Today, Gary Sheffield retired. Following Andy Pettitte’s retirement earlier this offseason, that makes two players on the Hall of Fame bubble who were named in the Mitchell Report and admitted to using Performance-Enhancing Drugs — “the cream” in Sheffield’s case, and Human Growth Hormone in Pettitte’s case. Shortly after Sheffield’s announcement, Dave Cameron argued that his drug admission will keep him out of Cooperstown, writing that his stats are fine, but they’re not very different from a number of his peers in the era, and when you combine that with the drug use, “It is hard to see Sheffield gettting elected.” Dave may be right, but Bill James has argued precisely the opposite: “It is my opinion that, in time, the use of steroids or other Performance Enhancing Drugs will mean virtually nothing in the debate about who gets into the Hall of Fame and who does not.” It’s hard to know exactly how voters will regard drug use in the future, because we really don’t have any rational standard for how to deal with players who have used Performance-Enhancing Drugs. We need a working standard. Fortunately, a couple of pitchers from the 19th century give us a good place to start.
It should hardly be surprising that this issue goes back a really long time. Back before steroids, back before greenies became ubiquitous in clubhouses, back before the spitball was banned in 1920. As NPR reported in 2006, Hall of Famer Pud Galvin was known for using something called “The Elixir of Brown-Sequard,” which was basically animal testosterone, as early as 1889. More recently, Tom Shieber, the curator of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who writes a personal blog called Baseball Researcher, discovered a brouhaha over alleged performance-enhancing drug use in the 1894 Temple Cup Series — a precursor to the modern World Series — between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Orioles, which the Giants won. After the Series ended, some of the Giants were alleged to have taken a strength-enhancing “elixir,” and thereby gaining an unfair advantage. Many of the arguments from the time are very similar to drug arguments that we hear today. But I think it’s instructive, and I think it should help us develop a rubric that will help us evaluate admitted drug users like Sheffield and Pettitte when they become eligible for the Hall.
So here’s what happened back in ’94. The Giants swept the series in four games, winning the last game 16-3 on October 9, 1894. Shortly after that, a man alleged that he knew exactly how the Giants had won. Shieber discovered an article published in the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat (which had been excerpted in a medical review) which outlined the man’s allegations. The newspaper itself redacted the names, but Shieber deduces their referents easily enough: “R” is Hall of Famer Amos Rusie, and “W” is Hall of Famer John “Monte” Ward. Here’s the news story that Shieber quotes:
R—— did not play in the second game that day, but just before W—— went to the bat in that critical fourth inning he gave him a dose from the blue phial. The effect was marvelous. W——’s strength seemed to be doubled and he whacked out that hot liner to right which saved the game to the Giants. … Those two boys have used it ever since, except in Pittsburg, when a new supply of the stuff failed to arrive. The Giants lost that game, but won the next day when the package arrived. They used the Washington physician’s elixir in every Temple Cup game, and I tell you that is the secret of the Giants holding that trophy to-day. R—— and W—— will both tell you so.
The drug wasn’t banned or illegal at the time, but when Cap Anson heard the account, he protested the use. However, as Shieber told me, Anson was known as something of a complainer, overserious and high-strung: if someone was “going to make a stink about it,” it would have been him. If anything, in the hundred ensuing years, baseball fans have become more like Anson, high-strung to the point of punishing anyone who may be suspected of taking a substance that may have been illegal. We’re still trying to figure out how to deal with success that may have been chemically aided. But this story provides a good place to start. There’s nothing wrong with what Rusie and Ward did: they took a legal substance that probably didn’t actually help their game. Any set of standards for evaluating players who used performance-enhancers should start with that fact.
In my opinion, when it comes to evaluating a particular method of “cheating,” there are only two relevant criteria: whether it was effective, and whether it disallowed by the rules. If a cheat doesn’t work, it shouldn’t be condemned. (Everything that Turk Wendell ever did was calculated to give himself an edge and make himself a more effective pitcher, from chewing black licorice while he pitched and brushing his teeth between every inning, to jumping over the foul lines to avoid touching them. But we don’t blame him for his superstitions: not only are they perfectly legal, they’re completely harmless.) Intent is important, but because one of the main problems with cheating is that it creates an uneven playing field, efficaciousness matters more.
Moreover, if a cheat isn’t against the rules, it shouldn’t be penalized as harshly. I don’t think that everything that hasn’t been expressly forbidden should be permitted — it’s often possible to violate the spirit of the law without violating its letter — but the letter of the law should matter, and it should probably be considered worse to break a written rule than an unwritten one.
Shieber digs deeper into the elixir that they may have taken, a concoction named Cerebrine, a legal drug that Major League Baseball had not banned. Cerebrine’s makers proclaimed that it was an animal extract prepared from ox brains, but contemporary doctors alleged that it was nothing more than repackaged nitroglycerin. In either case, whatever its effects on the human body, its ability to improve baseball skills is likely negligible and entirely psychosomatic. As Shieber told me, “What, apparently, Rusie and Ward were doing, was intentionally trying to enhance their performance. And yet I would assume that what they would think they were doing was completely fine. I suspect that they wouldn’t think it was any different from doing wind sprints in the preseason to get yourself warmed up. You do what it takes to get yourself to a high level of your avocation… whether it’s Powerade today, which is totally legal, or some bizarre snake oil in the 19th century.”
To draw a contemporary parallel, that also appears to be the case with regard to Human Growth Hormone, which had not been banned in baseball at the time that Andy Pettite admits having taken it. It was and remains legal in the United States, though it requires a prescription. Pettitte’s usage of it may have been illegal, if he took it without a prescription. But in other respects, he seems to have taken a legal drug that has no proven effect in improving baseball ability — and unless such effects can be proven, it’s hard to punish him for the speculation.*
*Many arguments about PED use boil down into some variation of: “He wouldn’t have taken it if it didn’t work.” To which I respond: look at Turk Wendell.
I don’t think all cheaters, attempted cheaters, and alleged cheaters should be held out of the Hall of Fame. After all, it already has a number of admitted spitballers, amphetamine users, cocaine users, liars, cheats, and scumbags. I simply think their career should be viewed through the prism of what they did to succeed. So, to deal with instances of alleged cheating, I propose a gradient: at one end would be the players whose cheating violated the rules and improved their results far beyond what they could have done fairly, and at the other end would be the players whose attempts to get an edge were legal and ineffectual. The former should have their career stats discounted the most; the latter should have their stats discounted the least.
Andy Pettitte and Gary Sheffield probably aren’t at either extreme. (For one thing, I find it hard to believe either man when he says that he only used drugs “once.”) Barry Bonds is probably at one extreme of the cheating spectrum (and I still think he’s a Hall of Famer). At the other extreme, you might find Derek Jeter and A.J. Pierzynski, who nudged their way onto first base by failing to tell the umpire the truth about whether the’d actually been beaned; that little bit of gamesmanship may have violated the spirit of the rules of fair play, but it certainly didn’t violate the letter.
So, should Andy Pettitte be in the Hall of Fame? I don’t think so, but that’s purely based on his numbers, not his HGH use. And that’s how it should be. Ultimately, drug users are people too, and when someone connected to PEDs retires, their entire career should be considered, including but not exclusively focusing on their alleged PED usage. Galvin, Rusie, and Ward are all Hall of Famers, and that’s how it should be, too. They aren’t the only men in the Hall of Fame who attempted to better their performance through substance use. Every new ballot brings new questions about how to handle drug use. The best way to answer those questions is to examine the efficacy and legality of what was used.
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