The Steroid Era: Steroids Make for Entertaining Baseball

Written by: Trevor Carnell

 Image result for mark mcgwire

The steroid era. As it is simple known. This was a time in the MLB in which suspected steroid use was increased and record setting performances were given. This era is hard to express with specific years, however most people agree that steroids began making its way into the Major leagues in the 1980s. What made people start having second thoughts as to whether athletes were natural or not? After all, steroids were banned from the MLB in 1991. In the decades prior to the 1990s, only a handful of players in the history of baseball had recorded a season in which they hit more than 50 homerun balls. 10 players to be exact hit 50 or more homeruns in the season prior to 1990. After that year, a tremendous jump in the players that were able to reach the feat was made. 

During the 1990s, baseball was at an all-time high as a spectacle to watch. Imagine year after year watching big time homerun hitters going for the all-time homerun record that had been held for over 30 years when Roger Maris hit 61 homers in 1961 for the New York Yankees. In 1997 Mark McGwire rang out 58 homers in one season while playing for the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals. This turned heads around the world, as 50 homeruns in a season had been achieved only 7 times from the time Roger Maris broke the record until McGwire’s 58 homerun season. I think it is also important to note that in the same season, Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 homers with the Seattle Mariners. This is especially impressive because as we now know, Griffey was not involved in the steroid scandal that would eventually surface. So now the stage is set for 1998 for the homerun record to be broken. 

Then on September 8, 1998 as McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals took on their greatest rivals with Sammy Sosa’s Chicago Cubs, thousands of people in attendance and millions of people around the world watched as the record could be broke. The previous night, McGwire hit the homer to tie Roger Maris’ record, so naturally the environment was ecstatic. In the fourth inning, McGwire returned to the plate for his second at-bat of the night. As the crowd rose to their feet the first pitch was thrown and Mark McGwire blasted it low and over the left field wall. The crowd was ecstatic and so were the players. As McGwire rounded the bases, opposing players congratulated him. Had this event not been exciting enough as it was, the whole season had been a constant battle between McGwire and Sosa, as they were both on pace to break the record. Sosa did in fact hit 66 homeruns that season, more than Roger Maris’ 61 homer record, however fell short of the new record of Mark McGwire’s 70 homers.   

The years following this season until 2002 was filled with many more homeruns as 50 homers by one person in a season was accomplished 11 times in the short 4 years. In 2001, mark McGwire’s unbelievable record was beat by Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants at 73 homeruns. Baseball was in its glory days. Anytime you watched a game, you had the potential of watching history unfold. However in the following years a federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative or (BALCO), which was a company that provided supplements to many well-known baseball players. The investigation was able to show that the use of steroids was evident for many players including the beloved heroes of the game, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds. All of which fought to keep this hidden which is apparently common according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse Research: Monograph Series, Anabolic Steroid Abuse. They stated, “Some experienced steroid users place much of the responsibility for the current problem [steroid abuse] on pharmaceutical companies, and suggest that the nature and scope of health consequences are likely to increase in the future.” Regardless of who the blame was placed one, these three among others were all confirmed to have been using steroids.  

It is unfortunate that these players used performance enhancing drugs, as their image and reputation will now always be stained by that fact. And while the American people do not agree with the use of steroids, there is no question that it made for some of the most memorable moments in baseball history.

Samurai Baseball

Baseball arrived in Japan late in the nineteenth century, introduced by American instructors hired by Japanese universities and other institutions of learning as part of an intensive modernization movement that had begun in 1868, the Meiji Restoration. That movement focused on making profound changes to Japan’s government, economy and even its social structure. Baseball, which quickly became popular in Japan and soon showed up on the playing fields of schools newly built to satisfy government requirements of compulsory education, was one example among many of new, exciting ideas and practices emerging as part of a modern and revitalized Japan.

However, this process had its losers too. New government policies such as conscription and universal education were not popular with all Japanese: the new schools required funding, which the government hoped to fund with local taxation, and conscription was part of the larger process of building a modern standing army. That army, as well as the introduction of a national police force, rendered the samurai more or less obsolete.

The samurai had been highly privileged under previous Japanese law, and enjoyed immense prestige in Japanese society. In truth, the samurai had as a class largely shifted away from its military role in the centuries prior to the Meiji Restoration. However, they had retained important cultural roles in defining concepts of Japanese honor, social decorum and masculinity. This role survived the effective end of the samurai as a formally recognized social class following the failed Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. In the years since, the samurai have persisted as emblems of a specific reading of Japanese history and for some as broader expressions of specific Japanese cultural qualities such as toughness and fighting spirit.

These qualities quickly translated into baseball. Early Japanese coaches became famous for pushing their athletes hard. The Tokyo Number One High School team, known as Ichiko, practiced until they passed blood in their urine. The attitudes of some Japanese coaches and athletes towards such extreme physical exertion mirrored Victorian-era concepts of strengthening the nation through expanding the physical capacity of its young men, fitting right in line with the enormous influence of British and German ideas on Japanese modernization. Many Japanese however contextualized such approaches within a distinct Japanese vocabulary, and turned to familiar language in describing young men making physical sacrifices in order to win in battle (or in nine innings) and who were willing to subjugate their own immediate interests to a higher concept of honor.

Robert Whiting, author of The Chrysanthemum and the Bat and one of the first Americans to write for an American audience extensively on Japanese baseball, refers to this as “samurai baseball.” Whiting does not claim to have coined the phrase, instead pointing out that the term itself (samurai besoboru) has been in service in Japanese baseball circles since the late nineteenth century. He frames the concept in terms of a Japanese discourse on national spirit, which has found a home in baseball for some time. The aforementioned Ichiko team are famous because of their lopsided victories against various teams of American workers and sailors in Yokohama. In 1985, the American player Randy Bass found his attempts to break the Japanese single season home run record thwarted when the opposing pitchers refused to throw him strikes; he happened to be playing against a team managed by the holder of the record, baseball legend Oh Sadaharu (pictured above).

Whiting points out that such flashpoints in the dynamic between American and Japanese baseball dovetail with an intensely ideological practice of “samurai baseball.” However, this position frequently comes under scrutiny. William Kelly, in particular, has expressed concern that the adoption of such language in Western scholarship leads foreign observers to sketch out a monolithic Japanese identity or national character, where supposedly classical or feudal traditions have reemerged in the modern age in a different guise. This is far from ideal: it shapes narratives of the modern world that celebrate Western diversity and insist upon Japanese uniformity, and overly credible acceptance of “samurai baseball” as a spiritual phenomenon unique to the Japanese game may have the unintended effect of orientalizing Japanese baseball players and Japanese baseball as a whole. We end up with a fascinating cultural counter-example to a “normal” American standard rather than a complex cultural practice in and of itself.

That practice is fascinating. The elevation of “samurai baseball” to a set of activities that can border on the spiritual at the individual level can draw us worryingly close to essentializing an entire culture, developing our own quick shorthand to identify the Japanese game’s most notable characteristics without diving deeper. Of course, the best approach is to learn more about the complexities of the cultural sphere surrounding the Japanese game. See for example the National High School Baseball Championship, which every year holds its final at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya. The tournament has been a major part of Japanese baseball since its inception in 1915, with Koshien acquiring a special place in the heart of fans. After each championship game, the losing team gathers up some of the “sacred dirt” from the base running paths to take home. Koshien, like so many other stadiums in cultures across the world, occupies a clear place in an ideological and emotional embrace of baseball in Japan.

For many Japanese, the idea of characterizing this emotion and emotions like it within a broader historical tradition of the “samurai spirit” is an appealing one. That of course is in and of itself a Japanese decision, and worthy of study. Perhaps we are better off thinking of the concept as a specific Japanese manner of processing and celebrating hard work, sacrifice and emotional connections: a set of beliefs and practices analogous to American veneration for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY or a certain type of American fan’s veneration for skillful use of the bunt play. Something unique to Japan but far from alien.


Suggested Reading:

Robert K. Fitts, Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game

Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

William Kelly, Kōshien Stadium: performing national virtues and regional rivalries in a ‘theatre of sport’

Donald Roden, “Baseball and the Quest for National Dignity in Meiji Japan”

Robert Whiting, The Samurai Way of Baseball: The Impact of Ichiro and the New Wave from Japan