There are plenty of people who don't like Alex Rodriguez. If you were to do a quick, informal poll from the depths of social media, you'll find plenty of people who take umbrage with him: he's a cheater, a liar, a crook, or whatever phrase you can conjure up. And to be honest, if you have a high moral standard for baseball players, then I can see it. A-Rod lied multiple times about using performance-enhancing drugs, and he was tied to a larger doping scandal that exposed even more athletes to having used PEDs in the past few years. It wasn't pretty. He drew out a long battle in the press and through arbitration, before ultimately losing, taking his 162-game suspension, and spending his time from there on out repenting.
When you read a bit of the 2015 profile in ESPN The Magazine, you realize--at least I realized--that he isn't a villain. He's a human. He went to therapy, took college courses, and found the root cause of what brought him down a darker path. I'd hope that in 100 years, we can at least look at his legacy with the nuance it deserves.
At the same time, though, I know it likely won't be. There's a good chance that Biogenesis will remain a blemish on his career, and it is what it is. But the one thing I can't really stand for, one thing that truly grinds my gears, is how this balancing of A-Rod the player vs. A-Rod the cheater is never taken into account for the great Yankees of the past. The reasons why are obvious. Firstly, there was an agreement between players and the press that they remain on good terms: this meant that players would cooperate and give their required quotes, as long as reporters didn't pry too much. The result of this was a group of young men operating with impunity. Domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addition, performance-enhancing drugs--they were all ignored for the sake of "professional courtesy." The second is the branding of the Yankees, and this explanation is shorter. It's pretty hard to market "Pride Power Pinstripes" while also taking note of the more unsavory aspects of eternal PR tools.
We can start from the beginning of the Yankee dynasties--Babe Ruth. I wrote an article just this month on him, and even I neglected to mention that his morals were incredibly problematic. He tried doping, for example. In The Nation's "Bonding With The Babe," it's stated that Ruth tried to "inject himself with extract from sheep's testes," which resulted in severe illness. He was also a rampant drinker and was constantly with other women, even in the midst of marriage. As teammate Joe Dugan said, "Babe would go day and night, broads and booze."
Alcohol was the only drug he could effectively use--not having modern medicine didn't help--and he played only 98 games in 1925, possibly because of his alcoholism. The press misinformed the public by calling it a "bellyache"--dubbed the "Bellyache Heard ‘Round the World"--and attributed it to too many hot dogs. In fact it was due to an "intestinal abscess", either caused by alcohol or a sexually transmitted disease. If that had happened today, it would be a huge mark on a legacy. Today, it's a historical footnote.
Ruth was also the captain for just five days in 1922, before starting a fight with a heckler in the stands. He then got into a verbal battle with the umpire, and even after being fined and suspended for three days, challenged that umpire to a fist fight. His suspension was extended two more days, and his tenure as captain was over. My opinion was always that if Babe Ruth played today he'd be treated the same as A-Rod is now, and I pretty much stand by that. Ruth was the greatest of his generation, but he was a troubled and complicated man.
Joe DiMaggio fit that mold as well, but he might have been even worse. Even though he maintained an outer appearance that reflected he was America's golden child, it was, once again, the press giving him a free pass. Of course the Great Depression and World War II had a part in this--it wasn't very helpful for national morale if peoples' heroes were false--but it let him... pretty much do what he wanted. Of course there was his connection to the mob. While it's looked back rather innocuously because it's been perceived as a way of getting by during the Depression, he didn't just use these connections to get by. According to the New York Times' review of The Hero's Life, it was a source of income and women:
"...This was a shabby court for Joe to reign over, and it played to his trashiest pretensions, providing him with endless showgirls -- i.e., by pimping for him -- and softening him up with countless favors and, worse yet, with a slush fund at the Bowery Savings Bank that would set him up for life."
Then there's his marriage with Marilyn Monroe. While at the time it seemed just like another celebrity marriage failure because of the pressures of fame combined with different personalities, it was actually a relationship riddled with both emotional and physical abuse. The first source of DiMaggio's disdain and anger came from the fact Monroe wanted to continue with her ambitions, while he wanted her to quit. According to the Daily Mail, he just wanted a housewife:
"'Joe was sick and tired of Marilyn's career,' said Stacy Edwards, who was a sportswriter at the time in Philadelphia and knew DiMaggio well. 'He said he wanted to get her out of the movies. 'We'll buy a nice home in San Francisco and just live a simpler life,' he told me.
And when she did what she wanted to do, he became violent. Again, from the Daily Mail:
"'He was smacking her around,' said one of his closest friends. 'He didn't seem too ashamed of it, either. He said that she brought the worst out in him, that he wasn't usually that kind of man. He said she was spoiled and very self-centred and it drove him crazy."
"When she didn’t respond the way he wanted her to, he became physical," Heymann writes. "On one occasion, he ripped an earring from her lobe and scratched her face."
Monroe would ultimately divorce in 1954, and she died in 1962 of a drug overdose. DiMaggio's legacy is pretty difficult to unpack, probably more so than A-Rod. This piece isn't to state that we should hold one stance on the legacy of DiMaggio, per se, but I think it'd be fair to take this information into account other than, "He was good."
Mickey Mantle is yet another example. Like with Ruth, he too tried to inject steroids. In 1961, while in the midst of his home run chase with Roger Maris, he had the following incident, according to the New York Times:
"...Mickey Mantle developed a sudden abscess that kept him on the bench. It came from an infected needle used by Max Jacobson, a quack who injected Mantle with a home-brew containing steroids and speed."
And like with Ruth, again, women and alcohol were constantly around. There was of course his famous contact in the bleachers, and most likely years and years of escapades the press kept under wraps. I don't exactly blame him the same way I would blame DiMaggio for abuse, because he did have a disease. Unfortunately he lived in a time when treatment and recovery wasn't an immediate option, and therapy was surely seen as a sign of weakness. He was no villain, but he obviously wasn't a saint.
Those were the main characters--as far as characters on the same level as A-Rod--but there were a metric ton of Yankees that played for, or ran, the team throughout the years who either cheated, lied, fought, or were of extremely questionable character. Goose Gossage admitted to using amphetamines. Whitey Ford consistently doctored balls, and said that if the salary was higher at the time, he would have continued to doctor balls for many more years. David Cone hinted at doctoring balls through scuffing. So does Michael Pineda. Andy Pettitte took PEDs and lied about it, and then got mad at A-Rod for taking PEDs and lying about it. 1996 World Series hero Jim Leyritz admitted to using amphetamines, and he was later arrested for drunk driving. Chuck Knoblauch was named in the Mitchell Report, and he was arrested for assaulting his ex-wife.
And many of the executives and managers weren't much better. General Manager George Weiss, who ran the team from 1947 to 1960, purposefully segregated the Yankees, even after Jackie Robinson's debut. According to Elston Howard, he said, "I will never allow a black man to wear a Yankee uniform. . . Box holders from Westchester don’t want them. They would be offended to have to sit with (Expletive Deleted)." Owner George Steinbrenner, as we know, had his demons. He made illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's campaign, he hired a gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, and he traded Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps. And then there was famous player and manager Billy Martin, who also had some serious flaws. As a player he got in a fight with Jim Brewer, which sent him to the hospital for multiple surgeries and almost led to a million dollar lawsuit. Martin ultimately paid $10,000 in damages. That was only his most notable fight, as he got in at least five others during his playing career. As a manager he publicly feuded with Steinbrenner, he fought with Reggie Jackson, wore down his young pitchers, and he even got in a fight with a marshmallow salesman.
There's probably more. The fact that there's probably more, largely because of that tacit agreement between the press and players, should give you pause. My point here isn't to make these players out to be the scum of the Earth. In fact I have some sympathy for them, especially when a lot of this was because of undiagnosed mental illness, drug addiction, or alcoholism. But what I do want to show is that firstly, your heroes aren't perfect. It's a hard thing, something we don't always want to hear, especially when they're nestled safely in the recesses of our nostalgia, but it's true. It's also to illustrate a point that we should be careful to be the standard-bearers of morality in baseball. If we start drawing lines in the sand about who fits the qualification of "playing the game the right way," then it gets a bit fuzzier when we look at these cases.
What do we define as cheating? Do we give older players credit for not using PEDs even though they weren't available despite trying anyway? Is doctoring a ball cheating, and how much doctoring qualifies as really problematic cheating? How do we separate the abuser from the ballplayer? These are all questions we have to ask ourselves, and I still haven't figured it all out myself. If you're steadfast in your ways that Alex Rodriguez is a horrible person and ballplayer, then I'll let you live in that world. But if you take the stance, then these guys live in that world, too.