In 1973, a Congressional subcommittee announced that its staff had completed an “in depth study into the use of illegal and dangerous drugs in sports” including professional baseball. The subcommittee concluded that “the degree of improper drug use—primarily amphetamines and anabolic steroids— can only be described as alarming.
-Mitchell Report, page 28
Ten years ago this week, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci broke a story that many credit with blowing the lid off the issue of steroids in baseball. In the original story, Verducci interviewed the late Ken Caminiti, who confessed that he used steroids during his 1996 MVP season as well as for several seasons afterwards. Ten years later, Verducci takes another look back by interviewing players who decided not to “cheat” during the era and also proclaiming that the steroid issue led to the biggest reformation in baseball since the Black Sox scandal (apparently, integration doesn’t count as a reformation).
The problem with this story today is exactly the same as it was in 2002: it didn’t go nearly as far as it should have in looking into the issue, and it has led to a myriad of misconceptions about the issue of steroids in general. After all, if the above quote is to be taken at face value, the issue of steroids in baseball is much, much older than any steroid critic is willing to admit.
Scope of the Problem
One of the problems with digging deeper into the issue is that very few players are willing to voluntarily come forward and admit they did steroids during their careers—and for good reason, considering how much scorn was generated by the steroid scandal of the early 2000s. In fact, only one player from the 1970s is known to have done so: Tom House, who pitched for three franchises during an eight-year career from 1971-78 and is now a celebrated pitching guru.
House has stated that “six or seven” pitchers on every major league staff in the 1970s were “fiddling” with steroids or HGH, which seems to agree with the above 1973 study. Considering that House pitched for three different franchises, it is reasonable to assume that it wasn’t simply a case of one team’s staff of renegades.
And remember: those are just the pitchers. House said nothing about how many hitters were putting steroids to good use.
To his credit, House stopped using steroids when he learned more about their potential long-term side effects. He also believes that greater knowledge and fear of these effects has resulted in a decline in steroid usage since the 1970s. And remember, this is from a man who has spent nearly four decades in baseball as either a player or a coach.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the entire story is the idea that steroids are solely responsible for the muscling up of major league baseball. I mean, if steroids were as widespread as the above 1973 study concluded, why did it take so long for the muscles to start showing up en masse? (Pun intended.)
The answer lies in the lack of understanding of how steroids work, and how they can interact with a proper diet and training regimen.
According to Tom House, teams in the 1960s and 1970s actively discouraged players from lifting weights for fear that the extra bulk would interfere with other aspects of the game. While steroids do have the ability to increase a body’s lean mass (essentially, the mass of the body minus fat), they do not do much in the way of adding serious muscle unless they are combined with regular weight training and conditioning.
It wasn’t until the arrival of Jose Canseco in the late 1980s that weight training was given a differing viewpoint, and it took until the early 1990s for baseball to truly embrace the practice. Suddenly, the steroids that had been present in the game all along were having a much greater effect than ever before.
In short, it was weightlifting, not steroids, that caused the great bulking up of baseball. Steroids were merely the catalyst (and there are many) that provided the best results.
I already know the question on the minds of many: If steroids were widespread in baseball in the 1970s, why did we not see the effects? My response to this is simple: What makes you think we didn’t?
One of the main effects of steroids is that muscles are able to repair themselves at a faster rate, which results in shorter recovery times when a player is injured. Theoretically, this should lead to individuals playing in more games over longer periods of time, even if the added bonus of extra bulk is never realized.
Why do I bring this up?
Well, in MLB history, there have been 228 position players to have played in 2000 or more games. A whopping 41 of them retired in the 1980s—one more than in the 2000s and 10 more than in the 1990s. The 1970s had 24, and no decade before that had more than 15.
By a similar notion, there have been 123 pitchers who reached 400 or more starts in their career. Of those, 18 retired in the 1980s, 17 in the 1990s and 19 in the 2000s. The 1970s had 10, a number that only the 1930s managed to reach among the prior decades.
The data is clear: more players have had longer careers since the 1970s, a time when steroids were specifically identified as a PED whose usage was described as “alarming” by the federal government.
We aren’t letting hitters from the 1990s get away with massive home run totals, so why would we condone similar increases in other stats?
All of this, of course, is part of a larger tendency to villainize the younger generation of players while also canonize older players, even though there is no difference in the behavior of either group. It does not matter to the average fan that steroids were widespread in baseball during the 1970s, just as it does not matter that the practice of juicing in the game dates back to Pud Galvin in 1889 or that the first major PED scandal in baseball history occurred during the 1894 Temple Cup. For most, steroids and other PEDs are only a modern issue, and therefore the current generation is the only one that deserves to feel the backlash.
And quite frankly, it’s not fair.