Sports

Throwback Thursday: The Pittsburgh Drug Trials Bring the Drug War to MLB

Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's 1986 suspension and sanctioning of multiple MLB players for cocaine use in the wake of a Pittsburgh narcotics investigation and trial marked the beginning of the War on Drugs, for both sports and American society.
February 25, 2016, 5:08pm
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On the 28th day of February in 1986, the year cocaine went political, the commissioner of Major League Baseball announced that he was suspending seven players for the season. This was in the wake of one of the strangest courtroom sagas in sports history, the trial of a 5-foot-11, 265-pound chef named Curtis Strong. It was held the previous fall on the eighth floor of the Pittsburgh Federal Building, in a seedy neighborhood near the bus depot and several pornography shops. It swept into its wake a brash defense attorney who would later admit to a cocaine habit of his own, the Pirate Parrot mascot, and an impossibly eclectic cast of characters, including several high-profile players, who testified that drugs were rampant in baseball clubhouses.

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No players were actually indicted in Strong's trial and other grand-jury investigations, but it remains one of the sport's biggest public-relations disasters. Tim Raines famously claimed to have spent more than $40,000 in cocaine in 1982, and admitted to sliding headfirst so he wouldn't break the vial of the drug he kept in his hip pocket. Keith Hernandez estimated that 40 percent of MLB players were using the drug in 1980, the year after he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. He also admitted—along with Lonnie Smith and others—that he came to the park strung out, nose bleeding, barely able to focus.

Read More: Throwback Thursday: LaMarr Hoyt Falls In The War On Drugs

The suspensions Commissioner Peter Ueberroth announced that day were far from absolute. He offered to lift them if the group of seven players—which included Hernandez, then of the Mets, and Dale Berra, of the New York Yankees—agreed to certain conditions for "in some fashion facilitat(ing) the distribution of drugs in baseball." The players would have to donate 10 percent of their salaries in the upcoming season to programs combating drug abuse, do community service, and participate in league anti-drug programs. They also would have to submit to random drug testing for the remainder of their careers.

Four other players would be subject to slightly less restrictive conditions for "engaging in a more limited use of or involvement with drugs but as to whom insufficient evidence exists linking them to facilitation." And 10 others would be required to undergo testing for the remainder of their careers due to past cocaine use. This, Ueberroth naively declared, would be the end of baseball's drug problem. This was also the best he presumed he could do, given that the players union had refused to agree to any widespread program of mandatory drug testing.

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"Baseball," Ueberroth said, "is going to be the first sport to be free of drugs. The players have had enough of it."

Courtroom sketch from the Pittsburgh drug trials. YouTube

Thirty years later, it's easy to chortle at the naiveté of that statement. It's easy to marvel at the extreme nature of the abuse chronicled in Pittsburgh, too—but it's also worth noting that many of those players were hearkening back to a time before cocaine had been tar-brushed, and before the far-reaching implications of the drug had been fully explored in the media. In 1980, the year Hernandez spoke of, cocaine was still seen by many as a benign party drug. It wasn't until the Reagan Administration began demonizing cocaine and Nancy Reagan first uttered the words "just say no" that the media caught on, and it wasn't until the summer of 1986, when a first-round draft pick out of the University of Maryland named Len Bias overdosed on cocaine, that federal lawmakers scrambled to see which party could get tougher on drugs.

This, of course, led to all sorts of mythologies, which precipitated all kinds of overreactions, including an epidemic of incarcerations of low-level drug offenders that is only now being rectified. Strong himself was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and six other men indicted by a grand jury received sentences between two and 12 years. In baseball, the drug trials went far deeper than cocaine; they touched on stimulants, and they hinted at the steroid scandals that were to come. One Pirates player, John Milner, testified in Pittsburgh that he had seen Willie Mays, of all people, with liquid amphetamines in his locker. Amphetamines, players said, were widespread in clubhouses, and nearly everyone knew about it. Ueberroth said at the time that "his testing program did not cover amphetamines because they are legal for players with prescriptions," according to the New York Times. (Never mind that the majority of amphetamines were being consumed without prescriptions.)

Ueberroth declined to be interviewed for an ESPN 30 for 30 short that ran last year on Grantland. Several of the players involved, including Hernandez and Lonnie Smith, got clean and wound up resurrecting their baseball careers. Others, like Pirates reliever Rod Scurry, who died in 1992, were not so lucky. At the time, Ueberroth undoubtedly thought he was making a definitive statement, and doing his best given the tools he had—the MLB Players Association would not agree to random testing until 2012. Perhaps equally important, Ueberroth had at least temporarily satisfied the concerns of his ticket-buying public.

"Just because they have a lot of money doesn't make them better than anyone else, to do something illegal," one juror in Pittsburgh would say.

A year later, Lonnie Smith would tell a Kansas City newspaper that he had not been drug tested at all that season. He called Ueberroth's declaration that baseball was drug-free "a farce." A Ueberroth spokesman claimed that they didn't care what Smith said, so long as he remained clean. That same season, 1987, Mark McGwire led the American League in home runs, and Roger Clemens led the AL in victories. Ueberroth would step down as commissioner in 1989, on the verge of a newly problematic drug-addled era for baseball.