The last time that Major League Baseball was in as dire shape as it is now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the perennial threat of labor disputes, was in 1994. Back then a players strike and the intransigence of the league and owners ended the season in August. In the next few seasons attendance dropped, fans soured, and to some it seemed like the sport would never fully recover. But 1998 saw the phenomenal home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that is the subject of AJ Schnack’s rousing and ultimately deflating documentary “Long Gone Summer,” and once again the fans and the fervor and the money poured in.
It was the long ball that brought baseball back from the brink after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, in which underpaid White Sox star players took bribes to throw the World Series. The next year Babe Ruth started his legendary career with the Yankees (pace, Red Sox fans) electrifying crowds with his mounting annual home run totals. He hit 60 in 1927, a record unbroken until 1961 when Roger Maris hit 61. But baseball commissioner Ford Frick had an asterisk added to Maris’s achievement in the record books, because the season had increased to 162 games while in Ruth’s day it was only 154. Removed in 1991, the asterisk remained in the public imagination.
Few wanted the unheralded Maris to topple the Sultan of Swat, and afterwards many longed for another baseball giant to come along and break the upstart’s record. “People didn’t just want the record broken, they wanted it to be someone they thought was worthy,” says T.J. Quinn of ESPN. He’s one of several journalists, and athletes — including McGwire and Sosa — Schnack interviews.
Enter McGwire, of the St. Louis Cardinals; towering, massive, and with a compact, crushing swing, he had hit 58 home runs the year before. Another contender was Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners, perhaps the best five-tool player in baseball at the time. In 1997 he just trailed McGwire with 56 blasts. Then there was the unexpected rise of Sosa, of the perennially woeful Chicago Cubs. He had only 36 home runs the year before, but in 1998 he kept pace with the other two sluggers from the start.
There’s something aesthetically pleasing about watching montages of superb athletes swatting a ball over a fence 400 feet or so away, and “Long Gone Summer” offers plenty of these as it keeps track of the race. By the end of August Griffey had fallen behind, but McGwire and Sosa kept pace, going head-to-head in a Cubs-Cardinals game in September in St. Louis, with McGwire leading Sosa 60-58. McGwire hit number 61 in that game, tying Maris. It was his father’s 61st birthday. The next day, before a hometown crowd and with Sosa looking on, he hit number 62.
But it wasn’t over yet. With three games left in the season, Sosa roared back, leading McGwire 66 to 65. Minutes later that same day McGwire tied it again at 66. In the end both men had broken Maris’s record, but McGwire had set the new one, and the final tally was 70-66. “It was like the stars were in alignment,” McGwire tells Schnack. “A lot of magical things happened.”
Indeed it seemed that way, as if it were scripted, almost too good to be true. So, in a way, it proved to be. The first signs of trouble occurred when a reporter spotted a bottle of androstenedione, an over-the-counter body building supplement, in McGwire’s locker. He said he used it to counteract injuries and that it was legal and further inquiry was discouraged.
But as we know now, it was a lot more than that, with Sosa and McGwire among the many players of that era who used steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Their excuses were that everyone was doing it and nobody in the upper echelons of MLB, including team owners, had told them it was wrong. And why should they when it was good for business? Fittingly, the film begins and ends with a baseball and a price tag, an interview with the winning bidder for the 70th home run ball hit by McGwire, sold at auction for $2.7 million.
“Long Gone Summer” can be seen on ESPN on June 14 at 9 p.m. and can be streamed on ESPN+ immediately after airing.
Go to es.pn/3gWTx5A.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.