At the Plate with...Marc McGwire


By Matt Christopher

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At the start of the 1998 major league baseball season, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire hit a home run. In the games that followed, he did it again. And again. And again. And again. By the end of the season, in late September, he had done the hardest thing in baseball an earth-shattering seventy times. He didn’t just break the decades-old single-season home-run record set by Roger Maris in 1961-he shattered it. And by doing so, he not only set a new benchmark for players to strive for, but also reminded people that baseball is fun, a game to be enjoyed, with heroes who play for the love of the sport, not for the love of money. In this powerful biography of the most talked-about man in baseball, Matt Christopher, the number one sports series for kids, explores the slugger’s childhood days on the diamond as well as the ups and downs of his college and professional career. For more information on the Matt Christopher Sports Bio Bookshelf, please see the last pages of this book.



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Matt Christopher® is a registered trademark of Catherine M. Christopher.

First eBook Edition: December 2009

ISBN: 978-0-316-09370-5

Chapter One:

Learning the Game

During the final months of the 1998 baseball season, Mark McGwire pursued the major league record for most home runs in a season. The same scene took place again and again. Each time he approached the plate, fans stood and cheered.

As Mark dug in to await the pitch, slowly swinging his bat and pointing it toward the pitcher, the cheering grew louder. When the pitcher released the ball, flashbulbs from hundreds of cameras went off all at once as everyone tried to capture one of McGwire's distinctive home-run swings.

Yet despite such distractions, Mark McGwire appeared to be the calmest person in the ballpark. While everyone else wondered whether he would set a new record, McGwire remained focused on the task at hand. All he wanted to do was hit the ball hard.

Nothing else mattered. That may have been what allowed him to achieve what many thought to be impossible.

Hitting a baseball is considered one of the most difficult things to do in sports. To connect with a rapidly spinning ball traveling nearly one hundred miles per hour requires amazing coordination and concentration. Of all the people who have ever tried to hit a baseball, only a few thousand have learned to do so well enough to play in the major leagues.

Hitting a home run is even more difficult. Most major leaguers hit only a few home runs each season. Some come to the plate hundreds of times between home runs.

In order to hit a home run, a batter must do more than just hit the ball — he must hit it perfectly. He must swing the bat fast and at a precise angle, so that the ball makes contact at a very specific place on the bat barrel. If the batter swings a quarter of an inch too low or high, the ball may either pop weakly into the air or dribble slowly along the ground. If he swings too late or too early, the ball goes foul.

A great home-run hitter makes this difficult act appear effortless. When the bat strikes the ball perfectly, a distinctive crack! echoes through the ballpark and announces that the hitter has done everything right. The ball takes off as if shot from a gun. Fans can't help but cheer.

George Herman "Babe" Ruth, of the New York Yankees, was baseball's first great home-run hitter. When he retired, in 1935, he held the records for most home runs in a single season, with 60 in 1927, and in a career, with 714.

Ruth's single-season record remained intact until 1961, when the Yankees' Roger Maris hit 61 home runs. In 1974 Hank Aaron became the most prolific home-run hitter of all time when he broke Ruth's career mark, eventually smacking a total of 755 home runs before he retired.

Maris's single-season home-run record became one of baseball's most treasured marks. As the 1998 season began, no one had come close to breaking it. Some people thought the record would never be broken.

Then came Mark McGwire. During the 1998 season he accomplished the impossible. He didn't just break Maris's record, he shattered it, blasting a remarkable 70 home runs and giving baseball fans a season to remember. No one else has ever made hitting a home run seem as effortless as Mark McGwire does.

But even for Mark McGwire, hitting home runs really isn't easy. As he chased the record, McGwire asked reporters over and over, "Do you know how hard it is to hit a home run? Do you have any idea?" They didn't, because Mark McGwire made it look so effortless.

In fact, playing the game of baseball didn't come easy for Mark McGwire. He quit playing once and nearly quit again on several other occasions. He began his career as a pitcher and got a late start as a hitter. He had to overcome several career-threatening injuries and a massive slump that led him to question his own ability.

Yet Mark McGwire was able to persevere because he discovered there was more to life than playing baseball and hitting home runs. He also realized that in order to get the most out of his ability and reach his full potential as a baseball player, he had to learn to believe in himself.

John and Ginger McGwire welcomed their son Mark into the world on October 1, 1963, in Pomona, California. Ironically, on that very day two years earlier, Roger Maris had smacked his record-setting 61st home run.

When Mark's father, John, was growing up, he dreamed of playing in the major leagues or being some other kind of athlete. John's stepfather was a professional boxer. But then one day in 1944, when John was only seven years old, he walked into his house and suddenly collapsed.

His stepfather picked him up and rushed him to the hospital. Doctors discovered that he had polio, a dangerous and contagious viral disease that attacks the nerves. Although the disease is rare today, it was very common before a vaccine was created, in 1954.

Young John was quarantined in a hospital with other polio patients. His family wasn't allowed to visit him for six months. Yet every day they went to the hospital and stood outside so John could wave to them through the window of his room.

When he was finally allowed to go home, the once-healthy boy was crippled. The disease left one leg withered and noticeably shorter than the other. He could walk, but he limped badly.

But John McGwire didn't feel sorry for himself. He grew big and exercised his leg to make it strong. Although he couldn't run well, he discovered that he could still be an athlete. In college, he became a boxer. Later, he took up bicycling and cycled on trips of several hundred miles. He also golfed and played softball. He learned that he could accomplish almost anything if he tried hard enough.

John eventually became a dentist and married a young woman named Ginger, who had been a champion swimmer in high school. The young couple settled in a small house in Pomona, California, and started a family.

They had five sons. They were all strong and athletic, just like their parents. Playing sports was an important part of growing up in the McGwire family. Mark's brother Dan became a quarterback in professional football.

The five boys competed at everything. The family lived at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, so the boys often used the street as an impromptu athletic field, playing basketball, tennis, and even football on the asphalt.

Golf was the first organized sport Mark played. His father showed him how to hold the clubs and took Mark and his brothers to the local driving range and neighboring courses. Mark loved hitting the ball and watching it soar high and far away.

When he was eight years old, Mark started playing baseball in a developmental league. The league was designed to teach young children the fundamentals of the game, like throwing, catching, and swinging the bat. Winning and losing weren't very important.

Mark liked playing baseball. He was bigger than most of the other kids. He discovered that he could throw the ball fast and hit the ball far, which were the most fun of all.

Two years later, when Mark was ten, he began playing Little League baseball. The first time Mark came to bat in Little League, he saw a pitch he liked, closed his eyes, and swung as hard as he could.

Crack! The bat hitting the ball made a satisfying sound. Mark quickly opened his eyes, surprised that he'd made contact.

He looked for the ball, but all he saw was the outfielder for the other team standing with his back to the field. The ball had sailed over the fence. With his first swing in Little League, Mark had hit a home run! As Mark's mom remembered later, "I guess that set the tone for him."

Yet Mark soon learned that baseball wasn't always so easy. Because he threw harder than most other kids, Mark played shortstop and pitched. But he didn't always know where the ball was going.

One day while pitching in Little League, Mark just couldn't throw a strike. No matter how hard he tried, he just kept throwing balls. Hitter after hitter walked to first base.

Mark became so frustrated that he began to cry. His father, who was coaching the team, finally felt sorry for him and had Mark switch positions with the shortstop. As Mark tried to sniff away his tears, he noticed that home plate looked fuzzy. After the game, he told his father he was having trouble seeing.

Mark's dad took him to an eye doctor. He examined Mark's eyes and discovered that he needed glasses. Mark noticed an immediate improvement in his play when he wore the glasses.

Today, Mark still needs glasses, although he usually wears contact lenses during games. When you see Mark standing in the batter's box, looking at the pitcher and blinking, he's trying to clear his contact lenses.

As Mark grew older, people started telling his parents that he might have a chance to play professional baseball. Although that made Mr, and Mrs. McGwire feel proud of their son, they never made a big deal out of it. They didn't want Mark to feel as if he had to play baseball. They just wanted him to have fun.

Although Mark liked playing baseball, it wasn't his favorite sport. He loved playing golf even more. He hardly paid attention to major league baseball, but he followed professional golf closely.

When Mark reached high school at Damien High in Claremont, California, he was already more than six feet tall and weighed two hundred pounds. Everyone expected him to be a star on the baseball team.

But Damien was a large school, and it was difficult for young players to make the team. As a sophomore, Mark was still on the junior varsity team. He wasn't playing much and wasn't very excited about baseball.

Then Mark pulled a chest muscle. He also got sick with mononucleosis, a common viral disease that causes weariness, among other symptoms. While he recuperated, he wasn't allowed to take batting practice. Since baseball season would be almost over by the time he recovered, Mark decided to quit the baseball team and join the golf team instead.


On Sale
Dec 19, 2009
Page Count
128 pages

Matt Christopher

About the Author

Matt Christopher is the best-selling name behind more than 100 sports-themed books for young readers.

Learn more about this author