These days, the iconic slugger is one of many names on the ballot, so far receiving more than enough support to stay on it but not enough to put himself in the picture for future induction. Entering his sixth year on the ballot, the question is whether McGwire will start the kind of climb that could get him into the Hall by the time his allotted 15 years are up.
McGwire, who retired as the No. 5 home run hitter of all time (he's now 10th), looked like a stone-cold lock for immortality back when he called it a career following the 2001 season. Since then, the question of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in baseball became a front-burner issue, and McGwire was the first true casualty in Hall of Fame voting.
Last season, McGwire returned as the Cardinals' hitting coach. He repeatedly apologized for his use of steroids, and although some argued that he didn't go far enough, McGwire came forward in a way that few of his contemporaries have. And yet he stepped backward, rather than forward, in the voting.
The 2011 results saw McGwire receive his lowest vote total and lowest percentage of any of the years he's been on the ballot. McGwire received 115 votes, 19.8 of the electorate, after holding steady at 21 percent or more in his first four years.
"Big Mac" was named on 23.5 percent of ballots his first time around, ranking ninth among all candidates. It was more than enough to keep him on the ballot for another year. McGwire's second year on the ballot, 2008, saw virtually the same result. Once again he finished ninth in the balloting. He received 128 votes, or 23.6 percent.
In McGwire's third year as a candidate, his vote total and percentage both dropped, but he bounced back. In the 2010 balloting, McGwire once again returned to exactly 128 votes, which this time was good for 23.7 percent of the vote. Then he dropped off last year, not an encouraging sign at all.
A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from Baseball Writers' Association of America members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Second baseman Roberto Alomar (90 percent) and pitcher Bert Blyleven (79.7 percent) earned their ticket to Cooperstown on the 2011 ballot. Former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin (62.1 percent) and starting pitcher Jack Morris (53.5 percent) are the top returning vote-getters from last year's ballot. Results of the 2012 election will be announced on Monday, Jan. 9.
Before 2010, McGwire admitted taking androstenedione, a steroid precursor, but nothing stiffer than that. In January of '10, he stepped forward, admitting to steroid use and apologizing for it. McGwire staunchly continued to maintain that his statistics were not inflated by his use of the drugs, but his contrition was hard to miss.
"I wanted to talk about this five years ago, but I wasn't in position to do it," McGwire said after his nationally televised apology. "I think everybody that's a human being has held something in that they wanted to release for quite some time. Once they do it, it takes a day or two to really let it sink in, and then you realize that, yeah, it's off my chest. I'm ready to turn the page and move on with my life. It's something that I totally regret. I can't say that I'm sorry enough to everybody in baseball and across America, whoever watches this great game."
As a player, McGwire was a true offensive force and, perhaps, an under-appreciated fielder. McGwire was a 12-time All-Star, a Gold Glover in 1990 and finished in the top 10 in Most Valuable Player balloting five times.
He ranks eighth all-time in slugging percentage, 10th in home runs and first in at-bats per home run. McGwire played on six playoff teams, three pennant winners and the 1989 World Series champion A's.
The career .263 batting average is a negative, but take away the drug use, and it is indisputably a Hall of Fame career.
"For me, there isn't anything that's changed about, No. 1, how much I believe in him, and No. 2, what that means as far as his career and his production and some of the historic things he did," said Tony La Russa, who managed McGwire in both Oakland and St. Louis. "I'm hoping that he gets that honor sooner rather than later.
"I don't know how to tell you the context as far as an answer. I just know there are issues that guys, fans raise, media raise, and however they get sorted out."
When McGwire made his full-season debut in 1987 for a young and emerging Oakland team, he was a phenomenon. He hit 49 homers, most of them mammoth and majestic. He drew 71 walks, showing the strike-zone judgment that would be nearly as much a part of his profile as his power. And he did it in a brutal hitters' ballpark several years before the offensive explosion of the 1990s took hold.
He followed that up with 32, 33 and 39 homers for the pennant-winners from '88 to '90, then struggled badly in 1991. A rebound brought 42 homers in 1992, but McGwire battled injuries throughout '93 and '94.
When McGwire returned healthy in '95, though, he was a force like never before. He hit for a higher average than he had in the past. He drew even more walks. And he hit homers at a rate even he hadn't previously managed. From 1995 through 2000, his last really effective season, McGwire went deep 316 times, an average of once every 8.06 at-bats.
McGwire was a dominating force in the lineup until injuries finally took him down. He struggled through 2001 before hanging it up at age 38.