Steroids, Racism and Statistics

On a sunny July day in 1887, Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings refused to play a team from Newark unless they removed their starting pitcher, an African American named George Stovey. Thus began the 60-year reign of apartheid baseball in America.

The present day fuss over steroid use in major league baseball is reaching pandemic proportions. At a time in American history of pre-emptive wars, unchecked corporate looting, increasing poverty and homelessness, continuing assaults on the Bill of Rights ... but Stop the presses! Baseball player may be using performance enhancing drugs!

Based on grand jury leaks of player testimony (hmm, this technique looks familiar), congressional blowhards from the major parties have been falling over themselves to get to a media outlet and express their outrage over this heinous situation. Even George Bush, that paragon of honesty and hard work, has weighed in on the matter, stating on two separate occasions that steroid use “diminishes the integrity of sports” and “sends the wrong message that there are shortcuts to accomplishments.”

Sports fans — always eager to turn on their heroes at the first signs of fallibility — are clamoring for changing the records of suspected steroid users or adding asterisks on the player’s record, a la the asterisk placed on Roger Maris’ numbers when he broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record in 1961. (The season was eight games shorter in Ruth’s time.)

An obsession with statistics

Baseball is obsessed with statistics and records — and the “purity” of those records — even though controversies have risen over the ever-changing height of the pitcher’s mound, the introduction of the “juiced” ball, the short left fields of the old “bandbox” stadiums, etc. Through it all, the stats remain the Holy Grail of Major League Baseball.

Woe betide anyone who messes with the Sacred Records.

And yet, oddly enough, there was no hue and cry in 1998 when Mark McGwire, all blown up like the Pillsbury doughboy from ingesting tablespoons of something other than applesauce, broke Maris’ home run record. McGwire admitted that he was taking androstenedione, a substance banned by the Olympic Committee, the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He didn’t stop taking it until the following season.

No fuss. No outrage. No senators screaming into the television cameras about the morality of athletes and sanctity of records. McGwire is white.

The current target of the official wrath over suspected substance abuse is Barry Bonds, an African American. Does one sense a lingering racism?

What if there had been no color line?

In the 20th century, baseball was America’s Favorite Pastime, second only to invading small countries. Baseball players and their records were cultural icons; every kid knew the batting averages and RBIs of their favorite players. How many wins? How many hits in a season? How many home runs? What did DiMaggio do today? When Ruth was asked why he was paid more than the Depression-plagued president, he responded, “Because I had a better year.”

How would these records have changed if African Americans (and Latinos of African ancestry) had been included during the 60-year period of color-line baseball? What impact would Black players have had on the records of the all-white baseball players? Would Ruth have still hit 714 home runs if he had to face pitchers like Satchel Paige, Leon Day or Smokey Joe Williams?

It seems unlikely.

Banned from Major League Baseball, Black athletes played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues, which lasted until baseball integration in the late 1940s. However, for over 30 years during the off season, Negro League teams played exhibition games against teams of white major league all stars. The preeminent baseball historian, John Holway, has determined that Negro League teams won 268 of the 436 games played with their white counterparts. That’s a 61.5 winning percentage.

Great African American ball players

For example, Smokey Joe Williams struck out 20 white New York Giants during a 1914 game. Williams was 26-5 against the white major league teams. Ty Cobb was the major league’s base-stealing champion, but he was thrown out trying to steal three times in one exhibition game by Negro League catcher Bruce Petway. Negro League pitcher Webster McDonald was 14-2 against white major leaguers.

Phenomenal records were established in the caliber of play within the Negro League itself. Pitcher Leon Day had a .708 winning percentage, Ray Brown was .747. Josh Gibson hit a 580-foot home run at Yankee Stadium during a Negro League game.

When Satchel Paige, perhaps the most famous of the Negro League pitchers, was finally allowed into Major League Baseball, he was well over 40 years old. However, in his first season his Earned Run Average was 2.48 and his fastball was clocked at 103 mph!

White major league players knew how good the African American players were during that era and also knew that many of them would lose their jobs to superior players if the color line were lifted. Some white players were quite candid in their assessment of the skills of the Negro League players.

Hall of Fame pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson testified that Josh Gibson “hits the ball a mile and he catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.”

Batting champion Ted Williams called Satchel Paige “the best pitcher in baseball” and Joe DiMaggio concurred, stating that Paige was “the best pitcher I ever faced and the fastest.”

Paige was an old man when he squared off against premiere hitters like Williams and DiMaggio in the late 1940s. How would Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Al Simmons have fared against him 20 years earlier with a 100-mph-plus fastball if he had been allowed into the white man’s league? Would Josh Gibson, who probably hit over 900 home runs in the Negro Leagues, have surpassed Ruth’s record in the major leagues?

Hopelessly flawed numbers

Simply stated, Major League Baseball records established during the 60 years of segregated baseball are meaningless.

These records were established during a period in which many of the best players of the game were excluded from the game. The white players knew it. The white owners knew it. A reasonable observer must conclude that these records should be followed by an asterisk stating “African Americans were not allowed.”

Back to that incident in 1887: Was Cap Anson just a vile racist or was he worried about protecting his batting average? Anson was a ham-fisted fielder who holds the all-time record for most errors committed by a first baseman. His Hall of Fame credential was built on his hitting. Did he really want to face a pitcher like George Stovey, who in 1886 held opposing hitters to .167 and went 34-14 in 1887?

Don Santina is a cultural historian who has written on film history, music and sports. His articles have appeared in the People’s Weekly World, Counterpunch, the Black Commentator, and the San Francisco Chronicle.