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March 22, 2005

2005--Setting the Stage

The Secret History of Baseball

by Steven Goldman

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The conspiracy, the grand fraud of it all, has finally begun to unravel. As the investigations proceed, court cases ripen and hearings widen, count on hearing all of these things, as the secret history of baseball, of America, of the decline and decay of everything sacred, is dragged squinting and mewling into the light.

Steroids aren't new; indeed, they are a very old science, older than alchemy. Cartoonist Elzie Segar knew the truth as early as 1928. Damon Runyon had sent it to him, coded into one of his lyric game stories for the evening edition of the New York American on September 29, 1928. The Yankees had just lost to the Tigers 19-10 and Runyan had become concerned with the power surge that had continued unabated since 1920. Even shortstops were good for over 100 RBIs a year now. Even little Glenn Wright had done it three times.

Segar let the secret out, going nationwide in his syndicated "Thimble Theatre" strip of January 17. Popeye the Sailor was a metaphor, spinach the clue, for no real vegetable can make the biceps swell with the power of battleships in mere seconds. Man-made, chemical spinach is another matter entirely. Babe Ruth didn't have the spinach, but Lou Gehrig did. The "luckiest man on the face of the earth" was devoured from within by a bad batch of 1932-style THG. The title of the movie "Pride of the Yankees," did not refer to Gary Cooper's character but to an unknown chemist in a stained lab coat.

Stumping for Franklin Roosevelt in Cleveland in July, 1932, Segar met two young men--boys, really--who aspired to his profession. Their names were Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. He told them that "S" was the sigil: Segar. Sailor. Spinach. Siegel. Shuster. Secret. Steroids. Galvanized, the two, who to that moment had been dedicated fans of Earl Averill, wanted to reveal the game's corruption to the world. The old cartoonist cautioned them that to do so could mean sudden death at the hands of Judge Landis' infamous Purgatorial Death Squad, the murderous legion of condemned souls--Chase; Zimmerman; the leering killer, Felsch; Kauff, with his auto mechanic's wrench; the pickled ex-pitcher Douglas and his meaty hands. They had already gotten to Runyon, but Gandil had botched the job, setting the poison to release too slowly. It would take years for him to die.

Instead, the two Jewish youths pursued Segar's path and created a character whose motif of sudden, unearned strength would be a signal to those who understood, the symbol on his chest a flagrant warning of what was happening to the game. It took them five years to get their creation published. Segar took ill the day the first magazine hit the streets and died shortly thereafter.

Just over a year later, Joe Simon, another of Segar's disciples, and his partner, Jack Kirby, created their own variation of the spinach myth, the story of a feeble young draftee who took a "super-soldier serum" and was transformed into a muscle-bound hero. With the S sigil that marked this secret society of informed baseball fans already taken up by Siegel and Schuster, Simon and Kirby signified their allegiance with a star.

By then, "the green," as the spinach became known, wasn't the only problem. Analyzing statistical data, M.I.T. scientist Norbert Weiner inferred from statistical data that Ty Cobb had actually been a rogue robot who murdered his creator--his father, and framed the crime on his mother. This is the earliest known example of the stats vs. scouting debate that roils the game today.

Weiner's frequent correspondent, Isaac Asimov, terrified by the truth of the Cobbdroid, wrote a cycle of fantasies about humane robots who notably showed no interest in sports. The book appeared in 1950, just before it became apparent to those in the know that young Mickey Mantle's knees were actually a poorly designed amalgam of war--surplus copper and marsupial biological material harvested from a covert government thylacine farm. The planned movie version was suppressed by a Hollywood/Baseball conspiracy after Harlan Ellison's screenplay was said to reveal that shortstop Lou Boudreau was actually V'gielitz Lurumm, a refugee from the Sirius system.

The hits kept coming. Snuffy Stirnweiss was about to tell the press that he had escaped from Area 51 when he was taken out in a suspicious train accident. To this day no one has explained what the Superchief was doing at the intersection of 49th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. Spec Shea, Socks Seibold and Steve Swetonic were sons of an underground society of mole-people. Richard Nixon's brain was transplanted into Joe DiMaggio's body in 1949. Vern Stephens was made of electrified cheese. Nellie Fox was powered by batteries. George Case was goosed around the bases by zero-point energy. Ted Williams was actually the Norse god Thor.

It was soon understood by those following the game closely that everyone playing the game was powered by some kind of juice. Some toyed with calling the first half of the 20th Century the "Spinach Era," the "'S' is for Everything Era," even the "Steroid Era." But they soon realized that if everyone was cheating than no one really benefited, and the matter quietly vanished in a cloud of disinterest.

Over the years, from the pre-spinach Federal League incursion onward, the government was asked to regulate baseball. It always declined because the public could never handle the truth. Ironic then, that in 2004 12 players tested positive for various kinds of steroids and Congress was roused to action. The game hadn't required federal intervention through gambling scandals, monopolistic practices, feudal labor relations, institutional racism, collusion, alien invasion, communist subversion and a thousand other threats to its integrity, not to mention pioneering whistle-blowers like Segar, Siegel, Schuster and Simon tapping into a certain energy in the air and saying, "Here it is, America! Your game is befouled!" Nothing moved them.

Twelve men, though---12 men with syringes: these, finally, were a threat.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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