On July 15, 1994, in a game between the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians, umpires confiscated a bat belonging to the Indians' star slugger Albert Belle. They suspected Belle had tampered with it – illegally hollowing it out and filling it with cork to enhance his bat speed. Belle's teammates were worried – they were sure that all of Belle's bats were corked, and did not want their best hitter suspended.
Brooklyn Excelsiors, with pitcher Jim Creighton (holding ball) National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
Indians' pitcher Jason Grimsley had a plan to get his teammate off the hook. Gripping a flashlight with his teeth, he hoisted himself into the crawlspace above the clubhouse and inched along on his stomach until he was on top of the umpires' dressing room, where Belle's bat had been locked away for safekeeping. Grimsley lowered himself into the room, replaced Belle's bat with an unadulterated one belonging to another player, and then crawled back to the clubhouse. The umpires were furious when they discovered the switch, but there was little they could do about it.
Ever since Jim Creighton, a pitcher for the Brooklyn Niagras, first illegally snapped his wrist in 1859 to throw a rising fastball designed to fool hitters, players have found ways to bend or get around the rules. For the most part, the game's many transgressors have been celebrated for their creativity as much as they have been castigated for their misdeeds.
When New York Giants' third baseman Bobby Thomson hit one of the most famous home runs in the history of the game, he and his teammates were using an illegal sign stealing system that told the hitters what pitch was coming.
Bud Selig talks about amphetamine use in the 1950s
Yankee left-hander Whitey Ford sometimes cut the ball with his wedding ring, and smeared it with a mixture of turpentine, resin, and baby oil his teammates called "gunk." He was easily elected to the Hall of Fame, considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Late in his career, Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry confessed what those who had played against him knew all too well – that he had regularly doctored the ball.
Generations of major leaguers, including some of the biggest stars in the game, used amphetamines to increase their focus and energy. But by the late 1980s, some baseball players had found a new way to gain an edge. In 1988, Oakland outfielder Jose Canseco dazzled the baseball world when he became the first player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season. He was named MVP and a few years later was rewarded with what was then the biggest contract in the history of the game – $4.7 million a year. He told the press that intensive weight training was the reason for his success, but something else was helping him achieve such an unprecedented combination of speed and power.
Bob Costas discusses steroids in Baseball.
Tom Verducci discusses the cheating difference between injecting steroids and scuffing a ball
Steve Wilstein talks about how some athletes will do anything to get ahead
A few sportswriters, including the Washington Post's Tom Boswell, tried to raise the issue, but no one paid much attention. Soon other players, including some of Canseco's Oakland teammates, were asking him for advice, following his training program. They, too, began to hit the ball farther, pitch harder, run faster, than they ever had before.
Canseco and others had transformed their bodies by combining punishing workouts with heavy doses of anabolic steroids – synthetically produced variants of the male sex hormone, testosterone. When taken in large enough amounts, it allowed users to lift prodigious amounts of weight every single day, rapidly building muscle mass while increasing their speed and agility.
Synthetic testosterone had been created by European scientists in the 1930s, and used experimentally by the Germans during the Second World War to enhance their soldiers' strength and aggressiveness. During the Cold War, eastern bloc countries gave enormous doses to their Olympic athletes – and won medal after medal. Western weightlifters, and track and field athletes soon followed suit. In the 1960s, American football players started using them.
As steroids permeated gyms, locker rooms, and clubhouses across the country, doctors began warning of the dangers they posed – both to professional athletes and to the legions of high school and college students who admired and emulated them. Especially in the off-label mega-doses many athletes took, anabolic steroids caused kidney and liver damage, tendon and ligament tears, anemia, impotence, heart disease, stroke, shrunken testicles, sterility, cancer, and psychological disorders including clinical depression, suicidal tendencies and extreme aggression – which became known as "roid rage."
Tom Boswell talks about Baseball as a window to our society
Tom Verducci talks about the culture of steroids
Doug Glanville talks about the pressure to compete in the major league
By the late 1980s, the NCAA, the NBA, the NFL and the Olympics had all banned steroids and begun testing their athletes for them. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, a positive drug test forced the IOC to strip one of the era's most successful track stars, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, of his gold medal – and his world record – in the 100 meter dash.
In 1990, Congress passed a law classifying steroids as controlled substances, making it a felony to traffic in them. The next year, Major League Baseball prohibited the use of all controlled substances, including steroids, without a medical prescription. But in the wake of drug scandals that had rocked the sport in the 1980s, Commissioner Fay Vincent and the owners were far more concerned about preventing cocaine and marijuana abuse; besides, Donald Fehr and the Players Association made it clear that they would strongly resist any mandatory drug screening program as a violation of the players' rights to privacy.
Without a testing program or penalties, players were free to take not just steroids and amphetamines, but also many other substances: human growth hormone, insulin, ephedrine, and countless steroid-like "supplements," with no fear of punishment.
From THE TENTH INNING film script and the new chapter by Kevin Baker of Baseball: An Illustrated History.