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Today in Wrigley Field history: The Cubs host the worst home-run derby ever

The capricious Wrigley winds ruined this event.

Ryne Sandberg and Mark McGwire prepare for the 1990 Home Run Derby
Photo by Steve Goldstein/Getty Images

Wrigley Field was chosen to host the 1990 All-Star Game, the first that would be in the Friendly Confines under the lights and first on the North Side since 1962. As part of the festivities, Wrigley was also scheduled to host a Home Run Derby the day before the game.

The Home Run Derby was something fairly new at the ASG. It had been created in 1985, and back then was a shorter event held in conjunction with “All-Star Workout Day,” the day before the game. It wasn’t televised and took place in the afternoon. Before 1991, the Derby was structured as a two-inning event with each player allowed five outs per “inning,” without tiebreakers. In fact, this resulted in co-winners in 1986 and 1989.

In practice this had allowed previous winners with only a handful of home runs. The Reds’ Eric Davis had won the previous year’s Derby in Anaheim with only three homers. But the eight players in that year’s contest had combined for 14 long balls.

That wouldn’t be the case at Wrigley Field on July 9, 1990.

The eight participants were Ryne Sandberg, Matt Williams, Bobby Bonilla and Darryl Strawberry for the National League and Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Cecil Fielder and Ken Griffey Jr. for the American League. Those eight combined to hit 291 home runs during the 1990 regular season. Fielder hit 51, becoming the first player to hit 50 or more since George Foster in 1977.

In the 1990 Home Run Derby, these eight players combined for five home runs, three of them by Sandberg, who became the Derby champion, fun for the hometown crowd. The only other dingers were hit by Williams and McGwire, one each.

Why did this happen? Chicago’s notoriously capricious weather. The day before the Derby, Sunday, July 8, had been hot and humid, with temperatures in the 90s and strong southwest winds. Too bad the Derby couldn’t have been held that day, Waveland and Sheffield would have been annihilated by baseballs. But overnight Sunday into Monday, a cold front came crashing through. Temperatures dropped into the low 70s, well below average for that time of year, with strong winds blowing from the north.

I was there that afternoon. It felt more like September than July. And the howling winds kept blowing baseballs back into the yard. Sandberg, who was quite familiar with Wrigley’s winds, knew how to slash line drives into the bleachers. Here is the only video I could find of Ryno’s “heroics” that afternoon:

The results of this Home Run Derby were so bad that the format was changed the following year, expanding to three rounds. From 1991–2006, 8-10 players were selected and instead of five outs, 10 were allowed for each round, after which the count was re-et, with the top four advancing to the second round, and the top two advancing to the final.

The difference was immediate — 27 home runs were hit in the 1991 Derby in Toronto, with Cal Ripken Jr. the winner with 12, and 40 were hit in 1992 in San Diego. Now, of course, players routinely hit a couple dozen per round, and that provides a much better show, especially for ESPN in prime time.

But I, for one, will never forget the 1990 Home Run Derby, when the Wrigley Field wind defeated almost all of the game’s best home run hitters. It all happened 30 years ago today.