Baseball's Greatest Scandals, #4: The Pittsburgh Drug Trials

"...and this is your brain on drugs." The Pittsburgh Parrot in (hopefully) less cocaine-fueled days.

In May 1985, Curtis Strong was charged with distributing (and possessing with intent to distribute) cocaine. Although Strong was charged with multiple counts of distributing cocaine during a period of four years, he was not a major drug dealer. Through catering work that he had performed for the Philadelphia Phillies, Strong had become acquainted with a number of major league baseball players. They gave him access to locker rooms used by major league baseball teams, thereby enabling him to sell cocaine to several players. His trial became the most publicized trial in the history of the Western District of Pennsylvania.
-- USCourts.gov description

Probably the clearest evidence that the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball did not start in the mid-90's with steroids, comes in the form of the Pittsburgh drug trials, a scandal which rocked MLB a decade earlier. But there are some interesting parallels between the two situations. Both had a sharp, if temporary, impact on the nation's love of the game, pulling the curtain back on the seedier side of clubhouse life. In both cases, the player's union acted as enablers, opposing action against those involved. And in both, the commissioner made a great deal of noise, but proved largely ineffectual, and the majority of those involved received no real sanction.

Admittedly, this one also involves a mascot...

"It was so prevalent out in society, that we had to be doing it too."
-- Dave Parker

Difficult though it may be to believe, there was a time when the Pittsburgh Pirates didn't suck. In 1979, they won the World Series, with a team that included All-Star starter in RF Parker, as well as Willie Stargell, co-winner of the National League MVP. But by the middle of the eighties, that seemed like a distant memory. The 1985 Pirates won just 57 games, in front of an average crowd at Three Rivers Stadium of 9,199.

This wasn't the first scandal involving cocaine use by major-league players. A couple of years previously, Kansas City had been the focus of an investigation, which resulted in the conviction of four players, including pitcher Vida Blue, who started the All-Star Game with both leagues, for attempting to buy cocaine. They spent three months in prison, causing reliever Dan Quisenberry to quip, "I'm surprised we didn't make more trades with the Yankees. Half our players are already in stripes." Their dealer, Mark Liebl, later stated he had used the drug with members of the Red Sox, White Sox, Athletics and Twins, including Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who denied the claim.

On the morning of May 31st, 1985, freelance photographer Dale Shiffman received an unexpected visit from the Feds. This was the result of indictments handed down by a grand jury the night before, naming seven men in connection with a drug ring operating in and around the city. He had been handed to the authorities on a platter by his friend. Kevin Koch, who had been the man inside the Pittsburgh mascot, the Pirates Parrot, since that World Series victory. The two had been particularly close to players Dale Berra, son of Yogi, and Rod Scurry, and helped procure the drug of choice for them and their team-mates. Schiffman got the coke, Koch delivered it.

The scope and volume of use can hardly be exaggerated. Shiffman estimated in an interview with HBO, that two-thirds of the 25-man roster were using cocaine, and given the team's high public profile, it's no surprise that word eventually leaked out to the authorities. In 1984, the FBI came calling on the team, interviewing Scurry.He had been shipped of to rehab by the Pirates after a game where he walked two batters on eight pitches, and that night, would "go on to tear apart his hotel room, in a fit of paranoid hallucinations." [Scurry would die at the age of 36, in circumstances suggesting drug use may well have been involved]

"At the conclusion of that interview, we had a list of drug dealers, and a list of the professional baseball players to whom they were selling cocaine," said investigator Wells Morrison. "Every ball player that we spoke with identified additional ball players who were also using cocaine." The law-enforcement policy then, was to go after dealers rather than users, and the FBI offered players immunity from prosecution, if they agreed to testify against those who had provided the drug. They also offered a deal to the mascot, who agreed to roll over, I guess becoming a Stool Parrot.

The resulting trial, needless to say, became a national media sensation, with half the courtroom given over to the ninety members of the press who were covering the juicy details. For the players who were called to court provided a wealth of juicy details, implicating a raft of famous names. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Tim Raines of the Montreal Expos testified that he kept cocaine in the back pocket of his uniform pants during games. Raines testified that he always slid headfirst when stealing bases, simply to ensure that the glass vial would be safe. .
  • Keith Hernandez, the 1979 NL Most Valuable Player, described "waking up one morning with a bloody nose, the shakes, and his weight down ten pounds." He estimated that approximately 40% of players in the big leagues were using cocaine, though subsequently tried to backtrack on this figure.
  • John Milner told the court he once bought two grams of coke from one defendants in a bathroom stall at Three Rivers Stadium in 1980. He also testified that, when with the Mets, he took a liquid amphetamine from Willie Mays' locker, which was next to his.
  • Berra claimed that Stargell and Bill Madlock also supplied their team-mates with amphetamines around the start of the decade.

The end results were the convictions of Curtis Strong and Schiffman, and both men received sentences of 12 years, but served only a fraction of that. Schiffman was out of jail after just two years. As for the players, they got off almost scot-free, despite their admissions of rampant illegal use. While Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended seven players for a full season, and four more for 60 days, all the sentences were commuted, if the players agreed to donate a small percentage - 10% of less - of their salaries to drug-related causes and perform community service. Ueberroth's plan to test the urine of those involved was thwarted entirely by the player's union,

Cocaine use remains perhaps the unspoken secret of baseball, and there's little doubt it still goes on. The most recent time of note it broke the surface was the admission of cocaine use by Rangers' manager, Ron Washington. But it was also one of the drugs used by #1 draft pick Josh Hamilton, on his circuitous journey to MVP honors, and earlier this year, the Dodgers' Ronald Belisario admitted to using coke in the off-season, but said "It was a one-time thing," just like Washington. If you believe that, or think those are the only people active in the game who have used it, even with the more stringent testing now in place, you're a more credulous fan than I.

"Someone has to say, "enough is enough" against drugs. Baseball's going to accomplish this. We're going to remove drugs and be an example."
-- MLB Commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, 1985.

How did that work out, Pete?

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