The Steroid Era

The Steroid Era

The Bash Brothers - Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire

We review the 50 years of Steroids, Drugs and other PED's in baseball. From Tom House to Jose Canseco.

Drugs, baseball, and records

The lure of big money pushed players harder and harder to perform at their peaks. There is only so much conditioning that one can do to obtain an edge without inducing injury. The wearying travel schedule and 162-game season meant that amphetamines, usually in the form of pep pills known as "greenies", had been widespread in baseball since at least the early 1960s and as far back as Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, baseball's best pitcher before Cy Young dipped his hand in the PED's jar. Baseball's drug scene was no particular secret, having been discussed in Sports Illustrated in 1969

Exceprts from the Article:

"A few pills—I take all kinds—and the pain's gone," says Dennis McLain of the Detroit Tigers. McLain also takes shots, or at least took a shot of cortisone and Xylocaine (anti-inflammant and painkiller) in his throwing shoulder prior to the sixth game of the 1968 World Series—the only game he won in three tries. In the same Series, which at times seemed to be a matchup between Detroit and St. Louis druggists, Cardinal Bob Gibson was gobbling muscle-relaxing pills, trying chemically to keep his arm loose. The Tigers' Series hero, Mickey Lolich, was on antibiotics.

"We occasionally use Dexamyl and Dexedrine [amphetamines].... We also use barbiturates, Seconal, Tuinal, Nembutal.... We also use some anti-depressants, Triavil, Tofranil, Valium.... But I don't think the use of drugs is as prevalent in the Midwest as it is on the East and West coasts," said Dr. I. C. Middleman, who, until his death last September, was team surgeon for the St. Louis baseball Cardinals. 

In 1970, Jim Bouton's wrote a groundbreaking book Ball Four. It is listed by the New York Times as one of the top 100 non fictional books of all time. It detailed the underbelly of proffesional baseball. There was virtually no public backlash.

In 1973, Bowie Kuhn was called to congress to discuss the use of Steroids in Baseball and in attendence for those meetings was Bud Selig, the then Milwaukee Brewer owner.

Some excerpts from the hearings:

Congress first investigated drugs and professional sports, including steroids over 30 years ago. I think perhaps the only two people in the room who will remember this are me and Commissioner Selig, because I believe he became an owner in 1970.

In 1973, the year I first ran for Congress, the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce concluded a year-long investigation that found — and I quote — “drug use exists ¦ in all sports and levels of competition ¦ In some instances, the degree of improper drug use — primarily amphetamines and anabolic steroids — can only be described as alarming.”

The Committee’s chairman — Harley Staggers — was concerned that making those findings public in a hearing would garner excessive attention and might actually encourage teenagers to use steroids. Instead, he quietly met with the commissioners of the major sports, and they assured him the problem would be taken care of.

Chairman Staggers urged Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to consider instituting tough penalties and testing. And he trusted Commissioner Kuhn to do that. In fact, in a press release in May 1973, Chairman Staggers said — and again I quote — “Based on the constructive responses and assurances I have received from these gentlemen, I think self-regulation will be intensified, and will be effective.”

Read Full statement. Press release for the hearings can be found here.

In 2005, Tom House in the San Francisco Chronicle detailed that 7 out of 8 players were using steroids and other drugs. In said, "we never felt we got beat, we felt we got outmilligrammed". Read the full article. It should be noted, Davey Johnson holds the National League record for the largest homerun jump in a career. He hit 43 of his 118 career homeruns in one season in 1973. He held the MLB record until 2011 when Jose Bautista broke it. Johnson was a teammate of House.  

Bowie Kuhn tried to keep the publicity around this matter to a minimum, according to all reports he felt it would have a negative effect of the African-American and Latino players who were breaking records. Kuhn was working hard to get the Hall of Fame to allow the Negro League players into cooperstown. Baseball as a whole did clearly make adjustments, in 1973 the National and American League hit 3,102 homeruns. The next 3 years, 1974 - 2,649, 1975 - 2,698 and in 1976 it dipped to 2,245.

Baseball had other drug problems not related to performance enhancing drugs. Many players including Hall of Famers had issues with cocanie and other abuse. It was not until Jose Canseco, a hulking rookie and the first 40-40 player in 1988 came onto the scene did the steroid conversation come back.   

A memo circulated in 1991 by baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said, "The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players and personnel is strictly prohibited ... [and those players involved] are subject to discipline by the Commissioner and risk permanent expulsion from the game.... This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids…" Some general managers of the time do not remember this memo, and it was not emphasized or enforced.

Ephedra, a Chinese herb used to cure cold symptoms, and also used in some allergy medications, sped up the heart and was considered by some to be a weight-loss short-cut. Overweight pitcher Steve Bechler, who wanted to stay on the Baltimore Orioles roster, took just such a shortcut. He collapsed on February 17, 2003 while pitching, and was soon pronounced dead. Bechler's death raised concerns over the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Ephedra was banned, and soon the furor died down.

The 1998 home run race had generated nearly unbroken positive publicity, but Barry Bonds run for the all-time home run record provoked a backlash over steroids, which increase a person's testosterone level and subsequently enable that person to bodybuild with much more ease. Some athletes have said that the main advantage to steroids is not so much the additional power or endurance that they can provide, but that they can drastically shorten rehab time from injury.

Commissioner Bud Selig imposed a very strict anti-drug policy upon its minor league players, who are not part of the Major League Baseball Players Association (the PA). Random drug testing, education and treatment, and strict penalties for those caught were the rule of law. Anyone on a Major League team's forty man roster, including 15 minor leaguers that are on that list, were exempt from that program. Some called Selig's move a public relations stunt, or window dressing.

In a Sports Illustrated cover story in 2002, a year after his retirement, Ken Caminiti admitted that he had used steroids during his National League MVP-winning 1996 season, and for several seasons afterwards. Caminiti died unexpectedly of an apparent heart attack in The Bronx at the age of 41; he was pronounced dead on October 10, 2004 at New York's Lincoln Memorial Hospital. On November 1, the New York City Medical Examiners Office announced that Caminiti died from "acute intoxication due to the combined effects of cocaine and opiates," but coronary artery disease and cardiac hypertrophy (an enlarged heart) were also contributing factors.

In 2005, José Canseco published Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big admitting steroid usage and claiming that it was prevalent throughout major league baseball. When the United States Congress decided to investigate the use of steroids in the sport, some of the games most prominent players came under scrutiny for possibly using steroids. These include Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Mark McGwire. Other players, such as Canseco and Gary Sheffield, have admitted to have either knowingly (in Canseco's case) or not (Sheffield's) using steroids. In confidential testimony to the BALCO Grand Jury (that was later leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle), Giambi also admitted steroid use. He later held a press conference in which he appeared to affirm this admission, without actually saying the words. And after an appearance before Congress where he (unlike McGwire) emphatically denied using steroids, "period," slugger Rafael Palmeiro became the first major star to be suspended (10 days) on August 1, 2005 for violating Major League Baseball's newly strengthened ban on controlled substances, including steroids, adopted on August 7, 2002, starting in the 2003 season. Many lesser players (mostly from the minor leagues) have tested positive for use, as well.

In 2006, the Commissioner of Baseball tasked former United States Senator George J. Mitchell to lead an investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball (MLB) and on December 13, 2007, the 409-page Mitchell Report was released ('Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball'). The report described the use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) in MLB and assessed the effectiveness of the MLB Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Mitchell also advanced certain recommendations regarding the handling of past illegal drug use and future prevention practices. The report names 89 MLB players who are alleged to have used steroids or drugs.

Baseball has been taken to task for turning a blind eye to its drug problems. It benefited from these drugs in the ever-increasingly competitive fight for airtime and media attention. MLB and its Players Association finally announced tougher measures, but many felt that they did not go far enough.

In December 2009, Sports Illustrated named Baseball's Steroid Scandal as the number one sports story of the decade of the 2000s.

The BALCO steroids scandal

In 2002, a major scandal arose when it was discovered that a company called BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative), owned by Victor Conte, had been producing so-called "designer steroids", (specifically "the clear" and "the cream") which are steroids that cannot be detected by current drug testing policies. In addition, the company had connections to several San Francisco Bay Area sports trainers and athletes, including the trainers of Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds. This revelation lead to a vast criminal investigation into BALCO's connections with athletes from baseball and many other sports. During grand jury testimony in December 2003 – which was illegally leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle and published in December 2004 – Giambi allegedly admitted to using many different steroids, including fertility drugs (which could account for his declining health in the past few years). Bonds said that Greg Anderson gave him a rubbing balm and a liquid substance which others speculated as being "the cream" and "the clear." The paper reported that these substances were probably designer steroids. Bonds said that at the time he did not believe them to be steroids and thought they were flaxseed oil and other health supplements.

Various baseball pundits, fans, and even players have taken this as confirmation that Bonds used illegal steroids. Bonds never tested positive in tests performed in 2003, 2004, and 2005, which may be attributable to successful obfuscation of continued use as documented in the 2006 book Game of Shadows.

The Power Age

To meet the Power Age, Citi Field was built in New York to favor teams built on pitching, defense, and speed.

While the introduction of steroids certainly increased the power production of greats there were other factors that drastically increased the power surge after 1994. The factors cited are: smaller sized ballparks than in the past, "juiced baseballs" implying that the balls are wound tighter thus travel further following contact with the bat, "watered down pitching" implying that lesser quality pitchers are up in the Major Leagues due to too many teams. Albeit that these factors did play a large role in increasing home run thus scoring totals during this time, others that directly impact ballplayers have an equally important role. As noted earlier one of those factors is anabolic steroids which have the capability of increasing muscle mass, which enables hitters to not only hit "mistake" pitches farther, but it also enables hitters to adjust to "good" pitches such as a well-placed fastball, slider, changeup, or curveball, and hit them for home runs . Another such factor is better nutrition, as well as training and training facilities/equipment which can work with (or without) steroids to produce a more potent ballplayer and further enhance his skills.

Routinely in today's baseball age we see players reach 40 and 50 home runs in a season, a feat that even in the 1980s was considered rare. Many modern baseball theorists believe that a new pitch will swing the balance of power back to the pitcher. A pitching revolution would not be unprecedented—several pitches have changed the game of baseball in the past, including the slider in the 1950s and 1960s and the split-fingered fastball in the 1970s to 1990s. Since the 1990s, the changeup has made a resurgence, being thrown masterfully by pitchers such as Tim Lincecum, Pedro Martinez, Trevor Hoffman, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Johan Santana, Justin Verlander and Cole Hamels.

By Tom Hannon

Balco, Bowie Kuhn, Bud Selig, Fay Vincent, Game of Shadows, Mitchell Report, San Francisco Chronicle, Steroid Era, Victor Conte


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