July 31, 1997: Cardinals trade for Mark McGwire

On July 31, 1997, the Cardinals made the deadline deal of deadline deals, acquiring first baseman Mark McGwire from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for pitchers Eric Ludwick, T.J. Mathews, and Blake Stein.

Heading into the final day before the trade deadline, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that there was no progress to report regarding a possible deal for McGwire.[1] Meanwhile, the Cardinals were reported to be pursuing Detroit third baseman Travis Fryman, though they were unwilling to meet the Tigers’ asking price of Todd Stottlemyre.

“I’m not trading Todd Stottlemyre,” Jocketty said.[2]

He didn’t have to, as the Mcgwire deal was completed a few hours before the midnight deadline. A’s general manager Sandy Alderson originally had asked for Matt Morris and/or Alan Benes, and in the final hours, backed off his request for the Cardinals’ top pitching prospect, Manny Aybar, accepting Ludwick in the deal instead.[3]

“July 31 began a new era in Cardinals history – the Mark McGwire era,” Jocketty said.[4]

Mathews, a graduate of Columbia High School in Columbia, Illinois, was the most experienced of the pitchers the Cardinals sent to Oakland. The A’s originally drafted him out of St. Louis Community College in the 35th round in 1990 but were unable to sign him. Mathews was drafted again in 1991, but the Twins were unable to sign him. Finally, in 1992, the Cardinals signed him after choosing him in the 35th round out of UNLV.

Mathews debuted with the big-league club in 1995, posting a 1.52 ERA and two saves in 29 2/3 innings. In his sophomore campaign, Mathews made 67 appearances, posting a 3.01 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 83 2/3 innings. At the time of the trade to Oakland, he had a 2.15 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 46 innings.

“I think it’s good we got three quality pitchers for him,” A’s outfielder Matt Stairs said. “T.J. Mathews – that’s his name, isn’t it? – from what I hear, he’s got some great stuff.”[5]

The 6-foot-5 Ludwick was a former second-round draft pick by the Mets in 1993, and had come to St. Louis as part of the package the Cardinals received for Bernard Gilkey in January 1996. Ludwick made his big-league debut that season, allowing 10 runs in 10 innings.

In 1997, Ludwick spent most of the season with Triple-A Louisville, posting a 2.93 ERA in 80 innings. In five major-league relief appearances, Ludwick had allowed seven runs.

Stein, a 6-foot-7 right-hander, was a 1994 sixth-round draft pick who was in his first season with the Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate in Arkansas. Stein was 8-7 with a 4.24 ERA over 133 2/3 innings. The year prior, he had impressed in the Florida State League, going 16-5 with a 2.15 ERA in 172 innings.

“McGwire didn’t fetch all that much, and this is not meant to slight Mathews, Ludwick, or Stein, who are just pawns in the game,” San Francisco Examiner columnist Ray Ratto wrote. “Mathews was at least known as the heir apparent to Dennis Eckersley in St. Louis, but Ludwick appeared only briefly in the bigs and Stein not at all. … But the A’s in their minds were trading from a rapidly weakening position. Having already said in so many words that they were not going to re-sign McGwire to the kind of money he can command, they were going to try to bluff their way to a good deal, failed, tried to break even, failed again, and ended up moving him for the worst of all reasons – to get anything at all.”[6]

“More than anything, I was having to grapple with trading Mark McGwire,” Alderson said. “I tried to put myself in our fans’ shoes while recognizing the reality of where we were. Sometimes free agency forces your decisions. This is the best result for everybody. It’s not an easy result, but in the overall scheme of things, it’s the right decision.”[7]

Mathews wound up pitching five seasons in Oakland, going 24-15 with a 4.78 ERA.

Ludwick went 1-4 with an 8.25 ERA in six appearances for the A’s in 1997. He was traded to the Marlins for Kurt Abbott that winter and was drafted by the Tigers in the minor league draft in December 1998.  He pitched in four major-league seasons, going 2-10 with an 8.35 career ERA.

Stein pitched for the A’s in 1998 and 1999, going a combined 5-9 with a 6.60 ERA. At the 1999 trading deadline, he was sent to the Royals as part of a deal for Kevin Appier. In five major-league seasons, Stein went 21-28 with a 5.41 career ERA.

In McGwire, the Cardinals were getting one of the game’s preeminent sluggers. After appearing in 18 games in 1986, McGwire broke out in his rookie 1987 campaign, leading the majors with 49 homers and a .618 slugging percentage on his way to the Rookie of the Year Award.

The 33-year-old McGwire had hit 363 home runs and driven in 941 RBIs in Oakland, and he appeared to be getting even better. In 1996, McGwire had batted .312 and led the majors in home runs (52), on-base percentage (.467), and slugging percentage (.730).

At the time of the trade, McGwire was batting .284/.383/.628 with 34 homers and 81 RBIs.

“You don’t really recover from losing a friend like that or a teammate like that, but at least he gets a chance to play with a contender,” said Jason Giambi, who immediately inherited first base from McGwire. “He taught me how to play the game, how to play it right.”[8]

McGwire had to approve the deal before it could be completed.

“It’s going to be a challenge and to tell you the truth, I think that’s what I need,” he said. “I decided to do this because I needed a change and I needed a challenge.”[9]

While Bay Area fans questioned whether Alderson had gotten enough for McGwire, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz argued that the Cardinals had given up too much for a player he anticipated would leave when his contract expired at the end of the season. With the Cardinals’ 2-1 loss to the Phillies that evening, St. Louis had fallen 7 ½ games behind the National League Central-leading Astros, and Miklasz argued that even McGwire’s bat wouldn’t be enough to allow St. Louis to catch Houston.

“McGwire will pad his resume with a few homers, then strut away to collect a ransom of free-agent millions this offseason,” Miklasz wrote. “Unless the Cardinals want to flirt with financial calamity by offering McGwire the largest contract in baseball history, he will bolt. He probably will wind up playing in his preferred home base in southern California, near his young son.”[10]

Miklasz proved to be only half-right. While the Cardinals finished fourth in the NL Central, on September 16 – just six weeks after being traded – McGwire signed a three-year, $28 million contract with an $11 million option for a fourth year. At McGwire’s request, the contract also called for McGwire to donate $1 million each year to a new Mark McGwire Charitable Foundation for sexually and physically abused children.[12]

“He accepted less money to play in St. Louis than he probably would have got on the free-agent market,” Jocketty said. “I think that’s an indication of the type of person we have here.”[13]

Just hours after the deal was announced, McGwire hit his 52nd home run of the season, a 517-foot blast that tied him with Ken Griffey Jr. for the major league lead.

“Mark is reminiscent of the great Cardinals of the past,” owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “Players like Johnny Mize, Red Schoendienst, Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith. These were not only impact players but also great team players with a burning desire to win.”[14]

McGwire cemented his place in history with his 70-home run season in 1998, which set a new Major League Baseball single-season home run record. In 2010, prior to being hired as the Cardinals’ hitting coach, McGwire admitted that he used steroids at various points in his career, including during the 1990s and the 1998 season.

“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids,” McGwire said. “I had good years when I didn’t take any, and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids, and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.”[15]

In 4 ½ seasons in St. Louis, McGwire hit 220 home runs, giving him 583 for his career. Over the course of his career, he was named to the all-star game 12 times, won three Silver Slugger awards, and won a Gold Glove in 1990.


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[1] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals’ Trade Quest Heads Toward Final Day,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 31, 1997.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals’ Trade Quest Heads Toward Final Day,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 31, 1997.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Cards Deal For McGwire,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 1, 1997.

[4] Rick Hummel, “‘I’m Proud To Be A Cardinal,’ McGwire Says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 17, 1997.

[5] Edvins Beitiks, “A’s will lean on Giambi,” San Francisco Examiner, August 1, 1997.

[6] Ray Ratto, “A debatable move by the A’s,” San Francisco Examiner, August 1, 1997.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Cards Deal For McGwire,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 1, 1997.

[8] Edvins Beitiks, “A’s will lean on Giambi,” San Francisco Examiner, August 1, 1997.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Cards Deal For McGwire,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 1, 1997.

[10] Bernie Miklasz, “Big Swing, Short Fling,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 1, 1997.

[12] Rick Hummel, “‘I’m Proud To Be A Cardinal,’ McGwire Says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 17, 1997.

[13] Rick Hummel, “‘I’m Proud To Be A Cardinal,’ McGwire Says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 17, 1997.

[14] Rick Hummel, “‘I’m Proud To Be A Cardinal,’ McGwire Says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 17, 1997.

[15] “McGwire apologizes to La Russa, Selig,” ESPN.com, www.espn.com/mlb/news/story?id=4816607.

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