MIAMI – He was one of the best players of his era. And for 15 seasons he made the game look easy, dominating opponents as he piled up Hall of Fame numbers.
But as he approached his mid-30s, the rest of baseball started to catch up so the player turned to chemicals for help, fortifying himself with testosterone taken from live animals.
Barry Bonds? Mark McGwire? Sammy Sosa?
Nope. Those guys’ grandparents hadn’t even been born when, in 1889, James “Pud” Galvin started injecting a testosterone mix called the Elixir of Brown-Sequard, making him baseball’s first known user of performance-enhancing drugs.
It’s unlikely baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s anti-steroids probe will focus much on Galvin – who, after all, died in 1902. But author Roger I. Abrams has, and he says if baseball bothers to take a look, it would find out that none of what’s going on today is new. The only difference is in the way it’s being perceived.
“It goes back a long time,” said Abrams, a law professor at Northeastern University and a former dean of Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad Law Center. “Everything that we see now that we don’t particularly like about sports, you can find it in the past. It’s inherent in the business. It’s inherent in the activity, in the entertainment.”
Abrams, who has written two books on baseball, came across Galvin’s story while researching a forthcoming book on cheating in baseball. And even though he wasn’t overly surprised at what he found, the public’s acceptance did pique his interest.
“No one had any more to say about it,” Abrams said he learned. “That was it. Who cared?”
Bonds is being booed today because of the suspicion he used steroids, but fans in 1889 cheered Galvin and urged their teams to copy him. And although Bonds’ alleged steroid use came to light because of a newspaper investigation, The New Haven (Conn.) Register and Washington Post editorialized in support of Galvin’s magic tonic.
“The discovery of a true elixir of youth by which the aged can restore their vitality and renew their bodily vigor would be a great thing for baseball,'” Abrams said, quoting a 1889 story in The New Haven Register. “We hope the discovery is of such a nature that it can be applied to rejuvenate provincial clubs.'”
And Galvin wasn’t alone in seeking help from a bottle. Although Abrams could not find evidence of anyone else using testosterone, many found other ways to artificially improve their play.
“I looked as best I could for performance-enhancing substances, and there was a lot of that in the 19th century,” said Abrams, who traced most of those to sports such as track and cycling.
In baseball, he said, “the primary addiction was alcohol. It was the way that the players were able to deaden the pain of a long season.”
Players, by the way, still drink. And whether that helps or hinders them is a matter for medical science. But since alcohol is legal, no one seems to care much one way or the other.
Which brings us back to steroids. Under baseball rules, steroids, too, were legal until drug testing began in 2004. In fact, if you believe Jose Canseco (I know it’s tough, but he’s been right on most things so far), many owners quietly condoned their use.
Now, however, they’ve come to impact the way games are played and the way records are kept. And that, Abrams said, is where today’s public chooses to draw the line.
“The argument is baseball – all sports – are entertainment because they’re based on the concept of a level playing field,” Abrams said. “Of course, the playing field is never level. But we believe it’s level. And so competition depends on some level of equity.”
And when the public believes that trust has been violated the caretakers of the game have no choice but to offer righteous indignation and pretend to clean house.
Will former Sen. George Mitchell’s investigation rid baseball of its 117-year history with performance-enhancing drugs? Not any more than the lifetime bans handed out to members of the 1877 Louisville Grays and the 1919 Chicago White Sox rid the sport of gambling.
But if the public can be convinced it has, then Mitchell will have served his purpose.
“The American people like a sport that’s just a little bit edgy,” Abrams said. “We like it when a player is less than goody-goody. We don’t like it when it gets out of hand. When the 1919 White Sox throw the World Series in exchange for cash. Or when the manager of the Reds bets on baseball.
“But the game can’t be killed. The game is great. Wouldn’t it be terrible if it was an awful game?”