Whether it is a group of boys scattered along a suburban street with only a rock and a fallen tree branch, or an organized team of grown men stationed upon a meticulously groomed playing field , baseball has, from its inception, formed a sturdy bond between generations . Many Americans can fondly relate a lifetime of lessons taught between the whip of the pitcher’s arm and the crack of the bat.
Baseball has been described as “America’s greatest past time,” and no doubt with every passing generation of boys growing into men this thought becomes increasingly true. The glue that holds these generational memories together is the assurance that, above all else, baseball is fair. The basic truth that any historian could accurately hold the career statistics from 1922 against those of 2022 and make a candid comparison. However, in the last decade the presence of anabolic steroids has turned this basic truth into more of an implied hope.
The effects of anabolic steroids from a hitter’s prospective is clearly detailed in the holiest of baseball records, the single season home run record. There are few events in sports that will enthrall a stadium full of rabid fans more than the sight of a long sweeping fly ball headed toward the outfield fence. The ability to accomplish this feat with consistency is a skill that sports heroes are made from.
However, in recent years the potency of many hitters have brought many of baseball’s heroes from the pinnacle of the sport, down to trenches of shame and doubt. To illustrate, it is prudent to examine the long history of the single season home run record in baseball. This revered record was initially set in 1927 by Babe Ruth when he belted 60 home runs for the New York Yankees. This number was so extraordinary that neither he, nor any other player, even came close to reaching it again until 1961 when fellow Yankee Roger Maris would eclipse this record by hitting 61.
The original record set by Ruth stood for 34 years untouched. Maris’s record would last an additional 35 years before it is finally surpassed by Mark McGwire with 70 home runs in 1998. McGwire’s mark would quickly be shattered just three years later by Barry Bonds who would set the new record at 73. Of special note is the fact that after McGwire set the new record of the previous mark set by Ruth would be surpassed six times in the next eight years.
Where do anabolic steroids fit into this equation? The result from a double-blind case study was released in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1996 showed that participants, who were given a standard amount of anabolic steroids, in conjunction with a controlled exercise regiment, encountered a 9.3 percent increase in muscle mass compared to only a 2.7 percent increase in the control group (Tobin 17). This increase in muscle mass had a profound effect on the individuals overall strength. The report commented that, “The steroid users increased the maximum weight they could bench-press by 23% and that they could squat by 37%, compared to 9% and 20% for the control group” (Tobin 17). These results could easily account for the inflation of power hitting numbers, as balls that previously died on the warning track, could now very easily be powered into the bleachers.
Outside of the overwhelming attention that steroid use has received for its benefit for hitters, anabolic steroids is speculated to have a profound outcome on a pitcher’s effectiveness. When considering the almost 10 percent increase in muscle mass described in the case study earlier, it is easy to equate the numbers to the benefit of pitchers. Tobin states, ” a 10% increase in muscle mass should increase the speed of a thrown ball by about …4-5 mph for a pitcher with a 90 mph fastball” ( 18-19).
That is a considerable change when the skill sets of a baseball pitcher are taken into consideration. For most pitchers, their cardinal skill is consistent and accurate placement of their pitches. A pitcher who has consistent control of an off-speed pitch such as a curveball that travels approximately 75 mph, who can then follow this pitch with a fastball in excess of 90 mph, has a distinct advantage due to the sizable variation in his repertoire. This variation makes it difficult for a hitter to efficiently time the arrival of the ball, and thus limits their ability to make solid contact with their swing.
Statistics show a considerable correlation between a pitcher’s average speed with their fastball, and their ending earned run average throughout the season, accounting for a reduction of approximately 0.5 runs per game (Tobin 19). Assuming that a pitcher will make 30 starts in a season, this reduction translates into 15 less earned runs for the season, which could have a direct effect up a pitchers win/loss total.
Considering the effect that anabolic steroids can have on individual records, it becomes difficult to compare contemporary statistics against those of previous decades and generations. As discussed earlier in the paragraph about the rapid increase of the single season home run record between 1998 and 2001, consider the ramifications of that increase.
The two highest totals prior to 1998 were longer in the top 5 and barely holding onto positions in the top 10 by 2001. Assuming that the active players in the top 25 on the career home run list continue to at a pace of 35-40 home runs per year, there is potential that Hank Aaron who set the career record in 1976 could no longer be in the top 5 by 2020. This has led many baseball purists and historians to debate whether modern era statistics can even be considered valid.
Concerning this Roger Von Burg and Paul E. Johnson state, in their paper “Yearning for a Past that Never Was,” that “The debates over how to adjudicate the careers, the records, and the future of fairness in the game are still ongoing” ( 367). Similarly noted fashion designer Marc Ecko, after purchasing the record-setting 756th home run ball by Barry Bonds, placed a poll up for fans to decide how this historic ball should be handled. What was the outcome? Fans responded in droves to request the ball be branded with an asterisk to serve as reminder to everyone who would visit the Major League Baseball (MLB) History Museum of the overwhelming doubt that surrounds that ball’s validity in the MLB record books. This was certainly a far cry for the allure that surrounds the record-setting balls from by gone eras.
For many, the introduction of anabolic steroids has added a level of excitement to the sport of baseball. The introduction of more home runs and faster pitches brought exposure to the game that those of previous generations could never have imagined. But at what cost? If trends like this continue, the greats of years ago will be completely erased from the record books. This is a tragedy with far-reaching consequences not only now, but for the history of baseball. Without tradition, baseball has nothing to connect its past and it’s future.
Goldman, Steven. “The Steroids Morality Play.” Commentary, July/August (2009): 27- 30.Web. 1 March. 2011.
Tobin, R.G. “On the Potential of Chemical Bonds: Possible effects of Steroids on Home Run Production on Baseball.” American Journal on Physics, 76.11 (2008): 15-20. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 March. 2011.
Von Burg, Ron and Johnson, Paul E. “Yearning for a Past that Never Was: Baseball, Steroids, and the Anxiety of the American Dream.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 26.4 (2009): pages 351-369. Web. 1 March. 2011.