The 1998 baseball season might be remembered for the historic home run chase by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, but on the South Side of Chicago, there was another special season that has long been overlooked.
And unlike McGwire and Sosa, the man responsible for it says he wasn’t fueled by PEDs.
“It was probably one of the greatest second halves in the history of baseball without an asterisk next to it,” Albert Belle said of his 1998 season on the White Sox Talk Podcast, clearly taking aim at the two oversized home run leaders from that year.
While McGwire and Sosa captured the nation’s attention, Belle grabbed his bat and put together a jaw-dropping second half the likes of which we might not see again.
In 76 games, the former White Sox outfielder hit 26 doubles with 31 home runs and 86 RBIs. He slashed .387/.451/.816. with a 1.267 OPS.
And his claim that he had one of the best second halves in history? It’s true, especially when you remove Barry Bonds and the PED asterisks attached to him.
The top three second halves since 1933, the first year of the All-Star Game, when seasons were split into halves.
1. Ted Williams, 1957: 1.449 OPS
2. Ted Williams, 1941: 1.373 OPS
3. Belle, 1998: 1.267 OPS
And since this is Chicago, why not ask the question: Who had the better season in 1998, Belle or Sosa?
Belle says he did.
“(Sosa) didn’t get 200 hits. How many hits did he get?” Belle asked.
Sosa was close. He had 198. Belle had 200 on the nose.
“I think Sosa struck out like 150 times. He had a lot of strikeouts that year.”
He did. Sosa actually struck out 171 times. Belle just 84.
“When you look at the strikeouts, usually guys don’t hit .300 when they strikeout over 150 times, so that goes to tell you there that a lot of balls that (Sosa) hit went further than what they should have. Things weren’t adding up because it just kind of came out of nowhere,” Belle explained. “(Sosa) hit .300, but he shouldn’t have with 171 strikeouts. I hit .320 something and had 84 strikeouts. I would say I had a better year.”
I agree. Compare their stats:
— Belle: 49 home runs, 152 RBIs, .328/.399/.655, 1.055 OPS, 7.1 WAR, 81 walks, 84 strikeouts
— Sosa: 66 home runs, 158 RBIs, .308/.377/.647, 1.024 OPS, 6.5 WAR, 73 walks, 171 strikeouts
Then there’s the cheating. McGwire has admitted he took performance-enhancing drugs. Sosa has been denying it for years.
Belle? He was found to have corked his bat while playing for the Cleveland Indians in 1994 and was suspended for seven games. Ask him about PED use, he says he played the game clean.
“Like I’ve told people all along, you can go talk to any one of my strength coaches, any one of my trainers. I can tell you what I weighed when I came into spring training, what I weighed during the season, what I weighed at the end of the season and it was pretty consistent,” Belle said. “At the time, I was living in a glass house, so you could see everything that I was doing. I wasn’t trying to hide anything. You can go ask any of the players. They always saw me in the weight room working out after the games.”
Belle’s 49 home runs in 1998 ranked fifth in the majors, 21 behind McGwire’s 70, which shattered the record of 61 set by the New York Yankees' Roger Maris in 1961.
Belle says he never took PEDs. What if he did in 1998? How many home runs would he have hit?
“If you’re playing over the course of 162 games, you’re probably hitting anywhere from like 12 to 24 balls that are popups and outs that could theoretically go in the first or second row for a home run. I would probably say you could add from 12 (home runs), worst-case scenario, 24, best-case scenario,” Belle said.
That would have given Belle between 61 and 73 home runs. Bonds later broke McGwire’s home run record, hitting 73 in 2001.
But 22 years later, what stands out to Belle aren’t his home runs. To him, it’s those 200 hits.
“The one thing I am proud of is, and that Sosa and McGwire can’t brag about, is I got 200 hits that year. I think that kind of got lost in the mix, that a power hitter got 200 hits.”
That’s a rare feat, especially for the White Sox. Prior to Belle, the last player to collect 200 hits in a season while wearing a White Sox uniform was Nellie Fox in 1954.
“That was a special season, and I consider that one of the greatest seasons in Sox history,” Belle said.
But let’s be honest. Belle’s 1998 season has basically been forgotten. Many die-hard baseball fans probably don’t even know about it. The McGwire-Sosa home run chase was everything in 1998, especially in Chicago, where so much of the focus was on Sosa’s quest to break the home run record.
Belle’s reputation of being difficult with fans and media didn’t help either.
“If you talk to X number of fans, half are going to say they had a wonderful experience with me, and the other half are going to say they hate my guts,” Belle said.
What did the media think of Belle? The MVP voting in 1998 pretty much sums it up.
Despite finishing the season with 48 doubles, 49 home runs, 152 RBIs, those 200 hits and leading the league in slugging and OPS, Belle finished eighth in AL MVP voting. Sosa won the NL MVP, beating out McGwire.
Nonetheless, Belle’s 1998 season was extraordinary. He set new White Sox single-season records for home runs, RBIs, total bases and extra base hits, all of which stand today.
McGwire and Sosa might have made the most noise in 1998, but there was also a loud Belle ringing that year on the South Side. It’s time you heard it.
Listen to the entire interview with Albert Belle on the latest edition of the White Sox Talk Podcast.