Baseball fans are generally a conservative lot, deeply resistant to the idea that the National Game has long been tainted by the presence of drug pushers and dope fiends. Ken Burns’ wildly successful and stupefyingly long PBS series on the game is a testament to the perseverance of the “good ol’ days” nostalgia that Major League Baseball has so carefully maintained. Baseball pundits and journalists struggle to keep the game’s mythologies alive and professional pontificators like George Will and Bob Costas nurture an image of the game as both innocent and heroic. It is the sport of nineteenth-century farm-boys and twentieth-century immigrants, Abner Doubleday and Jackie Robinson. There is no room in this anachronistic narrative for cocaine, anabolic steroids, or LSD. Maybe drinking has a place, but it better come with a good story.
This Monday, the world got a firm reminder of the industry’s stance on “hard” drugs. In voting for new inductees to their Hall of Fame, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) used their now-infamous “character clause” to reject a deserving candidate. Reiterating their right to vote on, among other things, players’ “integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character,” the BBWAA decided against inducting cocaine “enthusiast” Tim Raines (owner of the cruel nickname “Rock”). While the coke-related exploits of Raines, who claims to be two decades sober, elicit bemusement in some circles, the fact that Burns had explicitly named and shamed Raines’ drug use in the ninth chapter of his series suggests just how deeply Raines breached Major League Baseball’s un-written moral codes.
In spite of Raines’ travails, however, Dock Ellis’ legend remains untarnished. On June 12, 1970, Ellis, a Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander, showed up to pitch against the San Diego Padres while tripping on LSD. Against all odds, Ellis pitched a no-hitter and earned a place in baseball lore. This event has been commemorated in song, animation, and performance art. Even the thoroughly mainstream ESPN writer Jerry Crasnick wrote a glowing obituary for the now-departed Ellis.
Why do baseball’s moral guardians care so deeply that Tim Raines used cocaine, whereas Ellis’ experiment with lysergic acid diethylamide is celebrated as a glorious misadventure? Perhaps the answer can be found in the fact that the problem doesn’t reside in the issue of drug use, per se, but in what those drugs represent. Maybe cocaine is too scary, too widely-consumed by the black urbanites who play only a small role in baseball’s canonical stories, whereas LSD is the drug of hippies and burn-outs, of kooky (but ultimately harmless) white middle-class youngsters. The BBWAA would be wise to consider that both Raines and Ellis violated what Antonio Gramsci would call baseball’s “Official Morality” regarding drugs, though only one of the two was punished.