When did mlb ban steroids? The emergence of the Biogenesis scandal over the last few months has been Major League Baseball’s call to fight another battle against an all-too-familiar foe: performance-enhancing drugs.
Baseball is surely hoping for a decisive victory this time, one that will rid the game of PEDs once and for all. If Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch gives the MLB what it needs to suspend Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and the other players linked to the now-shuttered clinic, perhaps PEDs will disappear from baseball entirely.
Pardon the spoiler, but that’s not going to happen.
Call it a wild guess based on the MLB’s track record. The league doesn’t have a long history of trying to rid the game of PEDs, but the various efforts it’s made to de-juice baseball have all been met with varying degrees of failure.
Early 1990s: Didn’t You Get Fay Vincent’s Memo?
Based solely on appearances—i.e. players the size of houses and balls going over the fence at absurd rates—you’d think that steroids weren’t against the rules in the 1990s.
They actually were.
In 1990, Congress cracked down on anabolic steroids with the Anabolic Steroids Control Act, which effectively made them an illegal drug. The next year in 1991, MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent made it clear in a memo that this was very much relevant to baseball.
Like that, the league was put on notice that using steroids was against the rules. Any players who read the memo knew what the deal was.
However, they also would have realized that the memo never said how juicers were going to be caught. Players weren’t going to be tested for steroids, and the memo said that players with drug abuse problems would be kicked out of the league only after rehabilitation efforts were carried out.
The memo might as well have said: “Steroids are illegal now, but do us all a favor and just don’t get caught, guys.”
The 1991 season saw noted juicer Jose Canseco lead the American League with 44 homers. Three years later in the strike-shortened 1994 season, the league’s slugging percentage rose to .424. The last time it had been that high was 1930, the year Hack Wilson set the single-season RBI record.
It was apparent that something unnatural was going on, and it would only get more obvious in the years to come.
Late 1990s: Didn’t You Get Bud Selig’s Rehash of Fay Vincent’s Memo?
There was plenty of power to go around in 1994, but it was a mere appetizer for what would happen later in the 1990s.
The 1996 season proved to a historic one. A total of 17 players hit at least 40 home runs, a mark that still stands as a major league record. Brady Anderson, whose previous career-high had been 21 homers, launched 50 homers. Ken Caminiti came into the season with a career-high of 26 homers in a season, and he proceeded to launch 40 homers on his way to winning the NL MVP.
Early in the 1997 season, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig issued a memo that essentially rehashed what was said in Fay Vincent’s 1991 memo. According to Tom Farrey of ESPN.com, the memo stated that steroids were illegal in baseball and it urged clubs to make sure players knew it.
But there was still no testing and no clear-cut punishment for using steroids. The open invitation to use them was still, well, open.
Naturally, the power surge didn’t subside. A dozen players hit at least 40 homers in 1997, with Mark McGwire leading the way with 57. The next year saw as many as four players hit at least 50 homers for the first time in MLB history, with McGwire and Sammy Sosa both breaking Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61.
A bottle of Androstenedione—a substance banned by the NFL, NCAA and the Olympics—was spotted in McGwire’s locker midway through the year, but the ensuing controversy was only minor and it didn’t get in the way of him hitting a record 70 home runs.
The power surge continued after 1998. McGwire and Sosa both topped 60 homers again in 1999, and the league’s slugging percentage equaled that of the 1930 season. In 2000, the league’s slugging percentage rose to a record-high .437.
By 2001, MLB knew it needed to do something. There just wasn’t much the league could do besides aim for an easy target.
April, 2001: Testing (in the Minors) Begins!
Major League Baseball couldn’t implement drug-testing at the major league level all on its own in the early 2000s. That would have required an agreement with the MLB Players Association, which at the time was charged with protecting the interests of a long list of juicers.
So the MLB picked on a defenseless institution instead: the minor leagues.
Per MLB.com, all players not on a major league club’s 40-man roster were subject to random testing for PEDs and drugs of abuse starting in 2001. The system of penalties was as follows:
- 15-game ban for a first offense.
- 30-game ban for a second offense.
- 60-game ban for a third offense.
- One-year ban for a fourth offense.
- Permanent ban for a fifth offense.
The five-strikes-and-out system didn’t do much to deter minor league users. In 2005, baseball revealed that it had suspended a total of 38 minor leaguers in the years since testing had been put in place.
Meanwhile at the major league level, MLB’s warning shot was largely ignored.
The 2001 season saw Barry Bonds break Mark McGwire’s single-season record with 73 home runs, Sammy Sosa top 60 homers for a fourth time and Luis Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez both top 50 homers. Bonds and Sosa were on the juice at the time, and A-Rod eventually admitted in 2009 that he was too.
30+ Years Later, MLB Dealing With After Effects of ‘Bash Brothers’ Steroid Abuse
From 1988 to 1992, the Oakland Athletics won the American League West four times and were considered the most talented team in baseball. Yet the A’s captured only a single championship during that stretch, and the 1989 World Series was overshadowed by the earthquake that shook Candlestick Park and the region.
But the page can’t be turned on those Oakland teams because of another element they popularized in the game: Steroids.
Thanks to Jose Canseco and his fellow “Bash Brother,” Mark McGwire, the A’s drew crowds for their immense physiques and tape-measure home runs. Opposing teams wanted to know how they did it, and at least Canseco, the self-proclaimed “godfather of steroids in baseball,” was more than happy to tell all.
In his best-selling memoir “Juiced,” Canseco claimed he “single-handedly changed the game” by introducing steroids and growth hormones to fellow players.
Three decades later, Major League Baseball finds itself still grappling with the steroid issue. On Aug. 6, Tim Beckham of the Seattle Mariners received an 80-game suspension after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. Concerns about how much Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens allegedly doped have kept them out of the Hall of Fame. With home runs again being hit at record levels, some wonder if the players have found a new way around the drug testing.
Not that long ago, one could string Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and other sluggers together in a discussion about the greatest home-run hitters of all time. The same could be done with the top fireballers, going back to Walter Johnson, extending through Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan. The national pastime spanned generations and historical eras. That no longer exists due to steroids and PEDs.
The impact of that steroid era are still being felt today. After the Bonds and Clemens scandals, MLB instituted new methods of finding drug cheats. Baseball started using Carbon Isotope Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) with at least one specimen from every player. That test is designed to detect PEDs over a two-week period instead of 24 hours.
Baseball also banned drug cheats from participating in postseason play. That ban meant if a player was caught cheating, he wasn’t eligible for postseason bonuses.
Since that rule was instituted in 2014, 28 players have been suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. In the nine years previous, 53 were suspended.
Such major issues have such humble beginnings.
A skinny kid in high school, Canseco began to dabble in steroids after he promised his mother he would do better on the field. When McGwire joined the A’s in 1987, Canseco was an expert in performance-enhancing drugs, and he found an eager student in his new teammate.
Canseco said he and McGwire would duck into a stall in the men’s room after batting practice or before the game “load up our syringes and inject ourselves. I always injected myself, because I had practiced enough to know just what I was doing, but often I would inject Mark as well.
Ironically, ask those who covered the team during its heyday and the Bash Brothers may have been the only ones who dared to dope. The team’s roster included Rickey Henderson, Tony Phillips, Dennis Eckersley and for shorter stints Reggie Jackson and Dave Parker.
“I wonder if other A’s were doing PEDs,” said Kit Stier, who covered the team for 13 seasons for the Oakland Tribune. “But I don’t think so.”
Henderson, who is the game’s all-time stolen base leader, claimed Canseco and McGwire didn’t let him in on what they were up to. That fact still annoyed him years later.
“They kept that [stuff] a secret from me,” he told the New Yorker in 2005. “I wish they had told me. My God, could you imagine Rickey on ’roids? Oh, baby, look out!”
Despite the A’s clubhouse becoming ground zero for steroid abuse, Major League Baseball was unable to focus on the problem. A few years before, cocaine had been a major concern, prompting action from the teams and the commissioner’s office. Indeed, that effort went well enough that when Peter Ueberroth stepped down as commissioner in 1989 he proclaimed the game to be drug-free.
At the time, a labor storm loomed between the owners and the players. When it arrived in 1994, it led to the cancelation of that season’s World Series. The two sides couldn’t agree on a new collective bargaining agreement, let alone a standardized drug policy. Years later, Rob Manfred, the game’s current commissioner, told Congress no one believed that there was significant steroid use in the game at the time,” adding that “economic issues” took precedence over a stronger drug policy.
Canseco recalled the owners’ attitude about steroids bordered upon, “Go ahead and do it.”
After the owners locked the players out in the summer of 1994, steroids spread like wildfire, former player Andy Van Slyke recalled. “Very few people say this, but steroids saved baseball and made a lot of players rich today. And everybody, it seemed, was drinking from the juice by the mid-90s.”
The national pastime roared along until Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press saw a brown bottle in McGwire’s locker in 1998. It was labeled Androstenedione and nicknamed “andro.” At the time, McGwire, who had been traded from the A’s to the St. Louis Cardinals, was locked in the home run chase with Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs. Both surpassed Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, though today the feat is considered tainted by many.
Wilstein wrote andro was a testosterone-producing pill, which had been banned in the National Football League, the Olympics and NCAA. Yet it remained legal in baseball. The drug raised levels of the male hormone, building lean muscle mass and helping an athlete recover from injury, which had long been an issue for McGwire. Dating to his days in Oakland, McGwire had played 51 games or fewer in a season three times.
Wilstein was criticized for snooping in a player’s locker. Yet Wilstein had more major concerns. Three weeks after his definitive story, his wife died of breast cancer.
MLB soon commissioned a study, but it didn’t ban andro until 2004, a year after it began and standardized drug testing.
Professional athletes have long sought to gain any edge they can. At the turn of the last century, pitcher Pud Galvin drank a concoction of glycerin and ground-up animal testicles to give his fastball more pop. Before steroids, some athletes took amphetamines or “greenies” to help them stay alert.
Though former Atlanta pitcher Tom House claimed he and several Braves teammates dabbled with steroids in the early 1970s, the Oakland clubhouse is considered ground zero for a situation that continues to vex the game.
“They were a team defined by drugs,” said longtime Bay Area sports columnist Ray Ratto. “They were defined by Kirk Gibson’s improbable home run. They were defined by an earthquake that overshadowed their only championship. Ultimately, they will be remembered as much for steroids as anything else.”
Tim Wendel first covered baseball in the Bay Area in the mid-1980s for the San Francisco Examiner. A founding staff member of Baseball Weekly, his books include Summer of ’68 and High Heat.
Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.
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