By Eldon Ham-
(CBS) When the month of June drew to a close exactly 15 years ago, it was about to become the greatest individual home run month in the history of baseball. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire electrified America, but we would soon learn that it had all happened during the heart of the steroid era.
Baseball is an American institution, a swing-for-the-fences proxy for American capitalism, and so the steroid desecration of baseball and its storied history is part of a referendum on who we are as a nation. If we are willing to pervert baseball, can the rest of America be far behind? It wasn’t, and America was soon bloated on the excesses of inflated home prices and gimmicky securities, all of which were about to burst like a steroid home run bubble.
The baseball excesses were remarkable. Not only did two sluggers launch a combined 30 home runs during June alone, the once likeable Cub, Sammy Sosa, set the single-month long ball record of all time by slamming 20 all by himself. Today, 20 home runs would be a good season for almost any player, but this was 1998, a whole summer of baseball shock and awe. Suddenly it seemed like baseball, capitalism, and debt were all on steroids, a revelation that even changed our language: a car on steroids, an airplane on steroids, a book on steroids. That’s what baseball does: it invades our gut like no other sport. It provided comfort during World War II thanks to Roosevelt’s famous green light letter, influenced presidents from Taft to Bush, and has changed our language multiple times with terms like left field, striking out, home run bombs, curve balls, and screwballs.
In June of 1998, Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire crushed 10 home runs, nine of them over 400 feet. On June 20, the Cubs’ Sosa turned on a Toby Borland pitch for a 500-foot tape measure blast, the longest homer Sosa would hit during 1998. McGwire would crush five balls that traveled at least 500 feet that year, including a 545-footer off Livan Hernandez. McGwire would end up with 70 long balls on the season—a record for the eons, or so it seemed. When Babe Ruth slammed his vaunted 60 in 1927, Ruth challenged the baseball world, “Let see some sonovab—- top that.” A few eventually would, but it took 74 years and a juiced recipe to do it.
The 1998 home run chase electrified baseball, captivated America and harkened Ruth’s own 1927 Murderers’ Row year that punctuated a Roaring Twenties decade of decadence, Gatsby-like wealth, booze, and marquee home runs. On September 25, 1998, Sosa would become the first to slug 66 home runs in a season, beating McGwire by less than an hour. Baseball had become so distorted that when Sosa became the only major leaguer to crack at least 60 homers in a season three different times, he would finish in second place every time he did it (behind McGwire twice and Barry Bonds once).
Notwithstanding the stellar years of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Greenberg, DiMaggio, Mays, Aaron, Mantle, Maris, and other icons, the six greatest home run seasons in major league history all occurred from 1998 to 2001 by just three tainted names: Sosa, McGwire, and Bonds.
America’s other problems would soon be much worse, of course, like the 2008 housing bubble collapse that wreaked its brutal carnage on Middle America. But thanks to time, fate, and the Fed, our economic bubble is slowly and painfully mending itself.
Baseball did begin testing for performance enhancing drugs, reluctantly, but to its discredit, the game did nothing to mend its legacy, stonewalling the whole tarnished steroid mess that lingers in the record books. “So what?” some ask. The answer is compelling: living lies, whether on the baseball diamond, Main Street, or Wall Street, got us into this quagmire, so continuing the deceit of baseball would perpetuate a perilous referendum on American values. Could this ever again lead to something much worse? How could it not?
Although part of a mere game, baseball’s sacred records are also a slice of America’s history, culture, and national integrity. But major league baseball is partly right: we can’t really give an asterisk to every player after 1997 or arbitrarily red flag a select few individuals. But neither do we have to accept that nothing can be done at all. The truth deserves more. And there is, in fact, a workable solution that is simple, fair, and historically correct.
Roger Maris, long deceased, still battles a fictional asterisk that tarnished his own home run record. What about now assigning an actual asterisk to two specific hitters, designating Hank Aaron and Roger Maris as “the last record holders in the pre-steroid era”? This asterisk would honor history and tradition, yet would also recognize the steroid era while not impugning anyone in particular. Most of all, it would set the official record straight. An important step, since the last time we lied about baseball, we found ourselves in a long line of falling dominoes that ended with the near collapse of America itself.
Eldon Ham is the legal analyst for WSCR sports radio; the author of All the Babe’s Men: Baseball’s Greatest Home Run Seasons and How Changed America; and an adjunct professor of Sports, Law & Society at IIT/Chicago-Kent College of Law.