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Roundtable: All Of Baseball History Should Get An Asterisk

It always comes back to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The “steroid era” may be over, but Major League Baseball is still dealing with its consequences. At the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony over the weekend, Craig Biggio was the only batter among the four new inductees. Although some of the greatest hitting records in the history of the sport occurred in the past 20 years, many position players can’t catch a break with Hall voters.

So we ran a SurveyMonkey Audience poll asking Americans how they feel about steroids, amphetamines and the pre-integration era and then gathered FiveThirtyEight’s baseball fans to talk about the results (the following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity):

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Walt Hickey: It’s pretty clear the vast majority of people — even baseball fans — are not comfortable with just letting the records stand. Of everyone surveyed, 88 percent thought the records should be struck down entirely or have an indicator that there was some funny business going on.

Neil Paine: I’m not surprised the majority of those polled want something — anything — to be done about the numbers compiled during the steroid era. Baseball is the most statistical of all the major sports, and it has always loved to foster the notion that you could compare, say, Honus Wagner’s stats to those of Alex Rodriguez side by side, without any adjustment, and still make a meaningful comparison. Sabermetricians have long acknowledged this as naive; between park effects and era adjustments, there are plenty of ways baseball stats need to be tweaked to level the playing field between different generations of players. But even for the lay fan, the age of PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs] destroyed any pretense that unadjusted numbers could be freely compared between eras, and I think that fact alone upset traditionalists as much as anything else.

Harry Enten: I must admit that steroids to me is a highly emotional issue. Many of the players we associate with steroids are people we also associate with being jerks — people like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and A-Rod. But the real question is: Where does it end? Is it that stats are changed? Are champions changed? There can be no doubt that many, if not all, of the champions for a period in the 1990s and 2000s had steroid users. We’re not going to go back and change winners. In a lot of this polling, people are making an emotional argument.

Walt: I, on the other hand, could not care less about steroid use. I feel like this notion of the game as some platonic ideal that existed prior to the big bad performance enhancers showed up is patently false. Every era had its own competitive advantages, as we’ll talk about in a second, but it’s only the steroid issue — and not, you know, the players who had the competitive advantages of rampant stimulant use and not having to compete with black players — that seems to make people think The Game is not somehow Pure.

Rob Arthur: I’m under no illusions the game of baseball is Pure (nor will it ever be), but I also don’t know if it was ever dirtier than it was during the steroid era. Cheating is and has always been rampant, both on and off the field, but with steroids, we have a means of cheating that seems particularly effective. You can see that both in the scientific literature, where steroids seem to improve strength by as much as 20 percent, but also on the baseball field, where we had some notable steroid users like Bonds smashing records left and right.

Harry: But what about during the “deadball era” — specifically between 1912 (I think) and 1920, when you had the spitball among other things? Offensive numbers took a dive. There is clear physical evidence that a spitball (or scuffing the ball) is a big deal. Now using that wasn’t illegal when it first started, but neither were steroids. They are now, yet people look at them so much differently than the pitching statistics that were occurring in the 1910s.

Rob: Harry, you definitely have a point. But I think one of the reasons steroids are so objectionable is because of the asymmetry they created between players: Some players who used them seemed to become almost inhumanly effective, others didn’t use them at all and gained no benefit, and still others used but didn’t improve substantially. When the spitball was legal, it was available to all pitchers, and I doubt that any pitcher’s spit was 50 percent more effective at decreasing offense than any other pitcher’s spit. (I am aware that once the spitball was banned, some players were grandfathered in and still allowed to use it. Obviously, that wouldn’t fly in the modern era.)

Neil: And don’t even get me started debating whether Lasik surgery counts as “unnatural” and “performance-enhancing.”

Walt: Yeah, Tommy John called — he wants his pitching speed back. We will get back to the 1920s era of baseball soon enough, Enten. For now: My favorite part of this was comparing how different fan bases cared about steroids based on how much their teams gained from steroid use.

Editor’s Note: On Friday, we introduced the idea of a steroid “discount” — a penalty in percentage terms that would be deducted from players’ individual statistics if they were found to be using PEDs. Our poll asked respondents to recommend said discount, which we can also break down by team fandom.

The following table is color-coded by how much (red) or how little (white) each team’s fans would penalize steroid-using players.1 Because some teams had far more fans respond than others — and some teams’ fans hardly voted at all — the columns have been color-coded to represent a combination of average response and the number of respondents. In other words, results have been regressed to the mean based on sample size. Likewise, the correlations at the bottom of the table were weighted by the number of respondents from each fan base.

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Walt: Hot damn, Giants.

Neil: It’s interesting that, as fandom intensifies, a relationship does begin to materialize between how much the voter’s favorite team relied on steroid users and how much tolerance he or she has for steroid users’ stats.

If we look at all of our survey’s respondents — including those who were and were not self-professed baseball fans — there’s essentially no relationship between team steroid reliance and how much steroid-tainted stats the voter would recommend taking away. But when you throw out non-fans, a small2 relationship emerges. Fan bases whose stars used steroids to generate more wins, whether on a per-season basis or as a percentage of the team’s total, tended to want steroid users to be punished less.

Then again, it’s a slight relationship at best. While San Francisco Giants fans — hello Barry Bonds! — wanted juicers dinged much less than the average fan base, fans of the Oakland Athletics and Chicago Cubs (who rank fourth and fifth in the degree to which they were helped by steroid-using batters) asked for some of the highest penalties of any group of rooters.

But that’s not the only way to measure the cognitive dissonance between a fan’s acceptance of steroids and the degree to which his or her team benefited from them.

Walt: I whipped this up really quickly: It’s the scatterplot of teams, with that “how much did they gain from PEDs” metric plotted against the percentage of their fan base that said they thought the records of steroid users should be struck. What an interesting relationship:

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Walt: It’s a small sample size, but I really love that fans of teams that didn’t gain a lot from PEDs seem more likely to desire retribution against players who did.

Rob: The relationship between steroid contribution and desire for retribution is really fascinating and upholds a long-held suspicion of mine. It also suggests (again) that these attitudes are largely driven by emotions: If my team benefited, then steroids were OK, but if not, steroids were terrible! It shows that fans, in particular, have a hard time divorcing their own fandom from the questions about how much steroids benefited particular players and how much we should care as a result.

Walt: So then the question becomes where do we draw the line when it comes to performance-enhancing things in each era? I personally think it’s bullshit that people get so riled up about steroids and not, for instance, the widespread amphetamine use in MLB in the era prior to it.

It turns out America agrees!

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Walt: So, Neil, who would this affect?

Neil: Like you said, it’s pretty widely acknowledged that amphetamine use was prevalent in MLB throughout much of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. During a 1985 drug trial, former Mets and Pirates first baseman John Milner testified that he had received “greenies” (amphetamines) from Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Willie Stargell at various times during his career, and Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt said the substance was “widely available in major-league clubhouses” when he played.

So it’s at least possible — if not probable — that some of that era’s greatest superstars used a now-banned substance to sharpen their focus and boost their energy levels. (Even if the evidence is mixed over whether greenies actually even help athletic performance.)

Walt: I feel like higher focus and higher energy is probably a nice thing for batters to have. I imagine their record collections were remarkably well-organized as well.

I’m pretty happy to see some consistency here. I compared how people answered the steroid question with how they answered the stimulant question, and 88 percent of respondents (and 86 percent of fans) stuck to their guns and replied with the same answer they gave for steroid policy. It seems like at least among the general population there’s a lot more consistency with how to handle the policy than there is in the league.

Still, it’s surprising that at the end of the day, 44 percent of Americans would strip away statistical accomplishments from amphetamine users in the era of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle.

Neil: Agreed. The general attitude among sportswriters — even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense — is that there’s a distinction to be drawn between the supposedly widespread amphetamine use of the 1970s and the supposedly widespread steroid use of the 1990s. But according to those surveyed, there shouldn’t be. The moral judgment of the people appears to fall on both groups with equal fury.

Harry: I really do wonder whether most people know that Mays may have used greenies. I tend to think not. If they did, there is no way that the polling numbers would look the way they do. I also tend to think that there is nothing ridiculous that Mays did in the sense that he looked normal, unlike Bonds who looked like someone shoved some orthopedic pillows in his arms. Not to mention that his head grew bigger than Donald Trump’s ego. It seemed natural. We tend to think of unnatural in how someone looks, not how they think.

Neil: Right, and the bulked-up players and shifting head sizes gave fans and analysts a smoking gun of sorts. It added to the theatrical nature of the steroid hysteria. With a pill that doesn’t change appearance, you’re reduced to poring over stats and wondering whether a player’s out-of-the-blue power spike is just a career year or something much more sinister.

Walt: But enough with the pharmaceutical advantages. What about the bigoted regime that kept black players out of the leagues? What about the competitive advantage conferred by excluding athletes based on the color of their skin?

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Walt: Kind of odd that baseball fans are nowhere near as mortified with pre-integration records standing than they are with stimulants. Neil, what’s the word on the effect that segregation had on baseball?

Neil: One of the biggest tragedies of baseball’s color line is that we can’t know precisely how much the game’s pre-1947 stars benefited from only playing against white opponents. But we can certainly estimate how much more shallow the pool of available players was before the game was integrated. (As well as before the rise of Latin America and, now, Asia as a source of baseball talent.)

As FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver notes in “Baseball Between the Numbers,” MLB was only drawing from a population of about 300,000 people per player in 1930. By 1960, when baseball was finally fully integrated, that number had more than doubled to 625,000, and it was a whopping 900,000 when Nate crunched the numbers in 2005. The bigger the talent pool, the tougher the competition, so it’s clear that pre-integration players had a major advantage in terms of the relative caliber of talent they played against.

(A related note: Baseball’s level of talent is steadily increasing anyway as humans push the boundaries of athletic performance, which is another great reason statistics from the past can’t be compared to modern numbers straight-up.)

Harry: My opinion on this is fairly simple: You can’t penalize players for things they didn’t control. Babe Ruth couldn’t play against a black player in the MLB even if he wanted to. It’s a tragedy that we were robbed of seeing Josh Gibson against Carl Hubbell, but we can’t go back and readjust the records.

Walt: I don’t think it’s so much about penalizing players for things beyond their control as it’s about knocking down the idea that baseball was somehow defiled by pharmaceuticals. This nostalgia for baseball is wholly misguided — the Boston Red Sox integrated after Southern public schools! In 1959! — it’s not like this was an antiquated part of baseball history.

Baseball’s commitment to some idyllic game that never existed — something that also manifests itself in a knee-jerk opposition to potential ways to improve the game, like the DH, speedier play and other experimentation — by now constitutes what I think is (on a long enough timespan) an existential threat for the league. The fact that more people aren’t more willing to look back in anger is a symptom of a much larger problem.

Not to mention that at least the other two advantages at least made the game more interesting to watch. Segregation, if anything, made the game less interesting for fans out of mere spite. My main line? If you’re going to get indignant about steroids — something that unambiguously made the game more interesting — at least have the decency to be just as indignant about letting those segregated records stand un-asterisked

But guys! We’re missing the point here. About 10 percent of Americans would strip Babe Ruth of his records! Including 8 percent of baseball fans. That’s awesome.

Harry: What percentage of people believe we didn’t land on the moon?

Walt: I mean Kubrick basically admitted as much in “The Shining,” man — learn how to read subtext.

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, players who were suspended for PED offenses, were linked to the Biogenesis scandal, were named in the Mitchell Report or whose failed drug tests were leaked to the media.

  2. Correlation: -0.2

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