Sports Collectors Digest: The Mitchell Report

By Marty Appel

I needed several days to digest all of the Mitchell Report material and decide how I felt about it, and how it will affect baseball. And now, several days later, there is still too much information to process. I feel somewhat overwhelmed by it all.

But since this is a column about Vintage Books, I thought I’d deal with the record book aspects that the report forces us to confront.

It happens that about two years ago, I wrote to Commissioner Selig with an idea for him to include a foreword to the record books explaining the oddities of different eras, and how we don’t chop each record into those segments for historical study. We treat the entire history as though a record is a record. He responded that it was a good idea, and then Bob Costas, citing my letter, mentioned it being a good idea on a national telecast.

But, it didn’t happen.

Truthfully, I didn’t think it would, partly because MLB does not publish it’s own record book. The Elias Sports Bureau publishes one, Sporting News does (online) and records can be found in other sources, but none are official MLB publications. So his preparing such a letter may not come with a place to put it.

Just the same, my suggestion was that his letter acknowledges that baseball has traveled through a variety of distinguishing eras, which makes it hard to claim that all players played on a level playing field in terms of evaluating their statistics.

I cited the deadball era, (when spitballs, etc. were often employed), the lively ball era, the segregated era, the World War II era, the expansion era(s), the lowered-mound era, the artificial surface era, and, to be acknowledged, “an era when it came to light that a number of players were using performance enhancing drugs.”

Some of the eras overlap, but clearly, game conditions have changed, and so too have athletes. Drugs aside, their salaries enable them to workout during off-seasons, to be in better condition, and to have better training programs. When I did PR for the Yankees in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, if I needed to reach one of our players in, say, January, it was not unusual for me to track him down in the stockroom of a department store on his winter job. No kidding. What’s worse, Barry Bonds hitting home runs while juiced, or Babe Ruth never facing an African-American opponent? How do we make the comparison?

In a way, it makes the 1950s our purest decade for baseball. The game was integrated, there were still only 16 teams (so talent was maximized), the fields were all natural grass, and the fatigue of west coast travel didn’t kick in until the last years of the decade. If there is a decade whose stats should become the benchmark for measuring accomplishments, that should be the one.

As I said, I have many, many thoughts about the Mitchell Report, some in conflict with each other. First, it sure does appear that if Roger Clemens goes into the Hall of Fame, he’ll be wearing a Boston cap. End of that debate.

There were a number of players who seem to have slipped through the cracks, guys who clearly bulked up, hit lots of homers, but weren’t in the pipeline of the three sources discovered by the Mitchell panel. I won’t name names here because that is part of what I didn’t care for in the report – there was something McCarthyesque about that, I thought. On the other hand (and this is where I conflict with myself), it seems like the players should have given more thought towards testifying if they felt they could offer a good excuse (as Andy Pettitte attempted to do, afterwards). It was a misjudgment on their part, if they were given the opportunity by the panel. Did each man named get a call saying “you will be in the report: would you like to respond?”

I also have to question the value of doing the report in the first place, something that apparently members of Commissioner Selig’s staff brought up themselves at the start. What has baseball gained by naming names? The events were before certain substances were banned. Reputations have been ruined, although we will await the passage of time to see how much; the drug trials of the ‘80s does not seem to have hurt those players involved, twenty years later. (Although the higher profile ones who seemed to be borderline Hall of Famers, never made it).

What if the Commissioner’s office had said, “We can now acknowledge that there may have in fact been rampant use of performance enhancing drugs for ten years of so. We now have a joint drug testing program in place with the Players Association, which promises to provide a cleaner game going forward. We will stay up to date on the latest developments in drug testing and monitor our game more closely. There is little we can do as regards offenders of the past, nor with our own failures to catch up with this earlier. And the record book is filled with performances that represented the oddities of particular eras.”

Personally, I think that would have satisfied all but a small segment of baseball’s fan base.

Again, conflicting my own thoughts, I do recognize the need for baseball to have gone forward with a study into how widespread the use was (my own guess is that the players who were users are probably double what was exposed), if only to show fans that they don’t sweep things under the carpet, even when times get bad. But the part about “naming names,” and as such, even calling into question the validity of pennant winners, award winners, batting champions, etc., may have been excessive.

By the way, on the matter of record books, I’ve written before about “Balldom” a 1914 book by George L, Moreland, which was one of the first to serve as a record book. Its findings, such as “Many Home Runs” are described more as paragraphs than listings, but at the time it was a breakthrough book subtitled “The Britannica of Baseball.”

My favorite paragraph: “Every purchaser of a copy of Balldom is entitled to a membership in the “Balldom Bureau of Information and Statistics,” for a period of one year, during which time queries addressed in good faith, with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the main office, 810 United States Rubber Company Building, New York City, N.Y., will receive careful consideration and a prompt, accurate and authoritative answer. Guaranteed to be backed by official statistics and the opinion of baseball experts.”

I would have loved to have seen he questions fans were asking in 1914. “Dear Balldom: Should the records of all the pitchers who have faced intoxicated batters be wiped from the books?