What big story of a breaking scandal is complete without a walk down memory lane? Especially one that may alter the power rankings for all-time scandals!
Here, just as what I am going to call The Best Hack in Baseball takes root, is how I figure the all-time baseball scandals list shapes up:
The granddaddy of them all, of course. There were many gambling/game-fixing scandals in baseball’s first half century, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. You know the story by now: the 1919 Chicago White Sox went in with gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. They were eventually caught and eight of them banned for life, including Shoeless Joe Jackson. As a result, baseball’s owners created the job of Commissioner of Baseball, which changed the shape of MLB as an organization over the past 100 years.
Younger people may not be as familiar with this one as us old-timers are, but it was a big deal with major on-the-field impacts. Here, led by then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth and eagerly carried out by owners like Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf, MLB clubs conspired to not sign other team’s former players in free agency as a means of suppressing salaries following the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons. Big names like Jack Morris, Tim Raines and Andre Dawson among many, many others could not find jobs because of the conspiracy and were forced to sign for fractions of their market value. Eventually the owners were busted and had to pay hundreds of millions of dollar in penalties.
This one tops steroids in my mind simply because it involved an actual top-down criminal conspiracy as opposed to a bunch of wildcatters cheating. And it also had major historical implications inasmuch as the owners agreed to two rounds of expansion — in 1993 and 1998 — as a means of raising the money to pay the ballplayers the money they owed them. If not for collusion, the Rockies, Marlins, Rays and Diamondbacks wouldn’t exist.
Maybe we could break these out into many separate scandals — Biogenesis, BALCO, etc. — but they’re really all of a piece and I don’t think we even have a full and proper perspective on them even now. In scope it was definitely one of the bigger ones ever, insofar as the number of players involved and the amount of conversation it generated. And it gets held up as acutely infamous by those who take issue with hallowed home run records being broken by drug users. But, in actual, technical baseball impact it’s not really bigger than the changes between, say, the deadball era and the 1920s-30s or the sharp pitchers era of the 1960s-70s. It was goosed by artificial means, yes, but such variations have happened in the past. I imagine I’m the only baseball writer on the planet who doesn’t put this directly beneath the Black Sox Scandal, but I’m also one of the few writers who doesn’t think the worst part of the PED scandals was that one of my heroes from the 1950s-70s had a record surpassed.
This is obviously a preliminary ranking, given that we’ve only known about it for two hours. Many things could change it, of course. As I argued before, I think that even if it turns out to only be a single no-goodnick involved, it will still likely involve a federal prosecution and will take the lid off of some unseemly internal baseball business. That would make it more like the Cocaine Scandal and Steinbrenner stuff below. If it goes farther than that — if, however unlikely and far-fetched it seems, the Cardinals, as an organization actually sanctioned this — it could be the biggest thing since the Black Sox Scandal.
- Pete Rose Betting Scandal
Smaller than the Black Sox as it only involved one guy, but he is a really famous guy, so it gets more juice here than just some random rules violation.
- The Pittsburgh Cocaine Scandal
While baseball has tended to be more progressive on matters of race than the rest of society, it has tended to lag the popular culture by a good 5-10 years when it comes to styles and fads and things. Long hair and beards hit baseball in the 70s, not the 60s. Postmodern architecture with odd, retro-throwbacks hit the world in the 1980s, it hit baseball in the 1990s. So too with drugs, as most of society got on the cocaine train in the 1970s and were almost over it by the mid-80s, while baseball jumped in with both feet, at least publicly, in 1985. While this scandal centered on Pittsburgh — a criminal trial there with baseball players as prime witnesses ensured that — coke use was rampant among players during the Reagan era. This likely harmed some careers and negatively impacted a lot of in-game performances, but ultimately I consider this to be less a baseball scandal than a personal tragedy for many if not most of the players involved. Especially including Rod Scurry, the Pirates reliever who lost his life due to his drug addiction.
- George Steinbrenner’s various perfidies
People’s memory of “George Steinbrenner: criminal and lowlife” is almost gone, supplanted by “George Steinbrenner: Championship Owner” in the popular consciousness. But let us not forget that, not long after he took over the Yankees, he was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign and suspended for two years. And that, in the late 80s, he was again suspended for hiring a private investigator to try to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield because Steinbrenner was mad that he had given Winfield such a big contract.
Less scandal than lurid slice of early 1970s life, in 1973 Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich swapped wives. Actually, that’s not true. Their wives swapped them. The wives, kids and pets stayed put but Kekich and Peterson changed addresses. It caused a huge media storm and likely didn’t do much to help either of their careers. The swap worked for Peterson, as he married Susanne Kekich in 1974 and they’ve been together ever since. Kekich and the former Mrs. Peterson split up relatively quickly.
SPECIAL CASE: Segregation
I don’t consider this a “scandal” as such. Yes, it’s scandalous and downright reprehensible that black players were kept out of the game until 1947, but when I think of the word “scandal” I think it has to involve some sort of secret that was revealed or some sort of wrongdoing uncovered that shocked the consciousness of people. Heck, in 1947 no small number of people likely thought that allowing blacks to play baseball was the actual scandal. I don’t mean this as an apology for baseball of the segregation era. In fact, it was a far bigger crime with far more serious implications than anything else on this list. I’m merely saying that it wasn’t the same sort of offense that would get people talking like the things we think of as scandals today would. It is deserving of its own category of infamy, and placing it alongside these other things diminishes just how serious it was.
We could list a lot of other scandals. Reds owner Marge Schott being awful. John Rocker being awful. Mickey Mantle doing all sorts of awful things yet everyone just sort of tousling his hair and calling him a lovable scamp. Any number of players corking their bats or throwing spitballs. But eventually we get to mere matters of bad taste and cheating than anything which has that special, extra something that makes it a scandal. The Cardinals-Astros hack has it.
Now, we just sit back and see how bad it gets.