Baseball players slurking out of grand jury rooms, with league officials expressing shock at confessions of behavior "not in the best interest of baseball."
Widely-covered congressional hearings, with grandstanding politicians proposing new laws to purify the national pastime.
Huge newspaper headlines about the case—on the front page, not the sports page.
The BALCO steroid scandal of 2003-2007, right?
Wrong—it was the Black Sox scandal of 1919-1921, in which eight players accused of fixing the World Series were permanently banned from baseball.
As they say in France, "plus 'a change, plus c'est la m'me chose"—the more things change, they more they remain the same.
Most of us think we know the basics of the Black Sox story. Gamblers led by Arnold Rothstein bribed eight Chicago White Sox players to lose the 1919 World Series. It had never occurred to team owners that highly paid professional athletes would betray the game by corrupting it. In response, league officials hired Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as baseball's first Commissioner—and gave him orders to clean up the game at any cost.
But much of what we "know" is wrong. Read Eight Men Out, the classic 1963 book on the scandal by Eliot Asinof, and you'll see that the parallels with the BALCO case are almost perfect.
Fact: Gamblers had been tampering with games for years before the 1919 World Series—and owners and league officials knew it. They didn't do anything to stop it, because they knew a scandal would be bad for business. Two of many examples:
- In 1917, a young reliever named Jimmy Ring came in to pitch in a game for Cincinnati. His first baseman, Hal Chase, offered him $50 (at least five percent of Ring's annual salary) to deliberately lose the game. Ring refused, and reported Chase to his manager Christy Mathewson. Mathewson immediately suspended Chase for the rest of the season and brought charges against Chase to John Heydler, the President of the National League. But Heydler acquitted Chase on the grounds that the evidence was insufficient—without launching an investigation or hiring detectives to look into relationships between gamblers and players.
- A few hours after Cincinnati beat Chicago in the first game of the 1919 World Series, Black Sox manager "Kid" Gleason told his owner, Charles Comiskey, that the game had been lost on purpose—and that the Series was probably fixed. Comiskey, unable to sleep, woke up the Presidents of the National and American Leagues at two and three in the morning—and the Presidents did nothing. Why? It was bad for business for the public to worry about the integrity of the game. Comiskey hired all the suspected players to play for the White Sox again in 1920, and only suspended them when the newspapers broke the story of the fix near the end of the season.
So too with steroids in baseball: The owners and league officials knew players were juicing...but did nothing about it until it was front-page news.
Fact: Mark McGwire was caught taking androstenedione—which raises the level of testosterone in the body—during his record-breaking 1998 season. The owners never raised an objection. Why? For a sport trying to recover from a players strike that canceled the 1994 World Series, having McGwire break the home run record was good for business.
The Black Sox players took money from gamblers because Comiskey was a skinflint who kept their salaries pitifully low. The "reserve clause," written into every major league contract until 1975, made it impossible for the Black Sox players to negotiate with other teams.
Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest outfielders to ever play the game, made only $6000 in 1919. Edd Roush, an outfielder for Cincinnati, made $10,000—and Jackson knew it.
As the oldest professional team sport in the United States, baseball has a long history of unfair labor practices. That legacy continues to haunt the game today. Until the BALCO scandal forced their hand, the Major League Baseball Players Association resisted attempts to institute drug testing because they didn't trust the owners with the information. The owners, for their part, have cried crocodile tears about steroids—but only after drug use began to generate negative headlines.
Baseball and its most cherished records have been forever stained by the steroid scandal, just as the game was stained by the fix in 1919. As George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
For further reading:
Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof, 1963 (still available in paperback), about the Black Sox Scandal.
Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports, 2006, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.