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This Day in Yankees History: Big Mac’s baseball bought for bigger bucks than Babe’s

A mega-millionaire makes McGwire’s moonshot his mark.

Todd McFarlane holds Mark McGwire’s 70th home run Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to the relaunched This Day in Yankees History. As the offseason has begun much sooner than anyone has ever hoped for, the Pinstripe Alley team has decided to continue the revived program in its new format. These daily posts will highlight two or three key moments in Yankees history on a given date, as well as recognize players born on the day. Hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane with us!

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This Day in Yankees History (January 12)

22 Years Ago

Comic book artist Todd McFarlane wins Marc McGwire’s record setting 70th home run — on his final swing in his final at-bat of the 1998 season — for $3.05 million at auction. McFarlane’s investment cost more than 24 times the previous record paid for a baseball; the ball that Babe Ruth hit for his first home run in Yankee Stadium sold for $123,500. In the decades since McFarlane’s purchase, McGwire’s home run ball’s value has dropped to as little as $250K, far closer to the price for Ruth’s ball than the original price for the McGwire.

The ball’s depreciation likely has as much to do with the general disillusionment of the steroid era as it does with the fact that McGwire’s mark was bested by Barry Bonds’ total of 73 homers in 2001. Even so, that ball sold for a comparatively paltry $450K, to, again, Todd McFarlane, intending to protect his initial investment by handcuffing the second purchase to his first.

As quoted in the New York Times, Joshua Leland Evans, the founder and chairman of Leland’s Auction House, remarked on the distance between the markets for the McGwire and Bonds balls. He said, “I think this didn’t have the panache that the McGwire ball had. McGwire broke Roger Maris’s record that stood for 37 years. This one was just too short in duration.”

Stranger still than the record-setting sums paid for a battered sphere of leather, yarn and cork were the characters and circumstances surrounding the sale. Beyond the predictably unique personality of the third-of-a-billionaire artist of The Amazing Spider-Man comic series, a legal battle broke out over who actually owned the Bonds ball and had the right to sell it. Alex Popov and Patrick Hayashi were the two parties with claims to the ball, and the case was compelling enough to wind up with its own documentary. 2004’s Up for Grabs is a brief, but worthwhile, comic gander at the property law case between the man who caught Bonds’ homer, and the one who came out of the née Pac-Bell bleachers’ scrum with it.

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Former Yankee, and current free agent, Iván Nova turns 34 today. While he was intermittently quite alright in pinstripes, Nova’s seen better days, as he was altogether gross in 2020 — and not in a good way. With more than $40 million in the bank, Nova’s career appears to be in the twilight stage, since all recent signs point to him being fully fried — or at the very least, well-done. Though as a sinker-baller capable of inducing a preponderance of ground balls, his regressed stuff, and therefore walk and strikeout rates, have recently precluded him from producing even passable results.

The Yankees’ 1971 first round pick, Terry Whitfield, turns 68 today. He made the majors with the Yanks, however briefly, playing in just 31 games between 1974 and ‘76. Upon leaving the Bombers, Whitfield became a staple of the Giants, Seibu Lions of the Japan Pacific League, and then Dodgers’ infields over the next decade.

Juan Bonilla, of no relation to Bobby, celebrates his 65th birthday today. A product of player development stylistically similar to ethical fishing practices, the Yankees repeatedly caught and released Bonilla over his six-year major league career. Though the Yankees drafted him in 1977 with the 606th overall pick, their selection was voided, and he wouldn’t return to the club until the conclusion of four years in the minors, and three big league seasons with the Padres. Later, he eventually received a handful of call-ups over two different seasons with the Yankees, separated by a one-year stint with Baltimore.

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We thank Baseball-Reference and for providing background information for these posts.