As the Alex Rodriguez revelations touch off another round of shockedness and appallitude over baseball’s steroid problem, there’s one thing you probably won’t hear many people mention: the steroid-enhanced baseball of the ’90s may have saved the game.
Following the strike-shortened 1994 season, fans were angry and didn’t return when the players took the field the following spring. According to Baseballchronology.com, attendance during the entire 1995 season was the same as for the shortened ’94 season. But the seats filled up again in the late ’90s. What brought the fans back? That’s easy: Power hitting. Steroids were tolerated, in part, because they made certain that the big hitting stats of 1993 and 1994 would get even bigger. The steroids-for-everybody era made 50, 60 and even 70 homers almost commonplace. And the fans loved it. The 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa restored America’s faith in the sport.
It was similar to what happened in the early 1920s. Following the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919—in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were tossed out of baseball for taking money to throw the World Series—there were serious concerns that fans would abandon pro ball as a hopelessly corrupt, untrustworthy sport. But along came Babe Ruth. The New York Yankee slugger revolutionized the game by showing that it was possible to hit 50 home runs in a season (the previous record, his own, was 29). The fans loved Ruth and they loved the new, home-run-heavy brand of baseball. To compete, other league owners followed the home-run model and for the next 15 to 20 years baseball abounded in high batting averages and inflated power numbers. The public loved it so much that even the Great Depression couldn’t detract from the fun of Hack Wilson’s 190-RBI season in 1930. Fans didn’t care about the rumours that the ball was juiced or that players might be using corked bats; they just loved to see the ball fly out of the park.
As Bill James wrote in his Historical Baseball Abstract: “Fans like hitting. Fans have always liked hitting, and they always will like hitting. Throughout the history of the game, almost every significant increase in offense has been accompanied by an increase in attendance, and almost every decrease in offense has been accompanied by a decrease in attendance.” So you can sort of see why the players might be wondering what they did wrong. Sure, they violated a rule, but it was a rule that had never been seriously enforced. And unlike gambling or cocaine use, which detract from the quality of the game, steroids turned baseball into a hitters’ paradise. Steroid-enhanced baseball gave fans what they wanted. If we go back to a juice-free game, we might wind up with a situation like we had in the early ’90s, when 30 home runs was a good season and .280 was a high batting average. With steroids out of the game, it might get a bit boring.