Originally drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1981, McGwire opted for college instead, reasoning that the scholarship offered by USC was worth more than the $8,500 the Expos were willing to pay. After three years at Southern California and a stint on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, McGwire signed with the Oakland A’s and reached the major leagues in August of 1986. As a rookie in 1987 he blasted 33 homers before the All-Star break and was a unanimous choice for AL Rookie of the Year after finishing with 49 homers, 118 RBIs and a .289 average. His 49 longballs smashed the old rookie record of 38, jointly held by Frank Robinson and Wally Berger. He also exhibited a healthy perspective by sitting out the season’s final two games and a chance at 50 home runs to be present at the birth of his first child.
Although McGwire’s average had slipped into the .230’s by 1990, he still averaged nearly 35 home runs and over 100 RBIs. He teamed up with slugging right fielder Jose Canseco to form the Bash Brothers, the centerpiece of Oakland’s intimidating lineup who would slam their forearms into each other at home plate after each home run. With Canseco and McGwire leading the offense, Dave Stewart in the midst of four straight twenty-win seasons and Dennis Eckersley racking up saves, Oakland went to three consecutive World Series, winning it all in 1989 when they swept the San Francisco Giants.
Unfortunately for McGwire, back injuries began to erode his playing time, a chronic problem that often forced him to the bench or the disabled list. He also struggled to match his early career production at the plate. Although he remained healthy enough to play 154 games in 1991, his average plummeted to .201 with just 22 homers and 75 RBIs. McGwire appeared lost in the batter’s box, inspiring well-meaning but ineffective batting tips from everyone he spoke to. 1992 saw him rebound to a .268 mark with 42 home runs and 104 RBIs, but a severe injury to his left heel in August (and the players’ strike in 1994) would limit him to a total of 74 games the next two seasons.
In 1995, McGwire played in only 104 games, but managed to hit 39 home runs in 317 at-bats. His average of one HR every 8.13 at-bats was a hint of things to come, topping both Ruth’s and Maris’ frequency in their 60- and 61-homer seasons. McGwire maintained a similar pace through the 1996 season, leading the majors with 52 home runs in just 423 AB’s. He also posted a .312 batting average and 113 RBIs.
With McGwire eligible for free agency after the 1997 season, it was generally assumed the impoverished A’s could not afford to re-sign the highly sought-after slugger. Trades were rumored from spring training on, but they never stopped him from hitting the ball out of the park. On July 31, McGwire and his 34 homers were dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals for three young pitchers: Blake Stein, T.J. Mathews and Eric Ludwick. The trade reunited him with former A’s manager Tony LaRussa.
After going homerless in his first 10 National League games, McGwire belted 24 over the Cardinals’ remaining 41 games to finish the season with 58. The total tied him with Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg for the most homers by a right-handed batter and his 110 circuit blasts in 1996 and 1997 topped Foxx’s record of 106 over two years. Neither record, however, would last for even a year.
McGwire loved the atmosphere in baseball-mad St. Louis, not to mention the National League style of play. “It’s amazing how many 1-2-3 innings you see over here,” he said. “Those innings never seem to happen in the American League. There is also so much more standing around in the American League. Here, you always feel into the game. It’s just a better way to play the game.” After years of sparse crowds at Oakland, he happily signed a three-year deal, including an option for the 2001 season, to stay with the Cardinals. The fans loved him for it, and the appreciation only grew when McGwire announced he was giving $1 million of his salary to help sexually and physically abused children in St. Louis and California.
By the start of his first full season in St. Louis, McGwire had become the biggest draw in baseball. Fans showed up in droves to see for themselves the awe-inspiring distances his pronounced upper cut swing could hit a baseball. “McGwire’s swing is designed to produce home runs (and strikeouts),” wrote Allen Barra in the New York Times. “nything else – doubles, singles, the occasional ground ball, is an accident.” Batting practice in St. Louis often attracted bigger and more enthusiastic crowds than the A’s would bring in for games during his final seasons.
Those crowds set the tone for the circus-like ambiance that would attend his earth-shattering 1998 campaign. Beginning on Opening Day — when he launched a grand slam off Los Angeles’ Ramon Martinez — the eyes of the baseball world followed Big Mac to learn if he could knock Maris off the top of the home run charts. Healthy and happy in St. Louis, McGwire homered in the first four games of the season, a feat previously accomplished only by Willie Mays in 1971. He won the NL Player of the Month Award in both April and May (he had also won the award in September of 1997, making him the first player ever to be so honored in three straight months), and by the All Star break had clouted 37 longballs to tie Reggie Jackson‘s 1969 mark for the most home runs in the first half of the season.
But McGwire’s season was not all wine and roses. A fiercely devoted team player, he chafed at the intense media blitz that focused solely on his power-hitting as the Cardinals themselves endured a disappointing, underachieving season. “I don’t think there’s ever been another athlete to be singled out like I was singled out the last two months of the season,” McGwire later said.
He also survived a minor scandal when a reporter discovered a muscle enhancer called androstenedione in his locker. Although banned by the NFL, NCAA and the International Olympic Committee, the over-the-counter nutritional supplement was not proscribed by Major League Baseball. Still, its discovery incited a controversy by those who claimed that his use of the steroid both tainted his pursuit of the home run record and set an unhealthy example for young athletes. Though he remained unrepentant and claimed that it didn’t help him hit home runs, McGwire grew uneasy with his unintended role as apologist for andro and stopped using it the following season, making his decision public in August of 1999.
The debate was swiftly forgotten, however, as McGwire closed in on Maris’ record. Adding to the theatrical feel of the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa had pulled into a virtual dead heat with the heavily favored McGwire on the strength of an epic June home run binge. The rivalry captivated the nation, and was widely credited with finally restoring baseball to the prominence it had held before the 1994 strike soured fans on the game.
McGwire and Sosa forged a compelling friendship during the race, and Big Mac himself was heard to muse, “Wouldn’t it be great if we ended up tied? I think that would be beautiful.” At times it seemed he might get his wish. When the Cardinals played at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on August 19th, Sosa slammed home run number 48 to move one ahead of McGwire. Before the day was done, however, McGwire had gone deep twice to reclaim the lead in a battle that would go down to the final weekend of the season.
The next day, McGwire homered twice in a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium, becoming the first player to belt at least 50 home runs in three straight seasons. On the first of September he broke Hack Wilson‘s 1930 NL record of 56 with two homers at Florida’s Pro Player Stadium. Four days later he joined Ruth and Maris in the exclusive 60-homer club. Sosa would reach the mark on September 12th.
McGwire matched Maris on September 7th and on Tuesday, September 8th ripped the long-awaited 62nd round tripper, a fourth-inning solo shot off Cubs’ right-hander Steve Trachsel. The record-setting blast barely cleared the wall just 15 feet from the left field foul pole, and ironically, at an estimated 341 feet marked his shortest home run of the season.
The home run came not only in front of a national television audience on ESPN, but with McGwire’s friend and rival Sosa standing in right field and with Maris’ family sitting in the stands at Busch Stadium. After crossing home plate, McGwire hoisted his son — a Cardinals batboy — in the air as pandemonium swept Busch Stadium. The game was delayed for eleven minutes in the celebration that followed, as Sosa trotted in from the outfield to offer his congratulations.
But with three weeks left in the season, the race had really only begun. While McGwire kept padding his new record, Sosa remained close behind, and on the final Friday of the regular season, Sammy launched his 66th homer at the Houston Astrodome to pull ahead of Big Mac. Sosa’s lead would again proved short-lived, though, as McGwire tied him just 47 minutes later by hitting his 66th in St. Louis.
While Sosa went homerless in the final two games of the year, McGwire cemented his place in history by thumping two circuit blasts in each of his last two games, hitting #70 in his final at-bat of the season off Montreal’s Carl Pavano. For the year, he batted .299 with 147 RBIs and 130 runs, drew an NL-record 162 walks, and fanned 155 times. His slugging percentage of .752 trailed only hallowed Cardinals’ second baseman Rogers Hornsby‘s .756 mark in 1925 for the best rate in league history, and his home run every 7.27 at-bats established a new major league record. Practically the only laurel McGwire didn’t garner was the NL MVP; that honor went to Sosa, who had topped the NL with 158 RBIs and led the Cubs’ to a wild-card berth.
After enduring the intense pressure of his record-setting season (“It was almost as if I didn’t break the record, I’d be a failure”, he said afterwards), McGwire spent a relatively quiet off-season, though he did film a cameo appearance on the sitcom “Mad About You” and also took time to meet Pope John Paul II when the pontiff’s US tour came to St. Louis in January.
The following season, McGwire once again dueled with Sosa for the baseball’s home run crown. While the race lacked the drama of 1998, the two put on a splendid show anyway. McGwire finished the year in front again, topping Sosa 65 to 63 as the pair became the only players in history to reach the 60-homer plateau in consecutive seasons. McGwire also became the first player to drive in at least 100 runs and finish a season with more RBIs (147) than hits (145). In another personal milestone, McGwire hit the 500th home run of his career on August 5th off San Diego’s Andy Ashby, needing the fewest at-bats of any player (5,487) to attain the mark and becoming the first to reach #400 and #500 in consecutive seasons. The records brought him little pleasure, though, as the Cardinals again finished well out of the running for the post-season.
In 2000, however, the fortunes of McGwire and the Cardinals would take a strange turn. Fueled by an offseason pitching makeover and the late-spring acquisition of center fielder Jim Edmonds, St. Louis grabbed the NL Central lead early on and was never seriously challenged. McGwire, meanwhile, was hitting home runs at his typically unfathomable pace until a case of patellar tendinitis sidelined him virtually the entire second half. While he still blasted 32 home runs in only 231 at-bats, Big Mac couldn’t play the field and was limited to pinch-hitting appearances en route to his first post-season trip in eight years.
McGwire had knee surgery during the off-season, and hoped to return helathy enough to play every day in 2001. Hampered by his still-recovering knee, he stumbled through the first half of the season, hitting barely over .200. Even slowed by injury, nothing seemed to stop Big Mac from hitting home runs. He blasted more than 20 before straining his right hamstring in August. As the Cardinals fought for their second playoff berth in as many years, McGwire found himself on the bench once again.