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Cheating and CHEATING




“Above all, the story of Willie Mays reminds us of a time when the only performance-enhancing drug was joy.”

– Pete Hamill


The above sentence — which concluded Pete Hamill’s New York Times review of James Hirsch’s excellent Willie Mays book — has been batted around a bit on the Internet the last few days. It has been batted around mainly because, well, with all due respect, it’s ridiculous. As more than one person cynically has written, and more than a few hundred cynically have thought: “I didn’t know that joy was another word for amphetamines.”



Up front, I should say that I love Pete Hammill. He’s another writing hero of mine. He, more than almost anyone else I’ve read, has a knack for capturing the whiff of smoke and black-and-white charm of a certain time and place and occasion — New York in the 1960s, a rainy night out with Frank Sinatra, the violence and beauty of a Sugar Ray Robinson fight. A Pete Hamilll essay on Willie Mays was exactly what I wanted to read on a cold Sunday morning as the days begin to lengthen.


And, sure, I expected romance. That’s Hamill. That’s Mays. This was going to be a love story, the author never hid from that. He hits you square between the eyes with the first sentence: “A long time ago in America, there was a beautiful game called baseball.” Yes. Well. This time was, of course, when men were men, when pitchers finished what they started, when the World Series ended before the chill of autumn turned harsh, when the good teams were all in New York and none were in that vast wasteland West of St. Louis. This was that time, Hamill writes, “long before the innocence of game was permanently stained by the filthy deception of steroids.”


And then: “In that vanished time, there was a ballplayer named Willie Mays.”


Right. Romance. Well, I think Mays is one of those players worthy of myth — he really could do everything. Bill James called him the third greatest player ever — behind only Ruth and Wagner, who played in an era that is hard to compare to our own. Mays’ era feels much closer. He could crush long home runs, he could run, he could throw, he could hit, he could field. It’s hard to pick one favorite Mays season. It certainly could be 1954, just after he returned from the army, when he led the league in hitting (.345) and slugging (.667 — the highest slugging percentage of his career), won the MVP award, and made the most famous catch in World Series history.


But, then again, it could be 1956 when he became the second player — the first since Ken Williams in 1922 — to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. Thirty-thirty wasn’t even a thing then (Mays has often said that if he had known people would have made a big deal out of 40-40, he would have done it a few times), but it came natural to Mays. Then, the best year could be 1957 when Mays hit .333, banged 26 doubles, 20 triples, 35 home runs, stole 38 bases and won the first center field Gold Glove award. Or , the year could involve the slightly older Mays of 1965 — he was 34 that year — and he hit 52 home runs (nobody else hit even 40), led the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases and runs created. He won the Gold Glove again that year, the ninth time in a row.


The point is, that throughout his career, Willie Mays shook the imagination. I have little doubt that if I had grown up to the baseball music of Willie Mays, he would be have been a hero. I have little doubt that if I was 20 or 25 years older, I might have written an essay with the sentence “In that vanished time, there was a ballplayer named Willie Mays.”


So, no, it wasn’t the goo-goo-eyed romance of the essay that got me. I wanted that. No, it was the willful self-deception. Surely, Pete Hamill knows that baseball was never innocent, that America was never innocent, that innocence itself was never innocent.


Baseball in Willie Mays time, like baseball in every time, was rife with cheating and racism and alcoholism and small-mindedness. You know, people love to talk about the players of the steroid era cheating the game. But did anyone in baseball history more willfully and brashly cheat the game than Leo Durocher*and the 1951 Giants, who rigged an elaborate sign-stealing system that undoubtedly helped the Giants catch the Dodgers and win the pennant, win the pennant, win the pennant.


*Pete Hammil loves Hirsch’s “delightfully raffish” portrait of Durocher in the Mays book. I wonder if there’s a way to make Barry Bonds sound delightfully raffish.


In Hirsch’s book, Mays explains away this organized and premeditated bit of cheating by saying that stealing signs was “always part of the game — everyone did it.” And that if he did steal signs that “they sure didn’t help me.”


Everyone did it. The cheating didn’t help me. Wow, does that sound familiar?


Then there’s amphetamines. I have never understood why many people are so outraged about baseball players’ steroid use and so unperturbed by amphetamine use. I guess it makes some sense on a gut level — injecting yourself with steroids seems so much more villainous than popping a couple of greenies to get a boost. Steroids seemed much more in our faces as fans. The players unapologetically got bigger. A few of them hit an unnatural number of home runs. There seemed a much more direct cause and effect … steroids = bigger muscles = more home runs. And maybe the cause and effect did not seem quite as obvious with the widespread use of amphetamines.


BUT … is any of that true? Best I can tell, amphetamines (like steroids) were illegal without prescription in American society but were just a part of the baseball culture. Best I can tell, amphetamines are performance enhancing drugs that, many people feel, sharpen focus and increase energy levels and help an athlete overcome exhaustion. Best I can tell, amphetamines can have terrible side effects and can be difficult to quit (and can be extremely dangerous to quit).


In other words, it seems more or less the same level of cheating and more or less the same level of wrong. As far as whether amphetamines had a huge effect on the game … I don’t know. I don’t want to throw names out there, but there are records and performances — consecutive games played and huge stolen bases totals just as a for instance — that you could logically connect to amphetamine use. I remember having a conversation with a baseball insider about a player who was quite good for one year and then descended into an abyss.


“What happened?” I asked.

“He stopped taking greenies,” he said. “He just doesn’t have the same spark.”


In 1985, John Milner testified that there was some sort of “red juice” in Willie Mays locker when they both played for the Mets. Milner said that was a liquid amphetamine. Mays would say he got it from a doctor, and the doctor said it was actually cough syrup. There really isn’t any more clarity on that issue, but Mays does not deny that he may have used amphetamines as a player. In the book, his quote is as follows:


“My problem was if I could stay on the field. I would go to the doctor and would say to the doctor, ‘Hey, I need something to keep me going. Could you give me some sort of vitamin?’ I don’t know what they put in there, and I never asked a question about anything.”


Well … there you go. I don’t think there’s much question based on that quote that Mays used amphetamines in his day. Shoot, just about every player did. Pete Rose did. Hank Aaron admitted trying it. Hirsch, in his own words, believes there’s a big difference between steroids and amphetamines — the former, he says, builds muscle mass and enhances performance while the latter “restores energy and allows someone to perform at full strength.” That seems to be the argument.


But I think there’s a much bigger difference: Steroids were not readily available when Willie Mays played ball.


This is not meant in any way to diminish the great Willie Mays or cheapen the wonderful time when he played baseball. Mays was wonderful. Baseball was wonderful. But they weren’t playing baseball on a higher plane of morality in the 1950s or the 1930s or the 1910s. Players were always looking for an edge and more money. Owners were always trying to milk the fans for whatever they could get. There was always a “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” vibe in baseball.


And there have always been players who lift us higher. Honus Wagner did, Ty Cobb did, Pete Alexander did, Joe Jackson did, Rogers Hornsby did, Babe Ruth did, Lefty Grove did, Joe DiMaggio did, Ted Williams did, Stan Musial did, Bob Feller did, Jackie Robinson did, Willie Mays did, Sandy Koufax did, Mickey Mantle did, Hank Aaron did, Pete Rose did, Reggie Jackson did, George Brett did, Ozzie Smith did, Greg Maddux did, Barry Bonds did, Mark McGwire did, Roger Clemens did, Pedro Martinez did, Albert Pujols did. They used different bits of motivation. They took advantage of their specific time and place. Some plainly cheated. Some quietly pushed the edge. Some were self destructive. Some played it as square as they could.


But when it comes down to it, I guess my big issue with Pete Hamill’s romantic essay is there never really was a long-ago time in America when there was a beautiful game called baseball. The game, for better and worse, is as beautiful now as it ever was.




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Good stuff as always from JoePos.


Kind of on topic, I always wonder why it seems like people always want to reach for excuses to bash baseball. "I'd watch if the Yankees didn't win every year," "I'd watch if everyone wasn't juicing," etc. As if there's not sleazy backroom dealings and problems in all of the major sports, hell, the Cavs added three all-stars in exchange for Damon Jones, Sasha Pavlovic, Ben Wallace, and 30 days of Ilgauskas. If you think steroids destroyed baseball.....look at a picture of Dick Butkus (in his playing days), then look at a picture of Ray Lewis. Every professional athlete playing at the highest level is on something.


But I think the main thing I love about Posnanski is that he realizes it's just a fun sport. You can watch it on warm, sunny days. There's a game on every night when there's nothing else in the summer. Every season, every game has its own storyline. And he doesn't worry about the other stuff. It's gonna happen in pro sports.


Hoorah for baseball.

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