-above or around 70 million. And, as we all know, the home run remains king in today’s MLB.