On a day when the only man left who hit more than 61 home runs in a single season without admitting (or being named) being a user of performance-enhancing drugs has finally come clean for being dirty, the title “Single-Season Home Run King” has now been retained by not one, but two Yankee all-time greats.
Mark McGwire admitted today that he regularly used steroids throughout his career.
Starting in 1989, when with the Oakland A’s, and especially during 1998’s highly acclaimed home-run race against Sammy Sosa, McGwire said that he began “using steroids as a way to recover from injury, used on occasion throughout his career and now regrets ever having played during baseball’s Steroid Era.”
The three players—Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire—who broke Babe Ruth and Roger Maris’ single-season record of 60 homers in 154 games and the modern-day record of 61 home runs in 162 games, have now each been tarnished and in so doing have passed the title of Home Run King back to the rightful owners and era.
It was proven that Barry Bonds took steroids because he failed a urine test in 2001.
And then Sammy Sosa was also named as one of the players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.
Now, the only one left has manned-up and admitted his fault for tarnishing the game during an era best described by Jose Canseco—who has gained credibility for his book—Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big.
For Roger Maris, it was a different time in America and in baseball.
The black and white television set piped out an occasional Major League game for fans to enjoy, and more often than not, fans listened to the radio to catch their favorite team play.
It was a time when guys wore a suit and tie and acted like well-spoken gentlemen; when girls wore dresses and low heels and acted like well-mannered ladies.
Dad went to work every day and took pride in being an iron horse, while apple-pie Mom stayed home and soberly cared for her children. Families went to church every Sunday and made it there on time.
It was a much more simple time, but not without baseball heroes and baseball controversy.
In 1961, the M & M Boys were all the noise in the Bronx, when the Yankees took on a newly heralded nickname endeared by fans to this day.
The Bombers had both players anchoring baseball’s meteoric rise to the home run-race notoriety. Imagine Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s race of 1998, with both players suiting up in the same locker room and on the same team for every game of the season.
Anticipation and expectation of who would hit more homers—or hit one further than the other—unfolded daily on the dusty, hot field of play for Yankee fans in 1961.
The race pitted Yankee fan against Yankee fan.
Did you cheer for Maris, a four-time All-Star out of 12 seasons who had won the Gold Glove and American League MVP in 1960? Or was it the Mick, who had won baseball’s triple crown and was a 20-time All-Star and seven-time World Series champ?
Most pulled for the well-established Yankee phenom, Mickey Mantle; while others more liked the underdog, mild-mannered Roger Maris. Together they were the M & M Boys who gained so much popularity that they even appeared in Hollywood movies together.
Leading up to 1961, baseball leagues were limited to eight teams each, and the season consisted of 154 games, which unsuspectingly laid the ground work for the wildly popular home-run race and its controversy.
Since 1927, the baseball home run King was Babe Ruth, who had hit .356 that year and smashed 60 homers cast out over fences measuring up to 450 feet in dead center and when the mounds were higher than today’s game.
In retrospect, perhaps the league itself is most guilty of all in falsely enhancing performance.
Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season is one that still stands in tact today—as it will forever—after all, no one will be able to say they out-homered an entire league with so many obstacles (short season, higher mounds, and longer fences).
But in 1961, gentleman player Roger Maris set his own record. It too is one that still stands in tact today—after all— no one since Roger Maris can say they hit 61 homers in a single season from higher mounds without the suspicion (or admission) of using PEDs.
Perhaps, it was destiny foreshadowing what was to come for baseball as the mighty Mick suffered an infection from a botched injection from a “magic flu shot”, which took him out of the race toward season end paving the way for humble Roger Maris to attain baseball immortality.
Mick was a hulk of a player who was equally as fast off the field as he was on it. Often known for his wild nights spent on the town with Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, and on occasion, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle graced the covers of newspapers for both his talent and his larger than life character.
And legions of Yankee die-hards were left deflated and in disbelief as the Mick laid down his bat and dropped out of the race, kneeling on hallowed ground no more for the rest of the season.
As Maris continued the march toward the Ruthian Record, the then MLB Commissioner (and close friend to the Babe) Ford Frick announced another obstacle—the home-run record would only be beaten if Maris hit 61 homers in 154 games—a feat not easily obtained when not only were newspapers trying to protect Babe’s record, but so was the league.
It was no picnic for Maris to get through the stress of—not only getting through a normal baseball season—but battling through one against the press, the league, and the fans. It was told that Maris even received death threats from fans loyal to both Mantle and Ruth.
It got so bad that Maris was literally pulling clumps of hair out of his head in the trainers office before refusing to talk to the press one day.
Maris did not hit 61 home runs inside of 154 games. The only man to do that is George Herman “Babe” Ruth.
But Maris is the only man in baseball history to legitimately hit at least 61 homers in 162 games—a record that has now stood without question for 48 years.
So there are two authentic single season home-run kings, but only one is in the Hall of Fame.
And upon reflection of the kind of endurance and drive that it really does take—knowing that the best of our generation has only surpassed the mark while using PEDs—perhaps it is time for the Hall of Fame’s Veteran Committee to induct Roger Maris into the great Hall of Fame, alongside his famed 61st home run baseball.
No one is taking the fact that Mark McGwire is a class act away from him at all. He is known as one of the good guys of the sport and actually called Mrs. Maris (to her shock) and apologized for his transgressions.
As far as records go, it is clear there are two single season home-run kings, one for the shortened season era and one for the longer one.
It seems as though every baseball era has its looming controversy and hence, the records will always be debated.