9 Scandals That Tarnished America’s Pastime

Toward the end of Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’ character, Terence Mann, gives an impassioned speech about the power and glory of baseball. He says that baseball is "the one constant through all the years," and that though America has been "erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again," baseball has always "marked the time." It’s a sweet monologue, especially within the film’s story of allowing a man and his father to reconcile while the spiritually shunned Chicago White Sox play for their atonement. But, well, the problem is that Major League Baseball has rarely been so pure or endearing as movies and fuzzy memories make it out to be. The game has been plagued by scandal and rumor almost since its inception, and though it’s often held up as a symbol of American innocence, it’s more accurately a representation of the lengths people will go to just to win. There are some amazing, honest, hard-working players in the game today, just as there always have been. But these black marks on the game’s reputation are impossible to ignore.

  1. The Black Sox Scandal: Easily the most notorious scandal from the classic era of baseball, the "Black Sox" scandal of the 1919 World Series remains one of the worst and most damaging events in baseball history. This was the one that officially robbed the game of its perceived innocence, the same way the quiz show scandals of the 1950s would change the way we look at TV. The series went down in infamy for the way it was fixed to allow the Cincinnati Reds to beat the Chicago White Sox five games to three in a best-of-nine format (one of the few times the series was experimentally extended). Sox first baseman Chick Gandil was the orchestrator of the plot from the inside, leaning on connections like bookie Joseph Sullivan to convince people that the games could indeed be rigged. Arnold Rothstein, a New York gangster who wouldn’t live to see the 1930s, acted as the money man. Gandil was able to recruit players looking for a handout after they’d grown tired of dealing with owner Charles Comiskey, who cultivated a reputation as a tight-fisted spender. Rumors flew about the fix before the series even started, and by 1920, a grand jury was convened. Eight of the players were banned from the game for life.
  2. Pete Rose: Ah, good ol’ Charlie Hustle. In the modern era, the fall of Pete Rose was one of the last MLB scandals to involve age-old temptations like gambling and greed that seem positively quaint next to allegations of juicing and performance-enhancing drugs. His career as a player lasted more than 20 years, starting and ending with the Cincinnati Reds (making for a serendipitous tie to the Black Sox scandal), where he was a player-manager before dropping from the roster and managing full-time. But the show was just about over. Reports circled that Rose had bet on the outcome of Reds games, and a 1989 Sports Illustrated story dug into the matter. Rose was banned from the game but didn’t admit the truth until his 2004 autobiography, the melodramatically titled My Prison Without Bars. He’s still banned from the Hall of Fame, and though some supporters say that his playing prowess should be enough to warrant his inclusion with the greats (he’s the all-time leader in hits, at-bats, outs, and games played), critics say that he still gambled on his own team, which is, well, not remotely OK.
  3. Pittsburgh Drug Trials: Coke was everywhere in the 1980s, and Major League Baseball was no exception. The drug’s use in baseball was far more widespread than the public suspected, but the bad news would go public in 1985 when a grand jury in Pittsburgh called several Pittsburgh Pirates to testify about cocaine in the sport, as well as several other players, including Keith Hernandez and Willie Mays Aikens. That’s pretty much when the other shoe dropped. Testifying in exchange for immunity, the men spoke of buying amphetamines and coke often from other players, and Hernandez copped to the fact that he’d been using cocaine for years. (This makes his later appearance on Seinfeld seem way sadder.) As a result, Curtis Strong was convicted of distributing cocaine, and Strong was sentenced to 12 years in prison, though he only served four. Several players were suspended, fined, and tasked with community service. In terms of scope and PR problems, it was the biggest mess since the Black Sox, and it wouldn’t be topped until the steroid days of the early 21st century.
  4. The Mitchell Report: The official title is a lot longer, but all anyone remembers about the 2007 Mitchell Report is the way it blew the lid off the practice among certain baseball players of using anabolic steroids to improve their game. Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) headed up the almost two-year investigation, and the final report named 89 baseball players who allegedly took steroids or similar performance-enhancing drugs. Even casual fans and those who didn’t follow sports knew about the report and the way it was wreaking havoc with players’ reputations, the appearance of games, and the overall vibe of the league. It’s not that cheating was somehow knew; the Black Sox weren’t forgotten. Rather, the reports of steroid use cast shadows of doubt on the achievements of the game’s biggest players, making people wonder how much had been affected by drugs and how much was legitimate. Star players like Roger Clemens were named in the report, as well; Clemens went on to deny the charges, but then he got indicted for perjury for lying about being clean. Some things never change.
  5. The Giants Steal Signs: Everybody knows about the shot heard ’round the world, the homer that Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit off Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca to win the National League pennany in the fall of 1951. It’s a classic sports moment that’s been referenced in pop culture for decades. But it turns out that Thomson had some help facing down Branca in the form of a telescope in the manager’s office and a buzzer system connected to the dugout. The telescope let the Giants staff steal signs from the Dodgers, telling them every pitch that was coming before it was thrown. The cheating didn’t come to light for decades; Branca was remarkably low-key about the whole thing, saying he knew about the stealing in ’51 but didn’t want to cheapen Thomson’s legacy. Still, his equivocating aside, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
  6. BALCO: A lot of baseball’s modern scandals are just variations on the same theme: players trying to juice their way to better games. The steroid issue feels like one scandal, but in a lot of ways, it’s merely a string of smaller ones that add up to a culture of rule-breaking and double-dealing. The BALCO — Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative — meltdown is a prime example. Based near San Francisco, the company was established in the 1980s to provide blood and urine analysis, which led founder Victor Conte to make connections in the athletic arena. By the early 2000s, BALCO was selling tetrahydrogestrinone, a steroid that was undetectable at the time. An anonymous tip to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency started the house of cards tumbling in 2003, and the guy who dropped the dime — sprint coach Trevor Graham — also provided a sample of the clear steroid substance. Once investigators broke it down and knew how to test for it, they caught it in 20 fluid samples from athletes. In September that year, the feds kicked in BALCO’s doors and related facilities, turning up customer lists that cited Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Armando Rios, just to name a few MLBers in the bunch. (The books also included hockey players, outdoor athletes, a boxer, and cyclist.)
  7. Ken Caminiti: Ken Caminiti was one of the many names mentioned in the Mitchell Report, but his sad end brought a tragic tone to pro baseball. He played for years with the Houston Astros before heading to San Diego, then back to Houston, finally finishing with the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves in 2001. In 1996, playing for the Padres, he was voted MVP, and he won three Gold Gloves there, too. But Caminiti was on drugs at just about every point in his MLB career. He admitted to Sports Illustrated in 2002 that he’d been on steroids during that MVP season and for years after, a revelation that was the latest in a long line of horrible truths that tainted the reputation of Major League Baseball in the 1990s and 2000s. He faced legal troubles after leaving the game, and he died from a cocaine overdose in October 2004 at age 41.
  8. Al Campanis: Who says players get to have all the fun ruining stuff? Although Al Campanis briefly played second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943, he was famous for managing the Dodgers in L.A. from 1968 to 1987. He didn’t plan to stop managing in 1987; that decision was made for him when he brought the heat down on the organization after some really crude remarks in the press. Campanis appeared on ABC’s Nightline in a bit celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Major League debut of Jackie Robinson. Campanis, born in 1916, was a man steeped in what could kindly be called backward views on race relations and basic human physiology, and when host Ted Koppel asked him to speculate about the dearth of African-American managers in the league, Campanis pontificated that they might not have "some of the necessities" to do the job. He also said that black men couldn’t swim as well as white men because they "don’t have the buoyancy." Koppel, understandably weirded out, asked him to clarify, but Campanis stuck to his guns. He resigned shortly thereafter amid protest, and though he later qualified his statements by saying he was very tired when he made them (so tired he became confusingly racist?), the incident took a while to blow over.
  9. John Rocker: John Rocker: not a smart man. In 2000, he was playing relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves when he gave a colossally stupid interview to Sports Illustrated in which he detailed the reasons he would never want to play for a New York team. Rather than gripe good-naturedly about the cost of Manhattan real estate or the headaches of New York City traffic, he said that riding the train to the ballpark would require sitting with "some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids." As sports fans and Southerners slapped their foreheads, Rocker was torn apart by the press. He left Atlanta in 2001 and went to Cleveland, then Texas, and finally Tampa Bay before heading to the Atlantic League and retiring. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rocker’s brush with fame only cemented the xenophobia and divisiveness with which he greeted the press. By 2008, he was off selling real estate. His temporarily high profile was enough to hurt the game for a while, especially the Braves.