Is lost era of post-WWII drug culture what baseball is missing?
When Major League Baseball finally decided to get serious about taking performance-enhancing drugs out of the game, steroids were the primary target. Steroids brought us the so-called long-ball era, highlighted by the McGwire-Sosa home run race of 1998 and Barry Bonds breaking both the single-season and all-time home run record in the years that followed. With steroids out of the game, the days of (suspiciously) obscene home run totals are long gone, pun intended. But when baseball cracked down on PEDs, the game lost a class of drugs that were perhaps even more important: amphetamines, or as players affectionately call them, greenies.
For decades, greenies were the drug that made baseball go. The regular season is a grueling, unforgiving marathon, and for position players to get through it, they need a boost. Baseball players need greenies to play 162 games a year the way working class people need coffee to make it through a 40-hour plus work week: they can do it if they have to, but the person signing their paychecks may not be pleased with the results. In essence, they don’t enhance a player’s ability, they merely restore it as a way to counteract the fatigue that builds over 162 games.
Before baseball’s war on drugs, amphetamines had been a part of the game since World War II. When players returned to the majors after serving in the war, they came back hooked on greenies, which the military had given them in large quantities without a second thought. That was the start of amphetamines in baseball, a seemingly perfect match for more than half a century.
You take amphetamines, and the ball looks so big. It’s like you could hit anything.
By the 1970s, greenies were prevalent in every major league clubhouse, practically waiting in a player’s locker when they arrived at the ballpark. Players who spent the offseason playing winter ball in the Caribbean adopted a clever idea called the two-pot system. It referred to two coffee pots in the clubhouse, one would be filled with normal coffee and the other coffee mixed with liquid amphetamines, allowing players to surreptitiously take greenies.
Alas, those days are over. A few players, mostly minor leaguers, still receive suspensions after testing positive for amphetamines, including Orioles slugger Chris Davis, who was busted in 2014. But for the most part, greenies are out of the game, and it shows.
If you’ve watched day baseball lately, it’s played at a much slower pace than the average game. At least during the early innings, swings from hitters look sluggish and fielders are prone to mental errors. Meanwhile, starting pitchers who have had four days to rest are often overpowering and at times un-hittable. In essence, position players are at a huge disadvantage without the same kind of pick-me-up they were used to having a decade ago.
It was one thing to get steroids cleaned up, but most people agree that ridding the game of amphetamines has had an even bigger impact as far as the position players versus the pitchers. Between the schedule – more and more weekday getaway games are being scheduled at night because of the teams’ local TV ratings considerations – and the fact that the position players play every day, not having the benefit of that extra “boost” has clearly had an effect.
Anonymous Major League Official, 2010
Baseball is a game of adjustments, and there has certainly been an adjustment period since amphetamines were removed from the game. But is it possible that the game was better when players had unfettered access to greenies to help them survive a demanding 162-game season? After all, baseball is also a game of tradition, and amphetamines were a tradition in the game for more than half a century. If MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred wants more excitement in the game, perhaps the return of amphetamines are the answer.