The Great Home Run Race of 1998 in Black and White
In the beginning, there was not a sports writer anywhere who could have
predicted how momentous the 1998 major league baseball season would turn out. In
the baby days of April, none could imagine the heady rush of July, August, and
ultimately amazing September and the fall of Roger Maris' single season home run
record. So, when Mark McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals' home run king of
previous years, and Sammy Sosa, the Chicago Cubs' $10 million man, and, for
awhile, Seattle Mariners' slugger Ken Griffey Jr., began their siege on Maris'
coveted mark of 61 homers, sports writers didn't know how to react. Almost
bewildered, they found themselves charting territory they could not have
imagined in their wildest dreams.
Before the baseball summer drew to a close - with McGwire setting a new record
of 70 home runs and Sosa coming in a close second with 66 - many of those same
sports writers would note that Maris in 1961 had sometimes been seen as
something of a sacrilegious usurper of the almost sacred Babe Ruth record of 60
home runs set way back in 1927. Many had wanted Maris' New York Yankees
teammate, the venerable Mickey Mantle, to break the hallowed record.
That season, both were poised to break Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs, but
some fans and some media didn't want Maris to do it. Mantle - who ended up with
54 homers - was considered a better hitter,
but he was also flashier, more outgoing and more popular than Maris, who was was
reserved, even square. In fact, Maris was actually booed as he inched closer to
the 60-homer mark.
Even though he didn't set a new record, in an odd irony Sammy Sosa became the
Roger Maris of 1998. For example, late in the season, Charles Krauthammer argued
in his nationally syndicated column that McGwire had "earned the right to sit at
the throne of Babe Ruth."
Until this year, no one had heard of Sosa. _ Sosa, as a home run hitter, is a
one-year wonder. In that way he resembles Roger Maris. Apart from his magical
61 in 1961, Maris never led the league in homers. He never hit more than 39. He
was never a year-in, year-out slugger like Ruth or McGwire or, for
that matter, Mickey Mantle, Maris' rival for popular affection in 1961. Mantle
then, like McGwire today, was the popular favorite not just because of his
winning public persona _ but because he had been hitting home runs forever.
Mantle ended up with 536, almost twice Maris' 275.
Despite the glory pounded off the bats of McGwire and Sosa in 1998, the story
would also be tarnished, but this time by a different brush. Krauthammer and
others found themselves arguing against the notion that race - the one problem
that more than any has dogged America since its earliest days - had once again
raised its troubling head. McGwire, often described as Paul Bunyanesque, is a
big, strapping white man with a red goatee, blue eyes, and powerful arms and
thighs. Sosa, a relatively small man from the Dominican Republic who speaks
broken English with a heavy accent, is dark enough to generally be considered
This paper examines coverage of the home run race in black newspapers in Chicago
and St. Louis and the mainstream press nationwide during July, August, and
September. The goal of the black press has - for 172 years - been "to plead our
own cause," while that of the mainstream press is to be as fair and objective as
possible. Neither lived up to those goals.
It was early in the 1998 season when sports writers first realized that Maris'
record was under siege on two fronts. But the conventional wisdom then was that
the double-edged assault was the work of McGwire and Griffey, another
established slugger and an African American. Indeed, in the early months of the
season, Sosa was rarely mentioned as a contender. But as the temperature soared
and the summer days grew long and then began to shorten, the slight Dominican
relentlessly hammered his way onto the sports pages. He could no longer be
ignored. By the midsummer All Star Game in July, and certainly by mid-August,
the contest was clearly one between the Cardinal and the Cub. But the news
coverage remained focused on McGwire, the media darling. Into the fall, despite
the more-than-obvious fact that Sosa was maintaining a home run pace ahead of
Maris' 1961 performance, he was generally treated as something of an asterisk to
McGwire. However, before the season came to a close, this bias shown by sports
writers had become a common topic of discussion that soon made its way to the
general news pages.
In fact, the distinction was never as clear as black and white. In addition to
race and the remarkably different physiques and visages of the two contenders,
there was the very valid question raised by Krauthammer of their past home run
achievements. Moreover, in African-American circles, another question arose: Is
Sosa really one of us? Ironically, it may have been the same question many white
sports writers were asking.
In September, the New York Times set out on a nationwide trek to find out what
people were thinking. "Who are you rooting for in the home run race?" reporter
Bill Dedman would ask. "Why?"
The answers are not so simple. It does not take long for the vexing issues of
race and national origin to creep onto the field. . . . If it is a matter of
pride for Latinos to root for Sosa, why would many consider it racist for
whites to root for McGwire because he is white? And how precise are the racial
anyway? Which group may claim Sosa as a hero?_
For those who are picking a champion, race often seems to play a role.
Latinos, whites and blacks speak of choosing "one of our own" or "someone like
Krauthammer used Griffey to underscore his contention that race was not a
factor. "And if Sosa had so little public support because of his race, why were
so many people pulling for Ken Griffey Jr. until he went into a home run stall
in August?" he asked. "Answer: Because Griffey too has a track record as a great
home run hitter. He might even break [Henry] Aaron's career mark of 755. Griffey
is approaching 350 and he's not even 30 years old."
Citing Michael Jordan as another obvious example, Vincent, too, noted that
blacks are often extremely well received by sports fans and sports writers. "In
baseball," he added, "a good example is the fan adulation Seattle Mariner hitter
Ken Griffey Jr. receives. But unlike Griffey, Sosa has less facility with the
English language, and therefore seems more 'ethnic' and conforms less to the
American ideal." He was referring to an analysis by Jack Haas, a sociologist at
McMaster University, who had described the home run race coverage as "a very
New York Times columnist Harvey Araton also considered Maris' standing vis- -vis
Ruth and Mantle - and the Griffey factor - in summarizing the issue. "Maris beat
Babe Ruth's 34-year record of 60 home runs in 1961, but the Ruth legend only
deepened its mythic footing because his spikes were firmly planted in the
American dream rags to home runs to riches," he wrote during the second week of
August. "Now at the far end of the 20th century, in a country with still-painful
racial wounds, we have a white man, a black man and a Hispanic man in this
contest of Men Chasing Maris. If Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa remain on pace, if
Ken Griffey Jr. can get hot again in the next couple of weeks, then _ September
will be a month to remember."
A few days later, the Miami Herald's Mike Phillips honed in, saying that
Griffey, "the American League's leader with 42 homers, has faded from the chase.
His homer Saturday was his first this month." Meanwhile, he observed, Sosa was
beginning to have fun:
Perhaps one reason Sosa is so at ease with the attention is that he was a late
arrival to the chase. McGwire and Griffey both got off to quick starts, and talk
of breaking the record was brimming for them by the end of April. Sosa has hit
33 of his homers since June 1.
'This is unchartered ground for Sammy,' says Cubs first baseman
Mark Grace. 'McGwire and Griffey have been through this before. McGwire had 58
home runs last season, Griffey 56. When they take their first step on the field
in spring training they are bombarded with it - "Are you going for Maris'
record?" This is the first time Sammy has gone through it.'
Nonetheless, while 1998 may have marked a first for Sosa as a major home run
hitter, that does not explain the continued lack of media attention in August
and early September. By then it was clear that he was well within range of
matching Maris. Noting the lack of web pages devoted to Sosa - unlike McGwire
and Griffey - the Chicago Sun-Times on Sept. 7 observed that despite his run at
the record, "Sosa appears to lack the following of his competitors, Mark McGwire
and Ken Griffey Jr." It would quickly become a common observation.
The Josh Gibson factor
Sammy Sosa and Roger Maris are not the only baseball players who have found
themselves waiting in the wings and wanting for attention. Because of the
slugging contest between McGwire and Sosa, September 1998 witnessed the
publication of a spate of articles about Josh Gibson, the "Babe Ruth of the
Negro Leagues" and probably the greatest home run hitter ever. The Chicago
Defender, the African-American daily, led the way, noting in an article teased
on page 1 that Sosa and McGwire might be fighting to see who would become No. 2
- not the all-time single-season home run king.
In 1936, playing in the Negro National League, Gibson reportedly walloped an
astounding 84 home runs. "While the Hall of Fame does acknowledge that Gibson
did hit those 84 homers in '36, it's not considered an official Major League
mark as are the rest of the records of the Negro Leagues," the Defender said.
Hall of Fame officials attribute the apparent discrepancy to a lack of official
scorekeepers in Negro Leagues games and the lack of newspaper coverage: White
papers ignored the Negro Leagues while the black press generally did not cover
The Chicago Sun-Times followed a few days later with a first-person column by
Mary A. Mitchell, who said she would like to know "who really is the home run
"Not to take anything away from Sosa or McGwire," Mitchell said, "but 64 is a
long way from the number of home runs Gibson is said to have hit in a single
season. Some say Gibson hit as many as 84 home runs; others put the number as
low as 69. Either way, Gibson had a tremendous gift that was disregarded because
of his color."
According to Todd Holcomb, writing for the Cox News Service, "the slugging
catcher hit 962 home runs in a 17-year Negro League career that spanned the
Depression and World War II. It is said that Gibson hit 75 homers as a
19-year-old for the Homestead Grays in 1931, and he struck his all-time high,
84, for the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1936."
"With black and white leagues firmly segregated," Norma Martin wrote a few days
later, "the nation's large daily newspapers - run by whites - ignored the Negro
Leagues. The black-run press, mostly weeklies, covered the black major-league
teams, but the papers were hampered by publishing delays and inconsistencies in
reporting the essential information: box scores. As a result, statistics for
black teams and their players are not irrefutable."
Gibson was 35 when he died in January, 1947, just a few months before Jackie
Robinson would become the first African American to play in major league
baseball. Gibson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, the second Negro
Leagues player - after the legendary Satchel Paige - so honored.
Statistics, Polls, and Speculation
After Griffey began to fade, some media critics contended that the major papers
ignored Sosa, much as Gibson and the Negro Leagues were ignored, because he was
vying with a white man. Toward the end of the 1998 season, stories placing Sosa
"in McGwire's shadow" had become almost routine. Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch recognized the general attitude toward Sosa and the home run race,
opening a Sept. 1 story by saying, "Whether America wants to believe it, whether
he wants to believe it, Dominican-born Sammy Sosa is playing a historic game of
home run derby with Mark McGwire - and he's tied for the lead."
That same article noted that Sosa had ripped 46 homers since May 25, during
which time McGwire batted 31. "Still, despite his remarkable run, Sosa trails
McGwire by a tape-measure distance when it comes to name recognition. A national
publication recently showed 73 percent of people polled are hoping McGwire
breaks Roger Maris' 1961 single-season record of 61 homers first. Only 16
percent are wanting Sosa gets there first, while one percent had no preference."
A national poll conducted later by the Washington Post indicated that 48 percent
of those surveyed after McGwire hit home run No. 62 were "rooting for him to
keep the single-season home-run title he snatched from Roger Maris this week,
compared with 18 percent who are cheering for Sosa, who is only three blasts
behind." The poll also found, however, that McGwire's fans included a
substantial number of African Americans. "But perhaps most intriguing is the way
fan loyalty breaks down: While 52 percent of whites support McGwire's bid - with
16 percent backing Sosa - 35 percent of blacks say they too are rooting for the
redhead, with 19 percent backing his newfound Latin friend."
"Perhaps we are seeing a sense of national identity coming out more than a sense
of racial identity," University of Memphis sports sociologist David L. Andrews
told the Post. "Why should we find it a surprise when African Americans find
some pride in their national culture?"
Nonetheless, Andrews said, prior media coverage of the home run race and its
combatants may have been reflected in the Post poll. "The popular media had
already positioned McGwire as the winner and positioned Sosa in the role of
almost a faithful underling," he said.
North of the border in Canada, roles were inexplicably reversed. The Toronto
Star conducted a poll in mid-September in which 465 readers responded to the
question: "Who do you hope will win the home run race: Sammy Sosa or Mark
McGwire?" A resounding 91 percent chose Sosa versus 9 percent for McGwire.
Meanwhile, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll conducted Sept. 14 and 15 - while both
men shared the home run record at 62 - found that of 1,082 Americans who were
asked the same question the Star posed, 38 percent chose McGwire, 23 percent
favored Sosa, and 36 percent said they'd be happy with a tie or either athlete
coming out on top. Three percent had no opinion.
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution was one of several publications that took
note of Henry Aaron's comments Sept. 17 on ESPN about a USA Today survey that
indicated 75 percent hoped McGwire would be the one to break the record. "It's
just absolutely ridiculous that you could have that lopsided an opinion about
who should break the record," Aaron said. "And I've seen little other things
that happened that make me believe that McGwire was the favorite rather than
Sosa. And I think the reason for that is because he's from the Dominican and
also happens to have black skin."
Typical of the home run coverage Aaron alluded to was a lengthy article
published in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sun-Sentinel on Sept. 4, after
McGwire hit his 59th home run. The article, which barely mentioned Sosa, was
headlined, "Momentous Nights; Fortunate Fans Share Limelight of Mark McGwire's
Historic March." The body of the story contained the then-dubious proclamation,
"Nobody debates that McGwire is the most amazing home run hitter since Babe
On Sept. 11, the Detroit News wrote about the "Mark McGwire fever gripping the
nation," adding "Sammy Sosa, who is chasing McGwire." On Sept. 15, another
Detroit News writer quoted Bishop Ezetrick Wilson, pastor of the New Mt. Moriah
Whole Truth Gospel of Faith: "Sosa hasn't been as promoted as McGwire," the
clergyman said. "I assure you, if Sosa comes out ahead, the language will be
All across the country, blacks, browns, and even some whites were making similar
predictions. McMaster University's Haas told the Toronto Star that the
fascination with McGwire in the United States stems from "the white,
all-American 'Paul Bunyan' image that McGwire represents. Sosa, a black
Dominican, is from a minority group, and when the contest is about the home run
- one of the ultimate athletic symbols of power - the McGwire-Sosa race carries
that much more meaning."
"White America was looking for a white sports hero and Mark McGwire was that
person," Richard Lapchick, director of the Centre for the Study of Sport in
Society at Northeastern University in Boston, told USA Today in mid-September.
A few weeks earlier, a day after Sosa ripped home runs 50 and 51 in a game
against the Houston Astros, a Chicago Tribune baseball writer named Phil Rogers
questioned whether his hometown star had been handed the home runs on a silver
platter by Astros' pitcher Jose Lima, another of the many Dominican Republic
players in the major leagues. Without a shred of evidence but with quite a bit
of apparent malice, Rogers speculated:
When Lima served up home runs No. 50 and 51 to Sosa, it brought to
light the split allegiance of the Houston Astros right-hander. More to the
point: With his team leading 13-2 in the eighth inning, did he groove the 1-0
fastball that Sosa lifted into the breeze for the cheapest of home runs? _ As
McGwire and Sosa move closer to Maris, it is a given that some Dominican
find themselves facing both of the sluggers. Will they be more careful pitching
to McGwire than Sosa?
NewsWatch Project, a Web site emanating from San Francisco State University,
described Rogers' comments as sickening:
If that passage made you want to vomit, you're not alone. . . . Did Rogers ask
whether white pitchers pitch tougher to Sosa because they'd rather see a white
man break the record? Rogers' sole evidence for questioning Sosa's two home runs
off Lima was based entirely on the players' ethnicity.
At the very least, Rogers is guilty of irresponsible journalism for posing a
question that is based on a racist premise.
Perhaps because so much of the earlier coverage was slanted toward McGwire, by
late September the tide began to turn. At the end of the month, Sosa was even
featured in a short but very favorable People Weekly biography titled "Sam I
am." In informal Internet surveys on CNN and ESPN Web sites, Sosa topped McGwire
by anywhere from six to 10 percent when the question was posed: "Who do you want
to see win the home run race?" And in a sports column in the Dallas Morning
News, Blackie Sherrod confided, "Hunch here is if you conducted a secret poll of
every major league pressbox in the land, Sosa would be the popular choice over
Mark McGwire." Sherrod, one of several sports writers who scoffed at the notion
that mainstream reporters had injected race into their coverage by
subconsciously cheering for McGwire, failed to say why his press box poll would
have to be conducted in secret.
The Big 62
On Sept. 8, McGwire slammed home run No. 62 and broke Maris' record. Five days
later, Sosa did the same thing. Coverage of the McGwire home run was deafening -
as it should have been. The home run statistic is, after all, the most hallowed
of American sports records. The Cardinals were playing the Cubs that day, and
Sosa joined in the celebration. The magnificent image of McGwire and Sosa
wrapped in a giddy hug made front pages nationwide. In comparison, the coverage
five days later was almost routine and mute. A Chicago Tribune article reprinted
around the country summarized that event:
Everybody's playing catch-up ball when it comes to recognizing
Sosa's achievements. When he blasted his 61st and 62nd home runs Sunday against
Milwaukee, the message seemed to be that McGwire makes history and Sosa is
history, or at most, a mere footnote_.
When McGwire was preparing to pass Maris, baseball officials took
over media arrangements, issuing more than 700 credentials for the
Cubs-Cardinals game when McGwire hit his 62nd. When Sosa hit his, there were
perhaps 50 media members in the press box.
Those 700 credentialed reporters present when McGwire swatted his record-breaker
assured that the coverage would be total. Local reporters, not privileged enough
to have been included among the 700, picked up on the celebration. Regular
television programming was interrupted from coast to coast for the party.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and the children of the late Roger Maris were on
hand as a McGwire mural was unfurled in center field. That same evening,
President Bill Clinton was on the phone with McGwire, praising the slugger for
his achievement. McGwire was presented with baseball's Historic Achievement
Award. Even the baseballs he had been pitched had been specially coded so the
record ball could be authenticated.
On Sept. 13, Cubs and Cub fans staged a wild 10-minute celebration, but neither
the Marises nor Selig were on hand, although both telephoned congratulatory
calls after the game. The lack of official fanfare prompted Chicago Sun-Times
columnist Dave Van Dyck to ask if the silence was evidence of neglect on the
part of Selig's office, and, if so, was Sosa's ethnicity a factor? The Cubs had
already planned an official party to honor Sosa at Wrigley Field - but not until
a week later. President Clinton didn't call until the following day.
"The way it happened to Sosa was quite different from the way it happened to
McGwire, whose record-breaking blast on Sept. 8 was a continent-wide spectacle,"
Maclean's noticed. "By contrast, the Cubs game on Sept. 13 was not carried on
national TV, nor was Chicago's venerable Wrigley field packed with dignitaries."
The Detroit News reported on Sept. 15 that "bruised feelings have surfaced in
Chicago - and elsewhere - because of the fuss made last week when Mark McGwire
hit his 62nd home run of the season, and the comparative lack of attention Sosa
received Sunday when he hit his 61st and 62nd home runs to surpass Roger Maris'
old record and tie McGwire for the major-league lead."
Denver Post columnist David Ronquillo opined that "baseball and the national
sports media were caught with their equality pants down."
It was curious to notice that no sooner had Sosa pulled even with Mark McGwire
in the home-run race that sportswriters, columnists and commentators were
deflecting charges of racism in the treatment of the two achievements. Curious,
because the denials were flying even before any accusations were made. Perhaps
because the incident was so glaring.
San Francisco State's NewsWatch Project illustrated day-after coverage of both
62nd home runs by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the San
Francisco Chronicle by measuring the number of column inches the three papers
devoted to the stories. The New York Times gave the McGwire feat 75 column
inches, compared with about 40 to Sosa's. The Los Angeles Times was more
balanced, giving McGwire just over 50 inches and Sosa about 45. The Chronicle
showed the greatest disparity. It invested more than 250 column inches in
McGwire's home run, while Sosa's received less than 25.
NewsWatch Project also interviewed a sports reporter for the San Francisco
Chronicle, the sports editor of the Delaware News Journal, and an executive
producer of MSNBC Interactive and former sports writer, about the coverage. The
Chronicle's Tony Hayes said his paper did not have reporters in Chicago when
Sosa hit his 62nd home run. "Yes, there has been talk in the newsroom about the
disparate treatment of McGwire and Sosa," Hayes said. "But the real steam to
this story was the race to 62. After McGwire got there first, it would have been
overkill to repeat the story and give it the same treatment."
Richard Luna of the Delaware News Journal said he noticed "some disparity in the
news coverage. My paper deserves some lashes for it. Both of the stories
deserved to be treated equally or as close to it as possible.
"But there is something to be said for who got there first," he added. "Yet the
two stories were obviously handled differently. My paper is small. We have only
one baseball reporter and no columnist, but still we had a reporter at the St.
Louis game when McGwire hit number 62."
On the other hand, MSNBC's John Garcia said he has been "very encouraged by how
McGwire and Sosa have been covered. You can't just look at the number of inches
in these stories. You have to look at the quality. And in general, the balance
of the language has been fair. I cannot recall seeing anything racially
insensitive out there, unless you count that column in the Chicago Tribune and
that wasn't news, it was opinion - people are entitled to their stupidity - but
that story wasn't part of a trend."
Garcia is not alone in his views. Hayes, for example, said, "McGwire was leading
the race the whole time and that's why he got more coverage." And the Chicago
Tribune's Morrissey called Sosa "a victim of bad timing, bad luck and bad
planning_. It was clear from the coverage that the record was the thing, not the
number. Once McGwire broke Maris' mark, coverage dipped." Chicago Sun-Times
columnist Ron Rapoport noted that the Boston Globe was treated to charges of
racism the day after Sosa's 62nd home run because it didn't treat the event like
it did McGwire's. "But the truth is not so simple," he said. "McGwire got to 62
the way Neil Armstrong got to the moon first, Charles Lindbergh got to Paris
first and Edmund Hillary got to the top of Mt. Everest first."
Other columnists who may share similar views were not as gracious. John Leo of
U.S. News & World Report, for example, is apparently unaware that racism is not
a creature of political philosophy or bound to it: "A few hard-left columnists
seemed sorely disappointed that Sosa said, 'What a great country, America,'
instead of 'America is chock-full of racist oppressors,'" Leo wrote in an Oct.
As the 1998 season drew to a close, sports writers were already busy reexamining
their coverage of the unprecedented events that had transpired over the course
of the previous five months. This self-examination was fueled in part by
complaints from readers. The word on the street, particularly in African
American circles, was that coverage in the press, including television and
radio, had not been fair to Sammy Sosa. The press' self-criticism, then, focused
on how its reportage could have been more objective and less biased.
Two articles that appeared Oct. 4 were especially revealing and instructive.
Citing a Washington Post story that found McGwire more marketable than Sosa at a
time they were tied with 65 home runs each, Knight-Ridder columnist Leonard
Pitts asked the seminal question: "Why do we love Mark better than we love
Sammy?" The answer, he and other observers agreed, was that McGwire fits an
"all-American image," while Sosa does not.
Meaning that McGwire is a white guy of Irish ancestry and Sosa a
brown man from the Dominican Republic. He's not 'all-American' in ways that
have nothing to do with immigration status - could never be 'all-Amer-ican,'
even if he'd been born in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July. In 1776. As one
expert put it, 'It's na ve to say, "Gee, this has nothing to do with race."'
Lorrie Goldstein, writing for the Toronto Sun, said, "When given a choice
between a white 'hero' and a black one, whites almost always choose whites."
Steroids? So what?
Goldstein was one of several writers who took note of McGwire's use of the
over-the-counter hormone booster Androstenedione, a steroid that is legal in
major league baseball, but not in the National Football League, the Olympics,
the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and men's tennis. McGwire, she
said, "constantly attracted (outside Chicago) a disproportionate amount of
publicity, fan adulation and media hype, even though only Sosa was untainted by
Earlier, the Washington Post quoted Richard Lapchick, director of the
Boston-based Center for the Study of Sport in Society, who said, "I do think if
Sammy Sosa was the one who had been discovered to use the
[testosterone-producing pill Androstenedione], there might have been a different
reaction. . . . White America is so desperate for a white sports hero that no
one was going to let what Mark McGwire is doing be diminished. And I don't think
it should be. But if it was Sammy Sosa?"
Some writers tried to downplay questions raised by McGwire's use of the
questionable steroid - at least during his most magic moment. The Fort
Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel's Michael Mayo wrote on Sept. 4, "This isn't the time or
place to start asking about Androstenedione, the over-the-counter 'dietary
supplement' that McGwire has been taking for more than a year_. But there should
be more debate about what he's doing, if these pills are the little extra
helpers he needs to get over the edge of history. The baseball apologists seem
too eager to excuse him, and everybody seems too caught up in the excitement to
question him_. And wouldn't it be interesting, just for comparison's sake, to
see how he did without the stuff?"
The Chicago Defender
In the two hometown cities, the Chicago Defender was the only black paper that
closely followed the home run derby all summer. The Defender begins its sports
coverage on the back page, usually page 28, jumping inside from there. The
newspaper welcomed July with inside stories about Sosa and Griffey. The Sosa
article, by sports editor Larry Gross, began:
He was baseball's brightest star in June. Now, Sammy Sosa will wait to see if he
will shine at the All-Star Game next week.
Despite a torrid first-half pace which had him with 32 homers going into
Tuesday night's game at Wrigley Field against the expansion Arizona
Diamondbacks, Sosa finished just sixth in fan voting for starters at the
all-star game, set for Tuesday at Coors Field in Denver.
The UPI story about Griffey noted that he, too, had 32 home runs as the all-star
game approached, but was first in overall fan balloting for the game for the
fourth time in his career. "Ken Griffey Jr. may not want any part of the home
run hitting contest, but fans still overwhelmingly want the Seattle Mariner to
play in next week's All-Star Game in Colorado."
The following day, a photo of Sosa in full swing accompanied stories about his
selection to the National League All Star team and highlights of the
Chicago-Arizona game. The caption read, "Although he didn't hit another homer,
Sammy Sosa had a pair of key hits in the Cubs 6-4 victory over the Arizona
Diamondbacks Wednesday at Wrigley Field." Two days later, an inside story was
headlined, "Sosa named NL Player of Month." And, on July 8, an inside story
noted, "AL honors Griffey, [New York Yankees pitcher David] Cone."
Two weeks later, the Defender reported that the Cubs had returned to Wrigley
Field. The article was accompanied by a photo of the local star in action with
the caption, "Sammy Sosa will be looking to continue his homer barrage when the
Cubs return home tonight to face the Montreal Expos." Five days later, a story
about a Cubs win over the New York Mets was accompanied by a photo of Sosa at
bat, captioned, "Sammy Sosa blasted his 38th homer as the Cubs defeated the Mets
3-1 Sunday at Wrigley Field." A July 28 UPI article, "Griffey, McGwire both on
mark for HR record," downplayed Sosa's chances of tying Maris. A photo of
Griffey ran alongside the text:
A Cleveland physicist has computed odds showing that Mark McGuire [sic] of the
St. Louis Cardinals almost certainly will break the all-time home run record.
Dr. Robert Brown, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, predicts
McGuire has a 97 percent chance of hitting 62 or more homers. . . . And he says
Ken Griffey of the Seattle Mariners has a 75 percent chance of hitting 62 or
more. But either Griffey or McGuire will almost certainly do it, and odds are 99
percent at least one will, Brown predicts. McGuire has 43 homers, and Griffey
40. Sammy Sosa has 38 homers, but Brown's computer puts his chances of hitting
62 at only 50 percent because of various factors built into his computer model.
These include how well each has done against teams they're yet to face, pitchers
they're likely to see again, each player's propensity for injuries, illness and
Home run coverage for the month concluded with a photo of Sosa hitting a home
run. The caption was headlined, "Hot as Arizona heat," and read, "Cubs
outfielder Sammy Sosa gives it all he's got at the plate and on the playing
field. Sosa became the first Cub player to hit grand slams in consecutive games
after homering in the Tuesday game against Arizona."
The Defender's August coverage began with a photo of Sosa swinging and missing
in a game the Cubs lost to the Colorado Rockies. On Aug. 9, a story about the
hometown boy's rival was teased on page 1, "McGwire swings for homerun history."
On Aug. 10, the paper ran a photo of Sosa watching McGwire during batting
practice. Two days later, another photo of Sosa was captioned, "Cubs slugger
Sammy Sosa continues to be the talk of baseball with his homer barrage. Sosa's
two homers Monday night tied him for the major league lead with 46." On Aug. 14,
a photo of Griffey ran inside. "Junior in town. Ken Griffey Jr. will continue
his chase of Roger Maris' home run record when the Seattle Mariners come to
Comiskey Park this weekend to play the White Sox." On Aug. 17, another story
written by Gross, "Cubs outlast Astros," was accompanied by a photo of Sosa
besieged by reporters and fans. However, Sosa wasn't mentioned in the article
until the eighth paragraph: "Meanwhile, Sammy Sosa tied Mark McGwire for the
major league lead in homers when he slammed his 47th round-tripper of the season
in the fourth inning to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead off Astro starter Sean
The next day, a preview story headlined "Sluggers collide at Wrigley" featured
photos of McGwire and Sosa and told why the two men were so important: "It is
Sosa and McGwire who have renewed interest in the game of baseball this season
with their long ball exploits. Tied with 47 homers apiece to lead the major
leagues, the two have fans wondering if they can indeed break baseball's most
treasured mark." The game coverage two days later was headlined "Big Mac
attacks. McGwire out homers Sosa, 2-1 as Cards top Cubs." It, too, featured
photos of the two men, Sosa hitting his 48th home run and a column-width mug
shot of a smiling McGwire. The story began:
Like two gunfighters in the Old West, Sammy Sosa of the Cubs and Mark McGwire
of the St. Louis Cardinals went at each other Wednesday afternoon with their
homerun bats blazing. When the smoke had finally cleared at Wrigley Field,
however, it was
McGwire who had the most bullets in his gun, drilling two homers to one by Sosa
as the Cards pulled out a thrilling 8-6 victory over the Cubs in 10 innings.
Two Aug. 24 stories were headlined, "McGwire blasts 53rd in Cardinal loss to
Pirates," which ran inside, and "Slammin' Sammy Sosa blasts 50th, 51st homers in
Cub loss," on the back page. Both articles featured photos of the two men
hitting home runs. On Aug. 27, the lead sports story was about Sosa's 52nd home
run, and on Aug. 31, an account of his 54th was teased with a page 1 photo of
September opened with stories and photos of Sosa, who by then had 55 home runs.
On Sept. 2, a story titled "No pressure for Sosa" was accompanied by the two
home run kings standing on a field in uniform chatting. The caption read, "He
may be a few inches shorter in height, but Sammy Sosa (right) stands eye to eye
with Mark McGwire in the race to break Roger Maris' record of 61 homers in a
season." Sept. 3rd's story, "Sammy Hacks 56th. Sosa ties Hack Wilson's team
record as Cubs defeat Reds," was accompanied by a now familiar depiction of Sosa
blasting a home run. But two days later, a story announced, "Cards' McGwire
nearing homer record."
On September 8, the Defender teased its home run coverage on page 1: "McGwire
ties homerun mark." The big headline on the back page announced, "McGwire blasts
61st," with a subhead that read, "Ties Maris' record as Cards defeat Cubs." The
article was accompanied by a photo of McGwire hitting the home run and a mug
shot of "Slammin' Sammy Sosa," who then had 58 home runs. The next day featured
a wire story about the potential $1 million price tag on McGwire's 62nd home run
baseball - even before he hit it. Sosa was not mentioned in the 25-paragraph
article. An accompanying photo was captioned, ""St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark
McGwire is the talk of the sports world with his record-breaking homers."
On Sept. 9, McGwire made history by blasting home run No. 62. The next day, the
Defender ran two wire stories accompanied by a 1+-column portrait of the new
record holder. It also ran a staff story about the Cubs' game, along with a
four-column photo of a Sosa billboard: "Mark McGwire might have stolen the show
Tuesday night in St. Louis with his recording-breaking 62nd homer, but here,
Sammy Sosa is still 'The man' as this giant billboard on the Edens Expressway
When Sosa passed Maris, the Defender teased the story with a front-page photo
titled "Sosa fever" and captioned "Sammy slams 61st, 62nd homer." The back page
story was headlined "Sizzling Sammy" and was accompanied by a photo of Sosa at
work. The lead story the next day was titled, "A whole new ball game. McGwire,
Sosa balls to be specially coded." A photo of Sosa just after he hit home run
No. 62 accompanied the article.
The only baseball story on Sept. 16 concerned Griffey's 52nd home run. Most of
the remaining coverage for the month focused on Sosa and the Cubs, as the team
fought for a playoff berth. A UPI story on Sept. 28 was about McGwire being
named Player of the Week by the National League:
Record setting slugger Mark McGwire ended the greatest single home
run-hitting campaign in major league baseball history Monday by being named
National League Player of the Week for the period ending Sept. 27. His heroics
in the last week helped the Cardinals finish with a 19-7 mark in the month of
September. McGwire, who went on one of his patented binges over the weekend and
hit two homers each in games Saturday and Sunday against the Montreal
Expos, finished the season with a total of 70. He is four ahead of Sammy Sosa
of the Cubs.
Besides the daily Defender, Chicago has three black weeklies, the Crusader, the
Tri-City Journal, and the Westside Journal. None covered the home run race. St.
Louis also has three black weeklies. The St. Louis American news editor, Alvin
A. Reid, devoted his Aug. 13-19 column to the race, "Mark Is Miserable, Sammy Is
Smiling." The following week, Reid's column was headlined, "Hot Home Run Chase
Heads To Stretch Run." Reid penned two front-page articles when McGwire slammed
No. 62. They were accompanied by a color photo of McGwire above the fold as he
hit the historic home run. Another page one photo showed the two ball players
standing together. The following week, Reid's column focused on Sosa: "I have to
admit I sold Sammy Sosa short. Maybe I was so caught up in history that I did
not realize that the Chicago Cubs slugger could erase Mark McGwire's lead in the
home run race."
When McGwire established the new record, the American seemed downright ecstatic.
A front page story and two color photos were headlined, "70! A Mark For The
Ages." In the same issue, Reid also devoted his regular sports column to McGwire
and the home run race.
The St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl, another black weekly that generally focuses
on crime coverage, teased a page-two story on its front page when the players
were tied with 62 home runs: "Sosa's 9th Inning Blast Ties McGwire At 62." The
Associated Press story was accompanied by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo of
Sosa and McGwire kidding around before a game. A week later, the paper ran a
brief end-of-season roundup with a photo of McGwire shortly after he hit his
68th home run.
The St. Louis Metro Sentinel used half of its front page on Sept. 10 to report
on "Sweet No. 62," primarily three color photos of McGwire blasting his
record-breaking home run. The photo caption, "Going, Going, Gone!" noted that
"Big Mac not only tied the single season record for home runs, but the next day
(Tuesday), he broke it by hitting Number 62. . . . Now McGwire enters into the
record books with the likes of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris for reaching baseball
immortality." The Sentinel's sports page ran five additional photos of home runs
61 and 62. The captions did not mention Sosa.
On Oct. 1, the Sentinel ran another photo of McGwire slugging a home run on its
front page. Inside, a columnist asked, "Who do you think made the most money off
Mark McGwire, other than McGwire?" The answer was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The column, accompanied by three photos of McGwire and fans, continued:
Not only did McGwire break major league baseball records, but he
literally brought the races together. Sociologists say that team sports are
more binding when it comes to race relations, than any other social gathering or
efforts_. During the course of his record breaking home run streak, he had
everybody in town, talking about his home runs. Both Blacks and whites flocked
to the stadium, in order to see the man that had captured everyone's attention.
In that same issue, the Sentinel devoted the top half of its sports page to
McGwire. Three photos of the ballplayer and one of fans accompanied a story
headlined, "I Can't Believe I Did It."
With rare exception, coverage of the 1998 home run race and its two major
participants was positive in both the mainstream press and in black newspapers.
However, a major void surfaced early on in the mainstream press - McGwire
received significantly more coverage than Sosa, and not just in St. Louis, his
team's hometown, but all across the country.
In August, once this negligence was pointed out, many mainstream newspapers
began going out of their way to report Sosa's exploits as well as McGwire's.
Many sports writers confessed that they had slighted Sosa. By early September,
articles abounded that either acknowledged a negligence vis- -vis Sosa or denied
its existence. Regardless of which was correct, toward the end of the season the
coverage became more balanced. The press, commendably, seemed to learn from its
mistakes and correct itself. The articles about Josh Gibson's almost superhuman
home run accomplishments in the old Negro Leagues lend support to this
As the season progressed, it also became clear that the home run race was
between McGwire and Sosa, not McGwire and Griffey. That McGwire was an
established home run hitter long before 1998 and was therefore the front-runner
is a valid argument. Sosa was logically cast in a catch-up position. Except for
one 45-minute period, he never led McGwire.
Unfortunately, equally as valid is the contention that Sosa does not fit an
all-American profile, and therefore had to wage an uphill battle for recognition
and respect. But, while this is disturbing, the reason is not entirely one of
race. Sosa's Dominican ethnicity may be even more significant. The positive
coverage Griffey received and his solid support among fans supports this
conclusion. Nonetheless, as soon as it became apparent that Sosa's performance
constituted a serious threat to Maris' record, he deserved coverage that was
often withheld. The inescapable conclusion is that the press did not treat him
fairly during the first two-thirds of the season.
Writing in the Houston Chronicle in late September, psychoanalyst and sports
psychologist Tom Ferraro observed that "Sammy Sosa finally made it to the cover
of America's leading sports magazine," then asked, "but why did it take 63 home
runs to get there?"
It's dawning on many major sportswriters what the American people
have known for a month - that both the reaction to and the coverage of Sammy
Sosa's achievements during the 1998 home run race have been largely racist. He
is not the media darling with a Paul Bunyanesque persona that Mark McGwire is.
Sosa is a dark-skinned Hispanic from the Dominican Republic and as such is
stigmatized due to color and nationality. His features and even
his cutoff T-shirt are not easily digestible by American TV.
When we read that Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, doesn't
bother to show up during Sosa's record-breaking game, or that TV executives
make no effort to adjust their schedule as they did when McGwire neared Babe
Ruth's former record, this says something to our American conscience. The
enormous coverage given to McGwire and the relative neglect of Sammy Sosa are
not explained by suggesting that McGwire topped roger Maris' record first.
The reason Sosa has been ignored and McGwire has been adored is largely because
McGwire is Caucasian. To suggest otherwise is merely to rationalize away the
obvious. Racism is an ugly word that explains why most people are in denial on
the treatment of Sosa.
Perhaps the final mea culpa of the mainstream press came in November when the
Baseball Writers Association of America chose Sosa as the National League's Most
Valuable Player. Sosa received 30 of 32 first-place votes, which are cast by two
writers from each NL city. McGwire received the remaining two.
The often sparse coverage in the black press in St. Louis and Chicago seemed
oblivious to race and tended to be slanted toward the hometown favorite. This
was to be expected and is easily justifiable. But the Chicago Defender, the St.
Louis American, and the St. Louis Metro Sentinel - like some of their mainstream
counterparts - deserve special credit for weaving a striking balance of
objectivity. These three black papers virtually ignored the racial makeup of the
players and focused instead on the profound achievements of McGwire, Sosa, and
Griffey. In the end, they are to be commended. To their discredit, however, the
black newspapers included in this study made no mention of the biased coverage
the home run race received in the first two-thirds of the season. That stated,
one wonders what has become of the traditional raison d' tre of the black press,
stated so eloquently by the editors of Freedom's Journal, the first black
newspaper, way back in 1827: "We wish to plead our own cause."