ST. LOUIS — When Mark Mc-Gwire stroked his record 62nd home run this week, he swung himself into the history books and landed in the middle of a baseball debate that will rage for a long time to come.
Where does he fit in the sport's pantheon of heroes? Is he the next Babe Ruth? Is he the greatest player ever?
While it may be too early to assess the slugger's legacy - he's barely knocked the dirt off his cleats from the home-run trot - the hagiography is already beginning.
"He's easily one of the 100 greatest players in 20th-century American baseball," says Gene Sunnen, former president of the Society for American Baseball Research. This fall, the Cleveland-based group will survey its members to determine the 100 greatest players.
Mr. Sunnen's verdict is already in: "Mark McGwire is the greatest home-run hitter in baseball history."
In the frisson of the moment, the evidence looks compelling. He's hit more home runs than anyone else in a regular season. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's longstanding record of 60, purists affixed an asterisk to his name because it took him more games to do it and the season had been lengthened. But McGwire has shattered all that. He equaled Ruth's mark in 12 fewer games than the Babe himself. He tied Maris in 18 fewer games. On Tuesday, he hit his 62nd to claim the record.
Nor is this the work of a season. McGwire's bat has been fecund the last four years. He reached the 400-home-run career mark faster than any other player in history. He has now pushed Ruth out of the best record for the number of home runs in two, three, and four seasons.
Is he the next Babe Ruth?
The verdict isn't in, of course. McGwire has more games this season - and more years in his career - to make his mark. But such comparisons are inevitable. Ruth helped fans forget the scandal-tainted 1919 World Series. McGwire and Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who's a close second in the home-run derby, have helped erased the stain of a player-strike four years ago that alienated many fans.
"McGwire and Sosa have done more for the baseball than anyone since Babe Ruth," says Frank Stockmann, a longtime Cardinals fan who attended Tuesday's historic game and remembers seeing Ruth play. "Ruth's home runs were very similar to McGwire's - almost as high as they were far."
MCGWIRE'S record-breaker was anything but the towering drive for which he is famous. Fans held their breath as the fourth-inning line drive headed for left field. McGwire himself lost sight of it. Then the ball squeaked over the wall, the fans erupted, and Mc- Gwire jumped in the air. In his excitement, he forgot to touch first base. He ran back to make sure.
The home run would turn out to be his shortest of the season but the biggest of his life. It would mark the first time someone other than a Yankee had the record since 1920, when Babe Ruth hit 54 for New York, nearly doubling the record he set the year before as a Boston Red Sox.
It's feats like that that keep the Babe - not McGwire - at the top of most historians' list of players. "There's no question that the greatest player of all time is Babe Ruth," Sunnen says. "He reinvented the game."
For a time the best left-handed pitcher in the league, Ruth created the role of the home-run hitter. In his miraculous 1921 season, he hit 59 home runs, batted .378, and managed to get on base better than half the time.
Even St. Louis fans who watched McGwire poke his 62nd home run over the left-field wall are reluctant to anoint him "best ever." "When it's all said and done, [Ken] Griffey [Jr.] might be the man," said Kirk Stewtermann, a St. Louis salesman who lingered at the stadium long after the game, savoring the moment.
Already, baseball's prognosticators are projecting how far McGwire can go. Will he hit 70 home runs this season? Will he challenge Aaron for the most in a career? Since 1995, McGwire has been hitting home runs faster than in Ruth's best years. Surprisingly, however, he'll have to keep up that pace for five more years to capture the career home-run crown.
But in the end, perhaps it isn't the statistics that are most important. During Tuesday's historic game, longtime Cardinals fan D.C. "Robby" Frank ticked off his long list of greats, many of which he had seen play: Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron. (As a child, he once sat on Babe Ruth's knee.)
Though in a wheelchair, when McGwire hit No. 62, Mr. Frank was up on his feet like everybody else. "They all have one thing in common - a common bond of the love of the fans and they show it through their fire and their heart and their performance," he says.