19th Century PEDs and Andy Pettitte’s HOF Case

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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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

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Telo
Guest
Telo

Really interesting and well done write up. I agree with a lot of what you said, but there’s something very different about the steroid era compared to the “strength elixirs” and greenies of days yonder.

Follow me with this analogy:

Every week after school on friday a bunch of kids steal some candy bars from a store. They take advantage of the nice guy working the cash register who never really bothers them, even though he might suspect that they are lifting candy. This goes on for a while, and it’s never enough to make the store owner angry. He’s not even really SURE they are stealing anything, and it doesn’t bother his bottom line. This goes on for quite a bit, sometimes they steal candy, sometimes, soda. There’s no pattern or predictability, so it’s hard to point your finger at it.

Then one day, one of the kids decides realizes that the store owner leaves the register unattended for a few minutes to go to the bathroom every once in a while. They steal money. Their parents start to notice that they are buying stuff they shouldn’t have the money for. They got greedy. If they were still discretely stealing candy and soda, nothing would’ve ever changed. But then they took too much, more than they should’ve, and everyone noticed.

If all Bonds and everyone else ever took was HGH, to recover faster from injuries… there would never have been this backlash. Anabolic steroids was the cash in the register. These guys made the conscious decision to unnaturally change themselves for the most selfish reasons, and pretended like no one would notice or care. Then they shattered the most precious records baseball has (had), and expected people to embrace them.

If Bond hit 1000 home runs, and had the same body he had in 1987, he would be beloved beyond belief, (even if he still was a jerk.)

Steroids are different PEDs. They are blatant and unnatural and if anyone in the Mitchell Report never touches The Hall, that’d be fine with me.

Just one man’s opinion.

Spiggy
Guest
Spiggy

A man spending most of his adult life waving a stick at a ball that’s moving really quickly past him is unnatural, but we pay good money to see it (and absurd money to them to do it). There are all sorts of compelling cases against PEDs, but what’s “natural” isn’t one of them.

Telo
Guest
Telo

So you’re saying baseball is unnatural.

I think by definition PEDs are unnatural enhancers. I am simply pointing out the degree of unnaturalness of anabolic steroids as the catalyst for the backlash against PEDs.

I don’t think you actually said anything useful.

SF 55 for life
Member
SF 55 for life

Telo,
Your first statement implied that because anabolic steroids were unnatural they were bad. He called you out on it, and rightfully so. Being natural or unnatural is not a reason to be for or against anabolic steroids.

Telo
Guest
Telo

It wasn’t that they were just unnatural, it’s the degree to which they unnaturally change your body. I may not have made that clear with the analogy. Nothing in the history of baseball has changed players so drastically as anabolic steroids.

quincy0191
Member
quincy0191

And who’s to say what’s natural? If a person has an overactive pituitary gland for whatever reason, and therefore has a natural overproduction of HGH, can we ban that person from the Hall of Fame even though they never took anything? Same effect, but in one case you’re taking the HGH, and in the other you’re injecting it, which is unnatural according to your definition. But then we’re saying it doesn’t matter what the effects are, it just matters how you get the stuff into your bloodstream, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the point of the debate.

SF 55 for life
Member
SF 55 for life

To me this borders close to a political debate.

Why should it be illegal to put something in your body that helps you work harder and gain more muscle in the process? You can tell me all the negative side effects about it but in the end its my own body and I should be able to choose what I want to do with it. The government should have absolutely no control on what I do to my body.

Hell, we aren’t even sure how bad steroids are for you anyway. Almost every drug has negative side effects, steroids do to. There are plenty of scientists who say that steroids can be beneficial to the body if used safely.

Why are they banned in baseball? Explain the difference between the unnatural stuff that athletes buy in GNC and other places. What about something like CEE? Completely legal, and is shown to increase muscle mass. Why is that legal? Because it doesn’t work as well? Silly, absolutely silly.

Telo
Guest
Telo

“Because it doesn’t work as well? Silly, absolutely silly.”

If there was a pill that instantly transformed you into Babe Ruth, regardless of health issues (but needless to say, it has side effects) and you were the commish of baseball, would you ban it?

B N
Guest
B N

“You can put anything into your body as long as it’s legal.”

This is a somewhat complex issue though. Is it legal to make a new, unknown performance enhancing substance and then use it until people figure it out and make it illegal? Because that has basically been the latest battles going on with designer PEDs, they’re literally being invented about as fast as they can be banned. I think it is more apt to say that one shouldn’t be using anything that people WOULD ban if they were aware of it.

Plus, even legality gets complex. Players were using drugs illegal under US law, even if they weren’t banned in baseball law. Shouldn’t the game be able to assume that players are required to also live by the law of the land?

fredsbank
Guest
fredsbank

steroids have been proven to result in far more serious negative consequences than those most other things, surely you can’t have forgotten that

SF 55 for life
Member
SF 55 for life

Alex,
I agree with you, while I don’t agree with the rules the players should still abide by them. The problem I have is this:
When someone like Barry Bonds allegedly used the clear and the cream neither substance was banned. Why should it matter that he did it if it wasn’t against the rules then? Greenies are illegal now, I don’t see anyone up in arms about Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, or Mike Schmidt being in the HOF. Most people will say that because it was against the law to use “which isn’t exactly true” he was in the wrong. THIS IS THE ARGUMENT I HATE!!! This is where it becomes political for me.

Telo,
Straw man much? Those are completely different situations. Steroids aren’t something that transforms you or your body. You still have to do the work to see results.

SF 55 for life
Member
SF 55 for life

fredsbank,
I haven’t forgotten anything. There is proof that steroids can harm you. There is proof that tylenol can harm you, and antidepressants, and basically any other drug known to man. There is definitely a negative side to steroids, but there is a positive side to taking them as well.

Regardless, just because something is bad for you shouldn’t make it illegal. Laws that protect people from themselves are restrictions of freedom.

Telo
Guest
Telo

It wasn’t a strawman, apologies if it came off that way.

The point is – the degree to which something enhances your level of play of course should be a factor. No one should be forced to take a supplement to compete at the highest level.

DavidCEisen
Guest
DavidCEisen

There are a lot of good reasons to ban steroids. From a governmental perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to not regulate the drug market. There are a number of muscle enhancing substances that are legal. Each substance that is banned usually has a good reason. The FDA isn’t exactly unfriendly to business. Must illegal steroids don’t even attempt to garner FDA approval though, and are simply sold on the black market. This obviously makes it very difficult to measure the damage that the drugs can do to bodies. The other issue is that there are basically no long-term studies on the effects of PEDs on the human body, so we’ll learn a lot more in the coming decades.

From a sports league’s perspective, the rational also makes sense. You don’t want only players willing to destroy their health to succeed. It sets up a rather perverse risk/reward system.

Azmanz
Member
Azmanz

I think baseball laws are more important than US laws. Let’s go back to 2003 when it was illegal in the US to use steroids, but not in baseball. If you were to assume that everyone followed their countries laws and baseballs laws, then all that players would need to do was go to Mexico and shoot up.

andrew
Guest
andrew

Lasik, Tommy John Surgery, ACL Surgery, Modern Pain Killers, Labrum Surgery. These are all quite unnatural and some have a much larger quantifiable effect on the game.

Not David
Guest
Not David

They are also legal, both in the game and in society.

Llewdor
Guest
Llewdor

But still unnatural. As such, it’s clear that simply being unnatural is not sufficient grounds to prohibit something.

kick me in the GO NATS
Guest
kick me in the GO NATS

telo sorry but I think the kids stealing candy should have been spent a night or two in jail before they stole the cash!

Llewdor
Guest
Llewdor

This is nonsense. If you’re going to claim that steroids are somehow unnatural, and use that as a basis for your condemnation of them, then you need to justify that assertion. What makes the steroids unnatural when other materials are not?

Cookiesboy
Member
Cookiesboy

In the mid sixties on Friday nights when the Phillies were home my Dad and I would go to Connie Mack Stadium. It was great time to be 10 years old, and a baseball fan.On those summer nights I got to see the best of the best, Mays, McCovey, Aaron, Boyer, Mathews, Banks, Robinson, and our home town heroes Richie Allen, and Johnny Callison. In 1963 as I looked at these players it wasn’t hard for me to imagine that some day I could be a big league player, these guys physically, didn’t look that much different then my Dad. Fastforward to 1993 opening day at Veterans Stadium. I was extremely optimistic about the upcoming season because the Phils had just come off a great Spring training. The 1993 team was made of guys that resembled Night Club Bouncers, not ball players. Darren Daulton looked like Vic Tanny, Lenny Dykstra suddenly had Hulk Hogan’s arms, and there were dudes named Incavilla and Hollins who could bench press the Rocky Statue. John Kruk, well, he actually looked like a baseball player.I knew it when I saw it!!!! These guys had gone beyond Greenies. They had chemically altered their bodies!!!! They definitely weren’t stealing snickers and cokes.