Sunday, January 20, 2013

Baseball's Seedy Underbelly

Baseball--the great American game--has persevered through a fair number of scandals over the years. Beginning in the early days, every generation of ballplayers has produced a subpopulation of rule-breakers and rogues.

In 1877, four players from the Louisville Grays were found to have thrown games in exchange for bribes from gamblers. Jim Devlin, George Hall, Al Nichols and Bill Craver were all suspended for their actions.

In 1908, on the eve of a one-game playoff between the Cubs and Giants for the NL pennant, one of the umpires was offered a bribe to help the Giants win. The offer was refused and the incident reported to the league office. 

The year 1919 brought the infamous White Sox scandal, in which eight players with abilities ranging from Hall of Fame worthy to moderately talented conspired the throw the World Series and were subsequently banned from the sport for life by Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. As the investigation was broadened, at least two other players were punished for throwing games--Heinie Zimmerman and Hal Chase, both of the Giants.

Gambling controversy persisted into the 20th century when Pete Rose--a.k.a. "Charlie Hustle," (the game's active hits leader and one of the greatest players ever to don a uniform in my opinion) received a lifetime ban for betting on games as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Though Rose has lobbied for reinstatement, his efforts to date have yielded no results.

Gambling has not been baseball's only problem. Substance abuse has been a major issue since the Deadball Era as demonstrated by the following anecdote:

Off to the best start in franchise history during the 1908 campaign, the St. Louis Browns went into a slump, falling several games out of the running. Alarmed by the sudden swoon, Manager Jimmy McAleer called all of his players together and ordered them to get drunk.  “You fellows are worn out, all in and gone stale,” he said. “”If any man on this team comes into the hotel tonight sober, I will fine him fifty dollars.”  According to pitcher Jack Powell, the entire team showed up at the ballpark hung over the next day yet won handily. The party continued on the train to St. Louis and a five game winning streak followed.  “The jag by orders had brought back our spirits and energies,” Powell explained.

Baseball's drinking problem persisted well into the 1950's. Former Dodger great Don Newcombe, who captured Rookie of the Year and Cy Young honors during his career, fell on hard times after leaving baseball behind. A chronic alcoholic in heavy debt due to gambling, he pawned his 1955 World Series ring to avoid losing his Los Angeles apartment. He nearly lost his wife of many years before getting involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and cleaning himself up. In 1986, he spoke to a reporter about the rampant alcohol problems among members of the ‘55 Dodger squad. Citing Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges as being exempt, he said: “I bet there were at least ten of us who were abusers of alcohol on the championship team...I had two of them who told me one day: ‘Newk, if you’re an alcoholic, what am I?’” In a previous interview, the retired moundsman had indirectly blamed manager Walter Alston. “The fact is, baseball managers encouraged the drinking of beer—and they still do,” he told the Associated Press.

By the 1960's, baseball's abuses morphed into something entirely different. Jim Bouton's epic book Ball Four exposed the rampant use of amphetamines among players. In 1985, several players were summoned before a Pittsburgh grand jury to testify about drug use within the sport. Among those appearing were Dave Parker, Lee Mazzilli, Keith Hernandez and Tim Raines. This led to the exposure of cocaine use among various players--The Pirates and Mets in particular. It was soon revealed that drug dealers roamed the Pittsburgh clubhouse. Even the team mascot was implicated! In February of 1986, Commissioner Peter Ueberoth issued suspensions to a number of players for their transgressions.

Sadly, the story doesn't end there. The '90's gave way to steroid scandals that have to date kept such luminaries as Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Roger Clemens out of the Hall of Fame.

In closing, I pose this question: If "America's Favorite Pastime" is a reflection upon our culture in general, what does it say about us? Are the bad apples an exception rather than a rule or are we a country of flagrant excess? You decide.

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