2022 Wallet Cards: The PED Home Run Chase

Last year’s wallet cards focused on the poster-boy of the PED era: Jose Canseco. For 2022 I’m shifting slightly further into the period with a focus on the chases for the single season home run record. Roger Maris battled Mickey Mantle into the final days of the 1961 season to eclipse Babe Ruth with 61 HRs. 1998 began with a similar contest between Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr. The latter fell behind as the season wore on, but Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa came out of nowhere to create one of the most famous duels in baseball history. Both would break Maris’ mark with McGwire claiming the new title with 70 at the end of the season.

Whispers, if not shouts, about abnormal strength gains were present throughout the season and only grew louder when a writer noted the pharmaceutical contents of McGwire’s locker. The sport seemed content to sweep underlying issues under the rug and enjoy the resurgent popularity of the game. San Francisco Giants left fielder Barry Bonds had played clean until this point and felt the attention given to suspicious players was unwarranted. With baseball uninterested in stopping PED usage, he embarked on a chemically enhanced workout binge. Three years later he obliterated McGwire’s single season record by hitting 73 HRs in 36 fewer at bats.

1985 Topps Mark McGwire #401

The first card in this year’s wallet card trio is Mark McGwire’s 1985 rookie card. He is portrayed with the US Olympic Team but had already been drafted by the Oakland A’s prior to this card’s release. For a decade hobby guides denoted it with “XRC” – indicating the card wasn’t considered a true rookie. That honor fell to McGwire’s 1987 issues, but by the end of the 1998 home run chase this ’85 Topps is what collectors meant when they asked for a Big Mac rookie card. It became so popular that counterfeits became a real problem.

There’s a Marlboro billboard in the background! Just a few years later card manufacturers would routinely edit these out of photographs.

1990 Leaf Sammy Sosa #220

Sosa seemingly came out of nowhere in 1998 to challenge for the home run title. He wasn’t considered a power hitter until he knocked a record 20 HRs inside a single month in 1998. Early signs of power had been present since 1993 with annual HR totals of 30-40 preceding his 1998 barrage. Nothing exemplifies this better than his 1990 Leaf rookie card that shows a guy who averaged 60 HRs per year for 4 years bunting. Leaf was a hot commodity in 1990 and this was one of the late bloomers in the set’s ample rookie crop. The card would eventually rival the ever-popular Frank Thomas card as the most popular in the set.

Check out Sosa’s 175-pound weight on the back. By 2002 his cards listed him as being at least 50 pounds heavier.

1987 Fleer Barry Bonds #604

Nothing says Barry Bonds like the look he is giving the photographer of this card. Nothing says 1980s Pirates like the cap he is wearing. Fleer made my favorite set of 1987’s offerings, a year in which each of the major manufacturers put forward good efforts. When collecting in the 1990s I fell into the camp that preferred rookie cards from mainstream sets rather than traded/update editions, making this card my ideal of Bonds’ rookie card.

Note on the back that Bonds struck out 102 times with Pittsburgh in 1986. That would be the only time in his career in which he swung so freely.

Mark McGwire would claim years later that he could have broken Maris’ record without using steroids. There is no sane person who believes him on this claim. Bonds, however, may have had a chance to do so. He had 37 home runs after 112 games when the 1994-95 players’ strike began. Simply extrapolating this to 162 games gives Bonds 54 HRs if he had a full season to chase the record. Topps underwrote a simulation of the remaining 1994 games the following year and included additional variables such the teams that would be faced. The results were published in Topps’ 1995 Cyber Stats set. Bonds appears as card #64 with a projected 61 home runs for the season. He actually had a chance to do it clean.