With the Astros sign-stealing scandal sweeping across the United States, let’s take a look at how it compares to past MLB scandals.
Any professional sport that has been around nearly as long as baseball has is sure to be ridden with scandals in some way, shape or form. Whether confirmed or unconfirmed, there are bound to be stories of players or teams pulling strings to make some shady business happen on or off the field. Baseball is certainly no exception to this, with the league’s first major scandal coming over 100 years ago with the 1919 Black Sox Scandal and continuing now with the recent Astros sign-stealing scandal.
This offseason’s major scandal has centered around a smorgasbord of allegations from different sources attesting that the Houston Astros have used a variety of methods to steal signs over the past three seasons, in which they appeared in two World Series and won one title in 2017. The repercussions of this were felt when MLB handed down their official punishments to the Astros this past week, only for Houston to take matters into their own hands and fire manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. Even since MLB announced the punishments just days ago, more information has continued to leak out, so this story appears to be far from over.
All we know is that this Houston scandal is without question going to be a severe black eye for MLB and for the Astros organization, which the baseball world had once admired and applauded for their rise from basement dwellers to World Series champions in just a matter of years. There is more to the Houston shenanigans than just what has surfaced already, and only time will tell how much of it eventually gets out to the public.
While much remains a mystery, this case undoubtedly makes the shortlist of baseball’s most significant and shameful scandals. Let’s take a look at some of the sport’s other notorious scandals and see how this one stacks up.
Black Sox Scandal
MLB’s first major scandal, the Black Sox Scandal, was the result of eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox agreeing to throw the World Series in exchange for money from gamblers. These players went through with this, purposely playing poorly as the team lost the series to the Cincinnati Reds in eight games. In 1921, newly-appointed MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned all eight players from baseball, which also prevented them, most notably the legendary Joe Jackson, from getting elected to the Hall of Fame.
The Astros sign-stealing scandal has drawn plenty of comparisons to the Black Sox Scandal, primarily because the two of them are the only known scandals in MLB history that were entirely orchestrated by multiple people within the same team/organization. While there are strong comparisons between the two, it’s also worth noting that from the reports that have emerged, it seems that the Astros sign-stealing scandal was truly a top-down organizational effort, with every player and coaching staff member in on it. The intentional throwing of games in the Black Sox Scandal was only implemented by eight players, so to tarnish the legacy of all the players on that team is unfair, unlike how it is arguably fair to do so to all the Astros players and coaches.
In terms of which scandal is “worse”, plenty of Astros defenders will make the argument that sign-stealing in MLB has been prevalent since the game’s inception, so the Astros’ cheating was not revolutionary. At the end of the day, it was still being used by Houston to gain an advantage to win the game- the exact opposite of the White Sox’ goal in 1919. While Houston did go to extreme (and illegal, given their use of technology) heights to gain an advantage over their opponent, the White Sox went above and beyond in that they completely sacrificed their commitment to winning games and to their teammates and fans in the name of money.
For this reason, I’d say that the Black Sox Scandal ranks above the Astros in terms of how shameful it was.
Steroid Era/ Biogenesis Scandal
Baseball’s most well-known scandal is ironically the one that many argue did more good than bad for baseball, especially in terms of the appeal of the game to a wider audience. Fans love big plays, and there’s no bigger play in baseball than the home run, a statistic which spiked at the peak of the steroid era, which started in the late 1990s. While players are still caught and suspended for taking PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) today, it’s nowhere near the same extent it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and plenty of other players used steroids en route to lighting the baseball world on fire with absurd power numbers. Check out Barry Bonds’ 2004 season page on Baseball Reference if you need a feel for what I’m talking about.
A second chapter was added to the steroid era saga in 2013, when it was discovered that Dr. Tony Bosch had supplied numerous MLB players with PEDs. Several notable players, including Rodriguez (for the second time in his career), Ryan Braun and Nelson Cruz were listed as some of the individuals who Bosch supplied with testosterone, and in total 17 players affiliated with Bosch received suspensions. Bosch was sentenced to four months in prison. While on the surface, the concept of players taking PEDs to improve their performance on the field is seen by many as immoral and a disgrace to the game of baseball, there are many larger factors at play that bring into question how much the steroid era hurt MLB – and how much the players should be blamed for it.
Beyond just the fact that the game’s appeal soared as home run hitters took over the sport, it’s also been well documented that MLB and commissioner Bud Selig were very much aware of how many players were using steroids before it was public knowledge. Selig and MLB allegedly swept these rumors under the rug until they became known to the masses, then threw their players under the bus and blamed them entirely for the steroid allegations, denying any knowledge of them. While neither MLB nor the Hall of Fame ever officially banned steroid users from election into the Hall, many BBWAA voters will automatically not vote for alleged steroid users, regardless of their numbers on the field. This leads to a larger conversation of why Selig is in the Hall of Fame since he allegedly looked away from all the players taking steroids under his watch until it hit the presses.
While the steroid era and the biogenesis scandal that followed were key parts of baseball history, they did not affect baseball organizations or bring into question the legitimacy of any World Series titles nearly enough to be considered as scandalous as the Astros sign-stealing tactics.
Pete Rose Gambling
Yet another instance of a player being banished from the Hall of Fame for a scandal, Reds legend Pete Rose is the only living former player on the ineligible list for election to the HOF. While his career accomplishments, the most significant of which being his record 4,256 career hits, are beyond impressive, it was a scandal that surfaced in his time serving as Cincinnati’s manager that tarnished his legacy.
After retiring following the 1986 season, Rose served as the manager of the Reds for three seasons. In August of 1989, his third season as the Reds’ manager, accusations that Rose had bet on baseball games during his time both as a player and as a manager, including on his team, came to light. He was hit with permanent ineligibility from baseball, meaning he could never play or coach again. In 1991 the Hall of Fame voted to ban players on the “permanently ineligible” list from induction, ending Rose’s hopes of getting enshrined in Cooperstown, at least until that vote was reversed. Rose denied for years that he gambled on baseball before finally admitting to gambling both on baseball and on the Reds in 2004. He could still get reinstated and elected to the Hall of Fame, but as we approach 30 years since the Hall’s vote to ban players on the “permanently ineligible” list from induction, his chances look slim.
While shameful, I would say that betting on his team or other games isn’t worse than what the Astros did by utilizing technology to gain an unfair advantage over opponents. No evidence has ever been discovered that Rose bet against the Reds as a player or manager, but there are still beliefs that he may have done so.
Had Rose bet against the Reds and taken matters into his own hands to make the Reds lose games, he would enter Black Sox territory and the case for his actions to be more scandalous than those of the Astros would get significantly stronger.