© 2024 KUNR
Illustration of rolling hills with occasional trees and a radio tower.
Serving Northern Nevada and the Eastern Sierra
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Juicing the Game' Slams Baseball's Steroid Era

Cover image from <i>Juicing the Game</i>
Cover image from Juicing the Game
<i>Boston Herald</i> sports columnist Howard Bryant looks at baseball's dark side in his new book, <i>Juicing the Game</i>.
Howard Bryant is a sports columnist for the Boston Herald and the author of a previous book, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston.

Major League Baseball came roaring back after the players' strike of 1994, fueled in large measure by an epic home run battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998.

When Barry Bonds eclipsed the efforts of those two formidable sluggers by setting a new single-season homer record at 73, his feat seemed to cap an offensive explosion.

But insiders and many astute fans had known for some time that something wasn't quite right with the grand old game. There was too much batting power, coming from too many previously obscure athletes.

Howard Bryant's book Juicing the Game takes a deep and critically acclaimed look at how steroids crept into baseball and why they went unchecked for a decade. Bryant tells Scott Simon about the book.

Excerpt from Chapter One

More than anything else, they were tired of being losers, tired of getting sand kicked in their faces, tired of being the ones having to explain how they wound up on the canvas yet again, knocked out by a tougher, more glamorous, and always better organized opponent. Over time, they had come to be seen as the reason for everything that was wrong with baseball while shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to players they alternately admired and loathed just for the privilege. They were baseball's owners, and as the spring of 1994 approached, it was obvious to everyone in the game, the players especially, that the warlike tone they'd been cultivating for the previous four years had sharpened. The drumbeat grew. Confrontation was inevitable.

Mike Mussina, then an emerging pitching star and player representative for the Baltimore Orioles, was pessimistic about the upcoming season. Not because he doubted his own ability after winning thirty-two games over the previous two seasons, but because he sensed that his progress would be interrupted in 1994. The leaders of the labor movement on the players' side, labor stalwarts such as Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor, had seen this tense landscape before. Winfield remembered playing the game before the players had won the right to sell their services via free agency. Others, such as Mussina's Oriole teammate Cal Ripken Jr., were still angered by collusion, the years from 1985 to 1987 when the owners were found guilty of acting in concert not to sign available free agents. The word in clubhouses around the league was that a strike wasn't merely possible, it was unavoidable.

The owners were planning a major offensive against the players. At the end of 1993, they had bragged about the nearly billion-dollar war chest they had built in anticipation of a final showdown not just with the players, but especially with the leadership of the Players Association. Ownership hardliners from Phillies' CEO David Montgomery to the White Sox's Jerry Reinsdorf made it clear that they planned to strong-arm the players into implementing a salary cap, a line in the sand issue that was, in effect, a declaration of war. Arbitration, the system that entitled players to a salary increase determined by an independent arbiter after their third season in the majors, three years before they were eligible to become full-fledged free agents, also had to go. A new world order was what baseball's owners had in mind, one that finally placed some cost controls on the game, making it more like football and basketball, the two rival sports that had already implemented salary caps, which served primarily to protect recklessly spending owners from themselves.

Mussina knew what all of this meant. In addition to holding an economics degree from Stanford University, which made him something of a loner in a sport in which most players were signed straight out of high school, he had been schooled well in the game's labor history by veteran teammates such as Ripken and Rick Sutcliffe. They spelled it out for him and the rest of the younger Orioles who hadn't yet gone through a round of labor negotiations: Ownership was trying to undo every advance the players had enjoyed over the previous quarter century. Despite the effect it might have on his own emergence within the league, or upon the success being enjoyed by his team (due in large part to the stunning new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the envy of all of baseball), Mussina was convinced the only way to avoid ownership's imposition of unilateral changes to the game's economic structure was for the players to strike before the owners locked the players out and forced them to accept the new terms.

IF MUSSINA perceived the owners' aggression, former commissioner Fay Vincent had already felt its effects. A year earlier, Vincent had resigned the commissionership under the pressure of an owner revolt against him. Vincent came to believe that, more than any individual transgression, this new, league-wide hostility on the part of ownership was what cost him his job. He was especially aware of the enmity between himself and the Angels' Jackie Autry and Milwaukee's Bud Selig. "They thought," Vincent said, "that if they got rid of me they could break the union, that they could bring it to its knees." To Vincent, ownership was the bully telling everyone to meet in the schoolyard, because a fight was coming. Throughout the 1991 and '92 seasons, various owners spoke of war with the players, almost with a certain destructive glee, as if they possessed some inside knowledge that the union, always united, was less so this time around. That came from a belief among the owners that the current group of players was not as committed as those of years past. It was as if ownership resembled a peacock, feathers flowing, chest puffed out.

The muscle of the owners was best embodied by Reinsdorf, who was named the most powerful owner in the game by baseball's bible, The Sporting News, in 1994. But the man who succeeded Vincent was Milwaukee Brewers owner Allan H. "Bud" Selig. It was the first time since the office of the commissioner was created in 1920 that a standing owner had occupied the position. It was a naked power grab, one that had been in the works for years, and it gave the owners a virility that emboldened them to take on the players when 1994 arrived. "You knew that it was trouble," said Mussina. "I don't know why they had decided 1994 was the time, but there was no illusion of peace. I was young at the time, and went along with what the older guys, the guys who had been there, said. It was a matter of when we were going to strike, not if. They didn't want peace."


FOR ALMOST all of organized baseball's 120-year history, the owners' way had been the only way. But by the early 1990s they had lost too much of their power to the players and their union and were determined to reclaim their standing in the game. Despite stretching back to the 1870s, their lineage wasn't tired, it wasn't dusty, and it didn't need a history lesson. To a large extent, the men who ran baseball were direct descendants of the very figures who had built the game in the first place. Players always flouted the rhetoric of "the product on the field," but the names Wrigley, Yawkey, Steinbrenner, and O'Malley were as famous and recognizable as Ruth, Aaron, and Mays. In an era of soulless corporate sponsorship, the most sentimental spot in baseball, Chicago's Wrigley Field, still bore the name of the chewing gum magnate who built the powerhouse Cubs teams of the early 1900s. In 2003, when the Cubs collapsed an inch from the World Series, it wasn't some gray flunky in a three-piece suit from the Tribune Company—the team's high-powered, corporate owner—who ran the team, but Andy MacPhail.

MacPhail was part of the baseball aristocracy. His grandfather, Larry, ran the Cincinnati Reds and owned the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. It was MacPhail who introduced night games to baseball, installing lights in Cincinnati's Crosley Field in 1935. His Reds won the National League pennant in 1939 and the World Series in 1940. He then turned the Dodgers from bums to pennant winners in 1941, and won another championship with the Yankees in 1947. MacPhail was also the "Roarin' Redhead" who was once punched out by Leo Durocher, and saw his baseball career come to an end following a public nervous breakdown during the victory party for his 1947 Yankees. He was part of legend. One night, MacPhail got so drunk with Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey that they agreed to trade Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams, straight up, no cash considerations, no player to be named later; DiMaggio for Williams in a blockbuster for the ages. Only a stinging hangover the next morning prevented another chapter in the history of the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Andy MacPhail's father, Lee, was one of the most respected gentlemen in the game, even though he suffered the thankless task of overseeing ownership's side of the bitter labor struggles of the 1970s. He was, after years of trench warfare with the Players Association, one of the few baseball men who had earned the respect of legendary union head Marvin Miller. Lee MacPhail was president of the American League for ten years and ran the Orioles and the Yankees. Both Larry and Lee MacPhail were members of baseball's Hall of Fame. For his part, Andy did not trade on the family name without distinction of his own. As general manager of the Minnesota Twins, the youngest MacPhail won a pair of World Series championships in 1987 and 1991. The MacPhail name spanned nearly eighty years in baseball, and counting.

Over in Los Angeles, Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley was the son of Walter O'Malley, who bought into the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944. In 1950, O'Malley bought out Branch Rickey, the man who shattered six decades of baseball segregation by signing Jackie Robinson and built the modern-day farm system. Eight years later, O'Malley made history by expanding baseball to the West Coast for the first time.

Back on the East Coast there was the Red Sox's John Harrington. Knowing it was great for appearances, even if the truth was something quite different and less appealing, John Harrington liked to view himself as merely the humble caretaker of the Boston Red Sox, having accepted the position as head of the Yawkey trust after Jean Yawkey, Tom's widow, died in 1992. Harrington's baseball service dated back to the early 1970s when he worked with Joe Cronin, then president of the American League. Cronin worked for Tom Yawkey for decades, as a player, manager, and executive. Before that he played for Clark Griffith, who, as vice president of the League Players' Protective Association, an ancestor of the current union, led the players in their first universal strike in 1900. Griffith then became the first-ever manager of both the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees and later owner of the Washington Senators, the last of which was moved to Minnesota by Griffith's adopted nephew Calvin and became the Twins that Andy MacPhail guided to two championships. Cronin not only played for Griffith, but became his son-in-law. Yawkey himself died in 1976, having owned the Red Sox since 1933. His uncle Bill owned the Detroit Tigers in the 1910s, and the young Yawkey learned the game from Ty Cobb himself. Yawkey's top lieutenant with the Red Sox was Eddie Collins, who was one of the few clean players on the shamed 1919 White Sox. If New York Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday truly believed the ever-dubious claim that his great-great-granduncle Abner invented the game, it might have even been possible to trace a direct line from baseball's current owners to the game's very creation.

That there were so many connections between the current group of executives and the game's past may have spoken to baseball's vaunted tradition, but also served as evidence that its power structure changed at a glacial pace as power was passed down through generations and the circle of influence remained fiercely tight. There was no lack of institutional memory among the baseball leadership. It was, thought countless adversaries without a shred of admiration, the last and greatest old boy network in America. No one got in unless approved by the majority, and the majority, by and large, didn't approve anyone who didn't fit their special, exclusive profile. For more than a century the only people who owned teams were old white men and their widows. It was an attitude that trickled down from who was allowed to own teams, to who was allowed to manage them. No one advanced unless the big boys said so.

Inside the game, power remained in the hands of a few owners, such as Peter O'Malley, who, like his father, wielded so much influence it was thought the commissioner took orders directly from the Dodgers. Outside baseball, the owners were impervious to criticism, and even more so to action. Fortified as they were by seventy-two years of protection by a federal antitrust exemption, not even Congress could touch baseball. Dick Young didn't call them the Lords of Baseball for nothing.

Yet by the early 1990s the prevailing attitude was that the owners had lost control of the game. Every time they had gone head-to-head with the Players Association over the previous quarter century, they had not only lost, but somehow wound up looking like a bunch of chumps. The losses were so devastating to ownership that Atlanta Braves' owner Ted Turner once exclaimed during a particularly bitter session with his fellow owners, "Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly in the country and we're fucking it up." The owners hit their low point in 1990 when a federal arbiter found them guilty of collusion, a league-wide conspiracy on the part of all twenty-six owners to crush free agency by not offering contracts to any eligible players. From 1985 to 1987, collusion artificially suppressed salaries by preventing players from shopping their services to the highest bidder, instead forcing them to return to their previous teams for modest pay increases, if any. Collusion confirmed the belief of longtime Players Association head Marvin Miller, his successor Donald Fehr, and many of the players that, ever since the day in 1975 that arbitrator Peter Seitz awarded free agency to Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, the game's owners had just one goal: destroying the free agent system. As if they needed more proof, earlier that same year, the owners had locked the players out of spring training in an attempt to force them to accept a salary cap, only to be thwarted by Vincent.

The owners were forced to pay the players $280 million to make up for the wages lost to collusion, but the settlement angered the union leadership and the players because it did not include punitive damages. Surely the owners needed to be punished. In the mind of Marvin Miller, the owners' transgression was not only a conspiracy to lower salaries, but undermined the competitive nature of the sport. There was no way, Miller thought, anyone could have sympathy for the hapless Chicago Cubs—who hadn't been to a World Series since 1945 and hadn't won one since 1908—if their own leaders weren't making an honest effort to find the players to win ballgames. How could anyone feel for the Red Sox, who hadn't won it all since 1918, if they weren't even trying to improve? The only comparable conspiracy, Miller thought, was the sixty-year gentlemen's agreement barring nonwhite players from the big leagues. To Fay Vincent, there could be no underestimating the damage caused by collusion, which, to his mind, was easily the most destructive moment in the history of the game. Except to the most naïve—or to those most in denial—the grand luster of the game had faded.

The conventional wisdom that the owners were the cause of all of baseball's problems ate at ownership's collective psyche. The players and their union were now the center of power in the game, always aided, it seemed, by a commissioner who couldn't resist undermining the owners' solidarity during labor disputes. The nation's media, once hostile to labor, tended to side with the players in every labor dispute. Something had to change. The owners just weren't going to take it anymore. This was their game and they wanted it back. Beginning with Vincent's ouster in 1992, they set out to take it.

From Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball by Howard Bryant. Excerpt reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.