Some of the game’s biggest names populate these monthly looks at home run excellence. So far we’ve featured Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Alex Rodriguez. But wait—believe it or not there are even some famous players in this series that didn’t play for the Yankees at one time or another, such as Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. This month, we feature two more players that never wore pinstripes, but fit the bill as feared sluggers in their time.
We could consider Albert Belle a dual threat, as he was feared both on and off the field. Belle was not a nice guy during his career. He battled alcoholism, an uncontrollable temper, reporters and opponents. In his early twenties, during the infancy of his career, he was known as Joey Belle. That was short for Jojuan, his middle name. After he reportedly spent time in rehab for alcohol abuse, he came back looking to be a new man and asked to be known by his first name—Albert. While some were surprised that Belle even had a drinking problem, others welcomed any sort of therapy due to his volatile personality. While the name change stuck, the change in his demeanor didn’t.
Belle’s career as a hitter may be better than some remember. He spent his best years with the Cleveland Indians and finished in the top three in MVP award voting in ’94, ’95, and ’96, posting a .325/.414/.671 line during that time period. He hit .357 in 1994. He hit 50 homers and 52 doubles in only 143 games the strike-shortened 1995 season. He had 148 R.B.I. in 1995. But, his bad attitude garnered as much attention those years as did his gaudy stats.
In ’94, as detailed extensively here, Belle starred in one of the most famous incidents of illegal bat corking in baseball history. When an opposing manager asked umpires to check Belle’s bat, the men in blue followed through and sent the bat in question to their dressing room for later inspection. Belle’s teammate at the time, Jason Grimsley, broke in that dressing room, and switched the bat out for one sans cork. Nevertheless, the subterfuge failed and the league subsequently suspended Belle for seven games. During the ’95 World Series, Belle profanely berated NBC’s Hannah Storm and was later hit with a $50,000 fine. In ’96, the league again suspended Belle, this time because he hurt Fernando Vina when he broke up a double play by nearly breaking the diminutive second baseman’s neck on a viscous forearm to the face.
But give Belle some credit, because during Vina’s brief stint on “Baseball Tonight” years later, many viewers wanted to do the same to him.
A Sports Illustrated article written at the time portrayed Belle as a complex person, one whose quest for perfection fueled his erratic behavior. Whatever the reason, Belle often seemed angry both on and off the field. It was when Belle directed his aggression toward a thrown baseball that historic things happened.
In 1998, Belle was in his second year with the Chicago White Sox. He started July with a homer on the first, in a loss against Houston. After an uneventful series at Boston, players took off for the All-Star game. Around that time Belle told his manager, Jerry Manuel, that he felt like he was about to break loose following the break. After the festivities, the White Sox started a 13 game homestand and Belle, as he predicted, went nuts—on the field. He hit 11 bombs over the course of those 13 games, and at one point he hit 10 in a 10 game stretch.
White Sox batting coach, Von Joshua, credited Belle’s ability to consistently hit the bottom half of the ball during his home run outburst. That added even more loft to Belle’s line drives, and drove the slugger ever closer to the record mark for homers in July.
He tied that record against Tampa Bay on July 28th, and then broke it three days later with his 16th of the month, against the Texas Rangers. He passed Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Joe Adcock, and Juan Gonzalez, who had each hit 15. He raised his batting average 32 points, hit 32 RBI, and slugged .941 during the month.
Of course, ’98 was the summer of the home run. Belle’s Northside counterpart hit the record for June and broke Roger Maris’ single season record. But, a big redhead a few hours down the interstate dominated the headlines by not only passing Maris, but by holding off Sammy Sosa as well.
Mark McGwire may have helped reignite baseball’s popularity, one that was dimmed by the strike just a few years before. In 1998, McGwire’s heated home-run battle with Sosa ended with “Big Mac” breaking Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs. But, the accomplishment came with a small amount of controversy over McGwire’s acknowledgment that he took an over-the-counter testosterone booster called Androstenedione. Of course, a large amount of controversy has ensued since McGwire has now admitted he took steroids during his playing days, even during his record-breaking run in 1998.
Despite the raised eyebrows that surrounded McGwire’s use of the supplement in ’98, “Andro” was still easy to buy the next year, whether it was your local GNC or even a “smoothie” store. McGwire didn’t equal his previous year’s homer total of 70 in 1999, but he did put on another show and ended the year with 65 big flies. The one new record he did set was the most homers in July for the National League, one that tied Belle for the MLB record.
McGwire started July slowly. Well, he started July as slowly as anyone who hits 65 home runs in a year can start a month, anyhow. He had five going into the All-Star break. On the 15th and 16th he hit three bombs in two games against the White Sox. That put “Big Mac” at 31 homers on the year, only three behind Sosa’s MLB lead, and on the way to another thrilling home run race. Those homers also meant McGwire had hit at least 30 in a season 10 times in his career.
Back spasms slowed the slugger for a few days, but he came back to play nine straight games. He hit six home runs in that stretch. His balky back forced another day off toward the end of the month, but McGwire finished with homers on the 30th and 31st to tie Belle. His triple slash line during July was .295/.436/.864. Due to the All-Star break and back troubles, McGwire only started 25 games, which was still enough time to hit 16 home runs to set the mark in the National League.
Before 1999 began, McGwire shared the Sports Illustrated cover with Sammy Sosa, as the magazine named the two as their “Sportsmen of the Year”. In that edition of the world’s most famous sports magazine, Gary Smith wrote that we all appreciated the fact that McGwire and Sosa,
…went to such lengths to conduct the great home run race with dignity and sportsmanship, with a sense of joy and openness. Never have two men chased legends and each other that hard and that long or invited so much of America onto their backs for the ride.
That type of praise came after the epic home run race rejuvenated the “National Pastime”. Although the two men shared an ability to hit a baseball as far as anyone in the world, they had little else in common. Sosa was the smiling man-child who sprinted out to his spot in right field before every game. He relished the spotlight and gave beleaguered Cubs fans something to cheer for. But while Sammy embraced the attention, the narrative painted McGwire as the reluctant hero, one who didn’t want the attention. He didn’t seem to enjoy the endless string of press conferences and accompanying questions about the home run record. He seemed like he’d rather do without them entirely, until he shared a few with “Slammin’ Sammy” and his big smile.
By the end of the season, the once surly McGwire had come to accept his place in baseball history. He even had this to say about a bat that had been brought to him by people from the baseball Hall of Fame before a September game against Sosa’s Cubs-
When I touched his bat tonight, before the game, I knew tonight was going to be the night,” McGwire said. “When I touched and held Roger’s bat… I just put it into my heart. That’s the first thing that ran through my mind as I ran over there to the Marises.’
It was an emotional tribute, and a tribute to another reluctant home run hero, this one from the 1961. It was probably genuine and it probably inspired the praise heaped upon him by writers like the one quoted above. But, as it turns out, in many people’s eyes, that record that McGwire set in 1998 was not genuine.
The one he set in July of 1999 probably wasn’t either, since there’s no reason to believe “Big Mac” didn’t use Performance Enhancing Drugs that year as well. The “Andro” that caused a minor stir in the summer of ’98 ended up on baseball’s banned list a few years later. Then, after years of retirement, McGwire finally admitted, after everyone had already assumed so, that he used steroids during his career. His confession rang hollow to many, for the slugger held to the notion that he only used to help get back on the field, and not simply to hit the ball further or to break cherished records.
During his career, many of us saw Albert Belle as a bat-corking cheater. We saw a guy who would plow over a fielder to intimidate his opponents. Many of us failed to see McGwire as a cheater during his career. His tough-guy persona softened on his biggest stage when the whole country jumped on his bandwagon. Now it seems the two men, two who share a record for home runs hit in the month of July, also share the label of cheater.
References & Resources
Sports Illustrated, Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Columbus Dispatch, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Denver Post, Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, Chicago Daily Herald