Play Ball — Two Baseball Books


We are heading into the baseball playoffs, and I am beyond thrilled that the Pirates are going to the post-season for the third year in a row!  This is heady stuff for any Pirates fan, particularly since we lived in Pittsburgh and rooted for the Pirates the whole time they had the longest string of losing seasons of any professional sports franchise.  Really.  We are in New York now, but my heart belongs to the Pirates.  And the Steelers.

Under the circumstances, I am not sure why I picked up Aaron Skirboll’s, The Pittsburgh Cocaine 7 (2010), but I did, and it is an interesting cautionary tale.  In the 1980’s, well in advance of the more recent steroid craze, major league baseball was overtaken by a cocaine frenzy.  The problem seems to have existed for most major league teams.  Obviously not every player indulged, but a bunch of them did.  It was a bad time for baseball and for the country.  It is terrifying to think of pitchers hurling fastballs while high on cocaine, but some of pitcher did exactly that.  The League and baseball club management seem to have had no idea how to deal with this problem other than to put on blinders.  That didn’t work out so well.  They didn’t keep drugs out of the club house; they didn’t provide timely help to their addicted players; and the baseball brand suffered.

PIttsburgh ended up being the focus of much of the cocaine scandal.   Skirboll tells of a number of spoiled, self-destructive PIrates players indulging in an orgy of cocaine.  For some of them, scoring their next coke seems to have been far more important than the game they were being paid to play.  The PIttsburgh prosecutor, in this case the US attorney, took the usual prosecutorial tack and gave the users (in this case, the players) immunity in order to go after their dealers, the source of their cocaine.  As a result, players testified against the dealers, and the dealers were the ones who ended up getting prosecuted and going to jail.  Everyone gave up everyone else to save their own skin, and the fan/dealers paid.  Players may have damaged their careers, but no PIttsburgh Pirate went to jail, no matter how much coke he snorted.  On a humorous note, the Pirates mascot parrot was also implicated but avoided jail time.  Really?  I thought prisons were full of cages.  While the prosecutor’s logic is understandable, at some level it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the local dealers.  Basically, the little guys took the rap for the spoiled players.  As recounted in The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, most, if not all, of the dealers were fans who just got a tremendous kick from hanging out with professional baseball players.  In a lot of cases, the players were vociferous in their demands for coke, and yet often stiffed their dealers.  These particular dealers don’t seem to have made much, if anything, from their drug sales to players.  Skirboll certainly implies that the fan/dealers wouldn’t have gotten into trouble, or at least not so much trouble, but for their zeal to keep their baseball idols happy.  The moral plays out again and again in college and professional sports:  It is never a good idea to give an athlete (or anyone) whatever he or she might want.  Limits and the ability to say “no” can be good things.

Happily, the PIttsburgh Pirates of today seem to be a far more sensible group of men.  It is such a pleasure to see them win the right way.  Go Pirates!

David Halberstam’s book The Teammates  —  A  Portrait of a Friendship (2003), is a warmer and fuzzier baseball story.  Halberstam, a great sportswriter and baseball fan, sets his story in the fall of 2000, when some of Ted Williams’ old Red Sox teammates are driving down for a last visit with Williams, whose health is in decline.  The trip is made by Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, who are in their early 80’s.  Bobby Doerr, another close friend and teammate, is unable to to make the trip, but tales of Doerr are included in this lovely book, which is rich with memories of these four players who came up at the about the same time and who got to know each other very well as teammates on the Boston Red Sox.

This is not a definitive biography of anyone, but it is rich with vignettes of all four players.  The stories of how they got to the big leagues and how they learned to play ball are wonderful.  The three friends were all loyal to Ted Williams, who seems to have been a really difficult personality at best.  Going fishing with Williams was particularly stressful, since no one seems to have been able to meet his highly arbitrary standards.   Equally hilarious was a story of an aging Williams standing in the middle of a trout fishing stream and furiously demonstrating the proper way to swing a baseball bat.   As tough as he was on them, Williams does seem to have appreciated them.

There are no sordid tales of drugs or infidelity in The Teammates.  This is just a nice, thoughtful book about baseball and friendship.