Drugs

5 Drugs That Shaped Major League Baseball

Drug issues have been part of professional ball from the very beginning.

Busch Stadium, St. Louis
Photo Credit: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

The stadium roars as the players take to the field, the pitcher to the mound. The fans fill the bleachers, warm hot dogs and cold beers in their hands. Another pro baseball season begins, opening day is here.

The National Pastime may not be what it used to be—its ratings and earnings are now dwarfed by the NFL and the NBA—and its reputation as a metaphor for all that is good and desirable in American life, carefully burnished by for decades by sports writers and the league itself, is now sullied by performance enhancing drug scandals, but the sport still holds a certain special place in the American psyche and mythos.

And while its fans (and its crotchety critics who yearn for the good old days, when the game was "pure") may be shocked and even saddened by the latest revelations of human growth hormone use or the latest star player under suspension for a failed drug test, they shouldn't be surprised. Baseball's dalliances with different drugs go back to the beginnings of the game: Nineteenth Century pitching sensation Pud Galvin, who threw an amazing 646 complete games, was experimenting with testosterone derivatives as early as 1889.

In the recently published Team Chemistry: The History of Drugs and Alcohol in Major League Baseball, historian Nathan Michael Corzine goes past the mythology and digs deep to reveal a game splashed with spilled whiskey and tobacco stains from its origins, where substances of various stripes were valued for their supposed ability to help athletes play better, as well as cope with the stress and tedium that of the months-long, 160-game endurance test is the major league baseball season.

1. Alcohol. Beer and baseball go together like malt and hops. From the pro game's very beginnings, when brewers sponsored teams, boozing it up was considered part of the hale and hearty masculinity the game was supposed to embody. Baseball lore is full of stories of players overcoming their drunkenness in ways that made their feats of athleticism seem even more heroic. "I saw three balls coming at me, but I just swung at the middle one," is a quote various versions of which were serially attributed to one hard-drinking batter after another over the years. "I'll take nine whiskey drinkers over nine milkshake drinkers any day," said Yankees manager Ralph Houk in 1960.

The Yankees of that era were the quintessential booze-loving ball team, mixing success on the field with drunken revelry and hazy bar fights off the field. Led by Dead End Kids Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and Whitey Ford, the early '60s Yanks boozed their way to individual records and World Series pennants. And, of course, the most famous baseball boozer of all, Babe Ruth, was a Yankee.

But hard-drinking also destroyed pro ball careers and sometimes led to early death. The end of major league ball's long love affair with alcohol can probably be placed at 1995, the year home-run king Mantle died of liver failure just months after getting the most controversial liver transplant in American history. Ball players still like to tipple, but now, they can't count on their teams and the league to back them or pooh-pooh their behavior when they get in trouble.

2. Tobacco. For decades, the ball player with a cheek bulging with wads of chewing tobacco, spitting streams of brown tobacco juice in (or at least near) ubiquitous spittoons, was part of big league baseball's hale and hearty image. And as with booze, the tobacco industry was a key sponsor of the game. Tobacco companies like Bull Durham so commonly advertised their wares on the on the fences of Southern  ball fields that the area at the back of the stadium warmed up became known as the bullpen.

Tobacco companies relentlessly tied their products to the vim, vigor, and masculinity of ball players. If you only tried their products, perhaps you, too, could be as manly and successful as Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, who not only chewed, but also smoked cigarettes, and many, many cigars. In his first venture onto the silver screen, the Yankee slugger's plot line centered on his inability to hit the game-winning home run until he abstemious girlfriend relented and let him get that plug in his cheek.

If Mickey Mantle's sad demise marked the end of baseball's public flirtation with booze, '50s and '60s journeyman ball player Bill Tuttle's 1996 tour ended the era of baseball's unthinking embrace of smokeless tobacco. Tuttle, who estimated that he chewed 12 hours a day for 40 years, developed oral cancer in 1993, resulting in repeated surgeries that cost him part of his jawbone, part of his cheeks, his tastebuds, and numerous teeth. Tuttle's monstrous appearance was put to good use on that 1996 tour aimed at discouraging pros and kids alike from using the chew.

3. Amphetamines. "Greenies" (Dexedrine) were a club house staple for decades beginning just after World War II, when ball players drafted into the military returned to the diamond having been exposed to the stimulant pills, which the armed forces dispensed by the millions. Another incubator of baseball speed-freakery was the winter Caribbean baseball circuit. There, players on seasonal hiatus discovered the two coffee pot system, where each club house had one pot with regular coffee and one with an amphetamine additive.  Talk about a morning wake me up!

The arrival of amphetamines in baseball also marked the emergence of the post-war embrace of better living through chemistry and opened up the debate of the role of performance enhancing drugs in way that booze and tobacco never did. While now, in the post-steroids era, old-fashioned amphetamines are considered passe, they haven't ever gone away. Just last week, an Arizona Diamondbacks minor leaguer was suspended for amphetamine use.

4. Cocaine. In the 1980s, pro baseball was hit with a league-wide cocaine scandal that included debauched parties at the home of a Kansas City Royals superfan and included an FBI investigation of four Royals players, most famously pitcher Vida Blue. Blue skated, but Willie Wilson, Willie Aiken, and Jerry Martin got prison time. Two years later, another cocaine scandal rocked the Pittsburgh Pirates, but this time, all the players involved avoided prison time by testifying for the prosecution against their suppliers.

It's not at all clear that cocaine was used as a performance enhancer, though some players were known to snort it on the bench or between innings to stay alert. It seems much more likely that it was just the party drug of choice for high-flying, deep-pocketed ball players, although it cost several of them their careers, including one-time rookie of the year, Dodger's pitcher Steve Howe.

5. Steroids. It was hard not to notice when guys like Royals slugger Mark McGwire began slamming an ungodly number of home run balls over the fences, shredding long-standing home run records, but also raising questions with his physical transformation from normal human being into Hulk-like hitting machine. Of course, McGwire wasn't the only one; long-ball hitters Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa were also implicated in what Corzine calls baseballs "Summers of the Long Ball Frauds." Steroids remain an issue in baseball to this day. 

 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Environment
Food
Media
World