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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

A Grand Slam for the Post-Dispatch   

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

When Mark McGwire lined his 62nd home run over a Busch Stadium wall on September 8, he not only broke Roger Maris' single-season record set in 1961, he also touched off a newspaper-buying frenzy that drove sales of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to historic heights. The pandemonium that followed gave new meaning to the term "Mac Mania."

Before it was over, police were directing traffic and appealing for calm as patrons massed around the newspaper's office building in search of souvenir editions. Managing Editor Richard Weil describes the demand as "unprecedented..a delightful, exciting natural disaster for us."

A Stadium Extra, hawked to Redbird fans as they exited the ballpark that night, quickly disappeared as diehards snatched up entire bundles. A euphoric crowd swarmed around Post-Dispatch vans, forcing drivers to sell papers right off the back of the trucks. The frantic search for copies led to the Post-Dispatch lobby, where lines stretched for blocks by 8 the next morning.

By midmorning, all 225,000 copies of the Extra were sold. The presses churned out 315,000 more, all gone by late afternoon. But it was the total production of the September 9 daily paper, with a special section on the Cardinal slugger, that will be etched in the record books.

That edition, with a banner headline screaming "JUBILATION," reached up to 1 million, more than triple the normal press run. "It was the largest-selling single edition we've ever had," Weil says. The previous record was 460,000 for a weekday paper.

In a post-mortem September 11, Post-Dispatch sports reporter Jeff Gordon described the frenetic scene this way: "We are under siege. As these words are being typed, a mob of St. Louisans are lined up outside to buy our products by the stack.

"The traffic on Tucker Boulevard is snarled. Employees must fight their way through a packed lobby to reach the elevators. Our phone lines are fried from customer queries."

For days, special editions were devoured minutes after they hit street corners, making delivery and sales a problem. E-mail messages implored journalists who were not working on deadline to head to the lobby to peddle papers. Editor Cole Campbell donned an apron with oversize pockets for change and headed to City Hall to play newsboy.

In the midst of the fray, Weil noticed that cars belonging to fans waiting in line to buy newspapers were being ticketed. The ME placed a call to the police chief, who petitioned the mayor and city treasurer to issue an order for free parking.

With the 48 phone lines into the building jammed, journalists turned to cell phones to carry on newsroom business. Constant busy signals plagued bureau reporters as they attempted to contact the office.

A page one story begging readers to stop calling appeared to do little good. And St. Louisans weren't the only ones in an uproar. On September 9, the Missouri Highway Patrol reported 50 telephone calls by 10 a.m. from baseball enthusiasts across the United States and Canada wanting to purchase copies of the Post-Dispatch.

On September 10, the phone company responded to the paper's SOS and installed 24 more lines.

Scalpers quickly cashed in on McGwiremania. The mayor of St. Charles, Missouri, complained that a hawker was charging $20 a copy for the paper at a hotel off Interstate 70, just outside St. Louis.

Before week's end, special editions had been jacked up from the normal rate of 50 cents, which is all the newspaper ever charged, to as much as $40. Staff writer Deborah Peterson discovered that papers were being auctioned off on the Internet, with suggested bidding ranging from $5.99 to $25.

On Friday, September 11, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his racy report on President Clinton vied for column inches with Mighty Mac. To Post-Dispatch editors, it was a no-brainer.

The text of the report was made available on the newspaper's Web site, then printed in the September 14 edition, 48 hours later than it appeared in other newspapers across the country. "The Starr report just paled in comparison to what was going on with Mark McGwire," Weil says.

Post-Dispatch editors had been mapping out McGwire coverage for months. In late May, a committee dubbed the "Project 62" team was formed, including representatives from circulation, advertising, marketing, production and the newsroom.

In September, with Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa in hot pursuit of McGwire's home run tally, Post-Dispatch editors hammered out reporting strategies. There would be graphics, factoids and homer-by-homer lists.

Sidebar topics would include McGwire's 10-year-old son; a pitch-by-pitch depiction and description of the home run at-bat; and reaction by the Cardinal team, opposing players and the crowd. Reporters and photographers would highlight the lives of Cardinal fans.

One story featured Sue Nevins of Belleville, Illinois, who displayed in her front yard life-size mannequins of the 6-foot-5 McGwire and his son, Matt, both in Cardinal uniforms. At night, the figures were lighted by a spotlight. Equally newsworthy, two St. Louis-area couples who celebrated births on September 8 chose "McGwire" as the middle name of their new sons.

On September 19, the Post-Dispatch launched a "Home Run 62" photo contest, asking readers to share their photographic memories of the night. The prize: a package of McGwire souvenirs from the sports department. The paper also ran a story providing advice from an expert on how to preserve the commemorative sections.

As the historic month drew to a close, all 1,600 Post-Dispatch employees won some mementos of their own. Each was presented with an aluminum press plate depicting the cover of the Stadium Extra and a certificate of authenticity signed by Chairman and CEO Michael Pulitzer for a job well done.

And then on September 27, the slugger stepped up to the plate, his final at-bat in the final game of the regular season. The windup, the pitch and wham: number 70 over the left field fence.

The paper's presses went at it again: printing 1 million copies of a special section, more than 900,000 of which have been sold. The September 28 1A headline: "Mighty McGwire dazzles right up to the end."