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Caught Looking examines articles from the academic literature relevant to baseball and statistical analysis. This review examines an article that was recognized in 2015 as the best article in the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

Over the last 50 years or so, baseball has gone through a remarkable transformation both economically and medically. Nine-figure player contracts today are now as common as six-figure contracts were in the 1960s, new surgical techniques prolong careers beyond what was previously possible, and increased emphasis on nutrition and fitness led to radical innovations, both legal and otherwise, in training methods.

Sarah Rose and Josh Salzmann weave together the medical and economic evolution of this period in their article, Bionic Ballplayers: Risk, Profit and the Body as Commodity, 1964-2007. They document the rise of the player’s union, long-term contracts, and player salaries alongside things like Tommy John surgery, the increasing importance of team physicians and medical staffs, and the steroid crisis. At its core, the increasing labor market value of physical performance has corresponded with increasing investments in the human capital contained in the body by both the teams and the players.

There can be a fine line between normative and positive analysis, and the subject matter in this article is planted squarely on that line. It is difficult to cover the steroid era without passing some moral judgment, but Rose and Salzmann are careful to focus on how changing incentives led to changing behaviors. The steroid crisis is simply part of a larger picture, where increasing economic returns to performance lead to increasing incentives to use science and medicine to modify the body, sometimes at great cost.

The first step in this evolution comes in 1964, when Sandy Koufax began to suffer the pain in his elbow that would ultimately end his career just two seasons later. Koufax tossed 300 successful innings in 1965 with severe pain, bringing us to step two in their story. Following the season, Koufax and teammate Don Drysdale refused to sign their contracts for 1966, threatening to hold out for three-year deals before eventually signing one-year deals that were among the most lucrative in baseball.

Koufax, like nearly everyone else in baseball, was on a one-year contract with no guarantee of renewal, and he, like his peers, generally chose to play through pain and injury rather than spend time in recovery. With one-year contracts, there was only a limited incentive to protect your investment, and with the reserve clause, there was limited opportunity for players to sit out with injuries and seek better treatment elsewhere.

It’s not entirely clear to me why, prior to 1964 with the minor leagues in existence and the reserve clause in place, teams didn’t take better care of their players. Teams could have used the farm system to rehabilitate injured players at relatively low cost, all while maintaining the rights to the player into the future. Owners were in a position to extract nearly all the economic value from players under the old regime, so maximizing lifetime value seems like it should have been their goal all along. Rose and Salzmann don’t consider this, but they do show evidence that team management practices at the time seemed to prefer squeezing every last ounce of effort out of a player under contract and simply not resigning them when the player eventually broke down.

The rise of the player’s union and the breakdown of the reserve clause in the early 1970s led to both increasing salaries and increasing contract lengths. At the same time, improving surgical techniques such as Tommy John surgery were allowing players to return from injuries that previously would have ended their careers. This led to increased activism toward injury management by teams. Rather than abuse and discard, teams with players on large, long-term contracts turned to more careful risk management. As Rose and Salzmann indicate, in 1968, just five teams had orthopedic surgeons as team physicians, while some had psychiatrists and dermatologists instead. This reflected in part the nascent state of sports medicine, but also the prevailing approach to the treatment of injury. Short-term pain management trumped long-term investment.

In addition, rising salaries led players to take better care of their bodies throughout the year. Rather than work at another job in the offseason, winters were dedicated to preparing for the next. Fitness and conditioning became part of the organizational infrastructure, rather than simply the responsibility of players fighting for their next contract. This led to a more cooperative and collaborative approach toward managing player health, but it also may have laid the foundation for the kind of culture that made baseball’s steroid crisis possible. By the 1990s, fitness trainers, sometimes provided by the club and sometimes hired by ballplayers, were ubiquitous in club locker rooms, and often served as the conduit that brought performance-enhancing drugs into players’ workout routines and into their bodies.

After the 1994-1995 strike, baseball was lagging in popularity until the great Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998 breathed new energy into the game. Baseballs were booming by the turn of the millennium, and so, thanks to some chemical engineering, were biceps. It’s not clear who knew what and when, and the authors don’t stretch too far toward answering that question, but they also note that the incentives were ripe for players to turn to PED’s and for the owners to tolerate it. Rising salaries made it worthwhile for some players to trade long-term health for substantial fortune.

Rose and Salzmann present quite a bit of evidence on how the culture of drug use was perpetuated by owners. Some of their evidence is fairly direct, such as team employees acting as drug dealers and instances of direct evidence being ignored by management. Other evidence is more circumstantial, such as the correlation between foreign born PED suspension rates and Dominican baseball academies. All of it, though, supports the authors’ primary claim that medical alteration of the human body has, in the face of changing economic incentives, come to be viewed as accepted and perhaps even expected.

Sometimes, though, the paper seemed to imply that the steroid era came about as a sort of grand devil’s bargain between players and owners, but it seems to me that the peculiar incentives led to the crisis bubbling up from below. It is difficult to partition responsibility between players and owners for the steroid era, but the paper emphasizes the role of the owners in creating the culture necessary for such a thing to emerge.

I find the players’ side to be equally interesting, but Rose and Salzmann spend a less time on it. Baseball is a closed system, where every game has exactly one winner and one loser, and eradicating steroids from the game would in this sense be a zero sum game. As long as steroid use remained in the dark, the costs were borne entirely by the players, and eradicating steroids from the game was a classic collective action problem. Taking steroids was individually rational, but collectively, players would have preferred that nobody was using. The same situation existed at the team level at least in the early days of the crisis. Tolerating or encouraging steroid use provided a competitive edge, but one that would disappear as the problem became universal.

Perhaps there was a devil’s bargain, with owners and players acting as a bloc to increase offense, excitement and paychecks. However, there are cheaper, legal ways to increase offensive output if that’s the goal. I think it is more likely that individuals and teams, acting independently, saw a profit opportunity and exploited it. Theoretically, the union was in a position to solve this early on if they wanted to, as owners would never have resisted a public plea for more drugs testing coming from the players. The owners were not in such a position—they needed to go through collective bargaining and as Rose and Salzmann note, they had no incentive to do so anyway.

Two things seemed to prevent the players’ union from acting before the problem grew out of control. First, the union seemed to see steroid use as a bargaining chip, and if they were going to agree to stricter tests, they wanted something else in return. Still, this approach came fairly late, when the problem had already been laid bare in the media and even congress. When steroids were hidden from the public, testing had no value in negotiations. Only when faced with a public and legal backlash did the owners have any incentive to try and tackle the issue. Before that, they could just sit back and watch home runs fly into packed seats.

Also, though, there is an interesting insider-outsider issue at work in the player’s union. By the time steroids became a public issue, it had become so widespread that union membership contained a significant number of players who had already made the decision to use PEDs. Increasing drug testing in the minors, as happened first, may work to change the culture over the long run, but would serve to protect current big leaguers from competition. Increasing drug testing at the major-league level, however, would open this closed fraternity of ballplayers to competition from players who had not made the decision to juice.

None of this is to take exception to the author’s main thesis, however, which is to show how changes in the baseball marketplace and changes in medical science have propagated a system where players modify their bodies in ways that push the boundaries of morality and integrity. The ethics of medical innovation are playing out all around us, from stem cell research to cloning to GMOs, and its evolution will be intertwined with sports in the future. Rose and Salzmann have done a wonderful job of shining a light on some of the lessons to be learned so far.

Michael Wenz is Visiting Professor at Politechnika Czestochowa in Poland. Comments and suggestions for future articles are appreciated.

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Interesting topic. Is there a link to the article?