Mark McGwire

July 26, 1998: Mark McGwire breaks Cardinals’ single-season home run record

Mark McGwire’s pursuit of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris took him past Johnny Mize before the 1998 calendar turned to August.

On July 26, McGwire’s 44th home run of the season broke the franchise record set by Johnny Mize in 1940. The blast, which came in the Cardinals’ 104th game of the season, kept McGwire ahead of Ruth’s 1927 home run pace, when he finished the season with 60 homers, and Maris’s pace when he hit 61 home runs in 1961. Ruth didn’t hit his 44th home run of 1927 until the Yankees’ 128th game and Maris didn’t hit his 44th until the Yankees’ 116th game.

Kent Mercker, a veteran left-hander who had been a first-round draft pick of the Braves in 1986, got the start for the Cardinals. The Rockies countered with John Thomson, a second-year right-hander who hadn’t pitched since June 15 due to a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand.

For the first three innings, the only hit either offense could manage was a first-inning double by Rockies right fielder Larry Walker.

With two outs in the fourth, McGwire ended Thomson’s no-hit bid when he jumped on a first-pitch slider and drove it an estimated 452 feet[1] for a home run. The blast not only ended the Cardinals’ offensive struggles, but it also halted an 0-for-16 stretch for McGwire, his longest hitless streak of the season.

“I was just trying to throw a first-pitch strike,” Thomson said.[2]

The fan who caught the ball met with McGwire after the game, and while the fan chose not to part with the memento, McGwire agreed to sign it for him.

“He said he had a dream two nights ago that he was going to catch one of my home run balls and that was good enough for me. I’m into that stuff,” McGwire said. “He had the dream. He caught it. I hope he has more dreams.”[3]

The Rockies tied the game in the next half-inning as Ellis Burks led off with a double to right field and Vinny Castilla drove him home with a two-out single to center field.

Mercker helped his own cause in the fifth with a triple into the right-field gap, then scored on a two-out single by Royce Clayton. Mercker pitched the sixth inning, then left the game with lightheadedness. Afterward, he admitted he had been battling a cold and hadn’t felt himself for four days.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “You ever had a head rush where everything turns red and black? I had that for about six minutes. I went out for the fifth and I just couldn’t catch my breath. The more I started to breathe, the dizzier I got.”[4]

Despite Mercker’s early exit, the Cardinals’ bullpen held strong. Curtis King pitched the sixth and seventh innings without allowing a hit. When Kirt Manwaring led off the eighth with a single to left, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called upon Lance Painter to face Rockies reliever Chuck McElroy.

McElroy reached on a bunt single before Neifi Perez laid down a bunt of his own, advancing Manwaring and McElroy to second and third. The Cardinals went to their bullpen once more, this time calling on Rich Croushore, a rookie right-hander who had emerged as the Cardinals’ closer. Croushore struck out Burks and got Walker to ground out to Clayton at shortstop to end the inning.

In the ninth, Willie McGee added an insurance run with a solo homer to right field, and Croushore worked around a two-out walk to Todd Helton to earn his seventh save of the season.

“The bullpen won that game,” said Mercker, who improved to 6-8 on the season.[5]

Thomson, who allowed two earned runs over 6 2/3 innings, took the loss for the Rockies.

Afterward, McGwire admitted he was battling fatigue after playing 18 games in a row – including 17 starts – since representing the Cardinals at the all-star game.

“I was dead,” he said. “I should have had an off day sometime during this road trip. I should have had one in San Diego but we didn’t do it. Sometimes a day off goes a long way.”

While McGwire was willing to admit weariness, he said the media attention that was gathering around his pursuit of the single-season home run record wasn’t getting to him.

“The thing I sort of get tired of hearing is if I don’t hit home runs or don’t get hits, that the pressure of the media is getting to me,” he said. “Absolutely not. Believe me, it’s not going to get to me.”[6]

While McGwire certainly felt the pressure of the home run chase later in the season, he went on to hit a major-league record 70 home runs. Along the way, he led the league with 162 walks, a .470 on-base percentage, and a .752 slugging percentage.

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[1] Rick Hummel, “44 for Mac,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 27, 1998.

[2] Rick Hummel, “McGwire blasts 44th,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 27, 1998.

[3] Rick Hummel, “McGwire blasts 44th,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 27, 1998.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Mercker left dizzy after hitting triple,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 27, 1998.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Mercker left dizzy after hitting triple,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 27, 1998.

[6] Rick Hummel, “McGwire blasts 44th,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 27, 1998.

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