From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

A Three-Million-Dollar Grab

I mean, it’s slightly unheard of for somebody to hit seventy home runs. I’m slightly in awe of myself.

Mark McGwire

When the 1998 baseball season drew to its close, the staggering home-run totals of St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire and Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa were at the center of attention. Major-league officials began marking and tracking the balls pitched to McGwire and Sosa.

On September 7, McGwire tied Roger Maris’s single-season home-run record of sixty-one, once thought untouchable. The very next day McGwire hit his sixty-second home run of the season.

By the Cardinals’ last game of the season on September 27, McGwire had sixty-eight home runs and had eased ahead of Sosa.

Present at the St. Louis game that day was Philip Ozersky, a twenty-six-year-old research scientist at Washington University School of Medicine. He and his colleagues were occupying a private party room in the left-field stands.

In the middle of the third inning, McGwire came up to bat. There was a crack and a whoosh, and everyone stood as McGwire hit his sixty-ninth home-run ball.

Ozersky watched it, thinking how incredible it was to be seeing baseball history in the making. In the seventh inning, McGwire came to the plate for what would likely be his last at bat of the season.

As McGwire sent a line drive toward the left-field fence, the young research scientist rose—and got that thrilling stomach drop even major-league outfielders admit to feeling when they see the ball coming their way.

The ball sailed into the open front of the small room and ricocheted off the back wall.

Ozersky looked, and there it was: Mark McGwire’s seventieth home-run ball, resting wondrously beneath one of the metal bleachers.

Ozersky dove toward the ball and swallowed it in his grip, just an inch or two ahead of another young colleague.

Ozersky was not sure if he was speaking or if maybe his thoughts were simply careening around in his head, Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Over and over.

Later, at the postgame press conference, Ozersky sat in the front row as McGwire talked to reporters.

Afterward, Cardinals media-relations manager Steve Zesch offered Ozersky their standard trade for the ball: a signed bat, ball and jersey—and a brief meeting with McGwire.

“I want to hold on to it for a while,” Ozersky said, unsure of his plans except that it would be nice to show the ball to his family and friends. “I’d love to be able to congratulate him,” he added.

“Mark can’t negotiate over this,” Zesch said. There was a time when McGwire met everyone who caught one of his home runs, until the guy who caught the sixty-third ball presented the player with a list of demands.

Still, Ozersky was stunned by the response. He turned to his girlfriend, Amanda Abbott, saying, “All I wanted was to shake his hand.”

Phil Ozersky got a lot of calls in the days following his lucky grab. A $1 million offer was already on the table from three memorabilia dealers. This was followed by a proposal from an entrepreneur who had sold seventeen tons of the Berlin Wall to market images of the ball as holograms.

Perhaps the strangest proposal came from a Detroit-based collectibles marketer. His thought was to make a half-million baseballs, each containing a single thread extracted from inside home-run number seventy, and sell them for $29.95. He would resew the original covers around new windings and offer the ersatz ball to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He withdrew his proposal when other offers reached $1.5 million.

To Phil Ozersky, all this carried an enormous responsibility. It left him thinking that whatever he did with the ball should be for the greater good. He kept coming back to that phrase “the greater good.” But what it meant, exactly, he wasn’t yet sure.

He considered if he should donate the ball to the Hall of Fame, whether the enjoyment of the relatively few visitors to Cooperstown, New York, was enough.

Ultimately, Ozersky accepted a proposal from Guernsey’s, a New York City auction house, to conduct a sale at Madison Square Garden. Internet bids were also accepted via eBay. The sale took place on January 12, 1999, at 7 P.M. After about ten minutes, the auctioneer awarded the ball to a telephone bidder, comic-book publisher and entertainment entrepreneur Todd McFarlane, for more than $3 million.

Less than two weeks after the sale of the ball, Philip Ozersky was invited to the annual dinner of the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America as a guest of the Cardinals’ community charity, Cardinals Care.

During the evening, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas auctioned a caricature of McGwire, with the proceeds to benefit the slugger’s charitable foundation. When the bidding began to slow, McGwire offered to sign the picture with a personalized message. “This is worth more than the ball,” he joked. “I touched this.”

Ozersky joined in on the bidding as a gesture to the people who had invited him and because he wanted to help McGwire’s foundation. And he still hadn’t met McGwire. When the auction stopped, he held the winning offer, eleven thousand dollars.

As Ozersky was making his way to the dais, the main thing on his mind was that he would finally get to shake Mark McGwire’s hand.

The man was positively enormous. The two men chatted. Then McGwire whispered to Ozersky, off-mike. He asked if he should sign the picture Philip or Phil, wanting to get it right. McGwire held the signed picture up for all to see: “To Philip, Great Catch!”

Later it occurred to Ozersky how he’d built it up in his head that meeting McGwire was going to be much larger than life, but now he realized it wasn’t. It was exactly the right size.

On February 15, 1999, Philip Ozersky sat down to map out how he was going to use his money. He planned to donate to the Leukemia Society of America in memory of the brother-in-law of Nancy Miller, his former boss, who had arranged for the tickets to the game, and to the American Cancer Society. He was also developing an ongoing giving plan with Cardinals Care.

But mostly he wanted to combine his love of sports with Mark McGwire’s well-known dedication to disadvantaged and abused children. All along, his sister had been talking with him about his postball life, and they agreed that as a gesture to the home-run hitter he’d help causes McGwire cared about.

A summer sports camp for kids—he thought that might be a way to go. It would be done under the umbrella of a foundation. It could be his legacy, at least as far as catching Mark McGwire’s seventieth home-run ball was concerned. He realized that the chance to help so many people was the greater good he had been thinking about. This was the reason the ball had landed in his hands.

Daniel Paisner

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