Sosa, Samuel Peralta ("Sammy")

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SOSA, Samuel Peralta ("Sammy")

(b. 12 November 1968 in Consuelo, Dominican Republic), baseball player who, in 1998, was one of two players to break the single-season home-run mark and was named the National League's Most Valuable Player (MVP).

Born on the outskirts of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, to Juan Bautista Montero, a tractor driver at a sugarcane plantation, and Lucrecia Montero Sosa, a housemaid, the future big league star was one of seven children who grew up in a loving home largely under the care of his mother. In 1975 his father passed away and left his mother to raise the family on her own. Mired in poverty, Sosa's mother took on all forms of employment, including housecleaning and cooking, to make ends meet. The six-year-old Sosa supplemented the family income by shining shoes and washing cars. In 1981 the family moved to San Pedro de Macoris. There Sosa attended school, but left following his eighth-grade year and took a $20 per week job at a shoe factory.

Apart from work, sports captured Sosa's attention. Ironically, although he was born into a country with a rich baseball tradition, Sosa did not adopt that sport until he was fourteen. Instead, he trained vigorously to pursue a career in boxing. However, his mother, concerned about the violence associated with prizefighting, convinced Sosa to try for a career in baseball. Sosa worked feverishly at the sport, and in fewer than two years he developed a reputation in the San Pedro de Macoris amateur leagues that attracted the professional scouts. Starstruck, the youngster signed what turned out to be a fabricated contract with a scout from the Philadelphia Phillies. The tenacious Sosa, however, did not quit, and he attended nearly every big league tryout session he could. Finally in 1985, after several frustrating episodes, the Texas Rangers organization penned Sosa to a legitimate contract that included a $3,500 signing bonus—a king's ransom to those on the island. In characteristic fashion, the future slugger bought a bicycle and then sent all but $200 to his mother.

Sosa's path to the major leagues took four years. In 1989 he debuted with the Texas Rangers in Dallas and later that season was dealt to the Chicago White Sox. Shortly after he joined the White Sox, Sosa married Sonia; they had four children together. During his three-year stay with the White Sox, Sosa exhibited great power at times, but his paltry .240 batting average disappointed the American League club, and in 1992 they sent him to the Chicago Cubs of the National League. In the belief that he was at a crossroads in his career because of his undisciplined hitting, Sosa, who had learned the game much later in age than most professionals, decided to practice more patience at the plate. This decision soon paid great dividends.

Sosa, whom scouts had described as "malnourished" only seven years earlier, came alive with the Cubs and slammed thirty-three home runs in his first full year. Additionally, his runs batted in (RBI) total climbed, as did his average. With his increased production, in 1997 the Cubs rewarded Sosa with a whopping $42 million contract. The following year, he delivered as no Cub had done before.

Most baseball pundits did not consider Sosa a serious contender for the 1998 home-run title. Instead, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals took center stage as the primary prospect, both to lead baseball in home runs and possibly to establish a new mark in that category. Shortly after the season began, McGwire had amassed twenty-seven home runs by the end of May and appeared to have no rivals. Between 25 May and 24 June, however, Sosa launched a furious assault to challenge the Cardinals giant. In that time, the Dominican blasted twenty-two home runs, which took his total from nine to thirty-one, three in back of McGwire. From mid-June through the end of the season, the two captured international attention with the greatest home-run race baseball had ever seen. Through it all, Sosa's fun-loving demeanor won him enormous support across the globe, and he became a source of inspiration for many Latinos in North America.

In August 1998 Hurricane Georges swept through Sosa's native Dominican Republic. Sosa offered to return to his homeland to assist in the rescue efforts, but Leonel Fernandez, the Dominican president, instead encouraged the national hero to remain in the United States and pursue the home-run title. Instead of making a personal appearance, Sosa spearheaded a relief drive that raised $700,000 for food and equipment for the storm-torn island. In addition to this relief work, he has also organized and supported several other charities, such as the Sammy Sosa Foundation, a program designed to help children in need that operates both in the Dominican Republic and in the United States.

On 8 September McGwire broke the single-season home-run record held by Roger Maris when he hit number sixty-two. Sosa, however, was close behind. Less than a week later, on 13 September, he also broke Maris's mark by hitting his sixty-second home run. Given a six-minute standing ovation at Chicago's Wrigley Field, the teary-eyed Sosa remembered, "I've never been so emotional.… It was something that I couldn't believe what I was doing." Sosa hit four more home runs before the end of the season and finished second to McGwire's seventy in what was one of the most memorable and exciting competitions ever seen in the history of sport.

Following the baseball season, in November 1998, the Baseball Writer's Association bestowed on Sosa that year's National League Most Valuable Player award. One month later, in a gesture of goodwill toward Latin America, President William J. Clinton invited the popular Sosa to help light the national Christmas tree. The next season, Sosa proved his 1998 home-run barrage was no fluke. In 1999 he launched sixty-three home runs and joined McGwire (who hit sixty-five) as the only other major leaguer to have hit sixty or more home runs twice in a career. From 1998 through 2000, Sosa hit 179 home runs and drove in an astonishing 437 runs. Then, in the 2001 campaign, he added sixty-four more home runs to his already impressive numbers. By doing so, he established himself as the only player in Major League Baseball history to have hit sixty or more home runs in three different seasons.

Sosa's baseball achievements transcended the diamond. Poor Dominicans were encouraged by his success, and Americans who knew of his humble origins viewed him as a classic Horatio Alger figure. Sosa's strong sense of nationalism and generosity also made him a national hero, and his propensity to exhibit his heritage galvanized America's Latino community. Finally, his enthusiasm and friendly nature on the ball field, graciousness as a competitor, and devotion to family endeared him to millions around the world.

Sosa's autobiography with Marcos Breton, Sosa: An Autobiography (2000), includes interesting insights into the slugger's thoughts, but the convoluted accounts from those who are close to Sosa sometimes mar its readability. Bill Gutman, Sammy Sosa: A Biography (1998), is one of the better general overviews, laced with heartwarming accounts of Sosa's Dominican roots. Samuel O. Regalado, "Sammy Sosa Meets Horatio Alger: Latin Ballplayers and the American Success Myth," in Robert Elias, Baseball and the American Dream (2001), places Sosa's emergence as a U.S. icon into historical perspective.

Samuel O. Regaladom