Baseball has seen its share of scandals in its long history as America’s national pastime, from gambling to performance-enhancing drugs to cheating. Often these scandals have reflected what was happening in American society at the time, and critics have faulted baseball players for failing to be role models—especially to children. For example, during baseball’s steroid era, from roughly the late 1980s to late 2000s, players were called out for setting a bad example to impressionable young athletes looking to get an edge.
Decades earlier, according to a newspaper account, a small boy pleaded with Chicago White Sox star Joe Jackson, accused of throwing the 1919 World Series in what became known as the Black Sox scandal, “It ain’t true, is it?” The story, which might be apocryphal, has been famously shorthanded to “Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.” Although Jackson denied this happened, this and other scandals have clung to America’s collective memory.
1. Chicago Black Sox
Eight Chicago White Sox players, including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, were accused of conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series, which the Cincinnati Reds won five games to three. The following September, the players were indicted for conspiracy to defraud the public, and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey suspended the seven players who were still on the team.
Pitcher Eddie Cicotte, who admitted accepting a $10,000 bribe before losing Game 1 of the World Series, famously said, “I did it for the wife and kiddies.” In August 1921, a jury acquitted the men, but baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, hired to clean up the sport, suspended them for life anyway, declaring:
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.”
The Black Sox scandal was immortalized in the 1988 movie Eight Men Out.
2. Baseball Suspends Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher
On the eve of the historic 1947 baseball season, in which Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Commissioner Albert B. “Happy” Chandler suspended the team’s manager, Leo Durocher, for a year for “the accumulation of unpleasant incidents” that were “detrimental to baseball.”
Chandler, who had succeeded Landis as commissioner just two years earlier, had warned the colorful Durocher about associating with gambling figures. Among Durocher’s friends was mobster Bugsy Siegel.
“Durocher has not measured up to the standards expected or required of managers of our baseball teams,” Chandler said in announcing the suspension.
3. George Steinbrenner Seeks Dirt on Own Player
George Steinbrenner, the larger-than-life New York Yankees owner, had the distinction of earning timeouts from two different commissioners. In 1974, the year after he purchased the team, he pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign and for pressuring employees of his shipbuilding company to lie about “bonuses” that they turned into contributions to Nixon. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner for two years, but it was later reduced to 15 months.
Then in 1990, Commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner from operating the Yankees after the owner paid a confessed gambler, Howard Spira, to seek dirt on Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom the owner had been feuding. Steinbrenner regained control of the team in 1993.
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4. Pete Rose Banned for Life After Betting on Baseball
Following a lengthy investigation into his gambling on baseball games, Major League Baseball reached an agreement in 1989 with Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hit leader, that banned him permanently from the sport. Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti announced, “I have concluded that he bet on baseball,” including on Reds games. Rose denied betting on baseball at the time, but in his 2004 book, My Prison Without Bars, he admitted to gambling on the Reds—always to win.
The ban means Rose is ineligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball has turned away several bids for reinstatement by Rose.
In 1993, baseball’s executive council suspended Reds owner Marge Schott for a one year, and fined her $25,000, for bringing “disrepute and embarrassment” to baseball for a series of offensive and racist comments. In a deposition for a lawsuit filed against her by a former employee, Schott didn’t deny that she occasionally used a racist term and acknowledged that she had a swastika armband in her house (a gift, she said, from a World War II veteran). She also made derisive comments about Japanese and Jewish people. A 1992 New York Times story quoted her as saying, “Hitler was good in the beginning, but he went too far.”
Baseball eventually shortened the suspension to eight months for good behavior.
6. Steroids Era
In 2007, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell issued a damning 400-page report on a homer-happy period of baseball he called “baseball’s steroid era,” naming roughly 90 current players as users of performance-enhancing drugs, including steroids. Some of the more famous players on the list were pitcher Roger Clemens and slugger Barry Bonds.
In its conclusion, the report said everyone shared the blame:
“Everyone involved in baseball over the past two decades—Commissioners, club officials, the Players Association, and players—shares to some extent in the responsibility for the steroids era. There was a collective failure to recognize the problem as it emerged and to deal with it early on. As a result, an environment developed in which illegal use became widespread.”
7. Houston Astros Sign-Stealing
In 2019, The Athletic published an investigation that found that the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros had used a camera to illegally steal signs from opponents at home games. A center field camera would send a feed of the opposing catcher’s sign to a TV monitor in the tunnel between the Astros dugout and clubhouse. Players and employers would watch the feed, and once they decoded the signs, they’d make a loud noise to communicate what pitch was coming by banging on a trash can in the tunnel. An MLB report found that coaches and players also used other communication techniques, such as text messages sent to smartphones or smartwatches in the dugout.
In January 2020, Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended the team’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and their manager A.J. Hinch, for one year, and also forced the team to forfeit several draft picks. That same day, the Astros fired both men.
But Manfred decided not to strip the Astros of their 2017 title, and was criticized by players for referring to the Commissioner’s Trophy given to the World Series winner as a “piece of metal” in a 2020 interview with ESPN. He later apologized.