This article was written by Steve Beitler
This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)
“In the ’80s we had a terrible cocaine problem. Did we have a policy? Did anything happen? No. We have a (steroid) policy.” — Commissioner Bud Selig, July 13, 2005, San Francisco Chronicle
Lonnie Smith had batted leadoff in hundreds of major league games, but on September 5, 1985, he was at the top of a very different lineup. On that day in Pittsburgh he was the first of seven major league players (six active and one retired) to testify in the cocaine-trafficking trial of Curtis Strong, a 39-year-old chef and caterer from Philadelphia. In four hours on the witness stand, Smith described meeting Strong through former Phillies teammate Dick Davis, and he named Davis, Gary Mathews, Dickie Noles, Keith Hernandez, and Joaquin Andujar as players with whom he had used cocaine on the Phillies and Cardinals.
The Strong trial, along with that of Robert McCue that followed it, was the culmination of baseball’s cocaine immersion in the 1980s. In those years, dozens of players were arrested, suspended, and suspected. There was a torrent of public hand-wringing with two themes: players as role models and the threat that drugs posed to the game’s integrity. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth sought to preserve that integrity, and his involvement was an element of the press coverage that was extensive and sometimes overwrought.
“Fidgety Keith Tells Coke Horror Story” screamed the New Y0rk Post on September 7 after Hernandez’s first day of testimony in Pittsburgh. Ueberroth believed that stepped-up drug testing and tougher penalties were the heart of the solution. He also saw the players union as the biggest obstacle to progress against drugs. Finally, there was skepticism among fans and observers. How could owners and officials not know about behavior that was so rampant? If baseball was truly intent on addressing drug issues, why were amphetamines beyond the scope of their efforts?
In Pittsburgh, Smith was followed on the witness stand by Hernandez, Enos Cabell, Dale Berra, Dave Parker, Jeff Leonard, and the retired John Milner. All the players had been granted immunity from prosecution, and they recounted their various contacts with Strong, which usually took place in hotel rooms and had been arranged over the phone, often the one in the clubhouse. Among the players alleged by these witnesses to have used cocaine were Rod Scurry, Steve Howe, Lee Lacy, Tim Raines, Derrel Thomas, Dusty Baker, Manny Sarmiento, and Eddie Solomon.
Some of the most spectacular testimony in Pittsburgh focused on amphetamines. According to the New York Post of September 11, 1985, Dale Berra said he had gotten amphetamines from former Pirates teammates Willie Stargell and Bill Madlock. Berra described the use of “greenies,” as the pill form is called, as common on the team and said he didn’t see anything wrong with amphetamines since so many established players were using them. Milner, a former Pirate and New York Met, created a stir when it was learned that, in his testimony to the grand jury that indicted Curtis Strong, he said that former teammate Willie Mays had the “red juice,” a concoction of amphetamines dissolved in liquid, in his locker. Milner said he had never seen Mays ingest the juice. On September 20, the jury convicted Strong of 11 counts of cocaine distribution, and on November 4 he was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison.
The Pittsburgh trials were hardly baseball’s first brush with cocaine. As reported in the New York Times, on June 9, 1983, before a game with the Cubs, Lonnie Smith, then with the Cardinals, felt “too jittery and nervous to play.” He told manager Whitey Herzog that he had a cocaine problem and wanted help. Four days later the team announced that Smith had entered drug rehab. On June 20, state agents and FBI personnel arrested Mark Liebl at his home in Overland Park, out side Kansas City, as Liebl was getting ready to go to the Royals game. Liebl, who had managed sporting goods stores and had owned a liquor store, had befriended players on the Royals and other teams as their cocaine connection. The basement of his house, dubbed the “Hall of Fame room,” was home to a growing collection of baseball memorabilia and was the frequent site of cocaine get-togethers by members of the Royals and other teams.
The Kansas City Times reported that wiretaps installed on Liebl’s home phone earlier in June had recorded about 100 calls on one day, including inquiries from three Royals players about buying cocaine. Four members of the 1983 Royals — Willie Wilson, Vida Blue, Willie Aikens, and Jerry Martin — would eventually go to prison, where Aikens remains to this day due to a subsequent 1994 conviction for drug trafficking. Similar cases centered in Milwaukee and Baltimore in 1982 resulted in arrests and featured prominent players as alleged customers of those arrested.
The Pittsburgh trials in 1985 were also the culmination of a season that provided a sharp contrast between great moments on the field and less stellar ones off it. In Baseball’s Milestone Season Morris Eckhouse and Clarke Carmody put together a day by-day chronicle of the season that culminated in Pete Rose breaking Ty Cobb’s record for career base hits (on the same day as Dale Berra’s testimony on amphetamines), Phil Niekro and Tom Seaver notching their 300th victories, and Nolan Ryan becoming the first pitcher to strike out 4,000 hitters.
The cocaine counterpoint to these highlights began well in advance of the pennant races. On February 13, Oakland A’s pitcher Mike Norris was arrested in northern California for cocaine possession. Claudell Washington, Darryl Sconiers, Scurry, Alan Wiggins, and Howe all took their turns in the headlines thanks to their issues with drugs during the season.
In mid-May of 1985, two weeks before the grand jury in Pittsburgh handed down its indictments of Strong, McCue, and five others, Commissioner Ueberroth announced mandatory drug testing in the minor leagues and for major league owners, executives, field managers, and umpires. He couldn’t mandate this program for the players because of that pesky matter of collective bargaining. Ueberroth often said that his targets were drugs, not players, and he worked behind the scenes to try to move the players union to collaborate on a plan for random drug testing. Ueberroth believed that Latin America was a key to the cocaine problem, and he tried to extend mandatory drug testing to the winter leagues in that region. He told the New York Times, “There are places where players play where people look the other way.”
Mainstream accounts of the Pittsburgh trial portrayed Ueberroth as the beleaguered champion of integrity and fairness. A Newsweek story of September 16, 1985, somehow concluded that the events in Pittsburgh “provided powerful, if unwelcome, vindication of the hard-line anti-drug position of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, whose call for random testing has so far been resisted by the players’ union.” Writer Pete Axthelm noted, “Ever since he accepted his job, he has viewed this matter as one of elemental right and wrong.”
But Ueberroth had sent several signals that he was not eager to punish players. Earlier in the season Ueberroth had been asked if he would take action against players implicated in a future Pittsburgh trial.”I’d have to think about it long and hard and study it,” he replied. “I don’t want to attack baseball players. … I don’t see my main role as commissioner to punish people.”
In an interview with GQ after the 1985 season, Keith Hernandez recounted a late September visit Ueberroth had made to the Mets clubhouse. “We went into Davey’s office [Johnson, the Mets manager], and he [Ueberroth] told me not to worry about getting suspended, just play ball.” On September 24, 1985, the New York Post reported, ”A source close to the trial of Curtis Strong says that [Ueberroth] will take no disciplinary action against Keith Hernandez.”
As 1985 turned into 1986, Ueberroth summoned 23 players and one coach who had been implicated in Pittsburgh to his office for one-on-one meetings. (John Milner declined the invitation.) Frank Dolson reported in the Syracuse Herald American on March 2, 1986, “Those interviews were little more than routine. Nothing new. Just a rehashing of old information.”
So there was much surprise on February 28 when Ueberroth announced detailed punishments that divided 21 players into three categories. Group 1 players (Andujar, Berra, Cabell, Hernandez, Leonard, Parker, and Smith ) received one-year suspensions without pay unless the player agreed to (1) donate 10% of his 1986 salary to a drug-abuse prevention program or facility, (2) perform 100 hours of drug related community service in each of the next two years, and (3) participate in a random testing program for the rest of his career. Players in other categories received similar but less severe punishments.
Hernandez was livid. Before Ueberroth announced the punishments, Hernandez had noted,”He could have made the decision a month ago; then you’d start the season without a cloud. Does he care about the game?” Long-held suspicions that Ueberroth cared deeply about promoting himself resurfaced quickly.” Apparently, Peter Ueberroth would rather have people talking about drugs and Peter Ueberroth, not necessarily in that order,” wrote Dolson. “Ueberroth is being seen by many today as the champion drug buster of the free world … [he] has done everything but dress himself in tights and a cape with his initials on his chest.”
Skepticism about the motives and competence of baseball’s management was not limited to Ueberroth. John McHale, president of the Montreal Expos, said baseball’s cocaine problem “slipped in the back door and you didn’t even know it was in the house.” That door was apparently ajar for a long time, since McHale also opined that cocaine had cost his Expos the 1982 division title.
Players went to great lengths to hide their use of the drug, but it’s still hard to believe that cocaine was so invisible. It did not single out cocaine, but a 1973 report of a House of Representatives Investigations Subcommittee had described drug abuse among pro athletes as “widespread and rampant at all levels,” adding that the degree of “improper drug use — primarily amphetamines and anabolic steroids — can only be described as alarming.” In 1980, Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on that newspaper’s survey of baseball players, coaches, and executives, which estimated that 10-12% of baseball players used cocaine.
Many of the teammates of players who had testified in Pittsburgh had not exactly been in the dark. After Hernandez’s time on the witness stand, infielder Wally Backman told Jack Lang of the New York Daily News: “As far as what he might have revealed in court, I haven’t read his testimony. But all of us knew of his involvement. … He told me he had used it (cocaine) three times.” Pitcher Ed Lynch told Lang, “We all knew. He didn’t call a team meeting or any thing like that to tell us, but he did talk to some of us.”
None of this, or any of the other dozens of incidents through the 1980s and early ’90s, prevented Bud Selig, then acting commissioner, from saying this to The Sporting News in July 1995 when asked about steroids: “If baseball has a problem, I must candidly say that we were not aware of it. It certainly hasn’t been talked about much. But should we concern our selves as an industry? I don’t know, maybe it’s time to bring it up again.” What a difference a decade makes!
Another difference between the ’80s and today is that back then players were more open about their cocaine experiences and were willing to talk about the drug’s allure. “Why should I be sorry? It’s something I did,” Parker told the Pittsburgh Press. In August 1986, Al Holland told Michael Kay of the New York Post, “I don’t regret that it happened because I learned a lot from that.” Asked why he tried recreational drugs, he said, “I liked it. It was nice.”
Tim Raines, who would slide headfirst so as not to break the vials of cocaine he kept in his back pocket, said, “It made me feel real good. I had to keep cool because of who I was, but it was a great experience. I was sorry it felt so good. In a sense the drug experience didn’t hurt but helped because I discovered what I can and can’t do.”
Enos Cabell testified in Pittsburgh that he “snorted cocaine as many as 100 times between 1978 and 1984 and that he usually performed well, getting two or three hits in games the day after using the drug.”
Players may have been more willing to talk candidly about their drug experiences in the 1980s, but one element of baseball’s drug scene that hasn’t changed is the belief that the current crisis is the prelude to a drug-free future. In August 1986, Holland was asked about the recent cocaine-related deaths of basketball star Len Bias and National Football League player Don Rodgers. “It could have been me,” Holland said, adding, “Baseball is done with drugs. It’s not like that anymore in baseball. … You do it now and you’re nobody.” Keith Hernandez agreed. In April 1986 he told the New York Post that “baseball is drug-free.”
Holland and Hernandez may have taken their cues from Peter Ueberroth. Eckhouse and Carmody’s book recounts the events of October 30, 1985, when Ueberroth spoke at a luncheon in Washington, D.C. Earlier that day, Robert McCue had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and three years probation for his conviction on seven counts of cocaine distribution to Dale Berra and John Milner. Ueberroth was in Washington at a tribute to first lady Nancy Reagan and to help launch the Girl Scouts’ drug-abuse program. He took the occasion to announce that he would guarantee the total elimination of drugs from professional baseball.
There’s little doubt that Ueberroth was genuine in his belief that he could lead an effort to achieve that goal. In 2005, though, Ueberroth’s pledge looks like Hall of Fame-level grandstanding. History shows that drugs are deeply rooted in baseball and in America, in part because they are an object of great ambivalence in the sport and society. Today it remains an open question as to how much progress we are making in banishing them to the sidelines.
STEVE BEITLER has been a Houston Colt .45’s-Astros fan since 1962 and a student of American drug policy since the late 1980s. He lives with his family in Palo Alto, California.
For invaluable research assistance, thanks to Eric Enders, Triple E Productions, Cooperstown, NY, and Bobby Plapinger, R. Plapinger Baseball Books, Ashland, OR.
The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide. St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1986.
New York Times, August 19, 21, 22, 23, 1985.
The Sporting News, September 16, 23, 1985.
Eckhouse, Morris and Clark Carmody. Baseball’s Milestone Season. Pittsburgh, PA: M&M Publications, 1986.