Save your lectures, baseball writers
You are looking at the cover of Sports Illustrated for the June 23, 1969 issue. Yeah. This cover does two things; 1. It proves the cat was out of the bag about athletes using performance enhancing drugs well before the 1990s when Barry Bonds apparently invented steroids. 2. It puts a sock in the mouth of every holier than thou baseball writer who has lectured us about how the 90s and first part of the 2000s were lost decades due to players upholding a tradition of PED use that at least began in 1968.
Kudos to Ty Duffy at The Big Lead for bringing this to my attention. For the proper context on what is below, please read his post from that link, which includes an excerpt from an article from that 1969 edition of SI where players from the Cardinals and Tigers both readily admit to taking a cocktail of drugs – not talking about Advil here – in order to play or play better. This includes Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. Here’s my favorite part of Duffy’s take:
Gibson and others were men of virtue and esteem, though. Sure, they would inhale painkillers and amphetamines with reckless disregard, but if you told them they could rub in a cream, ingest a pill or receive an injection that would (a) keep them healthier (b) enhance their performance (c) earn them tens of millions of dollars and (d) not be tested for in any fashion by MLB, they totally would have turned it down.
Boom, roasted. To be sure, I am in no way condoning PED use. But to hold the players of the proclaimed “steroid era” to some higher moral standard than the players who came before them is patently ridiculous. It’s so easy to romanticize the past and just assume that because our dads loved Bob Gibson, he would not have cheated had the same options been available to him that were available to anyone whose name surfaced in the Mitchell Report. And then, as it turns out, Bob Gibson took plenty of pills in his day to improve his performance.
Am I comparing muscle relaxers and pain killers to anabolic steroids and human growth hormone? No, of course not. But enough of this nonsense that the stars of the past only needed a Louisville Slugger and love of the game to be great and nothing else. If anything, the untouchable superstars of yesteryear share in some, emphasis some, of the blame for the proliferation of more extreme drugs in the “steroid era.” Judging by that Sports Illustrated article from 44 years ago, it sure sounds like there was a drug culture in the clubhouses of Major League Baseball long before Jose Canseco held his first needle.
You don’t really get that sense when you listen to Hall of Fame voters ramble on about how modern PED users have tarnished the game, hence ruining the “pure” standard set by Bob Gibson and those alike. If you’re voting against Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire because you think the PEDs they took gave them a greater advantage, and hence was a greater degree of “cheating” than the myriad painkillers players used after a long season in the 1968 World Series, fine. But enough with the “back in my day things were on the up and up” speeches. I love the game of baseball too, and love all the emotional Ken Burns films that tug at the heartstrings of the awestruck baseball fan. But I’m also not whimsical enough to think baseball wasn’t then and isn’t now more than just a game and a business in which loopholes and weaknesses are exploited like any other business, and not some sacrosanct institution that we fool ourselves into thinking marks each moment in our lives. The “back in my day” speeches are exhausting and pointless. The past is always the easiest thing to unfairly glorify, because people forget over time. “Back in the day,” politicians were just as dishonest as they are now, kids didn’t respect their elders any more than they do now, and big league athletes were looking for an edge just the same.
Speaking of baseball writers on a high horse and accountability, where were all the writers ready to out PED users during the “steroid era?” You have a group of people who cover Major League Baseball on a daily basis, who endlessly and egotistically flaunt their “access” and “sources” and “relationships” with players to the point it almost becomes unprofessional. Well, it would seem being so tuned-in to the back channels of Major League Baseball, a decent amount of writers would have an inkling PED use was taking place. Well that, and the extreme distortion of home run numbers and men who looked like real-life versions of Joe Swanson from Family Guy.
But no, writers will cry that no one held these cheaters accountable, and lambaste Peter Ueberroth, Fay Vincent and Bud Selig for being asleep at the wheel during the “steroid era.” Perhaps the commissioners were turning a blind eye while the game grew, new home run-friendly stadiums were built and the profits piled up. That I can’t say for sure. But I won’t sit here and be brow-beaten with sanctimonious lectures from baseball writers who were apparently just as cooperative with the code of silence regarding performance enhancing drugs that permeated each clubhouse during this time. To suggest something was askew, or to actually prove it (as some writer somewhere in one of the MLB markets HAD to have it on good authority somewhere at least SOMEONE was juicing), no, that would lead to losing that “access” that is so precious. For a writer or writers to nip the “steroid era” in the bud with an expose before it proliferated, as to “save” the priceless records they hold so dear, would’ve meant a black listing from players and managers for the inside information on other topics they so craved. I don’t doubt the baseball writers of America don’t love the game, and didn’t want to see it’s most sacred records sullied. As a group, they just didn’t love it to the point for enough of them to stick out their own neck.
I’m not blaming players in the 60s taking painkillers or the hypocrisy of baseball writers for the distortion and perversion of baseball history. Each player that juiced made a conscious, reasoned choice to put whatever into their body. But before the baseball writers stand on a pedestal as self-proclaimed keepers of the game and historians of the holiest order, perhaps they should realize they themselves and the players of yesteryear they admire so much are some of the biggest enablers of those trying to skirt the natural selection of the game of baseball. Martyrdom wouldn’t be a good look for a journalist looking to protect his/her own celebrity as a nationally known baseball writer rather than expose a hushed truth. To the best of my knowledge, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t cover baseball.
Maybe they should have.