In the summer of 2016, ESPN.com released a list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All-Time. Analyzing these lists often brings speculation as to why players are ranked where they are. Time period plays an immense factor. This leads to the ever-present argument from baseball-lovers that “You have to judge them by the era they played in.” However, this argument leads to an interesting question: How do you accurately compare athletes from vastly different eras?
For example, judging players from The Color Line era (before 1947) and the Steroid era (the late 1990s to early 2000s) introduces its own moral flaws. ESPN tried to keep things as fair as they could be. When it came to players like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez from the steroid era ESPN did not let their alleged use of PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) mar their high spots on the list (Bonds at five and Rodriguez at 21). Players from the early 1900s like Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, and Babe Ruth made the top ten. The Great Bambino himself took the top spot.
Is it accurate to claim that players who played in an era where minorities were not allowed the greatest of all time?
The starting 18 MLB All-Stars alone from the 2017 All-Star game featured five players of color who were born in Latin American countries, three American born players with parents or grandparents of Latin descent, and one who is biracial. That’s half of the players good enough to start the All-Star game, now out of the game.
To ESPN’s credit, the list did include three different men who played in the Negro League: Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige. But why are players like Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker celebrated despite not playing against any person of color, and even while being members of the KKK?
The Hall of Fame is notorious for turning a blind eye to racist pasts. Players of the steroid era, like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, were so vilified their obvious Hall of Fame worthy numbers are ignored. It’s hard to understand why the steroid era has so much notoriety.
It’s nearly impossible to find the exact number of baseball players using PEDs in the steroid era. Jose Canseco, a former All-Star player who admitted to using steroids and author of the PED exposing novel “Juiced”, estimated up to 85% of players were using it during his career. Another former All-Star and user, Ken Caminiti, said around half of the players. A 2003 MLB survey says at least 5%. It’s obvious no one knows the truth.
But, what we know for sure is that the era had the best players in the sport, regardless of color, squaring off against each other. If a pitcher on PEDs is facing a hitter on PEDs then there is no advantage.
The fact is that PEDs don’t matter without putting in the work and effort. Jim Leyritz played eleven years for six different teams and used PEDs. Manny Ramirez hit 555 home runs, was a twelve-time All-Star, and failed two PED drug tests in his life. No amount of shots or pills will make a player a superstar.
The sport of baseball is in a unique position because the rules of the game have not changed.
Prior to 1979, the NBA didn’t introduce the three-point shot. In 1905 it took strong-arming from President Teddy Roosevelt to introduce the forward pass into football. Strategies and innovations of baseball have come and gone, but the rules have stayed the same.
So how can we celebrate one era in the sport while vilifying another when they played essentially the same game? Why is pre-1947 baseball not held under the same microscope as the game’s steroid era? Either we accept the players of the steroid era in all their tainted glory or we put the players before Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line under the same scorching microscope we put under players during the steroid era.
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