Of course, sometimes a method offers its own disincentive. Bernstein has a theory as to why you don’t see many spitballs anymore — and it has nothing to do with better umpiring: “Whenever a spitball pitcher took to the mound, by the end of the game the ball would be a slippery mess, full of phlegm and snot. The infielders would cringe when they had to field a ground ball and throw it to first base. Nobody wanted to touch that thing.”
4) Substance Abuse
It arguably only adds to the game’s colorful history that Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter on LSD, or that Bill “Spaceman” Lee claimed to sprinkle marijuana on his buckwheat cakes, or that David Wells admitted to pitching his perfect game while “half drunk.”
But booze and drugs have taken terrible tolls on too many players. Consider what cocaine did to Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, or how heroin has derailed the promising career of Peabody’s Jeff Allison, a Florida Marlins pitching prospect.
The allure has always been there. In Chief Bender’s Burden, Swift points out that, in those pre-Prohibition days, “the nature of the game was conducive to recreational drinking; since games were played during the day and half of them were played on the road, players often had evenings free and no commitments that prevented trips to watering holes.” Managers would routinely cover for guys, winking at journalists when games were missed by hung-over players. (“Out of condition” the scribes would write.)
In Baseball, Vecsey reminds us of the cocaine case in 1983 that sent four Kansas City Royals to jail. And of the drug-hastened deaths of ballplayers Alan Wiggins and Eric Show. In The Dark Side, Abrams notes how, in the past, it wasn’t unusual for soused fans to charge the field and argue with umps; Boston Braves megastar Mike “King” Kelly regularly “bowled up” on booze before games; 19th-century slugger Pete Browning claimed that “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle.”
At least today’s fans have a strong deterrent from overindulging: who can afford to when the beers at Fenway are almost eight bucks?
Pete Rose is a pariah. One wishes it weren’t so, but he brought it upon himself. By the time — while promoting his book — he at long last admitted to betting on the game, “even tolerant fans had lost sympathy with him,” Vecsey writes in Baseball. “He realized he faced a very long wait before any commissioner would ever reinstate him. Rose had wanted to become Ty Cobb. Instead he had become Shoeless Joe Jackson.”
Poor Pete was only following in the cleated footsteps of generations of players and fans. In The Dark Side, Abrams points out that, as far back as the first World Series in 1903, massive cash was changing hands. The Pittsburgh Pirates had pooled $10,000 to wager they’d win the National League pennant, and once they had, the Boston Post reported in October that “thousands of dollars are being wagered on the series” between the Pirates and the Red Sox.
As you surely know, the Red Sox won, five games to three. But did you know that made their fans — many of them members of the fabled Royal Rooters — very wealthy? Some punters were wagering as much as $3500. (In today’s dollars, that’s $82,835.)