Cannonball Read III: The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven: How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball by Aaron Skirboll
Recently, Major League Baseball has been embroiled in a drug scandal related to steroid use by a number of players. Mostly lost in all of the discussion about steroids is that this is not the first major drug scandal in baseball. While I am not old enough to remember what went on in baseball in the 1980's, it seems after reading this book that MLB was able to do a much better job of sweeping that scandal under the rug for a variety of reasons, probably starting with the fact that cocaine is considered a recreational drug rather than a performance-enhancer.
In The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, Aaron Skirboll investigates how, in a scandal that included several star players admitting to cocaine use, none were convicted of any crimes, and few faced any punishment from the league amounting to more than a slap on the wrist.
Early on, Skirboll describes the prevalence of cocaine use in society. Baseball players used cocaine not just because they were rich, but because many other people also did and because they had a lot of down time during road trips. The drug was considered by many to be harmless and not addictive, which is incomprehensible to me after the many lessons of the evils of drugs that I went through in school. Skirboll also connects the rise of cocaine use to the larger history of baseball, in which drug use has been commonplace for decades as players took any substance provided to them by doctors and trainers so that they could stay on the field and reenergize themselves during long seasons. He describes the use of painkillers, amphetamines and other drugs by players dating back for decades.
Skirboll tells the story by focusing not just on the players, but also on the ordinary people involved in the saga. He begins with Kevin Koch, who worked as the Pittsburgh Pirate Parrot mascot for several years, fulfilling the dream of many people of becoming closer to their heroes. He goes on to tell the stories of others who became close to professional baseball players in a variety of ways, and how these men got into supplying the players with drugs. He points out that most were not doing it to get rich, as the players were notorious for being cheap, but for the prestige of being associated with the athletes.
Skirboll's book contains extensive research. Besides looking at the details that came out of the trials of the seven men prosecuted by the government, he interviewed many of the principal figures, including the men themselves, family members, law enforcement, lawyers and professional baseball insiders. The result is a thorough look at the proceedings that was very interesting to read.
The most disturbing aspect of the book was the clear parallels between this and the steroid scandal. In this case, exactly as would occur 15-20 years later, figures such as managers and front office personnel ignored the obvious signs until public pressure mounted to the point that they had to be dealt with. It seems that while the villains sometimes change, many things will stay the same.
For more of Mr. Vlach's reviews, check out his blog, The Luminous Reader.
This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.