The time Bill Clinton made the New York Yankees a front in the war on drugs


New York Yankees, circa 2014. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

This story has been corrected. In 1995, the New York Yankees owner decided to sign Darryl Strawberry to a short-term contract, despite Strawberry's suspension for testing positive for cocaine a few months earlier. Then the Bill Clinton White House got involved.

In the latest of the ongoing release of previously classified documents from the Clinton Presidential Library is a memo sent from then-adviser Rahm Emanuel covering a number of important topics: immigration, welfare reform, and, naturally, Yankee baseball.

rahm memo

This appears to be the first time that the meeting between Clinton's drug czar Lee Brown and Yankee owner Steinbrenner has been made public, much less the suggested list of demands. Steinbrenner, being something of an individualist, doesn't appear to have actually done these things.

strawberry

Brown was already public about his opposition to the deal, as the Nightline reference makes clear. He was also quoted by the Associated Press, as reported in the Spokane Spokesman-Review:

“The Yankees have struck out by signing Darryl Strawberry,” said Lee Brown, President Clinton’s national drug policy director. “They are sending the worst possible message to the youth of America: That if you use drugs, you can be rewarded with big money in big-time sports.”

In case you missed the gag, "struck out" is a term from the sport of baseball, which is what the Yankees play.

The reason for the White House's involvement is obvious. Clinton was just starting to see traction in the endless War on Drugs, with crime rates continuing to decline from their 1991 peak. The trend continued for decades, but obviously Clinton didn't know that at the time. The link between crime and cocaine was still potent; elsewhere in the Emanuel memos, he describes that Brown's upcoming schedule includes the demolition of crack houses.

Clinton left office having overseen a drop in violent crime numbers from 1.9 million to 1.4 million annually, despite the signing. The Yankees won the World Series with Strawberry in 1998 and 1999. The rate of crime doesn't seem to have spiked around Yankee Stadium.

The only loser ended up being Strawberry. In 1999, 2000, and 2001, has was arrested on various charges, including substance abuse.

Correction: This story originally referred to Emanuel as chief of staff to Clinton.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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