ONE FOR THE BOOKS
September 9, 1998
Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals broke the single-season home run record of Roger Maris Tuesday night by hitting his 62nd home run. Frank DeFord and Doris Kearns Goodwin discuss the how one man's accomplishment has changed the history of baseball.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
NEWSHOUR LINKS: SPORTS
September 4, 1998:
A discussion on the home run race.
September 1, 1998:
A Jim Fisher essay on record-breaking baseball .
March 31, 1998:
Major League Baseball and corporate ownership.
March 31, 1998:
The Minnesota Twin look to build a new stadium or move cities.
October 17, 1997
Doris Kearns Goodwin shares her baseball memories.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of sports.
Major League Baseball.
Baseball Hall Of Fame.
St. Louis Cardinals' Official Web site.
Chicago Cubs' Official Web site.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I am joined now by NewsHour regular presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, her most recent book is a memoir steeped in baseball, Wait Till Next Year, and by Frank DeFord, weekly commentator for National Public Radio and contributing writer for Sports Illustrated. Doris, some commentators are talking about McGwire's achievement as if it's going to save the republic from all of the problems that beset us. I bet you agree, don't you?
Can baseball save the republic?DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, without a question. It'll say baseball and the republic, one would hope. But, in fact, I think there's no question that coming after a real tough period for baseball, where the loyalty of the fans felt broken from the players with all the talk of salaries, players moving from one place to another, what this reminded us of is what the sport is really about. You saw all the players themselves having awe for McGwire. You saw McGwire having such a sense of dignity and classiness with Sosa. You saw Sosa clapping him on the back. You saw the fans behaving great, applauding both of them. You saw the people who caught the ball actually giving it back, instead of asking for money. There was just such a decency and a reminder of what happens in a professional sport when something incredible happens. You know, and baseball always measures itself against the past. It's such a statistical game, so that this record standing for three decades and three decades before that, finally broke, and it was a thrilling thing all around.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Frank DeFord, what was your reaction?
FRANK DeFORD: Well, I think I was probably just as giddy as Doris is. I don't think that I ever would have thought that I would have used the word "precious" for somebody as huge and monstrous as Mark McGwire. But he was; he was absolutely precious, and the whole moment was precious. And it's one of those events that just comes along so very rarely and anybody who couldn't feel warm and fuzzy last night, they haven't got a heartbeat.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Frank, it really was important that McGwire handled the whole thing the way he handled it, wasn't it?
FRANK DeFORD: He seemed to grow more outgoing, warmer, happier, and more sort of understanding, and more sympathetic of what was going on with each homerun that he hit. It's sort of odd, because Roger Maris, who was the last person to go through this, turns somewhat inward, and so in a way did Henry Aaron – a lot of that was because of racist fools who were going after him. But the incredible thing about McGwire was that he expanded and grew as the moment approached – wonderful!
History permeates baseball.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, you mentioned it's the history that permeates baseball, which you've written so much about. I noticed the artifacts of this event, the bat, the shoes, the ball – they're already in the Baseball Hall of Fame. They almost are holy in some way.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, there's no question that more than any other sport – any time a player gets up to bat you're measuring up against what he did before, what other players did before. Every time a pitcher pitches you're calculating his ERA. So there's always something about baseball – maybe it's partly from the first time you start to love baseball, as for me, I learned to keep score – that little box score, which captures in miniature everything that went on is something that fans grow up with. So the moments are captured, and they're forever remembered, partly because baseball's so slow – people remember such moments like this. All those things will sit in Cooperstown that people will have seen many years later.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Frank, how does this measure up against other great moments in baseball?
FRANK DeFORD: Well, I think in our lifetime this one goes to the top. We had sort of a dress rehearsal for this two years ago when Cal Ripkin broke Lou Gehrig's iron man record. But this is more of an achievement. That was such a cumulative event – to do something in a contained period of time the way McGwire did – and this is "the" record, not only "the" record in baseball – this is "the" record in sports. There's none like it. The homerun is so simple it's almost primeval. It has the Babe's signature on it, and to break this record and to do it in the way that he did, with such grace and decency, absolutely the best.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, does it reach beyond baseball? A lot of people who are not baseball fans seem to be watching this. Does this go beyond baseball in some way?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, one might hope so. I mean, I think to be realistic, the media now has the capacity to saturate us with anything so that a common conversation can come up about Princess Diana or O.J. Simpson or, in this case, something really, really nice. But I think the positive sign of it is I think in such a troubled summer when there's been so many distractions, so much sadness over the fate of the presidency, it was one of those stories that everybody comes out well in. That's so rare in our modern day. Even when the story came up about the possible vitamin supplement that Mark McGwire was taking it – almost as if the press stopped telling that – because people didn't want to tear this hero down and everybody agreed that there was just common decency all around. So it reminds you that maybe that can happen in other aspects of our life as well. There will come a day when the presidency is dignified and classified again. There will come a day when we feel good about the country, when we're active citizens, and we're not a passive generation. All of that may be reaching a lot, but boy, at this moment, it feels good to not talk about Monica Lewinsky.
Is baseball out of trouble?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Frank, where does it leave baseball? Baseball has had a lot of trouble, especially since the strike in 1994, and even now baseball – the polls show – is not as popular as the other major sports – basketball and football – where does this leave baseball?
FRANK DeFORD: Elizabeth, we love to think that this sort of takes baseball down the yellow brick road, but it still has serious institutional problems. It lacks any substantive leadership, and the real issue that divides baseball and tarnishes it – that there are so many weak franchises – and the owners in power don't want to help them – this doesn't help the people who are living in Florida or in Montreal or in a lot of places like Milwaukee who really have no hopes, because the rich teams just get richer. But maybe this will inspire the foolish owners to do what's right and do what's good and do what's precious in baseball.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Doris, for those watching who don't follow this as closely as you do, what happens next? It's actually possible for Mark McGwire to have broken the record but not to end up at the end of the year as the record holder in the books, right? Explain that.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: That's the really interesting thing. I mean, Sammy Sosa could hit four homeruns, be up to him at 62, and then actually in the last day of the season, whoever has the most homeruns will be the future record holder. It'll be interesting to see. There was such drama surrounding this moment that whether or not we can sustain that kind of exuberance I think people will want this struggle to go on and the fact that Sosa is right out there, pretty close behind, will add a certain extra drama to this moment.
How long will this record last?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Frank, it took 37 years to break Roger Maris's record. Will it take a long time to break this record too do you think?
FRANK DeFORD: The way people are hitting homeruns right now, you'd have to say the next record breaker will come a lot sooner. But then who would have thought that it would have taken this long to beat Roger Maris's record? So that's an imponderable that I, for one, am not going to get into. I'll leave that for the 21st century.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: No betting.
FRANK DeFORD: Yes. Absolutely.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you both very much.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You're welcome.
FRANK DeFORD: Thank you, Elizabeth.