David Laurila of Baseball Prospectus interviews Ken Burns today. It’s a great, wide-ranging interview that should get you primed for the update to Burns’ “Baseball” documentary that will begin airing this week. This question and answer caught my eye:
DL: From a historical perspective, just how important is the steroid era?
KB: In the scheme of the negatives of baseball it’s maybe two or three in position. I think that the gambling scandal, as epitomized by the Black Sox scandal in 1919, would probably be No. 1. I guess I’d put steroids either No. 2 or No. 3, and if it was No. 3 I’d say that the exclusion of African-Americans for six decades would be No. 2. You could argue that was the worst thing that baseball has ever done. Should there be asterisks next to Babe Ruth’s name because he never had to face Satchel Paige or play against Josh Gibson, who once hit 70 home runs in a season?
It’s a fascinating topic, no? I think the Black Sox scandal and segregation have to be 1-2, with your particular ordering of those things depending on how much (if any) slack you want to cut baseball for the color line due to the fact that the policy mirrored the larger segregation policies enshrined in law. Though it would have been wonderful if it had, should baseball have been expected to transcend the ugliness afoot in American society much earlier than it did? Does it get credit for doing away with segregation before most of the rest of society did? These are questions that could get you talking for hours.
One thing that is missing from Burns’ answer, though, is baseball’s cocaine problem in the 70s and 80s. Depending on my mood, I’d slide that ahead of steroids into number three. Unlike steroids, players died as a result of this scourge. Your mileage may vary, but my view is that while steroids made for an unlevel playing field by giving some players advantages over others, cocaine users intentionally disadvantaged the teams they played for, doing just as much of a disservice to their teammates that steroid users did to the opposition, with greater externalities in terms of health, etc.
We missing anything here? Other things often thought of as negatives — teams moving cities, free agency and other business concerns — tend to have winners and losers and their negativity depends on your point of view.
If we’re leaving something out, though, by all means, let’s talk about it in the comments. It’s a gloomy Monday in much of the United States, so let’s revel in some negativity, shall we?