McGwire, in bronze, under wraps

Thursday, March 29, 2007
A miniature version of a statue of former St. Louis Cardinals player Mark McGwire by sculptor Harry Weber (right) stands in the artist's studio in Wright City, Mo. The rural Missouri sculptor has created bronze statues of Hall of Fame players such as Stan Musial and has also finished a full-size bronze of Mark McGwire. The Cardinals bought the statue, but are keeping it hidden in storage after McGwire's recent failure to make it into the Hall of Fame. (JEFF ROBERSON ~ Associated Press)

WRIGHT CITY, Mo. -- A bronze statue forged to honor slugger Mark McGwire is built to last forever. The only question is whether it will ever see the light of day.

The Cardinals commissioned the statue after McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998, obliterating Roger Maris' 37-year-old record. There's a place for it to rest alongside other mini-monuments to Cardinals legends outside Busch Stadium.

But the bronze is draped in cloth, hidden in a downtown warehouse. Its place in the limelight has been thrown into question, like much of McGwire's legacy, by suspicion that steroid use enhanced his career.

McGwire hit 583 homers, seventh on the career list. But he was named on only 23.5 percent of the ballots in January in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, far short of the 75 percent necessary for enshrinement.

Cardinals president Mark Lamping said team policy is that statues are reserved for Hall of Famers whose numbers have been retired. An exception is Kenny Boyer's No. 14, retired in 1984 even though he did not make it to the Hall.

Sculptor Harry Weber is surrounded in his studio by examples of his work, including a miniature versions of statues of former St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire, left, and Stan Musial, right, Wednesday, March 28, 2007 in Wright City, Mo. The rural Missouri sculptor has created bronze statutes of hall-of-famers like Musial and has also finished a full-size bronze of McGwire. The Cardinals bought the statue of McGwire, but are keeping it hidden in storage after his recent failure to make it into the Hall of Fame. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

"It really isn't something we need to even worry about at this point because his number is not retired," Lamping said. "If you look at the past and use that as your guide, retiring a jersey would be the guide.

"But it's totally up to ownership."

Sculptor Harry Weber said the statue was commissioned in 2002, the year after McGwire retired. Weber said Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt gave him the go-ahead at a dedication ceremony for a statue honoring Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.

"At the time, it was the biggest slam-dunk in the history of the world," Weber said.

That all changed in 2005 when McGwire was evasive in testimony to Congress regarding steroid use in baseball. Baseball didn't ban steroids until after the 2002 season.

Weber vividly remembers watching McGwire's testimony, knowing the fate of his sculpture might be hanging in the balance.

"My feet started to sweat and I had to leave the room," Weber said.

Making the sculpture took months for Weber and a team of welders, masons and artists. Now the labor of love is hidden in an undisclosed location. The Cardinals own it, Weber said, and don't want anyone taking a peek.

Weber is responsible for all the sculptures outside the stadium, and has immortalized Thomas Jefferson and a few notable hunting dogs. He works in a small studio at his home in rural Missouri, about an hour's drive from Busch Stadium.

The statue of McGwire began as a series of sketches, catching him from different angles as he unleashed his swing. Weber found McGwire easier to sketch than many subjects because so many fans snapped photos during his historic home run chase.

"McGwire is still probably the most photographed person walking on the face of the planet," Weber said.

Weber used the shots to get a 360-degree picture of McGwire's power stance. He then carved a miniature version of the sculpture -- called a maquette -- which he used as a model for the final piece. Weber owns the maquette and happily shows it off.

The small statue captures McGwire on his follow-through. Both feet are planted firmly on the ground, and the bat is swinging fast behind McGwire's head.

The version that remains under wraps is three-quarters life-sized. Statues are always a little bigger or a little smaller than normal people, Weber said, because he believes life-sized replicas are "just weird" to look at.

The larger sculpture was then cast in silicon to make a mold for a resin version. The final copy was cast in bronze, Weber said. He declined to say how much the Cardinals paid for the statue.

Weber did say the warehouse where it's being stored is within a couple of miles of Busch Stadium.

"He's very close to the stadium," Weber said. "Just not there."

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