Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended several players with the Pittsburgh Pirates, including the team’s mascot, and other players from around the league in a drug scandal that marked the first major dark cloud for baseball since the 1919 Black Sox game-fixing scandal. Baseball then faced the Pete Rose gambling affair, labor-union strikes, game cancellations, declining ticket sales, and the steroids scandal.

Summary of Event

Following a successful decade during the 1970’s that brought six divisional championships and one World Series victory to the city of Pittsburgh, Pirates fans were caught off guard during the 1980’s. Following the firing of general manager Pete Peterson and clubhouse manager Chuck Tanner, as well as dwindling attendance, talks of dismantling the team, and potential buyouts, the 1986 season brought the baseball drug trials. In February of 1986, in the first major drug scandal for Major League Baseball, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, harsh but fair in his punishments of players of all skills, was forced to suspend several players with the Pittsburgh Pirates, including star Dave Parker, and other players for using cocaine in their respective clubhouses. [kw]Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use (Feb. 28, 1986) [kw]Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use, Baseball Commissioner Peter (Feb. 28, 1986) [kw]Cocaine Use, Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for (Feb. 28, 1986) Parker, Dave Berra, Dale Berra, Dale Baseball;and drugs[drugs] Ueberroth, Peter Parker, Dave Berra, Dale Berra, Dale Baseball;and drugs[drugs] Ueberroth, Peter [g]United States;Feb. 28, 1986: Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use[02200] [c]Sports;Feb. 28, 1986: Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use[02200] [c]Corruption;Feb. 28, 1986: Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use[02200] [c]Drugs;Feb. 28, 1986: Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use[02200] [c]Law and the courts;Feb. 28, 1986: Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use[02200] [c]Medicine and health care;Feb. 28, 1986: Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use[02200] [c]Organized crime and racketeering;Feb. 28, 1986: Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use[02200] [c]Popular culture;Feb. 28, 1986: Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use[02200] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 28, 1986: Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Suspends Players for Cocaine Use[02200] Smith, Lonnie Koch, Kevin

Peter Ueberroth announces Major League Baseball’s drug-testing plan at a news conference in New York.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The testimony of dozens of players resulted in the arrest and conviction of seven Philadelphia and Pittsburgh area drug dealers, including Curtis Strong, who was convicted on eleven counts of selling cocaine. Pittsburgh area dealer Shelby Greer pleaded guilty to seven counts associated with drug dealing, and five other men would serve time for the largest drug scandal in baseball history.

During the late 1970’s and 1980’s, cocaine became a regular fixture in Major League clubhouses. Players were purchasing drugs in stadium restrooms and locker rooms. Rumors began to circulate that players were playing games while high and were even carrying drugs in vials in their uniforms. In a May 14, 1985, memorandum to the Major and Minor League teams, Ueberroth outlined the league’s updated drug policy.

In late 1985, a Philadelphia grand jury called Parker, along with Pirates teammates Lee Mazzilli, John Milner, Lee Lacy, Rod Scurry, and Dale Berra, son of New York Yankees great Yogi Berra, to testify. Other major leaguers called before the grand jury were Willie Aikens, Vida Blue, Jeffrey Leonard, Tim Raines, Enos Cabell, Keith Hernandez, and Lonnie Smith, who all testified to the rampant use of cocaine and amphetamines. Their testimony led many to believe that drug use affected as many as 40 percent of major league baseball players (a claim that is often challenged).

Prosecutors in the case stated that baseball was not on trial; drug use in society was the problem at hand, and the goal was to eradicate the drug pushers and dealers and to keep drugs from tarnishing the game of baseball. For their testimony, major league players were granted full immunity by law, meaning they would receive no jail or prison time. This immunity from prosecution allowed for open discussion of clubhouse secrets, including the secret of drug use. Testimony confirmed drug use during games and the existence of locker-room drug deals on game days.

Kevin Koch, the Pirates’ Parrot mascot, was eventually implicated in the scandal for introducing players—both local and visiting—to area drug dealers. Seven local drug dealers, most notably Strong, were convicted and sentenced to prison. Strong’s lawyer maintained that the baseball players were highly paid junkies, and not heroes. Player Milner admitted to buying cocaine during a game in which he participated. Hernandez, a future All-Star with the New York Mets, admitted to using drugs for more than three years while playing. Although the players who testified in return for immunity avoided jail or prison sentences, the organization of professional baseball, which had been harshly criticized by judicial officials throughout the trials for ignoring the drug problem for decades, would have free rein to punish the guilty.

Major League Baseball meted out punishments to twenty-one players on February 28, 1986. In his press conference announcing the sanctions, Ueberroth said that ten players who were mentioned during the drug trials were forced to submit to random drug testing for the remainder of their respective careers. Eleven players were given stricter punishments. Of the eleven, the four who admitted to using cocaine— Holland, Al Al Holland, Lacy, Lee Lee Lacy, Sorensen, Larry Larry Sorensen, and Washington, Claudell Claudell Washington—received sixty-day suspensions and monetary fines of up to 5 percent of their salaries. They also were mandated to perform drug-education-related community service in their communities and had to submit to drug tests. Holland’s career ended only one year after the league sanctions. Lacy also ended his career in 1987 as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. Sorensen continued to battle his substance abuse, ended his career in 1988 with the San Francisco Giants, and served time for multiple driving-under-the-influence offenses after his playing days. Washington was traded many times and finished his career in 1990 with the Yankees.

The remaining seven players—Berra, Smith, Parker, Hernandez, Cabell, Leonard, and Joaquin Andujar—received even harsher penalties. One-year suspensions would be waived in return for 10 percent of the player’s salary, two years of community service, and mandatory drug testing for the life of their careers. Berra, a top prospect in 1977, never had a productive season, and following the drug trials he played in 1987 for the Houston Astros, where he ended his career. Leonard received the 1987 National League Championship Series MVP award for his play for the Giants and ended his career in 1990 with the Seattle Mariners. Andujar, a former All-Star pitcher, was traded many times following the drug trials and sustained several injuries; his career ended in 1988. Cabell played one more season following the drug trials with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Smith won the MLB Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1989 and had a productive career following the scandal. He is most remembered, however, for his base-running error during the 1991 World Series, in which his team, the Atlanta Braves, lost the game. He finished his career in 1994.

Parker, a favorite in Pittsburgh, was traded around the league during the 1980’s and found his niche as a designated hitter in the American League. He was an All-Star in 1986 and 1990. He finished his career with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1991. Hernandez, probably the most famous player of the drug scandals, was best known for his defensive skills with the Mets at first base and for the team’s 1986 World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox. Hernandez won more Gold Glove Awards in 1986, 1987, and 1988 (he won eleven in his career) and was an All-Star in 1986 and 1987. He finished his career in 1990 with the Cleveland Indians and was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1987.

Impact

Ueberroth was chastised by the players’ union for unfairly levying penalties against the players involved in the drug scandal, but his sanctions would hold. His belief in mandatory drug testing as a collective bargaining issue may have been his most famous attempt at making baseball a legitimate organization. He was a strong proponent of removing drugs, especially stimulants such as cocaine, from the game in an effort to minimize inflated performance statistics.

Ueberroth is considered a visionary by some, as the mid-1990’s saw the beginnings of the steroid-use scandal, brought about, in part, by the league’s failure to instill mandatory drug testing. As the legal community once again criticized Major League officials for ignoring drug use in the sport, many began to wonder if Ueberroth also should have been ignored.

The baseball drug trials of 1985-1986 cleaned the game of illegal street drugs such as cocaine, but the trials did very little to quell the coming storm of synthetic drugs, such as steroids, and their abuse by some of the biggest names in professional baseball. Synthetic drugs, the new drug of choice for many players, poisoned the game and the record books during the 1990’s and into the twenty-first century. Parker, Dave Berra, Dale Berra, Dale Baseball;and drugs[drugs] Ueberroth, Peter

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bryant, Howard. Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball. Monrovia, Md.: Paw Prints, 2008. Examines the effect of drugs on professional baseball and discusses what the Major League has done to address the problem. A questioning work about the iconic status of baseball in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conner, Floyd, and John Snyder. Baseball’s Most Wanted. 3 vols. Dulles, Va.: Brassey’s, 2004. A discussion of the “national pastime’s outrageous offenders, lucky bounces, and other oddities.” Brings into one boxed set past volumes that explored the top scandals in professional baseball.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mottram, David R., ed. Drugs in Sport. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. A comprehensive reference work on the use and abuse of drugs by athletes in sports around the world. Also includes detailed analyses of cocaine use.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rader, Benjamin G. Baseball: A History of America’s Game. 3d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. A detailed history of baseball in the United States that also examines the scandals that have affected the game.

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