It’s been 22 years since Brendan Cunningham and Moe Mullins found themselves on opposite ends of a Waveland Avenue dogpile.
Time has not healed all wounds.
You might remember the story. The date was Sunday, September 13, 1998, and the Cubs and Brewers were finishing off a weekend series. Mark McGwire had passed Roger Maris with his 62nd homer five days earlier against the Cubs. But he hadn’t hit one since and Sosa trailed him by just two home runs in the Great Race of 1998.
Sosa hit his 61st out onto Waveland in the fifth inning. Four frames later, he blasted No. 62 over the deep left center wall, hitting the street again and sparking a vicious scrum that would eventually find its way into a Cook County courtroom when Mullins hit Cunningham with a lawsuit over ownership of the ball.
With ESPN set to air “Long Gone Summer” this Sunday night, I looked up both sides to see what they thought of the incident more than two decades later.
The results, uh, varied.
“I don’t have anything against Moe Mullins and I don’t think he has anything against me, either,” Cunningham told me when he called me back last Friday.
A few days later, I got a number for Mullins and told the famed Wrigley Field ballhawk I’d already interviewed Cunningham.
“That’s one name I don’t like to hear,” Mullins said when I told him I’d talked with Cunningham. “He and a bunch of others mugged on me. He’s a thief and he knows it.”
The front page of the September 15, 1998 Chicago Tribune (Newspapers.com)
It was, of course, a different time back in 1998. McGwire and Sosa’s push toward Maris made baseball the No. 1 story in the country and Waveland Avenue the place to be.
Wrigley’s regular ballhawks watched all summer long as their numbers swelled alongside the duo’s home run totals. A group of about 7-8 committed ballhawks — which I wrote about in my 2005 book Wrigleyworld — grew exponentially. Everyone wanted a piece of history and the potential financial reward that went with it.
As both men approached the record, newspapers were filled with stories about what a record-breaking ball might eventually be worth. Those debates filtered down to the street where ballhawk Andy Mielke talked with others about what the scene on Waveland would look like if No. 62 landed out there.
“And my friend Luke had a great line,” Mielke told me last week. “He said it was going to be like someone threw a million dollars on the ground. And he was right.”
Both Mullins and Mielke told me that crowd on Waveland grew noticeably after Sosa hit 61 earlier in the day. Among those lining up for a chance were five guys — Cunningham, his two brothers and two friends — who’d left Bernie’s Tap at the corner of Clark and Waveland for a shot at instant riches. They all agreed they’d split the money if any one of them came away with the ball.
They weren’t alone. The bars and residential buildings emptied as Sosa came up to face Eric Plunk in the ninth inning. Also out on the street were journalists, reps from memorabilia companies and some characters who weren’t shy about announcing their intentions.
“There were gangbangers out there talking crap, saying ‘we’ll kill for this ball, it’s worth a million dollars, whoever gets it is gonna get it,” Mullins remembered. “I thought it was stupid and cheap talk, but it turns out that people weren’t kidding.”
The experienced ballhawks knew that Sosa probably wouldn’t pull the ball. So they chose to line up near what they called the "L” — the spot in left-center where the fence on the old bleacher setup went from a high position to a much lower one.
“I was like, if he hits it this far, I’ve got a shot,” Mielke said. “He hit it even further.”
The inexperienced crowd in left-center pushed forward as they saw No. 62 sail over the wall. But it was a bad move based on bad judgment and the baseball cleared the crowd entirely.
“The ball took a bounce toward the end of the street, right in front of the alley,” Mielke recounted. “I look and Moe was standing right there. The ball took a really shitty hop and went right to Moe.”
Mullins was standing by himself, but not for long. He’d grabbed thousands of baseballs since his first game hawking in 1958, but none of them were like what he was about to experience with No. 62.
As the crowd approached, Mullins tucked his glove under his arm and held onto the ball with both hands as the crowd caught up to him. He tried to stand his ground, but it was of no use.
“They grabbed me and then they flung me to the ground,” Mullins said. “Everyone all piled on and tried to rip it from me. I was yelling ‘I got it! I got it! What are you doing’ and there were people yelling ‘Moe’s got it! Moe’s got it! Let go!
“It went on for about five minutes, but to me it seemed like forever. I actually blacked out for at least five seconds. I was on the bottom of the pile thinking, ‘Man, this really isn’t worth dying over.’”
Mielke, meanwhile, had just picked himself up off the street. He said someone had tackled him during the rush and a second pile had mistakenly formed on him.
But it was nothing compared to the pile on top of Mullins. Mielke said it was at least four people high and he compared it to the scene of the Hillsborough disaster, the English soccer fan crush that killed 96 people in 1989.
“At that point, I was like ‘Moe’s dead,’” Mielke said. “I started grabbing people by their belt loops and just throwing them off the pile. I was hoping Moe had already gotten out of there because the scene looked so bad.”
Mielke eventually had to stop and lean up against a nearby wall to recover from his own experience of being mobbed. Eventually, Mullins appeared and started walking toward him. He was emptyhanded.
“He looked like a Three Stooges bit,” Mielke said. “I asked him if he got the ball and he said, ‘No, I had it and people just attacked me.”
Cunningham, meanwhile, was running north up Sheffield with the most coveted baseball in Chicago in his shorts and a bunch of people in hot pursuit.
He flagged down the nearest police car, which called for backup.
After the ball bounced, Cunningham said he followed the crowd toward Mullins and joined in the pile that was reaching for the ball.
“Everyone was kind of smashed together,” Cunningham said. “I kind of shimmied through the crowd to get to the pile of people where the ball was at. I dove on top of the pile, reached for the ball (blindly) and was able to pull it out.”
As for Mullins?
“To be honest, I never saw him at any point,” Cunningham said. “Could he have had the ball at the bottom of the pile? He could have. I don’t know. I just don’t know. All I know is that I was on top of the pile and I yanked it out and took off.”
Cunningham was taken to the nearest police station, where officers asked to take pictures with the ball. He later returned to his home in Lincoln Square where the city’s newsvans lined up along his street to interview him.
The story, however, was just beginning.
With a young son at home, Cunningham thought he could sell the ball to seed a future college fund. But Mullins remained upset and had a lawyer file an injunction to keep Cunningham from selling the ball or giving it to anyone, including Sosa.
Public favor was on Mullins’ side. Signs on Waveland read “Give The Ball To Moe” and 74 percent of respondents to a poll of Tribune readers declared Mullins the rightful owner of the ball. Cunningham said he received threats at home during this time and that most media coverage was ginned up to accentuate the controversy.
At one point, a third person — a 16-year-old high school student named Jose Rivera — also claimed that he was the rightful owner of No. 62. But the police parroted the expression that possession is 9/10ths of the law.
“The last I heard, three people said they had the ball,” a Chicago Police Department spokesman told the Daily Herald on Sept. 16, 1998. “But only one person has it. He wins.”
Cunningham was instructed by the judge to place the ball in a bank security deposit box. The two sides were also told to come to an agreement on their own, but Mullins said he wouldn’t do anything with Cunningham out of principle. That included a $5,000 offer to appear on an episode of Judge Judy where the TV judge would ultimately decide the ball’s true owner.
“The (Cook County) judge told us three times to resolve this jointly,” Mullins said. “I just refused to do it.”
Between the lawsuit and having to split the proceeds with four others, Cunningham said he eventually decided that selling the ball wasn’t worth the trouble and that Sosa should get it back. He suggested that both he and Mullins jointly hand the ball over to Sosa, but Mullins declined that offer as well.
“I would’ve sold it if it were a simple sign and sale,” Cunningham said. “But my name was being dragged through the mud. It wasn’t worth the headache.”
Mullins eventually dropped the lawsuit when the judge required him to post $50,000 he didn’t have to cover Cunningham’s financial losses if he had been found to be the rightful owner of the ball.
"I know that everyone knows it's my ball," Mullins told the Tribune at the time. “And Sammy's going to get the ball back. That's good enough."
Cunningham and family with Sosa in 1998. (Photo courtesy of Brendan Cunningham)
Looking back, the entire situation seems beyond silly. McGwire and Sosa would hit a total of 12 more home runs that season, so No. 62 for Sosa was far from the most important one of the bunch. McGwire’s 70th eventually sold to Spawn creator Todd McFarlane for $3 million. The single-season home run record, meanwhile, only stood for three seasons before Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001.
Then there was the ensuing steroid scandal, which devalued the entire summer in the eyes of many sports fans. Though Sosa took the ball from Cunningham and donated it to the Hall of Fame, you won’t be able to see it on display during a visit to Cooperstown. According to the Hall’s online catalog, the ball currently sits in storage.
(Update: The Hall tells me the ball is currently in the museum’s Viva Baseball exhibit.)
Of course, no one knew how everything would play out on Sept. 13, 1998.
“At the time, it was the biggest deal,” Mullins said. “People react to the moment.”
Mullins will turn 70 in October and still ballhawks. He’s looking forward to BP resuming at Wrigley and says his wishes he had the range he had in 1998.
He’s also offered his entire collection of 6,000+ baseballs to the Cubs for display somewhere in Wrigley Field, but the offer hasn’t been met with much interest. It includes 244 game-hit homers, a total he believes would be one more had the mob followed the basic rules of ballhawking.
“If someone gets it, you walk away and try and get the next one,” Mullins said.
As for Cunningham, he faded back into the world of mortgage banking after his 15 minutes of fame were up. But he’ll still tell the tale of No. 62 when he meets a Cubs fan and he’ll often be met with a “I remember that story!”
I tell Cunningham that Mullins is still just a tad steamed over the whole deal.
“That’s too bad,” Cunningham said. “He seems like good guy, I know I’m a good guy. I think that if we ever met, we’d get along.”
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