Judging steroid use in Major League Baseball in historical context – University of Pittsburgh The Pitt News

Has baseball ever been a “clean” sport?

So many writers, fans and players consider the steroid era — spanning from the late 1980s until the mid 2000s — as the only time period that saw rampant cheating around the diamond. Baseball writers such as Wallace Matthews at ESPN, Peter Botte at the New York Daily News and Tom Verducci at Sports Illustrated have all recently made arguments against voting steroid users into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Those who agree think the greatest players in the game, some of whom saved baseball after the MLB strike of 1994, don’t deserve their spots among baseball’s best. But this judgement ignores the history of baseball, and doesn’t consider the fact that inflated numbers, by way of enhancements or tricks, have always been a facet of America’s greatest past time.

If we wanted to expel “cheaters” from the Baseball Hall of Fame, we’d have to clean house, starting with icons such as James F. “Pud” Galvin, who was well-known for his use of drugs that would be considered banned, performance-enhancing drugs today. The Washington Post article published in 1889 even promoted the use of Galvin’s concoctions:

“If there still be doubting Thomases who concede no virtue of the elixir, they are respectfully referred to Galvin’s record in yesterday’s Boston-Pittsburgh game. It is the best proof yet furnished of the value of the discovery.”

Galvin’s concoction, made of dried and ground-up animal testicles, helped him throw for 341 innings in 1889 and for more than 300 innings about 10 times in the 13 years prior. Galvin used a performance-enhancing drug — albeit a crude one — that would be banned in today’s game, yet he is still perpetually enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And he deserves it: Galvin is one of the best pitchers of his generation.  

Gaylord Perry, a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, was just as legendary, though he would use a spitball or Vaseline to get more spin on his ball and make it harder to hit. Perry was even caught and ejected for doing this in an infamous 1982 game against the Red Sox, yet he remains in the Hall.

Moving into the post-World War II era, America’s reputation was, at least for a slice of time, based largely on its honesty and persistence. In baseball, this time period saw the end of segregated leagues, the first Hispanic baseball player to make it to the MLB and the first all-minority lineup — it was an era known for breaking barriers.

Yet, baseball players were still coming up with concoctions to improve their performances. The epoch might be better described as the “amphetamine era.”

Amphetamines were a common practice starting in the 1950s and ending with the introduction of modern steroids in the 1980s. Men such as Willie Mays, Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt and Bill Madlock, who played in those years, have all been accused of using “greenies,” or amphetamine pills baseball players used to sharpen their focus.

The only difference between now and 30 years ago is that then commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, decided not to believe testimony against Madlock and the rest and instead fought to restore the players’ legacies.

No, steroids don’t belong in baseball. But there are right and wrong ways to eliminate their use. Bud Selig created a ludicrous system of punishment for players who fail a drug test in 2005. He proposed a 50 game suspension for the first time offense, a 100 game suspension for the second time and a complete ban on the third offense. Selig’s solution was to punish and shame the players into obscurity rather than focus on eliminating the widespread use of the drug — which is the root problem.

But we shouldn’t keep punishing modern baseball idols like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez. Though they’ve made mistakes, these men deserve to be inducted simply because they are the greatest players of their generation.

The MLB is right to ban steroids because they’re harmful for players’ health. But that doesn’t mean that players who used steroids should be shunned forever from the hallowed grounds of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Their games were still played, their talent was still impressive and their legacies still deserve to go down in history with the rest of baseball’s greats.


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