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When the House of Representatives first came for pro sports

Revisiting the 1973 House investigation into PEDs, and how it affects the way we see the game today.

Bronze sculpture and the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington Photo by Independent Picture Service/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It’s Hall of Fame season, meaning we’re devoting a significant amount of ink and breath to arguments for or against known or suspected PED users receiving induction. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are no longer on the ballot, but otherwise slam-dunk candidates Manny Ramírez and Alex Rodriguez find themselves a long way from enshrinement due to their PED histories.

As we close 2023, we also pass by the 50th anniversary of a House subcommittee investigation, chaired by Harley Staggers, once of the great state of West Virginia. While serving on the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Staggers led an inquiry into the use of performance-enhancing drugs across the major American pro sports leagues. That report concluded that such drug use — the investigation didn’t concern itself with recreational usage — was rampant at all levels of competition, and in particular that the use of anabolic steroids and amphetamines “can only be described as alarming”.

As is often the case when attempting to clean the game up, Rep. Staggers didn’t go far enough. His Congressional career is mostly remembered for railroad legislation, and the subcommittee report in question involved no public hearings or lasting consequences. A simple recommendation was made to the major sports leagues across the country: develop better standards for yourselves.

Then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, far more concerned with recreational drug use than that of the performance-enhancing variety, assured Staggers’ subcommittee that baseball’s testing and education regimen made MLB the leader among pro sports leagues in preventing PED use. Quietly, Kuhn turned to one of the game’s youngest owners, Bud Selig, to pursue an internal investigation into the validity of baseball’s PED culture.

Concurrent to this investigation, recommendation and eventual handoff was the career of Tom House.

House was an otherwise unremarkable left-handed relief pitcher. Trivia aces may know the name as House was the one to catch Henry Aaron’s 715th home run down in the home bullpen of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1974. More specific to our purposes, House boasted a mediocre-to-bad fastball, and in an era of pharmacological progress, found himself a guinea pig in the field.

“I pretty much popped everything cold turkey,” House said in a 2005 interview. “We were doing steroids they wouldn’t give to horses”. Although never under oath, Tom told the SF Gate that seven or eight players in every major league clubhouse were actively experimenting with steroid use, rationalizing losses by saying the Braves were “out-milligrammed” rather than outplayed.

House goes on to talk about an arms race of sorts; a drive to find out just what the best teams were using and securing his own supply. Thus, an omerta of sorts was formed within clubhouses, as substances became a competitive advantage — not only was there an incentive to keep your stash secret from the opponent, but in the case of edge and role players, your own teammates. Should an unassuming lefty reliever add two or three mph to his fastball, your job may be in jeopardy.

Anabolic steroids didn’t spring themselves into the mid-’90s like manna from baseball heaven. After synthesizing testosterone in the 1930s, manufactured hormones were used in pediatrics for children with growth disorders or leukemia patients to stimulate bone marrow growth. By the late ‘50s, the East German Olympic program developed a daily “vitamin” regimen for their young swimming and gymnastic prodigies. While synthesized testosterone is still in use today for medical reasons — hormone replacement therapy, as well as some menopause and breast cancer treatments — the layman most likely recognizes the substance for its indelible impact on pro sports, especially the assault on baseball’s record books in the 1990s.

The Steroid Era, then, is not a tight, polite eight-year stretch where we can exclude some of the best players in the game’s history. There is a continual throughline, not one full of speculation like what exactly was in the needle that caused Mickey Mantle’s 1961 abscess, but of use cases, recognition by internal and external authorities, and cultural silence.

This isn’t to say that you must agree that Alex Rodriguez is a Hall of Famer, or that you can’t use a positive PED test after MLB overhauled its system against a player. It’s simply a call for broader context, that both the governing structure of baseball and the government of the United States had an understanding of PED usage for a half-century, but waited to deploy that discredit until MLB players were already drawing the ire of fans following the 1994 strike.

There are already steroid users in the Hall of Fame. There are players today evading testing schedules — the financial benefits of such are too great not to try. Perhaps one day, MLB and the MLBPA will see fit to undergo some sort of truth and reconciliation process, but in the meantime, spare a thought for Congressman Staggers. His failure to adequately address PED usage across all sports set a precedent that individual leagues can govern themselves on the issue. If you believe that PED use is a black eye on any sport, the only conclusion then is that leagues cannot properly self-govern.