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McGwire, Mark David

McGWIRE, Mark David

(b. 1 October 1963 in Pomona, California), first baseman who set a rookie record of forty-nine home runs in 1987 and a single-season home run record of seventy in 1998, eclipsing Roger Maris's celebrated 1961 record by nine.

McGwire is one of five sons of John, a dentist, and Ginger McGwire. When he graduated from Damien High School in Claremont, California, in 1981, he rejected a Major League Baseball contract to accept an athletic scholarship at the University of Southern California (USC). While at USC, McGwire set several school records. He received national recognition in 1984 as an All-American and was named to the 1984 Olympic team, which he led in doubles with thirteen. He also met and married his wife, Kathy, at USC. The marriage ended after three years; the couple had one son, Matthew, who would eventually work as a ball boy for the St. Louis Cardinals during McGwire's tenure with the team.

McGwire signed with the Oakland Athletics after the 1984 season, and the Athletics management saw him as the team's future starting first baseman. In 1987 he was given the first baseman's job and proved worthy of his team's faith in him. Because he played little in 1986, the year 1987 was considered his rookie year, and he set a rookie-year record of forty-nine home runs.

McGwire followed with seasons of thirty-two, thirty-three, and thirty-nine home runs, and he proved himself an outstanding fielder as well as a potent hitter, yet was not considered the best player on his team; right fielder Jose Canseco was. Canseco and McGwire became famous as the "Bash Brothers" for banging their forearms on each other after either hit a home run.

Still, McGwire became a favorite of fans, who loved watching his tremendous home runs, which soared farther than seemed humanly possible, and nearly everyone liked his quiet, understated style of play. At six feet, five inches in height and 220 pounds, he might have been expected to be awkward, but he was dazzling at first base, making quick grabs of line drives and diving his full body length to nab ground balls.

In 1991 McGwire's career seemed to be coming unglued. Injuries to his feet and back hampered him, and although he managed to play in 154 games, his play suffered and he hit only twenty-two home runs. Worse, he had only seventy-five runs batted in (RBI). Even so, perceptions of his status were actually improving. Canseco began behaving bizarrely in public and was in several scandals involving illegal guns, car wrecks, and confrontations with his estranged wife. By 1992 the quiet giant, McGwire, was becoming his team's emotional anchor, and in that year he rebounded with forty-two home runs and 104 RBI.

The next two years were miserable ones for McGwire. He had fractured and compressed vertebrae that required extensive surgery, and he hurt a foot very badly. He played only twenty-seven games in 1993 and forty-seven in 1994. In 1994 he began to show signs of returning to his old form, but major league ballplayers went on strike, prematurely ending the season and souring many fans of baseball. Especially disappointing was the sense that 1994 had been potentially one of the most entertaining seasons in history, with third baseman Matt Williams having an excellent chance of breaking Roger Maris's single-season record of sixty-one home runs. During this period, however, an extensive weight-training regimen increased his weight to 250 pounds while reducing his body fat.

In 1995 McGwire hit thirty-nine home runs in 104 games, and in 1996 he hit fifty-two home runs in only 130 games. This began talk of his potential for breaking Maris's home run record; McGwire's career home runs per at bat was higher than anyone else's in the history of the major leagues. This left the Athletics with a difficult problem in 1997, when his home run total rose to fifty-eight. McGwire became a free agent at the end of the season, and the Athletics had great trouble meeting his salary demands, which made trading him seem prudent; however, McGwire was plainly chasing Maris's record. Trading him meant the Athletics would lose the chance of having a player hit sixty-two home runs. Nevertheless, they traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals on 1 July 1997.

McGwire began the 1998 season by hitting home runs in the first four games his team played, including a grand slam in the first game. By June he was well on his way to setting a new home run record; the only player close to him was Ken Griffey, Jr., of the Seattle Mariners. For the Chicago Cubs, Sammy Sosa had a slow start. By mid-July, Griffey was fading; his home run total was impressive but lagged behind McGwire's. However, Sosa had a magnificent June and gained ground on McGwire. The race between Sosa and McGwire to break Maris's record was thrilling, and Sosa was all smiles and jokes, telling anyone who listened about how much fun he was having. McGwire had always been quiet and reserved, and he kept his private life to himself, but he followed Sosa's example and spoke cordially with reporters. Both players insisted that their rivalry was friendly and that it actually helped them deal with the pressures they were under.

In September the men were virtually tied in home runs, with Sosa actually edging ahead for a little while, but McGwire had a great month. On 8 September he hit his sixty-second home run of the season, breaking Maris's record, which had stood for twenty-seven years. In his last eleven at-bats of the season he hit five more home runs for a total of seventy home runs and 147 RBI.

At the end of the season Sammy Sosa received the National League Most Valuable Player award, something many observers thought McGwire should have won. Yet, Sosa's team went to the play-offs whereas McGwire's did not. Sosa also exceeded Maris's record with sixty-six home runs, and he was responsible for setting the friendly tone that seemed to heal the wounds caused by the 1994 strike.

During the 1998 season much of McGwire's personal life became public, especially his charitable work. He devoted time and money to helping children in need and gave $1 million per year to the Mark McGwire Foundation for Children, which helps treat victims of child abuse. This enlarged his reputation from great baseball player to great man.

In 1999 Sosa and McGwire had another thrilling home run chase, with McGwire ending up with sixty-five. In 2000 and 2001 he was beset by injuries, especially to his back, and his playing time was reduced considerably; his home run output was reduced to twenty-nine and thirty-two, respectively, for those years. On 5 October 2001 Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants broke McGwire's single-season home record and, two days later, extended the new record to seventy-three home runs. On 11 November 2001 McGwire announced his retirement from baseball, saying that he no longer was capable of performing at a level to match his enormous salary. His place in baseball history, however, seems clear. He hit home runs at a pace unmatched by any other player. His fielding was also good enough to win him a Gold Glove for first base in 1991. His dignity and humanity have endeared him to fans.

The single-season home run record is one of the most hallowed in baseball, held in turn by the charismatic Babe Ruth, the shy Roger Maris, and then by McGwire, whose 1998 record precipitated numerous books and other writings about him and his fabulous season. Among these are two fairly serious studies: Jonathan Hall, Mark McGwire: A Biography (1998), and Daniel Paisner, The Ball: Mark McGwire's 70th Home Run Ball and the Marketing of the American Dream (1999). A good comparative study is William F. McNeill, Ruth, Maris, McGwire, and Sosa: Baseball's Single-Season Home Run Champions (1999). The competition between McGwire and Sosa in 1998 is recounted by Lee R. Schreiber in Race for the Record: The Great Home Run Chase of 1998 (1998), and by Mike Lupica in Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America (1999).

Kirk H. Beetz

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