It was a familiar story. The famous home-run hitter sidled up to the clubhouse procurer. There would be a party at the hotel that night, and the slugger wanted to be sure there would be a big supply of an illegal drug.
The dealer guaranteed delivery. The drug had to be brought into this country by boat from the Caribbean islands or the Marseilles waterfront, where it was loaded and shipped past authorities under the protection of the underworld, but it would be done.
Several members of the ballclub and a cast of chorus girls and prostitutes attended the party, and all got high. After all, they were celebrating the winning of the pennant on the road.
Pittsburgh in the 1980s? Hardly. The city was Detroit, and the year was 1928.
The team? The most famous in all baseball history, the Ruthian Yankees. The host, the provider of the illegal substance, was none other than the Babe himself, the whole Ruth and nothing but the Ruth.
The drug? Demon rum. Contraband Scotch. Bootleg gin.
How about the crack pitcher who disappeared on the eve of an important series, was suspended by management, which then reinstated him, assigned a detective to follow him and finally shipped him off to a sanatorium for an addiction cure, after which the commissioner of baseball suspended him from the game? Recognize him, do you think?
Don’t bet on it. This pitcher was a right-hander. His nickname was Shufflin’ Phil, in honor of the way he would disappear.
His addiction was to alcohol.
The year was 1922, and Phil Douglas made banner headlines when he got thrown out of baseball for his addiction and for writing a letter to a rival player offering to quit his team and leave the pennant for rivals in return for delivery of “goods” to his home. He threw away a good career--his earned-run average was 2.63 that year--for an addiction.
There was the fastball pitcher who had pitched his team into two World Series but who disappeared from the club for 48 hours on the eve of an important series and showed up later, obviously suffering the pangs of drug withdrawal with a variety of excuses ranging from the unbelievable to the unimaginable?
No, it wasn’t who you think it was. It was Flint Rhem of the Cardinals, and the year was 1930.
Flint claimed that he had been kidnaped, locked in a room and forced to drink gallons of the deadly drug, bourbon, at gunpoint. It was obvious that somebody had forced the stuff down his throat but the suspicion was that the guilty party was Flint Rhem.
How about the pitcher who came out of the bullpen in the 1926 World Series and struck out Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded, defeating the Yankees and winning the World Series for the Cardinals?
Grover Cleveland Alexander was either under the influence of, or having withdrawal symptoms from, the drug of alcohol at the time.
The facts of the matter are, in the years of which we speak, 1919 to 1933, alcohol was as illegal a drug as cocaine and heroin in this country. Its sale, use, manufacture or distribution was a violation of federal law punishable by imprisonment.
It had been banned because it had been determined that its use and abuse were catastrophically harmful to the individual and to society, and the temperance halls had plenty of case histories to back them up.
Athletes are probably the modern equivalent of the old military loafer class of pre-World War I Europe. They are the 20th Century version of the pampered cadets, the elite of an adoring public--young, virile, handsome, romantic, physically the best of breed. Just as they were the public surrogates on the battlefield, so are ours on the playing field.
Their lives, like the emperor’s cavalry, are long stretches of arid boredom punctuated by moments of almost unbearable excitement and tension.
Boredom is the enemy of the young and the wealthy. It was for the cavaliers of Europe and the athletes of today.
But alcohol is too slow a drug for today’s young man in a hurry. He doesn’t want wine and waltzes. He wants acid and rock. He wants to speed up the processes of destruction.
The stories coming out of Pittsburgh are dismaying and indicate the process is at Mach 1. As the defense attorney of the accused drug dealer there has correctly deduced, his client is not on trial, baseball is on trial. And it is losing.
As an object lesson, it is an abject failure, enough to make a reformer sit down and cry. Drug abusers by the carload seem to be getting game-winning hits, playing on pennant winners--and being immune from prosecution or punishment.
Major league baseball comes into focus like one of those orgiastic scenes from movies like “Reefer Madness” or “The Man With The Golden Arm.”
The presumption is, their choice of drug is alcohol times 10, alcohol squared or to the ninth power. There is enough human debris in its wake to justify the algebra. But these are not Skid Row flotsam, these are national heroes, sports icons.
The jury is not sitting in Pittsburgh. the jury is sitting in the bleachers, the box seats, in the living rooms in front of the television.
The fans will return the ultimate verdict. Has the grand old game been turned over to bands of junkies? Is baseball just a kind of complicated head shop? Are we watching an athletic contest or a bunch of guys on a bad trip?
The baseball fan in the Prohibition era probably didn’t know that some of his heroes were rummies. And there was always something considered comic about alcohol abuse. The underground stories abut Rabbit Maranville jumping in a hotel fountain or Paul Waner getting four red-eyed hits, the legends of the borrachos or umbriagos were told as humor.
There’s nothing funny about cocaine, speed, acid. Baseball is not “Saturday Night,” live. Baseball is a morality play. Baseball is root, root, root for the home team, not the pushers.
You can’t indict a whole industry. For every Babe Ruth, there was a Lou Gehrig. For every Grover Cleveland Alexander, there was a Christy Mathewson. There are chapel-goers in ever locker room in the league today.
Baseball has to find a way to separate one from the other, to satisfy the fan that his team is something to cheer, not arrest.
They say that Pittsburgh may lose its major league franchise. From those canary songs coming out of the courtroom there, it lost it some time ago. Baseball has to see to it that the rest of the game doesn’t follow suit.