Ranking the 7 Biggest Scandals in MLB History After Astros' Cheating Punishment

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 17, 2020

Ranking the 7 Biggest Scandals in MLB History After Astros' Cheating Punishment

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Houston Astros have landed at the center of one of the biggest scandals in Major League Baseball history.

    Ah, but where does it rank among the worst of the worst?

    We've attempted to answer that question by sizing up the wrongdoings and the fallout of the Astros sign-stealing scheme relative to six other notorious scandals from baseball's history. These vary in scope and nature, but they generally involve rules or norms being violated through some combination of cheating, gambling, drugs and greed.

    In terms of ranking these scandals, we considered any on-field consequences, how many people or teams were implicated and just how much damage was done to individuals, organizations or the sport as a whole. 

    Let's count 'em down.

7. The Pittsburgh Drug Trials

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    In May 1985, a chef named Curtis Strong was tried on charges of possessing and distributing drugs. Yet the real stars of the show were major league players—including MVPs Dave Parker and Keith Hernandez—who testified to having bought cocaine from Strong.

    Like that, the lid was blown off of baseball's cocaine culture right in the middle of the Reagan administration's war on drugs. Hernandez at one point estimated 40 percent of the league was using cocaine in 1980. Fellow star Tim Raines, meanwhile, famously said he kept a vial of cocaine in his back pocket while in uniform.

    Though immunity agreements kept any players from facing criminal charges, MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth hit 11 players with suspensions in February 1986. Later that year, an Associated Press article referred to the affair as "baseball's second-biggest scandal."

    One tragic offshoot of it involved pitcher Rod Scurry, who died of a cocaine-induced heart attack at just 36 years old in 1992. Otherwise, the 11 suspensions were reworked into fines, community service and regular drug testing. Parker, Hernandez and Raines carried on as stars, and Raines eventually landed in the Hall of Fame in 2017 despite his connection to the scandal.

    The "Pittsburgh drug trials," as they came to be known, were a public-relations nightmare for baseball at the time. But in retrospect, they're arguably more consequential as a precursor for the drug scandal that awaited the league.

6. Pete Rose's Gambling Results in a Lifetime Ban

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    In May 1989, special counsel John Dowd submitted a 225-page report to MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti that detailed the gambling of baseball's all-time hit king, Pete Rose.

    Rose, who retired as a player in 1986, was managing the Cincinnati Reds at the time of the report. Though Dowd couldn't prove Rose had ever bet against his own team, the report had concluded that Rose indeed gambled on baseball and that he didn't shy away from placing bets on games he was managing.

    In so doing, he violated Rule 21(d): "Any player, umpire or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible."

    Accordingly, Rose accepted a lifetime ban from baseball in August 1989. Because commissioner Rob Manfred upheld the ban as recently as 2015, Rose is getting no closer to getting off the hook.

    On Monday, the 78-year-old insisted to Randy Miller of NJ.com that his bets were no worse than the Astros' cheating scandal, which has yet to result in any lifetime bans.

    But as compelling as that notion is, it doesn't change the reality that Rose blatantly broke one of baseball's cardinal rules. And while his penance is his alone, it's unfortunate that one of the baseball's greatest living players is also perhaps its most infamous living pariah.

5. The Biogenesis Investigation and Suspensions

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    In January 2013, an explosive report from the Miami New Times exposed a wellness clinic in Florida named Biogenesis of America that, while small, had quite the list of famous clientele.

    Among others, MVPs Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun were reported to have obtained performance-enhancing drugs from the clinic. Following an investigation, MLB eventually hit Braun with a 65-game ban in July and 13 others with suspensions in August.

    Out of the latter, the most seismic was a 211-game ban for Rodriguez. It was later reduced following an appeal, but only to a 162-game sentence that covered the entire 2014 season.

    A-Rod's reputation, which had already been marred by a previous admission of PED use, was dealt a staggering blow that he may never fully recover from. To wit, he might never gain entry to the Hall of Fame despite his 696 home runs and 117.8 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

    Yet the Hall of Fame question doesn't apply to the other players who were implicated in the Biogenesis scandal. And while it all looked bad at the time, the legacy of the whole thing seven years later is arguably a victory for Major League Baseball, which contained an ostensibly isolated incident.

    If nothing else, it's not the worst PED-related scandal the league has dealt with.

4. The Steroid Era

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    It's hard to determine the exact dates of baseball's so-called steroid era, but there's little doubt that the late 1990s and early 2000s were the height of it.

    The league became heavily populated with musclebound sluggers during that span, and home run records fell accordingly. Mark McGwire (70 home runs) and Sammy Sosa (66) each broke Roger Maris' single-season record (61) in 1998, and then Barry Bonds came along with a 73-homer barrage in 2001.

    Yet the facade came crashing down in the mid-2000s. Congressional hearings on steroids in baseball in 2005 effectively made laughingstocks of McGwire, Sosa and fellow slugger Rafael Palmeiro. George Mitchell's report on the subject in 2007 implicated many more players, including Bonds and ace pitcher Roger Clemens. These five and quite a few other steroid-era stars either still are or have since been blocked from Cooperstown.

    None of this was good for baseball's credibility. Even years later, the collective outrage is still so strong that unofficial asterisks accompany the era's home run records and other accomplishments.

    And yet the steroid era was also oddly beneficial.

    The sheer excitement of the times helped bring fans back to the ballpark after many were turned away by the 1994-1995 strike, and it kicked off an era of revenue growth that is still going strong. Further, baseball's relatively tough drug policy likely wouldn't exist if the steroid era had never happened.

3. The Houston Astros' Sign-Stealing Scheme

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Mike Fiers, formerly a Houston Astros starting pitcher, blew the whistle on the club's sign-stealing scheme to Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic in November.

    MLB's investigation found that Fiers wasn't lying. Commissioner Rob Manfred's report detailed how Astros players and coaches used the team's video replay station to study and decode opposing clubs' signs, and even signaled upcoming pitches to batters in real time by banging on a trash can.

    Though MLB's investigation found that the Astros abandoned their methods in 2018, they were in use for all of 2017. In other words, they weren't playing fair as they won 101 games and, eventually, the World Series.

    The league fined the Astros $5 million and stripped them of first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts. Before they lost their jobs altogether, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were suspended for a year.

    The scandal has also cost Alex Cora his job as manager of the Boston Red Sox, who are also being investigated for their own alleged sign-stealing scheme. Likewise, Carlos Beltran is out as manager of the New York Mets.

    And yet there's still a debate to be had about whether the resulting bloodbath has been bloody enough. By knowingly and brazenly tilting the competition in their favor, the Astros wronged other teams and players and, for the first time in a century, ruined the integrity of a World Series. 

2. The Black Sox Throw the World Series in 1919

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    What the Astros did in 2017 was nefarious, but at least they didn't conspire to lose the World Series.

    The 1919 Chicago White Sox, on the other hand, did conspire to lose that year's Fall Classic to the Cincinnati Reds. And contrary to popular belief, it was indeed a group of players who approached gamblers—and not the other way around—with the scheme as a means to earn a few extra bucks.

    Though the White Sox did win three games in the best-of-eight series, they followed through as the Reds claimed the championship. But rumors and a steady drip-drip-drip of information resulted in the forming of a grand jury to investigate in 1920, and the whole affair was blown open in a trial in 1921.

    Though the trial rendered a not guilty verdict for the accused players, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey—who wasn't blind to what was going on in 1919—and baseball's other owners covered their butts by appointing Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the league's first commissioner. He sent the desired message with lifetime bans for eight White Sox players, including star hitter Shoeless Joe Jackson.

    Though the Black Sox scandal wasn't the first gambling-fueled problem baseball had ever faced, it was effectively the last straw. The fear of players intentionally throwing games basically died with it, at least in part because reminders about the rules on gambling still hang in major league clubhouses.

1. MLB Owners Collude Against Players in the 1980s

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    After he was elected as baseball's commissioner in March 1984, Peter Ueberroth imparted a strong message to the league's owners at a meeting in St. Louis:

    "Let's say I sat each of you down in front of a red button and a black button. Push the red button and you'd win the World Series but lose $10 million. Push the black button and you would make $4 million and finish somewhere in the middle.

    "The problem is, most of you would push the red one."

    Evidently taking Ueberroth's words to heart, baseball's owners conspired to restrict the movement and earning power of free agents in 1985, 1986 and 1987. Star players such as Andre Dawson and Kirk Gibson were affected, and the incidents led to a ruling in 1990 that required owners to pay the players $280 million.

    Those at the top of any power structure ought to be held to the strictest ethical standards, so it's beyond egregious that baseball's highest powers blatantly tried not once, not twice but thrice to screw over their workers in the 1980s. And to make matters worse, their cynicism had lasting consequences.

    Fay Vincent, who had the audacity to be honest about collusion, resigned as commissioner after only three years on the job in September 1992. Bud Selig stepped into his shoes, and the owners then effectively sought to recoup their losses when they proposed stripping players of hard-won rights, including salary arbitration and unrestricted free agency.

    Thus were seeds planted for one of baseball's darkest events: the 1994-1995 strike and the cancellation of the '94 World Series.