ESPN aired its latest 30 for 30 documentary film, “Long Gone Summer,” about the 1998 season when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the elusive MLB home run record previously held by Roger Maris (61 HR in 1961). Since the legendary Babe Ruth set the original HR record with 60 home runs in 1927, only Maris, McGwire, and Barry Bonds would hold the single-season record.
The MLB home run record has always been somewhat scandalous and controversial.
Maris had an asterisk next to his name in the record books because MLB expanded in the early 1960s and extended the season from 154 games to 162 games. In 1961, Maris didn’t get the same adulation and love that McGwire, Sosa, or even Bonds had while trying to break the old record.
If anyone in pinstripes was supposed to break the Bambino’s record, fans wanted it to be Mickey Mantle. Plagued with injuries and an affinity for boozing, Mantle got close with 52 homers in 1956 and 54 home runs in 1961.
MLB MOST HR IN A SEASON
73 Barry Bonds (2001)
70 Mark McGwire (1998)
66 Sammy Sosa (1998)
65 Mark McGwire (1999)
64 Sammy Sosa (2001)
63 Sammy Sosa (1999)
61 Roger Maris (1961)
60 Babe Ruth (1927)
McGwire passed Ruth before the 154th game of the 1998 season, but his record of 70 home runs came under scrutiny when word got out that he and Sosa were steroid users.
Barry Bonds snapped McGwire’s record in 2001 with 73 home runs. Bonds also only played in 153 games that season. In 2003, Bonds got busted in the BALCO steroid scandal. To this day, baseball writers and Hall of Fame voters refuse to elect Bonds into Cooperstown for his involvement with steroids.
Ruth, the Original Home Run King
In the eyes of purists, Ruth setting the original HR record at 60 stands as one of the greatest singular accomplishments in all of sports.
To put it in perspective, Ruth smacked his 60 home runs at age 32. The life expectancy of American males in the late 1920s was only 59 years old. It’s 74 now, or a good 15 years of extended life due to the advances in medical technology.
If you’ve seen pictures of the Great Bambino, you know he wasn’t the most athletic guy in the world. He had a big gut and wasn’t shy about his love of beer and hotdogs. The Bambino never hid his voracious appetite and would be spotted snacking in between innings. But, ballplayers were a different breed a century ago. Players smoked in the dugout. Batboys for the Yankees had a crucial job to make sure a lit cigarette was waiting on the top of the dugout steps for Joe DiMaggio after he trotted off the field at the end of an inning.
So, you have a fun-loving guy who’s hungover all to hell, while chain-smoking and crushing hot dogs on the bench, yet still blasting shots over the fences.
Oh, and Ruth played at a time when ballparks were much bigger. Sure, “The House that Ruth Built” always had a short porch in right field, but you had to launch a dinger 500 feet if you wanted to smack it out of the park in dead center.
Ruth also accomplished his 60 home runs during a 154-game season. There’s no asterisk next to his name. There were also no illegal substances flowing through his bloodstream, unless you count 180 proof gin and dirty water hot dogs.
In MLB history, players hit 55 or more home runs only 19 times. Hall of Fame outfielder, Hack Wilson, smacked 56 HR in 1930 and drove in 191 RBI.
Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 56 home runs in consecutive seasons in 1997 and 1998. For most of the summer of 1998, Griffey was also included in the home run race with Sosa and McGwire.
In 2001, Luis Gonzalez hit 57 home runs. In 2002, Alex Rodriguez also hit 57 homers.
Four players hit 58 HR in a season, including McGwire in 1997. Ryan Howard hit the mark in 2006, Hank Greenberg in 1938, and Jimmie Foxx in 1932. Foxx inspired the hard-boozing manager that Tom Hanks played in “A League of Their Own.”
During his second season with the New York Yankees in 1921, Babe Ruth hit 59 home runs. Giancarlo Stanton would equal the Bambino’s mark with 59 in 2017.
Ruth, Sosa, Maris, McGwire, and Bonds are the only five players to hit 60 or more home runs in a single season. McGwire did it twice, but Sosa smacked 60-plus thrice.
Bonds only passed 40-plus home runs once in his career when he broke McGwire’s record in 2001 with 73.
Hank Aaron broke the all-time home run record (previously held by Babe Ruth) with his 715th career HR in 1974. Aaron finished his Hall of Fame career with 755 home runs, but he never hit more than 44 homers in a single season. Bonds currently holds the all-time home run record with 762.