Baseball has been played professionally in North America for well over a century. As is to be expected with such an extensive history, the sport has withstood numerous controversies and scandals through the various eras. Some have forever tarnished the legacies of some of the game’s greatest players, leading to lifetime bans and Hall of Fame snubs. Other scandals have rocked Major League Baseball to its core, threatening the league’s survival and challenging the fanbase to stick around.
Players like Pete Rose, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and Sammy Sosa turned in incredible Hall of Fame-worthy careers, only to have actions mostly done outside of the game derail their legacies. Other times, situations like the owners being caught colluding in the 1980s and the widespread steroid scandal dominated headlines and put the entire league under immense pressure. This article is going to cover some of the most significant controversies that affected both individuals and groups of players.
You may notice that many of the scandals listed in this article deal with gambling on baseball. While this is a cardinal sin for players and managers employed by the MLB, it’s perfectly acceptable for the rest of us! If you want to gamble like Pete Rose on baseball, you may be interested in our systems and strategy guides to handicapping the game. We’ll also point you in the right direction of the most legitimate gambling sites so that you don’t get caught up in any scams like the 1919 Chicago Black Sox.
The Chicago Black Sox
- Year(s): 1919
- Players or Team Involved/Impacted: Chicago White Sox; Arnold Gandil, Eddie Cicotte, Oscar Felsch, Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Charles Risberg, George Weaver, and Claude Williams
- Consequences: Permanent bans from Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame
Back in the early 1900s, professional baseball was a much different sport. This was way before the players’ union and free agency. In fact, the athletes had very few rights at all then. Due to the “reserve clause,” a player could either sign a contract with the team that owned their rights or they’d otherwise be prohibited from joining any other club. This lead to a vast majority of the talent being grossly underpaid, including the members of the Chicago White Sox.
The White Sox had won the World Series in 1917, but members of the squad had developed a contemptuous relationship with Charles Comiskey, the owner. His general demeanor and unwillingness to pay players what they felt they were worth caused a rift in the locker room and an opening for organized crime figures. Due to the restrictive employment rules in the sport as a whole, baseball players made ideal targets for bribes.
The White Sox were no different, which is why in 1919, eight members of their World Series squad gathered at a room in the Ansonia Hotel in New York and met with Arnold Rothstein’s crime syndicate about throwing the championship series for a little extra cash. Seven of the players agreed to the plan, although “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s involvement in the scheme is a point of much controversy. The heavily-favored White Sox went on to lose the best-of-nine series five games to three, but the whispers of a fixed contest began echoing through the gambling world as early as game one.
The rumors got louder and louder following the season, and eventually, a grand jury was tasked with getting to the bottom of the ordeal. During the investigation, Eddie Cicotte confessed to the scandal, leading to Comiskey suspending seven players despite being tied for first place with only three games left in the season. During the following offseason, the league’s owners hired a former federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, as the first Commissioner of Baseball. One of his first acts in the new role was to levy a lifetime ban on all eight players who met in the room that fateful night.
The most polarizing aspect of this controversy is “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s role. While he was in the room and has admitted to accepting $5,000, he later recanted his story and claimed he didn’t throw the games. His play would seem to back up this assertion, seeing as he had 12 hits, zero errors on thirty fielding opportunities, and a .375 batting average. Regardless of whether he cheated or not, it likely would not matter, as George Weaver received the same punishment despite declining the offer just for being in the room and not informing baseball officials.
Pete Rose Bets on Baseball
- Year(s): 1989
- Players or Team Involved/Impacted: Pete Rose
- Consequences: Lifetime banishment from the MLB and Hall of Fame
Pete Rose is without a doubt one of the greatest baseball players to ever step on the field. He spent the bulk of his career as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, including the famed Big Red Machine teams of the ‘70s who won back-to-back titles. To this day, he’s the all-time hits leader, notching 4,256 over his career and retiring with a .303 batting average. From 1984 through 1989, Rose also managed the team, acting as player-coach until 1986.
Three years after his retirement as a player and his fifth season as manager, accusations emerged claiming that Rose had been gambling on baseball in both roles. Not only were there concerns that he’d bet on the MLB, but it was also believed that he wagered on games in which he had participated. The Commissioner of Baseball at the time, Bart Giamatti, charged John M. Dowd with investigating the validity of the ordeal. Three months later, the Dowd Report was complete, and the investigation concluded that Rose had bet on at least 52 Reds games in 1987 while averaging a daily gambling expenditure of $10,000.
In response to the report, Giamatti placed Pete Rose on the “permanently ineligible” list. A few years later, in 1991, the Baseball Hall of Fame board members held a vote and decided that inclusions on that list would be barred from induction into the Hall as well. For years, the Reds legend publicly pled his innocence. However, in 2004, Rose finally admitted to betting on baseball in his autobiography “My Prison Without Bars.”
Despite betting on the game, the legendary Hit King insists that he never bet against his own club and always played to win. His results seem to back up this claim. With three World Series wins, the all-time record for hits, two Golden Gloves, and three batting titles, his career numbers are unmistakably Hall-of-Fame worthy. For years now, Rose and his supporters have vehemently argued for reinstatement from the league and ultimately the Hall of Fame. He has been unsuccessful in his efforts thus far.
Yankees Wife Swap
- Year(s): 1973
- Players or Team Involved/Impacted: Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson
- Consequences: None, besides a possible Matt Damon and Ben Affleck movie
This scandal wasn’t so much a black eye for baseball as it was a socially odd occurrence. In 1973, Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson were both pitchers playing for the New York Yankees. A year prior, Peterson was invited to a barbecue at the home of Maury Allen, a local sports writer. Fritz then got permission to bring along his teammate and his wife as well.
After the BBQ, the two pitchers and their wives decided to continue the evening. It was determined that they’d extend the evening at a local diner. That’s when Peterson suggested that they should drive to the Fort Lee Diner with each other’s wives. Everyone agreed, and the new mixes worked well for everyone. The two couples continued to exchange spouses for more and more events until they both realized they wanted the other’s partner.
The two Yankees players agreed to make a trade. Rather than cause too much disruption, the two men would be the ones who changed location, switching wives, homes, and even children. Shortly after the execution of the arrangement, Peterson asked Maury Allen to write about the affair, before eventually going public to tell the story themselves in individual press conferences.
The swap was met with significant shock and outrage initially, though it soon died down. While Fritz Peterson and Susan Kekich were soon married (and remain together to this day) and had four of their own children along the way, Mike and Marilyn actually broke up before the public announcement. Since 2011, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have reportedly been trying to get a movie made about the tale.
While Peterson is thrilled by the idea, Kekich has blocked efforts thus far, feeling humiliated and panicked by the notion. After agreeing to switch lives, the two teammates, once roommates on the road, both have very different feelings about this scandal and haven’t spoken in over a decade. It remains one of the most unusual stories in Major League Baseball lore to this day.
The Pittsburgh Drug Trials and Greenies
- Year(s): 1985
- Players or Team Involved/Impacted: Pittsburgh Pirates; Dale Berra, Lee Lacy, Lee Mazzilli, John Milner, Dave Parker, Rod Scurry, Willie Aikens, Vida Blue, Enos Cabell, Keith Hernandez, Jeffrey Leonard, Tim Raines, and Lonnie Smith
- Consequences: Some suspensions, community service, Hall of Fame snubs
In the ‘80s, Major League Baseball was going through a crisis that other leagues were experiencing as well. A large number of their athletes were experimenting with cocaine and getting hooked. The coke epidemic came to a head in Pittsburgh, leading to a trial that would include dozens of players, the mascot, a photographer, and a drug-dealing caterer.
This was well before the steroid era that would rock the sport in the 2000s. In the ‘80s, players were using cocaine and amphetamines both recreationally and during games both to stay alert and energized and as a result of addiction. A grand jury was eventually convened, and the players were offered immunity in exchange for testimonies, to which they agreed.
It was found that cocaine dealers were frequenting the Pirates’ clubhouse, and players were using the drug during actual contests. Kevin Koch, the team’s mascot, was also identified as someone partaking in the drug use, as well as introducing players to local dealers. Keith Hernandez testified that 40% of Major League Baseball was on cocaine, a number which he later admitted may have been inflated.
John Milner’s interviews shined a light on the use of amphetamines, called “greenies” throughout the league. The ex-Pirate told how Willie Mays and Willie Stargell gave him the drug and how it was rampantly used as a method of staying engaged and alert during the lengthy regular season. He also confessed to buying coke during the game in the bathroom stalls, while Tim Raines admitted to using during the game.
Following the trial, seven players who were found to have used the drug over a prolonged period as well as helped others to obtain them were suspended for an entire season (Joaquín Andújar, Dale Berra, Enos Cabell, Keith Hernandez, Jeffrey Leonard, Dave Parker, and Lonnie Smith). Four more received sixty-game suspensions as punishment (Al Holland, Lee Lacy, Lary Sorensen, and Claudell Washington). Another ten athletes were not suspended but agreed to be randomly drug tested for the rest of their careers (Dusty Baker, Vida Blue, Gary Matthews, Dickie Noles, Tim Raines, Manny Sarmiento, Daryl Sconiers, Rod Scurry, Derrel Thomas, and Alan Wiggins).
George Steinbrenner vs. Dave Winfield
- Year(s): 1980 – 1990
- Players or Team Involved/Impacted: New York Yankees; George Steinbrenner; Dave Winfield
- Consequences: A two-year suspension for Steinbrenner
In 1980, George Steinbrenner – the owner of the New York Yankees – made Dave Winfield the highest-paid player in baseball. Somehow Steinbrenner thought he was giving the Hall of Fame right fielder $16 million over ten years, but he offered a $23 million contract, which was signed, instead. This planted the seeds for a tumultuous relationship that would rage on for the next decade.
If he was going to be paying such a massive contract, the Yankees’ owner wanted superior performances in return. For the majority of his deal, Winfield was the best player in pinstripes. However, after some less-than-stellar post-season efforts, Steinbrenner gave his right-fielder the nickname “Mr. May.” It was a play off of Reggie Jackson’s “Mr. October” moniker, given to Jackson for his clutch play when it mattered. George was essentially accusing Winfield of playing well during the regular season, only to fade when the stakes were highest.
The relationship between the owner and player continued to deteriorate. Steinbrenner would vocalize his frustrations with the player in the media and even went so far as to spread lies and leak derogatory stories. Furthermore, the Yankee owner would interfere with the manager’s game plan, forcing them to move Winfield down in the lineup or occasionally bench him.
In 1990, Dave Winfield’s contract became a thorn in Steinbrenner’s side once again. This time, Winfield sued the franchise for breach of contract after the Yankees failed to donate $300,000 to his charitable foundation, per their agreed deal. In return, the infuriated owner hired a professional gambler with alleged mafia connections named Howie Spira to help him retaliate. Spira was paid $40,000 to dig up any embarrassing dirt or scandal he could find on his player.
The attempt to spy on and humiliate Winfield was discovered by the league, leading Commissioner Fay Vincent to punish George Steinbrenner. Vincent initially sought a two-year suspension, allowing George to remain the owner but barring him from day-to-day operations or involvement with the team. Steinbrenner requested the punishment be called an “agreement” instead, which was granted in exchange for the agreement being permanent. The Yankees owner would eventually be reinstated in 1993, though he took a considerable step back in his role, opting to be less involved in daily operations and players.
Sammy Sosa’s Corked Bat
- Year(s): 2003
- Players or Team Involved/Impacted: Sammy Sosa
- Consequences: Ejection from the game and an 8-game suspension. Significant damage to his legacy, as well
A corked bat is a baseball bat with a cork, or other light substance, at its core. The thick end of the bat is drilled out, hollowing an area roughly six inches deep at about a ½-inch in diameter. The hole is then filled with cork or rubber, and then glued and patched shut. This provides a significantly lighter bat that allows for a faster swing.
The problem with corked bats is that what you gain in bat speed, you lose in density. This makes the tools much more susceptible to shattering upon impact with the ball. That’s precisely what happened in 2003 when Sammy Sosa made contact with a pitch, which destroyed his bat. It was immediately discovered that the instrument had been tampered with and corked. The umpire then subsequently ejected Sosa from the contest.
The Cubs slugger pled his innocence, claiming that he only had the corked club for batting practice and had mistakenly used it during a game. Despite his excuse, Sammy was suspended for the next eight games. While it’s ultimately not a huge scandal, the corked bat saga was a huge news story in its day, especially following Sosa and Mark McGwire’s home run race from a few years prior.
While he has the career statistics, Sammy Sosa still hasn’t been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The corking incident certainly does not help his reputation or perceived integrity, but it’s his association with the steroid era that is the dominant factor in keeping him out.
Sosa was allegedly on a list of players who failed a drug test in 2003, which became public before he was asked to testify before Congress in 2005. The Cubs great has always retained his innocence, though the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning. The Hall of Fame voters do not seem convinced, and the slugger has consistently fallen short on votes.
MLB Ownership Collusion in the 1980s
- Year(s): 1985 – 1989
- Players or Team Involved/Impacted: Major League Baseball; Major League Baseball Players Association
- Consequences: $280 million and the 1994 Strike
For much of Major League Baseball history, the athletes had very little control over their destiny with regards to their contracts and for which team they played. In 1968, the first collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners was finalized. Owners included language in the deal about collusion, fearing that players would band together and demand higher pay.
Following a labor dispute in 1976, free agency was adopted by Major League Baseball. Now, players would have the option to choose their own team between contracts, forcing franchises to outbid each other for the top talent. This competitive marketplace would lead to salaries rising across the board. Suddenly, the collusion language in the CBA no longer applied to the athletes; instead, it was the owners that would need to be regulated.
In 1984, the MLB got a new commissioner named Peter Ueberroth. Working to protect profits across the league, Ueberroth united the owners, imploring them to treat the clubs more like businesses than a competition, valuing money over success. He wanted to bring salaries down throughout the league, but to do this, the teams would have to stop bidding against each other for players during free agency.
With the commissioner leading the charge, the MLB ownership set the framework for their conspiracy. They determined that position players would only be offered three-year contracts, while pitchers would never see more than two years. Furthermore, unless a team was willingly letting a member of their roster go, other clubs wouldn’t try to sign them. Roster movement almost ceased entirely, with only four players switching organizations in both the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons.
The Players Union suspected collusion and filed two grievances. In both cases, the arbitrators ruled on behalf of labor, fining the ownership groups $10.5 million and $38 million respectively. With each subsequent violation resulting in exponentially more substantial fines, the owners changed their strategy. Instead of halting the free agent market, the owners created a knowledge bank in which they’d share who they were negotiating with and what they were offering with the intention of avoiding significant overpays.
A third collusion grievance was filed in as many years. Once again, the owners were found to be in the wrong during arbitration. The third punishment would be a $64.5-million fine. Finally, in 1990, the two sides negotiated a single settlement for all three grievances together. The athletes were awarded $280 million, distributed throughout the league as the players saw fit.
The Cardinals Hack the Houston Astros
- Year(s): 2013 – 2016
- Players or Team Involved/Impacted: St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros
- Consequences: 2 highest draft picks in 2017 and $2 million
Over the course of sixteen months between 2015 and 2017, the St. Louis Cardinals’ scouting director committed corporate espionage on the Houston Astros. This was the first of such an infraction, with one team hacking into another’s database to steal information. As such, league officials struggled to determine a punishment for the offenders.
Before accepting the General Manager role with Houston, Jeff Luhnow worked in St. Louis’ front office. So did Sig Mejdal, the Astros’ Director of Decision Sciences. Chris Correa, the Cardinals’ scouting director, was able to obtain the former employee’s account passwords from their time in St. Louis and use them to access Houston Astros databases and email accounts illegally.
The FBI opened an investigation in 2015 after Houston discovered the wayward IP address accessing their sensitive information. Correa was reading emails regarding amateur players, obtaining proprietary information that the analytics department was researching, and stealing the Astros’ scouting reports and lists of preferred players to target. The Cardinals’ director was found to have spied on Houston’s databases on at least 48 occasions over a two-and-a-half-year period of time.
Corporate espionage charges were eventually filed against Chris Correa after it was determined that he acted alone, without the knowledge of his own franchise. Due to the systematic nature of his hacking, Correa was sentenced to 46 months in prison. The MLB punished the Cardinals by forcing them to hand over their two highest draft picks in 2017, and $2 million. Because St. Louis had already used their top pick to sign a qualifying free agent, Houston was given the 56th and 75th selections in the draft, in the second and third round, respectively.
The Steroid Era
- Year(s): Assumed from the late ‘80s – approximately 2010
- Players or Team Involved/Impacted: Many players throughout Major League Baseball
- Consequences: Congressional hearings, numerous suspensions, blacklistings from the Hall of Fame
Nobody knows precisely when anabolic steroids first came into use as a performance-enhancing drug for major leaguers. It’s widely expected to have begun sometime in the late 1980s and continued for decades. While the steroid era is considered to have ended sometime in the late 2000s or early 2010s, there are still some athletes that use PEDs. The difference now is that the league tests for them, and the punishment for violations is significant.
Steroids were banned by Major League Baseball in 1991, but it wasn’t until 2003 that they actually began testing players for them. Once they started, the league was far behind the PED manufacturers, and players were still commonly able to use anabolic agents without testing positive. Several high-profile scandals eventually shed some light on what had been taking place throughout the league. With that information in hand, critics and fans have been able to look back over the years and deduce which players were taking drugs with reasonable accuracy.
Even players that were never officially caught have been punished by the Hall of Fame voters in the post-steroid-era world. Superstar players like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire have all failed to receive the votes necessary for induction, despite having Hall of Fame careers on paper. The steroid era marks a time period of enormous and powerful athletes, where players would routinely have career resurgences in their late 30s and early 40s, while offenses exploded for more home runs than ever before.
The Home Run Race
Anabolic steroids were already rampant by 1998, but that’s the year it became extremely apparent to the public that the game had entered a new era. Major League Baseball had never entirely recovered their viewership numbers from before the 1994 work stoppage and was desperate for a storyline to bring them back in. Luckily for them, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa would soon face off in their legendary home run race and become the biggest story in sports.
For the second consecutive year, the league had two realistic candidates to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, which sat unbeaten at 61 for 37 years. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the MLB, thirteen other athletes hit forty dingers or more, an unprecedented amount of long-balls. Eventually, it became apparent that both Sosa and McGwire would inevitably beat 61 homers, and the focal point shifted to who would get there first.
McGwire would ultimately win the race, smashing his 61st and 62nd in the same game, against Sosa’s Chicago Cubs, no less. By the end of the regular season, Mark McGwire recorded 70 homers, while Sammy Sosa finished with 66 of his own. That year, a reporter spotted a supplement in the Cardinal slugger’s locker and inquired as to what it was. Mark explained that it was androstenedione, an over-the-counter supplement at the time, which is a steroid precursor, a turning point in the public’s awakening to the use of PEDs.
The Mitchell Report
In the years following the home run race, Roger Maris’ record was toppled six different times, including Barry Bonds’ insane 73 homers in 2001. The steroid subject continued gaining traction and finally became undeniable in 2005. That was the year Jose Canseco released his tell-all book “Juiced,” and Congressional hearings were held to clear up the issue, though the players were mostly evasive if not outright lying (Rafael Palmeiro claimed never to have used PEDs before subsequently testing positive the very next season).
In 2007, the Mitchell Report blew the lid off the steroid scandal. Senator George Mitchell conducted a twenty-month investigation into the abuse of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone in Major League Baseball. He found widespread usage of the drugs throughout the league, reporting that in 2003, five to seven percent of all players tested were using PEDs.
Included in the Mitchell report was a list of 89 names of former and current players who had tested positive at one time or another. The lineup was a who’s who of the best players in baseball during their era, with athletes like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Éric Gagné, and Gary Sheffield all implicated. Nobody included in the report has gone on to Hall of Fame induction.
Following the embarrassment of the Mitchell Report, Major League Baseball began taking drug testing much more seriously. They introduced more advanced testing methods as well as significantly heavier punishments for violators. Nevertheless, by 2013, there was another PED scandal unfolding in the league.
This time, it involved a Florida-based anti-aging clinic called Biogenesis of America. An employee of the operation, disgruntled over missing back pay, leaked documents to the Miami New Times, which put Biogenesis in the crosshairs of both the government and the league. Following multiple lawsuits filed by the MLB offices, Anthony Bosch, the clinic’s owner, made a deal and agreed to cooperate with baseball officials. After an investigation, it was found that the business was selling performance-enhancing drugs, namely human growth hormone, to several star players throughout the MLB, including Alex Rodriguez.
The league began systematically conducting interviews with athletes believed to have been involved with Biogenesis. The first player to receive a punishment based on those inquiries was Ryan Braun, who was banned for 65 games, the remainder of the 2016 season. Alex Rodriguez was next and was suspended for the entire 2014 campaign.
Eventually, twelve more players were given 50-game suspensions, with none appealing their punishment. Those players were César Puello, Fernando Martínez, Nelson Cruz, Antonio Bastardo, Francisco Cervelli, Fautino de los Santos, Sergio Escalona, Jesús Montero, Jordan Norberto, Jhonny Peralta, Jordany Valdespin, and Everth Cabrera.
The sport of baseball has experienced all kinds of trials and tribulations during their rich history. They’ve experienced the pains of a growing league, with owners unfairly wielding power over player movement and pay, leading to scandals like the Chicago Black Sox and the ownership collusion grievances. Major League Baseball also experienced a resurgence in the ‘90s, following an unpleasant work stoppage, only to find the entire thing was fueled by steroids and human growth hormone.
Individual players have also been caught up in controversies that tarnish the legacy of the game. Due to gambling on baseball, both “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Pete Rose have been barred from Hall of Fame induction, despite being instrumental members of their respective teams and amassing enshrinement-worthy stats during their playing careers. Because of the many intersecting scandals, the Baseball Hall of Fame tells an incomplete story of the game’s history, with numerous influential athletes banned for life.
When a sport exists for centuries the way baseball has, there are bound to be plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. Despite the various happenings that threatened to undermine the integrity of the game, Major League Baseball has endured. As we move into baseball’s future, there will be new scandals on the horizon, possibly dealing with things like gene-doping and new, improved, performance-enhancing technologies. The MLB will just have to put out those fires as they come like they always have.