Editor’s Note: This is the second post of “Hall of Fame Week!” For more info, click here.
I was in the old family room of my parents’ house sitting on the carpet between a classic 1990s box television and a rustic wooden coffee table my dad made. I refer to the room as “old” because in 1999 it was torn down to make way for an addition. From the time we moved into the house in 1990 through the room’s demise, it was my playroom. It was where my sister and I played silly childhood games and watched countless movies and TV shows. It was where I learned to play the piano and where I fell in love with the game of baseball. My last distinct memory of the space so central to my childhood was sitting on that carpet and hearing Joe Buck say, “You will always know where you were at 8:18 p.m. Central Time, Sept. 8, 1998.”
I’m relaying my personal story not because it’s particularly unique or special, but because it’s explicitly not. Buck was right. All of us who were lucky enough to be baseball fans during the magical summer of 1998 know exactly where we were the moment Mark McGwire sent a laser-beam line drive over the left field wall for his 62nd home run of the season to pass Roger Maris and become the single-season home run king. It was one of those precious few moments in baseball history that transcended the sport and reached American culture as a whole. And yet, somewhere along the way we reached a collective — if silent — agreement to shove that night into the deep recesses of our memories.
If you’ve watched baseball even casually over the last decade or three, or even longer, you can close your eyes and recall with clarity the images of Kirk Gibson pumping his fist around second base after his home run in the 1988 World Series or Carlton Fisk’s wave from 1975 or Willie Mays’ catch in a World Series played more than half a century ago. These moments are imprinted on our brains whether or not we lived through them, because major league baseball, for better and for worse, worships at the altar of its past. Iconic moments are aired on a loop at seemingly every possible opportunity, but for reasons both legitimate and manufactured, McGwire’s No. 62 is ignored.
The man who gave us this oft-overlooked moment of pure baseball joy is now on the Hall of Fame ballot for the 10th and final time. When the results are announced in the first week of January, McGwire’s name will not be included among the honorees. In last year’s balloting he received just 10 percent of the vote, his lowest total to date. Given that he effectively has no chance, his vote total may dip even further this year as his supporters find it challenging to continue voting for him when there are so many other extraordinarily qualified candidates on the ballot.
A year ago the Hall of Fame opted to decrease the number of years a player can remain on the ballot from 15 to 10. No candidates were on the ballot for the 10th time last year, and only McGwire is on his 10th this year, which makes him the first victims of a new rule functioning solely as a haphazard band-aid on the self-inflicted dilemma of overcrowded ballots. (Alan Trammell is also on his last year, but it is his 15th, as he was grandfathered in under the old rules.)
When McGwire’s name is unceremoniously dropped from the ballot, though, there will be little, if any, outrage. He is not the poster child for controversial candidates tainted by performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). That dubious honor is shared by Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and for good reason. On stats alone, Bonds and Clemens are true inner-circle Hall of Famers — the elite of the elite. McGwire’s career was not in that stratosphere, but it was a Hall of Fame-caliber career nonetheless, and it’s worth reflecting on one last time before he is officially dismissed from the BBWAA ballot.
Before digging into the numbers, it’s necessary to acknowledge the obvious. The biggest factor working against McGwire has nothing to do with his on-field performance and everything to do with PEDs. As is likely clear by this point in the article, I am not opposed to enshrining admitted or suspected users from the Steroid Era. My rationale is rather simple: Blacklisting individuals for offenses that were a direct result of a permissive culture pervading every corner of major league baseball flies in the face of the mission of the Hall of Fame.
If you ever get Hall of Fame fatigue from the ceaseless and unproductive debates the voting season stokes each winter, take a moment to read through the Hall’s mission statement. It’s a worthwhile reminder of the importance of the institution whose goal is to preserve the history of our national pastime. As I see it, the relevant passage for the steroid debate is this: “The Hall of Fame’s mission is to preserve the sport’s history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball.” (emphasis mine)
The last part rings especially true because I was lucky enough to take my first trip to Cooperstown with my dad when I was a kid. He pointed out the plaques of his childhood heroes while he told me their stories. Denying enshrinement to a group of the greatest players of a single generation will diminish the rich tradition of oral history the museum fosters so beautifully.
For that reason, as well as a more general aversion to scapegoating, I believe the so-called character clause in the Hall of Fame’s official voting guidelines ought only to be invoked on players whose lack of “integrity, sportsmanship, or character” were offenses beyond baseball’s working societal norms of the time. Denying enshrinement to someone like Pete Rose — who displayed an atrocious lack of integrity, sportsmanship and character while committing baseball’s cardinal sin — is defensible at the very least and arguably prudent. But for league-wide generational crimes such as segregation, greenies, cocaine or steroids, the museum’s responsibility is to provide context for those eras, not to disregard the achievements of those who played during it.
With that out of the way, let’s dig in to the significantly more fun portion of this piece: McGwire’s prolific power. His career home run total of 583 trails five of his contemporaries: Bonds (762), Alex Rodriguez (687 and counting), Ken Griffey Jr. (630), Jim Thome (612) and Sammy Sosa (609) – but that is at least in part a function of lost playing time due to injuries both in his late 20s and at the end of his career. His home run rate as measured by plate appearances per home run (PA/HR) was the greatest in baseball history, and his career isolated power (ISO) is second only to Babe Ruth. Despite playing in the same era as the all-time home run king, McGwire was the greatest power hitter of a generation known for power.
|1||Mark McGwire||13.14||1||Babe Ruth||.348|
|2||Babe Ruth||14.88||2||Mark McGwire||.325|
|3||Sammy Sosa||16.25||3||Barry Bonds||.309|
|4||Juan Gonzalez||16.49||4||Lou Gehrig||.292|
|5||Barry Bonds||16.54||5||Hank Greenberg||.292|
|6||Dave Kingman||16.81||6||Ted Williams||.289|
|7||Jim Thome||16.85||7||Jimmie Foxx||.284|
|8||Ralph Kiner||16.95||8||Jim Thome||.278|
|9||Ron Kittle||17.12||9||Manny Ramirez||.273|
|10||Harmon Killebrew||17.16||10||Ralph Kiner||.269|
Besting all other competition in one facet of the game, no matter how exciting and relevant that one facet is, does not automatically elevate a player to Hall of Fame status. One of the leaders in power metrics the generation before McGwire was Dave Kingman, a man who compiled just 20.4 fWAR in his career and unsurprisingly fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in his first year of eligibility. Being the greatest at one thing isn’t enough for induction, but McGwire was more than a one-trick pony.
Modern sabermetric analysis of production at the plate places emphasis on two key factors: power and on-base percentage. The first crude estimation of the fusion of these abilities was OPS, and now we’ve graduated to more refined metrics such as wOBA and the league-adjusted wRC+, which we will use here since it works well with comparisons across generations.
Of the 381 players with at least 1,500 plate appearances in the 1990s, no one, not even Barry Bonds, had a higher walk rate (BB%) than McGwire’s 18.8 percent. As a result of his elite power acting in combination with the ability to work walks and get on base, McGwire absolutely shines through the wRC+ lens.
After a brief late-season major league debut in 1986 that amounted to just 58 plate appearances, he went on to play 15 major league seasons. In those 15 seasons, McGwire never once failed to post a wRC+ above the league average mark of 100. In 13 of those 15 seasons, his wRC+ exceeded 130, and he crossed the 150 threshold nine times. His 157 career wRC+ is tied for 11th all time (minimum 3,000 plate appearances). You may recognize the names around him.
If batting metrics were the only thing to judge Hall of Fame candidates on, McGwire’s production would make him not just a Hall of Famer, but a fabled inner-circle Hall of Famer. Of course, that’s not how this works. His defense was uninspiring at best at first base — the least athletic defensive position on the field. His base running was a liability, as evidenced by a 28 percent extra-bases-taken rate and a stolen base total of just 12 through 1,874 career games played.
The lack of added value when out of the batters box, in addition to the missed playing time, kept McGwire’s career WAR totals from soaring to the levels of the inner-circle names with comparable power and on-base abilities. By the FanGraphs version of WAR, McGwire (66.3) sits 80th all time, directly between possible future inductee Tim Raines (66.4) and actual Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew (66.1). Baseball-Reference’s metrics have him a bit lower at 62.0 WAR, good for 108th all time in a range comparable to Hall of Famers Billy Williams (63.6) and, again, Harmon Killebrew (60.4) as well as borderline future candidates like Andruw Jones (62.8), Todd Helton (61.2) and Jim Edmonds (60.3).
Although his career WAR sits in a range without a clear Hall of Fame mandate, there is no question in my mind McGwire deserves a plaque in Cooperstown. By objective measures like wRC+, he is among the greatest hitters the sport has ever seen, second only to Bonds in his era. And even if his baserunning and defense fail to push him clearly over the Hall of Fame threshold, his emotional and historical contributions to the game make his case a landslide.
As a rookie in 1987, he burst onto the scene with 49 home runs, obliterating the rookie record of 38 set by Wally Berger in 1930 and matched by Frank Robinson in 1956. In the nearly 30 years since, the closest anyone has come to McGwire’s record was Albert Pujols with 37 homers as a rookie in 2001. His prodigious display of power netted him a Rookie of the Year Award and a catchy nickname as one of the Bash Brothers alongside his Oakland Athletics teammate, slugger Jose Canseco.
While with Oakland, the Bash Brothers were key contributors to their 1989 World Series championship run, but McGwire’s finest October moment arguably came the season before. Three days after Gibson became the seventh person to hit a walk-off home run in a World Series game, McGwire became the eighth with a Game Three blast in the bottom of the ninth off Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell. The early career fame garnered by his rookie success and Bash Brothers persona never faded. He was a 12-time All-Star, elected to the All-Star Game in every full season of his career.
Of course, the truly iconic mark he made on the game didn’t come until he joined the St. Louis Cardinals. The summer of 1998, just four years after the devastating players’ strike and canceled World Series, was critical in making baseball relevant again. What began as a three-way race to home run No. 62 among McGwire, Sosa and Griffey became a riveting two-man battle when Griffey fell off the pace down the stretch and totaled “just” 56 homers in the end. The McGwire-Sosa Show captivated a baseball-starved nation. The division rivals who were united by a twist of fate in the quest for baseball’s magic number became unlikely friends who lit up television screens with a contagious, electric energy that reminded viewers how much fun the game could be.
On Sept. 8, 1998, in a script presumably written by whichever deity presides over baseball, McGwire’s record-breaking home run No. 62 occurred while his Great Home Run Race partner stood in right field. If it’s been a while since you’ve watched footage of No. 62, I can’t recommend re-watching it enough.
Watch the way each Cubs infielder shakes McGwire’s hand as he rounds the bases. Revel in the bear hug he gives to Sosa – how often in any sport do you see mid-game celebratory hugs between on-field foes? Reflect on the respect McGwire shows to the record being broken when he embraces the family of Maris. It was a moment so glorious that Buck’s declaration that we’ll always remember where we were was obvious enough that it’s truly a testament to his talent he thought to mention it.
In the years since, the moment and the magical summer of 1998 have been irreversibly tarnished by revelations of the steroid culture that coincided with the home run race. However, the fact that we can no longer naively celebrate the achievement the way we did in the moment does not mean we can’t appreciate it and the joy that summer gave us.
As a baseball fan who grew up in the 1990s, the story of my childhood love affair with baseball is incomplete without Mark McGwire. His production on the field as well as the way he helped breathe life back into the game that fateful summer are more than worthy of enshrinement. Context for the era belongs in the museum. Mark McGwire, one of the most significant players of all time, belongs in the plaque room.