Back in 1985, the drug scourge haunting Major League Baseball was not steroids. It wasn’t amphetamines or “greenies,” either, although their widespread prevalence has been asserted by former players and historical accounts.
The scourge, instead, was cocaine. Four Kansas City Royals (Willie Aikens, Willie Wilson, Vida Blue and Jerry Martin) were jailed for cocaine violations, and their supplier, a Kansas City citizen and “baseball nut” named Mark Liebl claimed, “It’s all over baseball.” For more on the story, we send it over to Jerry Springer of Channel 5 News. Jerry?
The cocaine issue had grown to the point where it was starting to concern both those in the media and those in MLB offices. It was no longer an issue that could be confined to a few players or a single team. In February of 1986, Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth issued an ultimatum at a news conference:
“Baseball is going to — this year — put on the field of play virtually a drug free sport…. We will flat get rid of it; it’s gone.”
Less than a month later, Ueberroth suspended seven players — Keith Hernandez, Lonnie Smith, Dave Parker, Joaquin Andujar, Jeff Leonard, Enos Cabell and Dale Berra — one year without pay unless they agreed to donate 10 percent of their base pay to drug-abuse programs and work 200 drug-related community service hours over the next two years. Another 21 players were disciplined for their involvement in a federal drug trial in Pittsburgh the year prior.
And that was, for the most part, the end of the cocaine scandal in baseball. Some players, like Floyd Youmans and Eddie Milner were suspended for admitting to cocaine use, but after the 1986 suspensions, any major discipline came in the form of a trickle rather than a wave.
Players didn’t stop using cocaine, of course. Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd said he spent “two-thirds of the time he was on the mound” under the influence of cocaine, and his career spanned from 1982 through 1991. He said he was never tested, and he said, “I can name 50 people that got third and fourth chances” despite the movement to clean up the game.
The ultimatum, however, did its job. Ueberroth likely knew he had no shot at pushing mandatory testing through the MLB Players Union. He tried, in 1985. He appealed to notions of fairness by proposing a plan that would also test the owners. Don Fehr, acting executive director of the MLBPA, called the move “grandstanding.” Mandatory tests never went through. Instead, each individual was handled on a case-by-case basis if the clubs found probably cause, as per the collectively bargained joint drug program at the time.
Ueberroth had a lot to handle at the time. Steroids were becoming a major problem in international sports and it was only a matter of time until the issue hit professional sports in America as well. The cocaine issue was prevalent not just in baseball but in football and basketball — all this happened mere months before Len Bias’s tragic death of a cocaine overdose following his selection as number one pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. Additionally, the baseball labor relationship was tenuous as ever, as the MLBPA filed a grievance in Feburary of 1986 accusing major league owners of collusion to keep free agent wages down (an arbitrator eventually ruled in the players’ favor in 1987).
Basically, Ueberroth and Major League Baseball just needed this all to go away, and there was no better way than to jump out in front with a calculated public relations campaign suggesting Major League Baseball was pulling out all the stops to prevent cocaine use under its umbrella. Whether or not this campaign would be effective was irrelevant. All Major League Baseball needed to do was make a visible effort. Thus, when the Players’ Association inevitably blocked drug testing — the only way, outside of a criminal investigation, for anybody to find out about a baseball player using cocaine or other drugs of abuse — the problem would be out of sight and out of mind.
Ueberroth admitted this himself. When he announced the 1986 suspensions, Ueberroth said the following in reference to his ultimatum, which he had issued just a few weeks prior.
“Part of the statement is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Ueberroth is a PR machine. He turned his first company, First Travel Corporation, into the second-largest travel business in America within 18 years. He was the man in charge of selling the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as well, and he serves on the board of directors for three companies, including Coca-Cola.
That Ueberroth’s anti-cocaine campaign in the mid-1980s was nothing but naked PR shouldn’t be surprising. Major League Baseball had very little to lose if its players were using cocaine, like so much of the general population did in the 1980s. It only had something to lose when that use became public and became scrutinized by those with money or political power.
What’s more notable is just how well it worked. Ueberroth knew nobody actually cared about the safety of the players. This was the issue supposedly at the heart of the cocaine crackdown, just as it is supposedly at the heart of the steroids crackdown. And since cocaine doesn’t make its users swell up with pounds of muscle mass, it was easy to sweep it under the rug once Ueberroth’s self-fulfilling prophecy had run its course.
It is the most elegant solution. Simply say you will fix the problem, say it loud enough, and say it from enough platforms, and it will disappear. Foolproof? Maybe not, but I can think of no easier way to get rid of a problem without doing any work whatsoever.