BOOK MARK : Ueberroth’s Drug Crusade Was All for the Camera
As president of the 1984 Olympic Organizing Committee, Peter V. Ueberroth came into baseball riding the crest of his $225-million triumph in Los Angeles. The wave metaphor is apt. Ueberroth went to San Jose State on a water polo scholarship and reportedly is a dedicated skin diver. When Ueberroth, then 46, replaced Bowie Kuhn as major league commissioner, New York Times columnist George Vecsey wrote: “Ueberroth knew he would be entering murky waters with the 26 assorted sharks, whales, sting rays, sea turtles and barnacled mossbunkers in baseball’s sea of ownership.”
Our first meeting was a long and candid one. Ueberroth encouraged me to talk--something that takes little encouragement--and he listened intently. He asked, among other things, what my view would be if he removed Kuhn’s “ban” on Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
Kuhn’s edict had required that first Mays and then, several years later, Mantle, premier center fielders of their day, resign from jobs as customer-relations people for entirely legal gambling casinos or be banished from any connection with baseball: Mays, as a batting coach for the Mets and Mantle, as a batting instructor in spring training for the Yankees.
Surprisingly, only a few writers condemned Kuhn’s arbitrary action. These all-time greats of the game, blatantly underpaid and exploited during their playing careers, now became victims of Bowie’s hypocritical stance in retirement.
Their ties to gambling--mostly shaking hands with customers or perhaps playing golf with high-rollers--were no more real than the connections of club owners like Ewing Kauffman, George Steinbrenner, or Dan Galbreath, racehorse breeders who rubbed elbows with touts, bookies, odds makers and, as it later developed, gamblers.
I expressed enthusiasm about reversing Kuhn’s sanctions. Ueberroth made no bones about how foolish and damaging Kuhn’s actions were against Mays and Mantle, idols to millions of fans. He followed through on lifting the ban in a public ceremony, and the repudiation seemed to please everyone except Kuhn.
Ueberroth was really looking for an education in the business of baseball. His critics probably were, on the whole, correct that he knew little about the game, but oddly enough, I don’t think that hurt Ueberroth. He was a pragmatist, not an ideologue like Kuhn (about whose capabilities, in private, he had a low estimate) or a pseudo-philosopher like Bart Giamatti, and he was smart enough to admit to himself that he had a lot to learn and to know where to go to find out.
On assuming office, Ueberroth announced that one of his first priorities was to stamp out drug use in professional baseball. Drugs were a hot topic--particularly cocaine. Ueberroth had read the tea leaves of publicity. He started talking about wiping out drugs well before he had a coherent plan.
Ueberroth’s drug “policy” was all for the camera. He was like President George Bush over the last two years, still out there running for office after the election was over. In point of fact, a jointly negotiated drug program had been in existence since 1984. It was a humane and largely successful program, one that did not include mandatory and random drug testing. So you can imagine my astonishment one afternoon in 1985, when Ueberroth announced that the existing drug program was no good because it didn’t have mandatory testing. Ueberroth said he had a new anti-drug program that would clean up baseball once and for all. Essentially, he had declared war and claimed victory without firing a shot.
In 1986, he took another approach, again without consulting the Players Assn. He sent a letter to every major leaguer, urging him to submit to voluntary drug tests during the season. The tests would be “totally confidential,” he said, and free of penalties. Noble, but completely outside the framework of collective bargaining. Again, he was playing to the camera.
Don Fehr, the association’s attorney, urged the players to toss the letters in the garbage. When the two met, Ueberroth asked if Fehr would agree to testing, “even if it was just for the sake of public relations.”
Whose PR? Fehr asked. No one recalls Ueberroth’s reply, but the matter was dropped.
Ueberroth imposed mandatory testing in the minor leagues--there was no union to do anything about it. But if the program was successful, we have certainly never heard about it. Ueberroth ducked almost every question reporters asked about how the program was working out.
“How many tests have been given?” He couldn’t say. “We don’t want names, just numbers.” Sorry, can’t talk about it. “How many positive tests had there been?” No comment.
“Peter the Arrogant,” as one reporter dubbed him, was less interested in eliminating drug use from baseball than he was in benefitting from the perception that something was being done.
1991, by Marvin Miller. A Birch Lane Press Book, reprinted by permission of Carol Publishing Group. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.
BOOK REVIEW: “A Whole Different Ballgame: The Sport and Business of Baseball,” by Marvin Miller, is reviewed on Page 1 of today’s Book Review section.