A look at cheating and cheaters in the history of major league baseball, questioning why today's rule breakers are considered so much worse than those of yesteryear.
IF YOU'RE NOT CHEATING, YOU'RE NOT TRYING
"Cheating started when they threw out first ball in the first game ever played and it's been going on ever since." - Rogers Hornsby
The recent scandal at Biogenesis has once again raised the question of integrity in baseball. Are there any truly clean players? How can you ever really know if a player is clean and if their records are legitimate? Most importantly, why do teams and fans continue to reward cheating players with big contracts and constant praise for their tainted performance? This year highlights the issue even more, when arguably the greatest pitcher since Walter Johnson and greatest hitter since Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron both missed induction into the Hall of Fame, entirely due to their connection with illegal performance enhancing drugs. As can be seen in a hundred columns and a thousand comment threads across the internet, the familiar refrain is that 'cheaters have no place in the game of baseball'.
Are we so sure about that?
In many ways, cheating has always been a key aspect of the game of baseball. No other element has forced as much change in the fundamental rules of the games than players 'cheating'; innovating outside of the rules until the game caught up with them. Cheating has also defined eras, raised players to greatness, and been celebrated in the Hall of Fame from the very beginning. That doesn't mean cheating has been a positive force, but the idea of a 'clean' Hall of Fame seems impossible when looked at in the context of baseball history. To an extent that makes you wonder whether or not the journalists and writers who have come out so forcefully against the stars of the Steroid Era really understand the history of the game they are supposed to be representing in their votes.
Taking a look back, all the way to the first games of a modified town ball on the Elysian Fields of New Jersey can tell us a lot about cheaters, cheating, and the game of baseball.
EARLY DAYS AND ELYSIAN FIELDS
"He uses every low and contemptible method that his erratic brain can conceive to win a play by a dirty trick." - National League President John Heydler on John McGraw
When Alexander Joy Cartwright first wrote out the rules for the New York Knickerbockers baseball club (which would largely form the genesis of the professional rules eventually adopted through-out baseball), it was a very different sport. Foul balls were considered to have no effect on the count. The ball was 'pitched' not thrown at the plate underhand, and there was no strike zone. Quickly, players began to exploit the rules, twisting them to help their performance. The concept of the 'called strike' came into play as batters would watch dozens of pitches before swinging at ones they liked , and foul balls became strikes as batters got adept at slapping pitches foul, waiting for mistakes. Jim Creighton determined that he could get more rotation on the ball by employing a 'wrist snap' while pitching for the Brooklyn Niagaras. The underhand pitch quickly developed into early versions of the sidearm and submarine pitch, before the rule was abandoned and 'pitchers' (as opposed to throwers) began to throw from the three-quarter and overhand slot in 1884.
When Candy Cummings first started to throw the curveball to battery-mate Nat Hicks, opposing teams complained to the National Association of Base Ball Players that the pitch was illegal under the existing rules. Fortunately for him, in 1872, the NABBP declared the pitch legal. When the National League codified their rules in 1876, the curveball was firmly ensconced as a legal pitch from the start.
As baseball professionalized, the rules did as well, and with an established National League and American League using roughly standard rules, bending them required a little more ingenuity. It appeared in the form of a gritty young infielder named John McGraw with the Baltimore Orioles in 1891. McGraw would practice a type of baseball that would one day become synonymous with him and the Deadball era. When umpires were distracted, he'd hold on to runner's belts, trip men on the base paths, spike opposing players and umps, and when all else failed, brawl with the other team. In their park in Baltimore, he instructed the groundskeeper to pound down the ground in front of the plate as hard as possible, so that the Orioles could slash downward on pitches and bounce them high into the air from the tightly packed earth, making it easy to beat out the throw to first. They would use this tactic so frequently it would eventually be called the 'Baltimore Chop' by other teams and sportswriters. They would also stash extra baseballs in the long grass of the outfield, so if the one in play got too far away, they could substitute a closer one (a tactic later to be continued to this day in Chicago's Wrigley Field, and its ivy covered outfield fences).
The Orioles may have been the best at pushing the envelope, but they were far from alone. Several teams got so good at distracting an umpire that a runner could cut across the diamond and go from first to third for a triple. This practice is directly credited with the advent of a crew of umpires, as opposed to a single official behind the plate. Other players used intimidation to remarkable effect. Ty Cobb would sharpen his spikes, and when going into a base, would 'go in with my steel showing' prompting many infielders to preserve their shins by failing to block the base. In one reported event, a catcher chose to flee home plate rather than collect two sets of razor sharp cleats to his stomach, knees or groin.
Another illegal innovation of the era was the practice of cutting or scuffing the ball. Russ Ford is credited with throwing the first 'emery' ball on April 21, 1910, and would ride it to a 26-6 record, a WHIP of 0.899 and an ERA+ of 154 for the New York Highlanders. Baseballs in the Deadball era were notoriously irregular in any case. The ball rarely left the park, and as a result, the game might have the same ball in play for several innings. Players would intentionally mar, scuff, and cut the ball. They'd rub dirt in it, gob tobacco juice on the ball, and oddly enough, spit licorice juice on it. It was common enough to be one of the substances specifically mentioned in Rule 3.02 outlawing the practice.
Cheating wasn't confined to just on-field chicanery to win games. Once crowds started to flock to baseball games, professional gamblers followed. During early National League games and in many of the smaller leagues, gamblers would openly run a book from in the stands. Players were regularly shouted offers of money for missing plays from the fans, and not all of the deals were ignored. Hal Chase, referred to as 'Prince Hal', was widely considered the best first baseman in the game. He was also notorious for his connection to gamblers, to the point that fans would shout out 'what are the odds, Hal?' when he missed a play or struck out.
As baseball grew more and more popular, and settled into something close to the modern form, it faced a moment that threatened to kill the game, and would go on to define the game in certain ways to this day.
THE BLACK SOX, THE SPITTER, AND THE COMMISSIONERS OFFICE
"I don't put any foreign substances on the baseball. Everything I use is from the good old U.S.A." - George Frazier
The Black Sox scandal rocked the world of baseball to the core. It wasn't that players had cheated; that was always accepted as happening on some level. It wasn't that players tried to throw a game; that also wasn't the first time fans had watched suspiciously poor play suddenly turn the momentum of a game. It was that money was enough to convince players to throw the ultimate of prizes - The World Series - and that it wasn't just one or two men. Eight men, who comprised most of the stars of the Chicago White Sox, had agreed to fix the game for Arnold Rothstein and his group. The scandal would ultimately change baseball more than any other factor thus far. With it, the Commissioner's Office was established and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis would be given the keys to baseball for the next 24 years.
The rules on gambling for baseball players, managers, officials and owners was finally codified in 1927, and read: 'Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor had a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible'. The unequivocal language would have a profound effect on the game, both immediately, and 62 years later under a different Commissioner (who would join Landis as the only other Commissioner to die in office).
But the appointment of Landis wasn't the only major change of the 1920 season. During a game at the Polo Grounds on August 16, 1920, Yankees pitcher Carl Mays hit Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in the temple with a fastball. Chapman made no attempt to get out of the way, leaving observers to believe that the falling twilight, Mays deceptive submarine style motion, and the battered, discoloured ball made it impossible for Chapman to see. The ball crushed his temple with such force that Mays initially fielded the ball as it bounced back out to the field and threw to first, believing Chapman had swung. Chapman was taken to hospital and died twelve hours later.
In response to the outcry, new measures were taken by the Commissioner's office. The leagues had been considering adopting a new design of baseball, wound tighter and lighter than the current model. With Chapman's death, the new ball was slated for the 1921 season, along with the mandate for umpires to replace the ball with a new one as soon as it became scuffed or discoloured. The lighter, tighter ball flew off the bat more forcefully and it came along just in time for the rise of the tremendous offensive abilities of Babe Ruth to capitalize on. Another result was the ruling of the spitball as an illegal pitch. Mays, a notoriously foul tempered player who was strongly disliked by opposing players and press, was one of the league's premiere spitballers, and the ruling was made to address the rumour that the pitch that killed Chapman had been a spitball that had been made unavoidable due to the moisture added break.
The origins of the spitball are a little muddled. Many believe that Phonney Martin was responsible for inventing the pitch, although like the emery ball, it likely had a dozen forebearers before it reached the hands of someone with the talent to make it noticed. George Hildebrand, a mediocre Pacific Leaguer, taught it to Elmer Stricklett. Stricklett, a starter for parts of three seasons with the Brooklyn Superbas, passed the knowledge on to Ed Walsh and Jack Chesbro in the minors, helping both of them pitch the only 40-win seasons in the 20th Century. When the pitch was outlawed in 1920, the Commissioner's office allowed each team to designate two pitchers as legal 'spitballers', grandfathering them in as the only legal exceptions to the rule. Interestingly, George Hildebrand would serve as an umpire for 21 years, enforcing the ban against the pitch he helped reach the major leagues. At least four attempts have been made to lift the spitball ban, in 1949, 1955, 1961, and 1966. Former Commissioner Ford Frick urged the leagues to make the spitball legal again, but to no avail. The last legal spitball was thrown by Burleigh Grimes in 1934.
It would not be the final spitball ever thrown in the major leagues.
OWNERS GET IN ON THE ACTION AND THE HOUSE THAT BABE BUILT
"I try not to break the rules but merely test their elasticity." - Bill Veeck
The Black Sox scandal badly hurt baseball, and some predicted the demise of the game, but the creation of the Commissioner's Office and Landis' swift (and many say unfair) actions against the Black Sox team members staunched the flow somewhat. Despite being acquitted by trial of any wrong doing, he banned them for life, with the support of much of the baseball press for his decision. Baseball was declared 'clean' again, just in time for Babe Ruth to take advantage of the banning of spitballs and the tighter wound ball to swat 59 home runs and put up a monstrous 12.6 WAR season. The slugger packed stadiums everywhere with his power, and a number of power hitters would soon follow: Jimmy Foxx, Lou Gehrig, George Sisler, and Rogers Hornsby.
Even as pitchers had their options of doctoring the ball scrutinized, few bothered to look at the bats they were throwing against. Doctoring bats was becoming an art form, and it was revealed many years later than several bats given to fans by Babe presumably from his normal selection had been corked. Corking a bat is a way to reduce the overall weight of the bat while maintaining the size and dimensions, allowing the batter to get around quicker and take advantage of the expanded sweet spot. Other industrious players would carve out grooves of wood, fill them with much lighter pine tar to dry hard, and then refinish the exterior to make it match.
Many of Ruth's supporters scoff at the idea that his prodigious power came from corked bats. It wasn't uncommon for players to use corked bats in batting practice, hitting sky-high homers for early arriving fans to ogle. Ruth was never actually caught with a corked bat in a game, but the question remains. Interestingly enough, the corking of an old style bat, especially the monsters that Ruth used (40-44 ounce bats through most of his career) would roughly reduce the weight the same amount as the modern practice of 'cupping' bats; hollowing an inward hemisphere at the tip of the bat which is common in most MLB approved bats today.
Not to be outdone by his slugger, Colonel Jacob Ruppert went a step further and 'corked' a whole stadium, with the unveiling of Yankee Stadium. Never before had a park been built and tailored to the advantages of a single player. Yankee Stadium was built with a deep left field power alley, a cavernous centre field, and the infamous short porch in right field designed to help the left handed power hitting Ruth. The notorious dimensions would revert to something closer to standard dimensions with renovations in 1936, 1955 and 1976, but it would retain the short porch. As was noted by Daniel Okrent, it might have been the House that Ruth Built, but it was also the House Built for Ruth.
Outside of the major leagues, tricks that had been employed in the early days of the game had made a strong resurgence with barn storming teams across the country. First basemen would pack the ends of the fingers in their gloves with rocks, hammering down tags and throw-overs to discourage runners from taking too big a lead. George Giles was remembered as being exceptionally good at digging in his cleats on the edges of a runner’s shoe, sending them sprawling when they tried to run for second. Of course, the old tactics worked just as well – getting a starting pitcher drunk on illegal moonshine the night before the game, sneaking a prostitute into their bed to get them sent out of town, and flat out thievery of equipment all travelled with the teams.
INTEGRATED BASEBALL , GREENIES AND THE BOW-TIE PITCH
"There is a culture of deception in this game. It's been in this game for 100 years. I do not look at this in terms of ethics. It's the culture of the game." - Andy MacPhail
After staggering through the Second World War, baseball enjoyed a renaissance after V-Day, as returning stars once again topped the marquees and Americans flocked to the ballparks. In 1947, Branch Rickey would help end the policy of segregation in baseball so carefully held by Landis up until his death in 1944. Happy Chandler wasn't a zealot like Landis, and Rickey was a man of considerable influence. Jackie Robinson was the first of many black and dark-skinned Hispanics who were funneled into the big leagues, and they brought with them a different style of play. The returning players from the war also brought a new aid to play the game - amphetamines.
Amphetamines - better known as Speed - were widely distributed to troops in the Second World War to combat fatigue and sharpen their attention. Following the war, the popularity of amphetamines as a street drug skyrocketed and quickly found their way into baseball.
Called 'greenies' by the players for the distinctive bright green full strength and two-toned light green half strength pills, they flowed into clubhouses during the Fifties and would remain a fixture until the turn of the century. Amphetamines helped sharpen the focus of the players, combat fatigue later in the season, and enable them to live hard driving lives outside the ballpark and still be able to play effectively the next day. On his way to breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, Hank Aaron was aided by a steady diet of greenies. In Toronto in the late 90s, Brian McNamee stated that the entire starting rotation were using amphetamines to pitch and then go out and golf the next day. In one anecdote, he mentions being cautioned not to drink the coffee in the clubhouse unless you were a player, inferring that it was heavily spiked.
Other drugs would enter the picture and define two ages of baseball - the cocaine saturated 80s and the Steroid Era that followed.
Another element of the game which is technically against the rules and has never been enforced is stealing signs. Good managers and players have always attempted to pick up on plays and pitches as they are relied. When successful, it has been likened to playing poker against someone whose hand is face up on the table. Willie Mays was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and teammates were quick to point out that along with his fielding, speed, and offense, Mays was also one of the best sign stealers they had encountered. Leo Durocher once recounted a game in 1954 where Mays jogged to the dugout after just the first inning and proceeded to explain the code the opposition were using to call plays and relay instructions to the pitcher. In order to protect against sign stealing, pitchers used to use the inside fastball to make their point. According to Nolan Ryan, it was Satchel Paige that informed him that 'the best pitch is the bow-tie pitch'. When Ryan asked him to explain, the 70 year old Paige drew a line across his Adam's apple. "It's when you throw it right here, where they wear their bow tie."
Throwing at players is both a time honoured tradition and illegal under the rules of baseball. In the early days, pitchers were allowed to 'soak' a runner by drilling them with the ball while on the base path, but it was changed by the time the rules had been codified. Intentionally throwing at the batter still happens, and there are strict cultural rules around it in the game. Pitches like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were famous for their willingness to come inside, especially if the batter committed a cardinal sin like crowding the plate or admiring a home run too long. Not throwing at a batter can get a pitcher into more trouble than throwing at one, getting them accused of not protecting their hitters and letting the other team dictate the tone of the game. On September 2009, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon hit Adam Lind in the elbow in the ninth inning. Lind had already crushed three home runs off Boston pitching that day, and despite Papelbon's promise that it was unintentional, it could not be left unanswered. Pitching the next day, Toronto's ace Roy Halladay - long known as an intense but clean competitor - waited for David Ortiz to step into the box and promptly drilled him in the elbow guard, restoring balance. Ortiz knew he would be hit by Halladay. Fans watching knew that Halladay would be deliberately throwing at Ortiz, and yet, the umpires made little reaction to a clearly illegal pitch.
In 1993, Toronto's Jack Morris was clued in to the fact that a runner on second base was trying to steal his signs and relay them to the batter. Morris stormed off the mound towards second, pointed at the plate, and said, "I'm throwing a fastball and it's going at him. Make sure you tell him that." His next pitch forced the batter to hit the deck as it screamed in at head height. "Did you tell him?" Morris yelled at the runner. "Did you?" One assumes the message had been delivered.
Toronto would again be embroiled in a sign stealing controversy in 2011 as Amy Nelson and Peter Keating of ESPN accused Toronto of employing a 'man in white' who was signaling Jays batters by raising his hands to indicate breaking balls being called. Widely derided in Toronto and seized on as the reason for Jose Bautista's power surge everywhere else, it was the latest accusation in a long tradition of teams employing men outside of the field as spotters and ringers to try and sway the odds in their team's favour.
FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE THIRD BASE LINE - an aside
"We can't stop here. This is bat country!" - Raoul Duke
One of baseball's biggest scandals of the pre-strike era would be the Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985. A number of stars like Tim Raines, Lonnie Smith, and Keith Hernandez were tied to cocaine abuse both on and off the field. Testimony from John Milner implicated Willie Mays and Willie Stargell as amphetamine users, and Keith Hernandez opined that 40% of baseball players used cocaine. In one of the more ridiculous revelations was that the drug culture was so entrenched in Pittsburgh that even the Pirate Parrot mascot was involved.
But substance abuse, legal and illegal alike, has been a part of the game for a long time. Alcohol was the most common, even to the point that elements of the American League were originally part of the 'Beer and Whiskey' League in the 19th century. Baseball has always featured hard drinkers - Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rube Waddell, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin - to name just a few. Beer sales and breweries were a key financial backer of baseball teams, their advertisements becoming iconic in New York and St. Louis.
Baseball has never proved immune to drugs and cultural shifts. Marijuana use became more common in the 60s, as well as recreational drugs like LSD. Pirates starter Dock Ellis took the mound against Padres on June 12, 1970 after having consumed a tab of LSD. He threw one of the ugliest no-hitters in baseball history, walking 8 and striking out just 6 while unable to see the ball or the catcher's mitt clearly. It followed the popular rise of cocaine in the 70s and into the 80s, when it became an underground industry worth billions.
The difference with other narratives about 'cheating' is that those recreational drugs are clearly not performance enhancing. Some have cited cocaine as having a similar effect as amphetamines, but that discounts several common side effects which have the opposite effect on the core skills a player needs to be successful. The MLB's drug policy does extend to drugs on the Schedule A, B and C listing of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and there is general testing in place similar to many workplaces. Unlike steroids and performance enhancing drugs, there are no lifetime bans mandated in the penalties, although the Commissioner's Office does have the power to suspend a player indefinitely. With a recent spate of high profile DUIs from current baseball stars, it is likely that at some point, there will be a lengthy discussions between the MLB and the MLBPA on some kind of effort to address it in a more significant fashion.
BEATING THE ODDS AND BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY
"The only reason players in my time didn’t use steroids is because we didn’t have them." - Buck O'Neil
At the end of the 1980s, baseball staggered between two spectacles; the fall of the man who held the all time hit record in the game, and the rise of an astonishing team of sluggers and speedsters from Oakland who would serve as a prototype for baseball following the strike. Both would, in their own ways, sketch out the foundations that led to the current and continuous relationship between the era and the Hall of Fame.
Pete Rose, known as 'Charlie Hustle' to his many fans, had moved to managing full time in 1985 and in 1989 was implicated in numerous incidents of betting on baseball. A self-admitted gambling addict, Rose initially fought all the charges. However, during a meeting with Commissioner Bart Giamatti, Rose made a deal to be permanently ineligible to play baseball in return for the Commissioner's office dropping any further investigations. Later in life, Rose would admit to gambling on baseball, and eventually betting on his own team, although he insists he never bet against his own team. Regardless, the language of rules does not allow for exceptions, and Commissioners Vincent and Selig have maintained Giamatti's ban, which also bars Rose from the Hall of Fame. The curious precedent of one of the game's greatest players being absent from the roles of the rest looms large today, and looks to be likely repeated.
Steroids and performance enhancing drugs have been around as long as the game. Pud Gavin, baseball's first pitcher to win (and lose) 300 games in professional baseball, swore by a concoction called Brown-Sequard Elixir, a testosterone supplement derived from the testicles of live animals. Other players tried other different miracle cures, usually based on quack medicine and skilled salesmanship, treating the often ignorant and ill-educated players as rubes. In 1961, Mickey Mantle had visited Max Jacobsen for treatment. Jacobsen was known as 'Doctor Feelgood' for his cures based heavily on the injection of amphetamines into the patients. Mantle developed an infection from the injection, and was forced to sit near the end of the season, watching Maris pass him to hit 61 home runs that year. Early testosterone injections were not uncommon, but the quality and distribution simply wasn't properly professionalized in order to back systemic change.
While steroid use wasn't unknown, for years it was the baseball establishment that unwittingly discouraged it by warning players away from weight lifting and adding muscle bulk. Coaches would argue that too much weight training made players slower, dulled their bat speed, and got in the way of a clean delivery or swing. While the odd specimen like Jimmie Foxx would be celebrated for his hulking physique, the establishment favoured those built along leaner lines. Sluggers would experiment, but it wasn't until the 80s that a combination of better science, easier access, and soaring salaries brought performance enhancing drugs to baseball in a systemic way. While not the only example, the best would be that of the Oakland A's and the heart of their line-up; the Bash Brothers - Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. McGwire was a pure power hitter, launching monster dingers at a fast clip. Canseco, on the other hand, was built more like a running back, with explosive speed to go along with his power. Both players became stars on one of the best teams of the late-80s, and move on to greater fame and notoriety in the near future.
Following the 1994 strike, fans came back to see a game increasingly defined by power hitters feasting on starting rotations diluted from expansion. Tens of thousands would flock to see batting practice by some of the most renowned hitters. Albert Belle started the trend in 1995 by crushing 50 home runs. Brady Anderson and McGwire would both hit more than 50 in 1996, and 1997 would see a home run race between Ken Griffey Jr. and McGwire that would finished with 56 and 59 home runs respectively - the biggest challenge to Maris' record yet. In 1998, sluggers McGwire and Griffey squared off again, but Griffey was outpaced by Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs. Maris' record, which had stood for 37 years, was shattered as the sluggers finished with 70 and 66 home runs for the season. The successes of the year temporarily overshadowed an article by Steve Wilstein where McGwire admitted to used androstenedione or 'andro' to help recover from injury. While Tom Boswell and Bob Nightengale had brought up the increase in legal and possibly illegal steroid use in baseball earlier in the decade, Wilstein's story was the first to include the admission by an active player of steroid use.
Wilstein became the journalistic bannerman for exposing the Steroid Era, although he was vilified at the time by the MLB. It was only with great reluctance did the first testing program go into effect between the MLB and the MLBPA in 2002. The initial plan was immensely weak - minor sanctions, anonymous testing, and a provision that unless 5% or more players tested positive, no further actions would be taken. The players failed the threshold and a more rigorous program was implemented. Further improvements were made in 2005, but even then, the testing was nebulous, often administered in such a fashion to give players and clubs plenty of time to make arrangements to protect their stars, and was still relatively toothless. Even Canseco`s tell all book `Juiced` that admitted to wide spread and accepted drug use in baseball failed to generate the outrage necessary for change. It wasn't until after the Kirk Radomski arrest in 2007 for distributing illegal steroids in the Mets clubhouse and the release of the Mitchell Report later that year that the MLB and the MLBPA would be forced to adopt what would be one of the strictest drug testing and enforcement policies of any professional sport in North America.
Not surprising, the report confirmed the rumours that the BALCO scandal and investigations of Brian McNamee had generated. Barry Bonds, the reigning single season home run champion and soon to be all time home run king, and Roger Clemens, an age-defying pitcher who was widely considered the best right handed power pitcher since Walter Johnson, were both implicated as relying on performance enhancing drugs to fuel their success and durability. While they would be far from the only players exposed, their historic status in the game of baseball was seen as a worse insult – not only did they cheat, but now they wanted to cheat to cheapen the achievements of the other players in the Hall of Fame. Their candidacy for the Hall of Fame in 2012 proved one of the most contentious ballots in years, with neither man garnering more than 50% of the vote.
While the temptation is to place all the blame on the players, recently the plausible deniability enjoyed by the organizations and coaches has started to crumble. Players have gone on record to suggest that league doctors under the guise of education suggested ways to use certain types of PEDs in a fashion to limit the dangers of testing positive. Coaches have used coded language to suggest that a struggling player needs to find an edge or risk being sent down. It`s unlikely that a smoking gun will appear in the form of a note on New York Yankees letterhead mandating the coaches start pumping steroids into the Gatorade supply, but even if relentlessly naïve and innocent of any knowledge, organizations and the baseball media helped create a protected atmosphere of permissiveness in which PED usage could explode to a level unheard of in the game. They legacy of that permissiveness continues in baseball to this day, even as any accountability has be neatly displaced on to the backs of the players.
AND KNOWING IS HALF THE BATTLE
"We do not play baseball. We play professional baseball. Amateurs play games. We are paid to win games. There are rules and there are consequences if you break them. If you are a pro, then you often don't decide whether to cheat based on if it's 'right or wrong'. You base it on whether or not you can get away with it, and what the penalty might be. A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor." - George Bamberger
In an age of steroids, human growth hormone, and tawdry Miami clinics, the idea that the spitball still matters is almost quaint. And yet, reliever turned author and broadcaster Dirk Hayhurst confirmed that he and his bullpen companions still gunked the ball up with whatever they could find when the opportunity presented itself. Corked bats are less in vogue because of changes to bat design, but it is still less than a decade since Sammy Sosa`s corked bat was exposed as it exploded in front of television cameras on an RBI grounder. You also have to assume that methods which are not yet illegal but certainly in the spirit of acquiring an illicit edge are being employed by players, coaches and organizations without discovery.
The point is not whether or not cheating is good, bad or indifferent. It is more that cheating has always been part of the continuum of baseball. Consider for a moment, that in the roughly 150 years as a professional sport, at no point can any era or any player be confidentially called `clean`. In the absence of purity, it is important to look on baseball and the current PED scandals with a different eye, outside of the context of just `right' or 'wrong'. Gaylord Perry built a career out of throwing a spitball long after the last legal one was spun past a hitter by Grimes in 1934. Baseball rewarded the open secret with only once throwing Perry from a game for having a foreign substance found on a pitch he threw. Perry was also 42 and winding up his career at the time. Baseball and the sports writers who winked at each other and chuckled about ol' Gaylord's 'hard slider' even while they were rewarding his cheating with induction into the Hall of Fame in 1991.
To history, Gaylord Perry is a loveable scamp; like the old starter in 'Major League', showing the rookie how he doctors the ball with snot for an extra few inches of break in order to stay in the game. Those men are as celebrated by the baseball establishment as a Bonds or an A-Rod are vilified. So, again, the question is how should we judge cheating? Why should Bonds' possibly PED influenced home run record be considered less worthy than the Babe's possibly corked bat influenced home run record or Hank Aaron's possibly amphetamine influenced home run record? Where is the line drawn between what is considered the good kind of cheating like muddying up a ball to get that third strike with some extra break and what is considered the bad kind of cheating like using steroids to stay on the field longer?
Whether you believe in unequivocal bans for all cheating of any stripe, none at all, or something in-between, it is clear that the baseball media and many fans still need to address is the fantasy of a pure and clean game once existing, and the faux outrage directed at more recent players for ruining it. Whatever you think, however you feel, cheating in some capacity and its acceptance has been a part of the game for as long as there has been a game. All records are dirty in some way and all the men in Cooperstown either played dirty or played alongside those who did in silence. Once we accept that fact, maybe baseball will be finally ready for a real discussion about PEDs, the players that used them and the Hall of Fame.