In the latter half of the 1990s, Major League Baseball was in a state of crisis. The league was still reeling from the 1994 players’ strike, which had left fans bitter and strained the relationship between players and league officials. The future of the national pastime was uncertain. Then, in the spring of 1998, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs began hitting home runs at an unprecedented rate, and it soon became clear that they were both contenders to break one of the most coveted records in all of baseball: Roger Maris’ single-season home run title.
This is the story of two men who, in their search for personal glory, elevated an entire sport to a level of greatness it hadn’t known for decades. It is also the story of the scandal that would threaten to turn their triumph into eternal disgrace. For the first time ever, the key players in one of baseball’s most controversial legends describe what happened in their own words. This is the oral history of the 1998 MLB home run chase.
Bud Selig (commissioner, MLB): In 1998, America had completely lost interest in baseball. Nobody cared about the sport. In order to get people to watch baseball again, I introduced a promotional event called “Bud Search: The Ultimate Selig Quest.” It was a contest where I would crouch quietly behind a bush and the first person to find me would become the manager of the Chicago Cubs.
Tony La Russa (Cardinals manager): You would think that the opportunity to become the manager of a Major League team would get people excited about baseball again, but nobody gave a shit about “Bud Search: The Ultimate Selig Quest.” The only press it got was a small article in the New York Times, and the headline just said “Man Behind Shrub Offers Prize.” It didn’t drum up the interest he wanted, and I don’t think anybody looked for him. Bud Selig ended up hiding behind that bush for six months before somebody found him by accident.
Martin Scorsese (filmmaker, winner of “Bud Search: The Ultimate Selig Quest,” Cubs manager): I found Bud Selig while I was walking to the video store to buy a copy of my movie Raging Bull so that I could bury it in my backyard. I was about halfway to the store when I noticed a man crouching behind a bush. He had obviously been there for a long time. He looked very hungry and sick, and he was sucking rainwater out of his shirt in order to survive. He looked at me and said, “Congratulations. You have found Bud Selig. You are the new manager of the Chicago Cubs.” And I looked right back at him, and I said, “Well, let me go to the bathroom first.”
Bud Selig: After “Bud Search: The Ultimate Selig Quest” failed to reignite America’s passion for baseball, I felt lost. I tried a few other promotions, like “The Willie Maze,” where we put Willie Mays at the center of an enormous stone labyrinth and the first person to find him got to marry him. It didn’t work. Only three people entered The Willie Maze, and they were all killed by the Minotaur we had let loose in the labyrinth to guard Willie Mays. Willie Mays is still in the center of that labyrinth. His Wikipedia page says he’s still alive, but honestly, you’ve got to assume that at this point, the Minotaur has killed him.
Tony La Russa: Bud likes promotions that involve hiding people. One time, he buried Wade Boggs alive somewhere in the vast cornfields of Nebraska and announced that whoever could find him would win a $50 gift certificate to Foot Locker. After a few weeks of the promotion, only Wade’s family was looking for him, and they already liked baseball. No one ended up winning, and the sport continued slumping in popularity.
Bud Selig: Nothing I did to try to keep baseball alive worked. The league was bankrupt, and I was forced to sell the catcher’s equipment that Babe Ruth got married in just to scrounge up the money I needed to prevent the government from turning Yankee Stadium into an Air Force base. I truly believed that 1998 would be the last baseball season ever.
Tony La Russa: Bud did everything he could to save baseball, but he’s just one man. In 1998, a mere man couldn’t save baseball. Only a god could save baseball. We didn’t know it then, but in 1998, baseball was going to find itself in the presence of gods.
Mark McGwire had made a name for himself as a dominant power hitter for the Oakland Athletics, and 1998 would be his first full season as a member of the Cardinals, who had traded for him midway through the previous year. The Cardinals hoped that McGwire would add some spark to an otherwise lackluster lineup. Nobody could have guessed just how powerful that spark would turn out to be.
Mark McGwire (Cardinals first baseman, 1998 home run champion): My favorite thing about baseball is hitting singles, because then you get to be on first base, and the other team’s first baseman sometimes has trail mix in his pocket that he will share. I love to hit singles and share trail mix with my enemies.
Tony La Russa: When Mark McGwire gets to first base, the first thing he does is stick his hand into the first baseman’s pocket and say, “Now let’s have some of your sweet, wonderful trail mix.” If the first baseman’s pockets are empty, Mark announces that he’s retiring from baseball due to lack of trail mix. In 1998, Mark officially retired from baseball 16 times on opening day alone.
Mark McGwire: Home runs are a waste of trail mix, so I was actually planning on hitting less of them. But on the day before the season started, I got a call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and they said, “We’ve got a kid here who’s sinking in quicksand, and the doctors say he only has 50 years to live before he’s submerged entirely. His last wish was to meet any arbitrary baseball player, and your name was picked out of a hat. Please come to the Amazon rainforest, where he’s slowly sinking, and meet him.”
Tony La Russa: One of Mark McGwire’s greatest weaknesses is that he simply cannot resist an invitation to go to the Amazon rainforest to watch a person sink into quicksand. In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never heard him say no to that even once.
Mark McGwire: So, I go to the rainforest and meet this kid, and he’s sinking into the quicksand, and he’s being very brave. He’s screaming, “In 50 years’ time, my brain will be carted off to Valhalla!” which is something no child should ever have to say, but God is cruel and allows His bravest children to sink into quicksand. I went to the edge of the quicksand and said to the boy, “Here I am. I’m Mark McGwire.” The boy said to me, “I don’t care who you are. Swear to me that you will break Roger Maris’ home run record for me.” Was I supposed to say no to a kid who was sinking in quicksand? In 50 years, his brain would be in Valhalla! I swore to him that I would break the home run record. There, in the Amazon rainforest, I had taken my first steps toward immortality.
Sammy Sosa’s world-class hitting had been the backbone of the Cubs’ lineup for years, but not even his formidable talent could keep the team out of last place. As the Cubs staggered into the 1998 season after yet another abysmal performance the previous year, fans looked to Sosa to bring new hope to a team that seemed destined for perennial defeat.
Martin Scorsese: On the first day of spring training, I went to Wrigley Field, and there I met the Chicago Cubs, the baseball team that I was in charge of. When I understood that I was getting to live my lifelong dream of managing a Major League Baseball team, I celebrated by purchasing 16 copies of my movie Raging Bull from a local video store and burying them in my backyard. I loved all of the Chicago Cubs, but right from the beginning, I knew there was something special about Sammy Sosa. I looked at him and knew that he was going to make history.
Sammy Sosa (Cubs right fielder): When I was a boy in the Dominican Republic, I was the owner of a beautiful peacock. His name was Judas Iscariot The Bird, and we were best friends. He would bring me the fossilized remains of ancient kings that he had dug up in the woods, and in return I would read to him from a menu I had stolen from an Italian restaurant. Then, one day, Judas Iscariot The Bird and I were out walking when a baseball fell from the sky and struck my beloved peacock right in the head, and he burst into flames. I picked up the baseball and saw that it said “Roger Maris’ 61st Home Run” on it. I knew then that Roger Maris had killed my peacock with his record-setting home run. On that day, I swore that I would get my revenge on Roger Maris by breaking his record and destroying his legacy.
Bud Selig: We ran DNA tests on the baseball that killed Sammy’s peacock, and that baseball was made 100 percent out of Roger Maris’ skin and hair, and the teeth inside of it were Maris’ as well, so there was no question about it: Sammy was entirely justified in his quest for revenge.
Sosa and McGwire both had something to prove as spring training drew to a close. Though they had both already established themselves as formidable power hitters, it became clear early on in the season that the rate at which they were hitting home runs was unusual even for them. Something historic was underway, and the baseball world quickly began to take notice.
Mark McGwire: I still remember my first home run of that season like it was yesterday. The sound of the bat hitting the ball. The sound of the crowd cheering as they watched the ball sail through the sky and over the center-field fence. The sound of two dogs fighting over a baby’s shoe. The sound of Nancy Reagan screaming as she pulled out her own back molars with her bare hands. The sound of a little boy applauding politely as he watched a single disembodied leg wearing stockings and a high heel shoe hop of its own accord across a sandy beach and into the ocean. The sound of a Jeep Grand Cherokee coming to life and screaming “I can love! I can love! I can love!” until the terrified mechanics at AutoZone frantically blew it up with dynamite. The sound of two nuns reading a month-old newspaper to an eagle they trapped in their basement.
Tony La Russa: From his very first at-bat on opening day, Mark was unstoppable. He was hitting home runs at a rate I’ve never seen before, and not just normal home runs that only virgins like—I’m talking about goddamn moonshots. He hit a home run off of Randy Johnson that went so far that Johnson’s manager came onto the field and traded him to a different team right on the spot.
Randy Johnson (Seattle Mariners starting pitcher): My manager came onto the mound and said to me, “Well, Randy, you fucking blew it like the Oracle said you would, and so now we’re trading you to the Houston Astros,” and I said, “Please don’t do that. Those fuckers are weird,” and my manager said, “You should have thought of that before you gave up that goddamn moonshot to McGwire.” And then the Houston Astros drove onto the field in a school bus, and they were all humming the same high-pitched note in unison, and their manager said to me, “Welcome to the Houston Astros. We all sleep in the same big bed, and the bed is alive,” and I said, “I hate you weird fuckers,” but I had to get on the bus anyway.
Bud Selig: As McGwire started hitting more home runs, something incredible started to happen: People started watching baseball again. Everybody wanted to tune in to see Mark McGwire make history, and I realized that baseball might actually have a future.
Tony La Russa: For the first few months of the season, all anybody could talk about was Mark McGwire. Jerseys with Mark’s name on them were flying off the shelves. Families were traveling into the forest to carve his face into the trees. America had full-blown Mark McGwire Fever.
Derek Jeter (New York Yankees shortstop): I knew that Mark was officially famous when he started getting endorsement deals. I turned on the TV once and there was Mark doing a national commercial. He was sitting in a Lexus with a pack of Camel cigarettes in one hand and a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in the other hand, and he looks straight into the camera and says, “Lexus Cars: Every Brand Of Cigarette Is Good,” and then the Nike logo appears.
Bud Selig: In those first few months of the season, I thought it was just going to be McGwire. Sosa seemed completely uninterested in hitting home runs.
Sammy Sosa: I had given up hitting home runs for Lent, so I had to wait until Hot Mr. Easter had eaten Tall Jesus and banished Sexual Jesus to a canyon so that the tyranny of the Jesus brothers could end and Lent would be over. Only then could I start hitting home runs.
Kerry Wood (Cubs starting pitcher): I once asked Sammy what he thought the story of Easter was, and the nine-hour story he told me gives me nightmares to this day, and is entirely unrepeatable.
Martin Scorsese: Once Lent was over, Sammy started hitting home runs at an incredible rate. I’ve never seen anyone hit so many home runs in such a short amount of time. He was hitting two or three home runs every game. He’d swing his bat and three balls would fly over the wall at once, and then he’d go home at night and hit home runs at his house. He just would not stop hitting home runs.
Sammy Sosa: Sometimes, I didn’t want to hit home runs. Sometimes, I wanted to strike out or lie down, but then I’d remember my dead peacock, Judas Iscariot The Bird, and the sound that he made when Roger Maris killed him. The sound he made was, “Sammy Sosa, you are a peacock like me! The secret of your birth…is horrible! Your life…a hideous deception! And now…I die.” It was the saddest sound I’d ever heard, and all I had to do was remember it and it would give me the motivation I needed to destroy Roger Maris’ record entirely.
By the All-Star break, Sosa and McGwire were neck and neck in the race to break the home run record, and it soon became clear that either of them could be the one to make history by being the first to hit 62 home runs. The nation watched with rapt attention as one of baseball’s greatest legends unfolded before their eyes.
Bud Selig: It was a tight race. Every time McGwire hit a home run, Sosa would hit one right back.
Tony La Russa: Sometimes, McGwire would hit a home run, and when he finished rounding the bases, a fist would punch through his stomach, and the crowd would scream in horror as Sammy Sosa clawed his way out of Mark McGwire’s body and revealed that the home run had just been hit by Sosa in a clever disguise. Then, the real Mark McGwire would come out of the dugout and wave, and everyone would have a good laugh. Then, a fist would punch through Sosa’s stomach and a second McGwire would claw his way out of Sosa’s body, and the two McGwires would keep laughing while the rest of the crowd stared in silence.
Kerry Wood: On more than one occasion, Sosa would hit a home run, but then the umpire would smell the ball and it would smell like Mark McGwire, and so the home run would count for McGwire instead. They were in a tight race the whole year.
Bud Selig: At first, fans only cared about McGwire, but once Sosa also became a contender, all America cared about was seeing Mark and Sammy together. One day at a press conference, a reporter yelled, “McGwire and Sosa are married!” and I said, “They’re actually not,” and the reporter said, “Then what’s the point of even being alive?” People loved their friendly rivalry.
Kerry Wood: One time, Sosa hit a home run so powerful that the pitcher’s arms and legs fell off. McGwire responded by hitting a home run off of Randy Johnson that went so far that Johnson’s wife came onto the field and divorced him on the spot.
Randy Johnson (Houston Astros starting pitcher): I said to my wife, “Please do not divorce me. I think you smell good, and the noise you make in your sleep keeps bugs away from our house,” and she said, “You should have thought of that before you gave up that goddamn moonshot to McGwire,” and the entire stadium cheered as she wrote the word “Divorced” on my forehead.
Sammy Sosa: There was a lot of pressure, but I always had the support of my teammates and the wonderful Cubs manager Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese: Every time Sammy hit a home run, I would celebrate by buying him a copy of my movie Raging Bull and burying it in my backyard. It was just my little way of saying “I’ve put a movie in the ground for you.”
Bud Selig: And through it all, everyone was celebrating me! Bud “Lionheart” Selig! The man who brought baseball back from the brink of destruction with his fabulous home run monsters Mark and Sammy! The Baseball Hall of Fame even built a statue of me kicking an astronaut in the stomach with a plaque that said “Bud Selig, The Savior Of Baseball, Seen Here With Astronaut (Identity Unknown).”
Derek Jeter: I remember the day that I realized Sosa and McGwire had become national heroes. There was a giant billboard advertisement for industrial smog in the middle of Times Square with a picture of Sosa and McGwire smiling and holding hands in front of a factory smokestack that was spewing out a cloud of poisonous fumes. The billboard said “Form A Major League Friendship Underneath A Cloud Of Smog.” After that billboard ran, there was a survey that showed that Americans preferred breathing smog to oxygen and loved baseball more than any other sport. There was no doubt that McGwire and Sosa were the greatest thing to happen to baseball in decades, and as they got closer to the record, people’s interest only grew.
With only a few days left to play, McGwire and the Cardinals arrived in Chicago to play the Cubs for their final meeting of the season. With 61 home runs, McGwire had tied Maris’ record and was one home run short of making history. Sosa was only a few home runs behind. The year-long drama had reached its final act, and its key players had found themselves face-to-face for its stirring conclusion.
Martin Scorsese: Before the game, I could tell Sammy was nervous, so I took him aside and said, “Sammy, listen. As a director, I’ve accomplished a lot of things. I’ve made beloved films. I’ve buried over 600 copies of Raging Bull in my backyard. I’ve never won an Oscar, and I’ve had Robert De Niro carry me out of and back into a burning building. But this season managing the Chicago Cubs has been the greatest accomplishment of my life, and you were the best part of it. You are the copy of Raging Bull that I will always bury in the backyard of my life.”
Sammy Sosa: Martin Scorsese is the greatest manager in the history of baseball.
Bud Selig: On his second at-bat of the night, McGwire stepped up to the plate, and you could just feel it in your bones that he was going to break the record. Everyone knew there was only one pitcher worthy of giving up Mark’s record-breaking home run.
Randy Johnson (Cubs starting pitcher): The Astros traded me to the Cubs in the middle of the game just so I could give up McGwire’s record-breaking home run.
Kerry Wood: Randy Johnson arrived on the mound by helicopter and immediately gave up a home run to Mark McGwire that went so far that the president of the United States came onto the field and revoked Johnson’s American citizenship on the spot.
Randy Johnson: I said to the president, “Please do not revoke my American citizenship. America is where all of my groceries and batteries are,” and the president said, “You should have thought of that before you gave up that goddamn moonshot to McGwire,” and the entire stadium cheered as the president stuffed my entire body into a manila envelop, addressed it to “Cold,” and put it into a mailbox.
Mark McGwire: I watched the ball go over the fence, and I thought, “Well, now at last the thing is done.” The fans were going crazy, and as I rounded the bases I started crying, partially out of happiness for breaking the record, and partially out of guilt for a murder I did a long time ago. When I got to home plate, Sammy was waiting for me, and he was smiling.
Sammy Sosa: When Mark got to home plate, we hugged each other, and I said to him, “Nice to meet you. My name is Sammy Sosa,” and Mark said to me, “Hello, Sammy Sosa. My name is Mark McGwire. Do you have Nintendo?” and I said, “What the fuck is Nintendo?”
Bud Selig: As a monument to Mark and Sammy’s friendship, we constructed a bronze statue in front of the Hall of Fame of a bull with two heads. One head was Sosa’s, and one head was McGwire’s. And in honor of me, Bud Selig, there were two Bud Seligs in front of the two-headed bull. One Bud Selig was kissing the bull’s Sosa head. One Bud Selig was kissing the bull’s McGwire head. The statue is a testament to how we worked together to save baseball.
Sammy Sosa: A few days later, I hit my 62nd home run and broke the record myself, but at that point, I didn’t do it for the glory. I did it for Judas Iscariot The Bird, whose role in all this makes him arguably the most important peacock in the history of Major League Baseball. I miss him every day.
In the years following McGwire and Sosa’s legendary home run chase, the myth surrounding their achievements has become tarnished by allegations that they used illegal steroids in order to boost their performance. As the evidence has mounted against them, the legacy of their record-breaking season has become cast in doubt, and some fear that it has been tarnished forever.
Bud Selig: When I first heard the steroid rumors, I didn’t want them to be true, but then I realized that “Sammy Sosa” is an anagram of “Steroid Soldier,” and I knew there was no denying it.
Mark McGwire: Why did I start using steroids? Well, when I was a young man, I saw a big duffel bag filled with forks and knives wash up on the beach, and I fell in love with it. I asked the duffel bag filled with forks and knives to marry me, and the duffel bag replied, “Only the man who can lift me over his head may marry me.” I took steroids so that I could be strong enough to lift the duffel bag filled with forks and knives over my head so that it would marry me, but by the time I was strong enough to do it, the duffel bag filled with forks and knives had crawled back into the ocean forever. I was devastated, but then I realized that the steroids had made me strong enough to hit home runs, so I figured, why ever stop?
Sammy Sosa: The steroids I took completely ruined my body. Before steroids, I laid healthy eggs that were round and filled with gasping fish, just like Judas Iscariot The Bird had taught me. But now my eggs are cube-shaped, and filled with volcanic ash. Steroids destroyed my body, my legacy, and my eggs, but in the process, they helped me destroy Roger Maris, the man who murdered my bird, and so it was all worth it. Steroids are revenge medicine, and I love them.
Bud Selig: The home run chase was a story of remarkable triumph, but now everyone involved is shrouded in eternal disgrace. Even Martin Scorsese was banned from baseball for life after he was caught shoplifting a copy of Raging Bull from a video store. As for me, I went from being the hero who saved baseball to being the man whose picture hangs on the wall of every grocery store in America underneath a sign that says “Do Not Sell This Man Any Fruits Or Vegetables.”
Tony La Russa: Tommy Lasorda.
Mark McGwire: Nobody will ever see me as a hero. I know that now. But I also know that, at least for a moment, Sammy and I reminded everyone that baseball is that magic kind of sport where muscular friends with ill-gotten biceps can go on a vengeance-fueled crusade against history. In this way, America fell back in love with baseball, and because of that, I will never feel any shame for the crimes I committed back then, or for the crimes I will commit in the future.