Baseball is one of the world’s most widely played and popular sports. Alongside sports like the NFL, it is one of America’s greatest sporting exports. However, baseball has suffered its fair share of controversies in its long and eventful history.
Hundreds of incidents can be considered controversial, ranging from relatively minor umpire errors to steroid scandals.
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In this article, we will try and decipher the five most controversial moments and how they have shaped their era and the sport moving forward.
The Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal of 2017
Starting with the most recent controversy on our list, this particular story gained world coverage at its revelation. The Houston Astros were involved in a sign-stealing dispute that shook the foundations of the sport to the core.
Five years ago, they were accused of using sophisticated technology to cheat other teams and obtain an advantage. It resulted in Jeff Luhnow being fired from his post and the Astros receiving the highest fine in the history of the MLB, of $5m.
Multiple Astros players were suspended from the league and the incident led to further legal action against the team and individuals aware of the cheating. It was huge news at the time and the fallout rumbles on until this day.
Among MLB fans, the Astros are now widely notorious for cheating, and it is a moniker it will likely take years to shake off. It brought the integrity of the game into disrepute on a broader scale and was a hot topic of discussion for months.
The Pete Rose gambling scandal
Over 30 years ago, the Pete Rose gambling scandal was another issue that brought the ugly side of the sport to the fore. While managing the Cincinnati Reds, his last involvement in the sport, he was accused of illegally gambling on the outcome of games.
This practice is strictly forbidden in the professional baseball code of ethics and resulted in a lifetime ban for Rose. These actions brought his eligibility for the Hall of Fame into dispute, and it remains one of the most significant controversies ever in Major League Baseball.
Moreover, it has had long-lasting implications for Rose, as he was a legendary switch-hitter who would have undoubtedly been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
However, following a vote, the Baseball Hall of Fame agreed to remove any possibility of the player being inducted.
Again, much like with the Astros saga, media, analysts and fans alike asked many questions about the honor and ethics of baseball.
Questions arose regarding whether the stopgaps to prevent players and managers from gambling on games were sufficiently stringent – it also sparked discussion about whether the help available for professionals or ex-professionals struggling with addiction was suitable.
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The Black Sox Scandal of 1919
Sticking to the theme of unethical betting, the Chicago White Sox were involved in a massive scandal that baseball fans are still aware of over 100 years after it happened.
The Black Sox Scandal was an extensive scam involving eight players from the Chicago White Sox team – they were accused of intentionally losing to profit financially, and bankrolling a vast syndicate of illegal gambling.
The syndicate was tied to some of the country’s most powerful organized crime figures.
The players allegedly conspired with Arnold Rothstein, considered one of the most significant organized crime figures in the history of the United States.
The topic has been the subject of multiple TV dramas and films, and although the players were acquitted in a trial a couple of years later, some admitted their part in the fix. In any event, all eight players received lifetime bans.
At the time, the trial was national front-page news. It highlighted the ethics of the game and the power of organized crime in America in the early 20th century.
It also served as a potent reminder that mixing in circles where organized crime and gambling were prominent is a bad look for any professional athlete, regardless of the sport.
The Pine Tar Incident, 1983
The third controversy we will focus on today, the Pine Tar Incident, swivels our focus to events that have taken place during a game.
In July of that year, Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett hit a two-run home run off New York Yankees pitcher Goose Gossage, giving his team a crucial 5-4 lead.
However, Billy Martin, managing the Yankees at the time, claimed George had applied too much pine tar on his bat and thus breached MLB regulations.
A heated discussion ensued between the umpires, and they agreed with Martin’s initial complaint. Accordingly, the umpires considered Brett had violated the abovementioned rule and they disallowed his home run, leading to significant controversy and discussion across the sport.
Understandably, this led to uproar among the Kansas City Royals team, management and fans.
However, the controversy didn’t end there, as Bowie Kuhn, the MLB Commissioner, overturned the decision. Due to the twist and turns this incident caused, it is still considered one of the most controversial moments, 40 years later.
Barry Bonds and the steroid era
Barry Bonds is considered the most talented player of his era and one of the greatest MLB players. However, the fact that he was also the face of the ‘steroid-era’ scandal is a damning indictment of a fantastic career.
He faced widescale accusations of using steroids throughout his illustrious career, leading to the discovery of other MLB players using performance-enhancing drugs at the time. As a result, the whole episode is viewed as a stain on American baseball.
It brought the testing methods of the organization into disrepute, as other sports, such as boxing, have random drug testing. In contrast, baseball players need to be chosen for a test, and there needs to be an apparent reason.
The widespread accusations of cheating resulted in a complete overhaul of how testing is approached in the sport. The whole saga was yet another dark chapter in its history.
A lengthy legal battle was fought, and Bonds was found guilty of certain charges and not guilty of others – some players even admitted at the time that they had witnessed Bonds injecting steroids and complaining about the pain he suffered from the needles.
Eventually, he was found guilty of obstruction of justice, and many baseball fans and analysts believe this controversy spoiled the legacy of his professional career.