Photo Credit: Kevin Rushforth (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20060825_Barry_Bonds_follow_through.jpg)
and Keith Allison (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:062707_417_Roger_Clemens.jpg)
It’s an outrage. OK, maybe not an outrage. It’s a travesty. Well, not quite a travesty. Is it a disgrace? No, still not there. It’s a moderate injustice. Yeah, that sounds good - a moderate injustice!
It’s the most moderate injustice in all of sports. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, all (likely) steroid users, all some of the greatest to ever suit up in a baseball uniform. They all belong in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Since the Mitchell Report was published in 2007, baseball has been tainted by the knowledge that many of its finest players, some of whom were directly responsible for baseball’s booming national appeal, were nothing but big fat cheaters. The MLB tried to feign utter surprise. Players like Jose Canseco rolled their eyes.
Steroids had become an integral part of baseball in the 1990s. After the lockout of 1994, baseball looked like it could be on the brink of fading into obscurity, similar to the feelings many baseball fans had during the 2022 lockout. The tide shifted though, when power hitting numbers started to skyrocket in the 1995 season.
Let this sink in for a second: in the entire history of baseball, from legends like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, to Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, up to 1994, just 18 times had a slugger reached the 50-home run plateau. Ruth owns four of these seasons, and Mays, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx and Ralph Kiner own two apiece. So, out of the 18 individual home run seasons, 12 were accomplished by just five men. Starting in 1995, things took a peculiar (and startlingly obvious) turn.
In the strike-shortened 144-game 1995 season, Cleveland Indians’ left fielder Albert Belle slugged 50 home runs and 52 doubles, becoming the first ballplayer to do so in a single season. While Belle was never implicated as a steroid user (his faults were more in the throwing things around the dugout and corking his bat variety), the power numbers he demonstrated were a precursor to even more eye-popping numbers down the road.
(Sidenote: In the 1995 season, then-Oakland Athletics first baseman Mark McGwire hit 39 home runs in just 104 games. Get ready for things to get wacky.)
When the 1996 season rolled around, shit completely hit the fan, in a steroid manner of speaking. McGwire crossed the 50-home run-mark with 52 dingers, while, of all people, Brady Anderson, the light-hitting Baltimore Orioles center fielder, joined McGwire with 50 of his own. Anyone have a guess on what Anderson’s previous career high in home runs was (I’ll let you know at the end)?
Things continued to escalate. In 1997, McGwire upped the ante with 58 home runs. This time, he was joined by Ken Griffey, Jr. at the 50-home run-mark, who unloaded for 56. By the way, how disappointing is it that Griffey, being one of the few power-hitters during the 90s never implicated by steroids, never led the majors in home runs during his career. 1997 would be the closest he ever got.
1998 was when things went completely bonkers. McGwire and the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa began their historic home run chase of Roger Maris’ record of 61 set back in 1961. Both players would eventually overtake Maris, with McGwire setting the new high watermark with 70 home runs and Sosa closely behind with 66. Griffey added 56 home runs, and Greg Vaughn joined the 50-home run-club with 50 of his own.
For those who weren’t counting, that’s nine times a player crossed the 50-home run-mark in a single season from 1995 to 1998. From 1961 to 1994, only five players in total had ever crossed that mark. Steroids were an integral part of baseball now, only the MLB had no desire to recognize it or act on it.
The home run barrage wouldn’t stop after 1998. McGwire and Sosa hit 65 and 63 home runs in 1999, before giving way to a new face amongst the power-hitting pantheon of the 1990s: Barry Bonds. In 2001, Bonds would supplant McGwire as the new single-season home run champ with 73. Bonds would go on to surpass Hank Aaron as the all-time home run king with 762 in his career. Baseball was in the middle of a golden age, but it wasn’t meant to last.
In 2002, the National Leagues’ 1996 MVP Ken Caminiti admitted that he had used steroids during the season. Jose Canseco published his book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big in 2005, in which he takes credit for introducing steroids to baseball and details specific players as fellow steroid users. Finally, the Mitchell Report dropped in 2007, in which Senator George Mitchell of Maine concluded a 20-month investigation by revealing that 5-7% of MLB players had tested positive for a banned substance during 2003’s random testing. Furthermore, the report named 89 players who were directly implicated as steroid users, including Bonds, McGwire, Sosa as well as Cy Young winners Roger Clemens and Éric Gangé.
It was an absolute nightmare for baseball. It was like the entire house of cards was collapsing around commissioner Bud Selig and the owners. For so long, they had tacitly allowed the game to be corrupted for the sake of putting butts in seats and eyes on TVs. Now, the bill was coming due.
Instead of taking any responsibility, though, Selig and the owners decided to wash their hands of everything. Mandatory testing became the norm, and PED-related suspensions began to rise. At first, players were only suspended 10 days (not games) for a positive test. When the MLB realized this wasn’t much of a deterrent, they upped the suspension to a 50-game ban for the first positive test, 100-games for the second and a lifetime ban for the third. The suspensions have been further increased, and now sit at 80-games for the first positive test, 162-games for the second, and a lifetime ban for the third.
Since the Mitchell Report reared its ugly head, the Baseball Hall of Fame has seen fit to close its doors to anyone suspected of steroid use. McGwire, who admitted to steroid use during his historic 1998 season, was eliminated for Hall of Fame eligibility in 2016 after receiving just 12.3% of the vote. Likewise for Sosa, Bonds and Clemens, despite none of them ever testing positive or admitting to any PED-use during their career. Even a slight whiff of steroid suspicion is enough to derail someone’s eligibility.
You might be saying to yourself, “Well, they cheated, they knew the risks, they got what they deserved.” And you might be right, to an extent. They certainly cheated, no one is disputing that. But did they really know the risk? Was there any risk?
Not really. As I mentioned before, mandatory testing didn’t even start until 2003, and even that test was only implemented to find out if steroid use was an issue, not to start a crackdown. What was the MLB doing during the home run spike of the 90s? Enjoying one of the most profitable periods in MLB history, that’s what.
Even more egregious, Selig, the acting commissioner during the Steroid Era, the tacit accomplice to the prodigious power sluggers of the time, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017 (to his credit, I can't find any evidence of Selig taking steroids during his career). Selig being in the Hall is like Penn State reinstating Graham Spanier as President and retroactively naming the College Football Championship trophy after Joe Paterno. It’s like naming Nero to be Rome’s Fire Chief after he watched half the city burn to the ground. It’s like giving Al Capone the keys to Chicago…oh wait, they did…OK, it’s more like putting Adolf Hitler on the cover of Times Magazine in 1938…oh crap, they did that too…it’s like putting former Bountygate maestro Sean Payton in charge of player safety in the NFL - yeah, that’s it!
The hypocrisy here is absurd. When steroids were useful to the MLB, the league was fine to act like nothing was wrong. “Nope, nothing to see here,” said every owner and every executive. When doping scandals began to make the league look bad, then, and only then, did the league decide to act, and they acted by bringing the hammer down on the players.
Look back at 2003, when PED testing started in earnest. Steroids had been officially banned by the MLB since 1991, but they never felt the need to test for them until ‘03? When the results of the test concluded that 5-7% of MLB players were doping, Selig stated that he was happy to learn that steroid use wasn’t widespread, even though additional and stricter testing was now needed. Not widespread? Then what was the point of the 5% threshold? Why not make it 10%, or 15%? Hell, why not 75%? 6% of 1,438 tests is about 86 positive tests. With only 30 MLB teams in total, that’s a little over two and a half players per team. If that’s not widespread, then I don’t know what is.
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America decided to stand in line with the MLB. Since the steroid problem was fully exposed, the writers have remained steadfast in their belief that steroid users should not be allowed into the Hall. This is wrong.
First of all, these writers aren’t moral arbiters. They aren’t playing the part of Saint Peter and divinely permitting steroid users into baseball heaven. Their job is to preserve the history of baseball. Ignoring or downright erasing the history of the Steroid Era is the opposite.
The motto of the Hall of Fame is “Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, Connecting Generations.” When the writers deny legends like Bonds and Clemens their rightful place amongst baseball’s past greats, the writers are obscuring history, smearing excellence, and segregating baseball generations. The history of the sport is more important than these writer’s petty grievances.
That said, steroid users and other players implicated by steroids shouldn’t just go into the Hall willy nilly. Instead, they should be confined to their own separate wing of the Hall. A Steroid Wing, if you will. That way, the legacy of the Steroid Era can be preserved while still acknowledging that the icons of this generation were tainted by PEDs.
Admittedly, there are some issues with this solution. I doubt many steroid users, particularly those who never tested positive or admitted to their use (i.e., Bonds, Clemens and Sosa) would be happy to be isolated in a cheaters’ section of the Hall. But really, who cares how they feel about it? They get to be in the Hall. That’s what they want, isn’t it?
The other problem is that creating this separate wing of the Hall would require the MLB to take ownership of the fact that they allowed this era of baseball to perpetuate for so long. We have a better shot of dismantling Russia’s nuclear stockpile tomorrow than the MLB ever admitting to wrongdoing.
Current MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and baseball’s owners are far too cowardly to ever come clean in their role in the Steroid Era. The League is more than happy to let the players take the fall. As long as players like Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and McGwire are kept at arm's length, the history of baseball is not whole. Steroid users left a stain on the league, certainly, but it’s a black mark that the League and the players share. It’s part of the history of baseball. Let’s stop pretending like it never happened.
(Sidenote 2: You made it to the end! Prior to 1996, Brady Anderson's career high in home runs was 21. He more than doubled that total in 1996.)