Ex Spit Facto (Steroids and the Spitball era)
I haven’t made it through all 400 plus pages of the Mitchell Report yet and I’m not sure that I ever will. I know that baseball is supposed to be the American past time. I assume that if the game is that All American, it should adhere to our own notions of fairness. Here it is. The Mitchell report mentions clearly that steroids were not an illegal substance in baseball until 2002 and HGH wasn’t banned until 2005. Yes, they’ve been against the rules in other sports longer than that, but all of what happened in the nineties didn’t break any baseball rules. So why is it again that we’re supposed to punish the players?
Article One Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution says that no bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed. It’s a pretty simple aspect of what most of us know as the “rule of law”, a quaint notion that existed in the United States before September 11, 2001. A bill of attainder is the notion of punishing an individual or group without the benefit of trial more or less for being who they are. Ex Post Facto is the notion that you can’t make something a crime after the fact. Believe it or not, there was a time when respect for the Constitution or at least familiarity with it were considered elements of real patriotism.
Of all sports, baseball, the game of inches, has generally had the most precise rules. There are restrictions on bat size and composition. Do you remember George Brett and the pine tar incident? Pitchers are limited in where they can put their hands before throwing a pitch. There are rules about how hard you have to try to avoid being hit by a pitch. It's also not okay to use an aluminum bat in professional baseball (btw if you want an interesting comparison, look at college stats pre and post aluminum bat and compare them to the "steroids" "HGH" effect) For generations, it’s been the business of “true competitors” to seek every possible edge within the the rules. Let’s consider the way baseball handled the now illegal pitch, the “spitball.”
By making the ball slightly lopsided, the spitball gave pitchers roughly the same advantage that steroids give a hitter or, imagine this, steroids give a pitcher. The spitball originated in what most of us know as the “dead ball” era, a period when 1-0 scores and 30 game winners were the norm rather than the exception. A White Sox pitcher named Ed Walsh is largely credited with popularizing the spitball in 1906. The guy’s career ERA was 1.82 and he’s in the Hall of Fame. In fact, the spitball was so popular that Ty Cobb wrote that it was banned in 1920 because the owners wanted to see more home runs. Mmmmm….
Like steroids, there was also a safety issue around the spitball. It made the flight of the ball so unpredictable that batters and fielders sometimes got beaned. The most famous such “beaning” was the death of Ray Chapman on a pitch thrown by Carl Mays that some believe was spit-loaded with tobacco juice. (Okay, they should have banned the pitch just for being disgusting).
In any case, the major leagues did not ban the spitball entirely. Since several pitchers had built their careers around the spitter and its variations, each team was allowed to designate up to two spitball pitchers for the duration of the pitcher’s career. Burleigh Grimes was the last legal spitball pitcher in 1934. As anyone familiar with the career of Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry knows, that was hardly the last time that anyone threw the spitball in organized baseball. Perry, who is white and from the south, was celebrated by many for his cunning. He went from being a guy in the Giants bullpen pre-spitter to being the first pitcher to win a Cy Young award in both leagues. Btw, NASCAR has had several mechanical cheating scandals the last couple years that have had no impact on the popularity of the drivers or the sport. In a good ole boy dominated sport, it’s generally considered something you’re expected to try.
Let me point out a couple things. In 1920, when the spitter was banned the historical circumstances resonate with the beginning of the steroids era. Most fans know about the Black Sox scandal of 1919 which coincidentally became a legal issue at the end of the 1920 season. If John Sayles (Eight Men Out) is to be believed, the balance between labor and management played a significant role in the scandal. Fewer people remember the “Federal League”, the last third major league, and various attempts at the time to establish a “player’s union.” Fascinatingly, a Federal Judge named Kennesaw Mountain Landis, is credited by some with killing the Federal league by refusing to rule in an anti-trust suit brought by Federal League owners against the two major leagues. In 1922, Congres passed a special anti-trust exemption for major league baseball as a form of “entertainment” instead of “commerce”. For an entertaining version of most of these events, I strongly recommend Troy Soos’s Mickey Rawlings Murder Mysteries, a mixture of dead ball era baseball and social history.
In 1920, the game was in crisis and it adjusted the rules, the ball,and the size of fields to welcome an offense-happy era led by former pitcher Babe Ruth and the emerging American League power, the New York Yankees. Partly because of sources, the Mitchell Report’s named names include a high proportion of players with a modern Yankees connection. One effect of juicing the ball and de-juicing the repertoire of pitches was that dead ball statistics don’t really compare to post-1920 baseball. Try this one. Who did Roger Connor play for and why should we remember him?
Baseball is not the only major sport where key statistics have fluctuated drastically. Look at the number of passing and receiving records broken in the last fifteen years in football. Try comparing Tom Brady’s current total of 45 touchdown passes in a still unfinished 2007 season to Joe Montana’s personal best of 31 or Johnny Unitas’s personal best of 32 when devensive backs were allowed even more contact. I don’t seriously believe that Brett Favre is the greatest quarterback of all time simply because he now holds virtually every passing record. I also don’t believe that Wayne Gretzky, as great as the great one is, is three times better than Bobby Hull. Even in his own time, there were people who didn’t think Wilt’s freakish scoring numbers made him the undisputed best player in basketball. Baseball’s been the one sport that’s clung to the “sacred numbers” argument.
Now that Congress is about to convene yet again on the steroids issue, I need to say something (not that anyone cares). And yes, it’s pretty weird how much more willing Congress can be to respond to steroids in baseball than it is to torture, outing CIA agents, or impeachment. Even though the Mitchell report insisted that the blame belonged to all facets of major league baseball, I find it fascinating that most of America wants to blame the players and one player in particular (Barry Bonds). In 1920, one man, the commissioner of baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was credited with saving the game because he took a tough stance on the Black Sox. In 2007, there’s one person who was responsible for setting the rules or for at least taking leadership in trying to “right” the game. That person is Bud Selig. So tell me again, why they want to prosecute players, take away their records, etc., yet there’s been no organized attempt to get rid of Bud Selig.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the game is making record profits. In 1922, Congress was wrong. Baseball isn’t entertainment, it’s a form of commerce and nothing more. Being reminded of this, makes me want to spit.
small note: It is interesting that George W. Bush was an owner of the Texas Rangers from 1989-1998. Players included Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Ruben Sierra, Juan Gonzales, Pudge Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa all of whom have been linked to steroid use at least speculatively. The Mitchell report managed to leave out much of the Texas Rangers connection to the scandal. If everyone at all levels of the game was responsible for turning a blind eye, what's that say about the very visible owner of the Rangers during that period. Is it faintly reminiscent about warnings about Bin Laden, Katrina, the leaking of CIA agent identities from within the White House?