The History Of Chemistry In Baseball
Elixirs, Potions Came Long Before Steroids

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

In 15 big-league seasons in the late 1800s, pitcher James "Pud" Galvin won an astounding 364 games and completed an even more astonishing 646. He was considered so effective that he was said to reduce opposing batters to "pudding" (hence his nickname).

The secret of Galvin's success? It may have been something called the Brown-Sequard elixir, an injectable concoction consisting of glycerin and . . . ground-up animal testicles.

Galvin, in other words, may have been baseball's first known "juicer." Decades before anyone had heard of anabolic steroids, Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, Galvin was enhancing his performance -- or trying to -- through something other than raw skill and training, in this case by shooting up testosterone derived from guinea pigs and dogs.

As wacky as Galvin's method may have been, his story fits a larger historical pattern. With baseball's long summer stretch approaching, and steroid scandals unabated, it pays to remember that the sport's search for chemically induced glory isn't particularly new. Indeed, as long as there have been athletes, there have been athletes who've sought to drink, eat, smoke, inject, snort or otherwise ingest potions they believed would make them run faster, hit farther or jump higher.

In perhaps the earliest instance of a performance-enhancing substance, ancient Olympians sought a testosterone kick (much like Galvin) by consuming sheep testicles. A physician of the era, Galen, advised Olympians to consume "the rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil, and flavored with rose hips and rose petals."

European cyclists of the late 1800s drank alcohol mixed with caffeine and strychnine, a poison thought to be a stimulant at low doses. The winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon, an American named Thomas Hicks, was revived near the finish by drinking a combination of brandy, egg whites and strychnine. Early baseball players, who didn't get paid unless they played, medicated their aches with the most widely available balm of the day, alcohol.

In fact, baseball cheats of an earlier age weren't secretive about their performance-enhancing habits, and weren't even considered cheats. Galvin was lauded for his drug of choice; The Washington Post wrote after one game in 1889: "If there still be doubting Thomases who concede no virtue of the elixir, they are respectfully referred to Galvin's record in yesterday's Boston-Pittsburgh game. It is the best proof yet furnished of the value of the discovery."

"They would try anything," says Roger I. Abrams, a law professor and baseball fan who unearthed Galvin's regimen in his recent book, "The Dark Side of the Diamond: Gambling, Violence, Drugs and Alcoholism in the National Pastime." "You certainly can never say this is a purely modern phenomenon because it's gone on as long as there were sports. . . . There's something innate about our desire to improve our performance by whatever means are available."

In his 1992 book "Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport," John Hoberman lays out a startling list of substances that athletes in the 1920s and '30s thought to be beneficial: glucose, vitamin B1, calcium, phosphates, ultraviolet light, kola nuts, Benzedrine, nitroglycerin, ammonium chloride, cocaine, digitalis and animal gland extracts, among others.

"It was junk," says Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas. "It was not effective. But the fact that people wanted to believe it worked is the same as today. It's not as if the mind-set of elite athletes has undergone a sea change in the past 100 years. It's just that effective drugs weren't available" back then.

For at least a couple of generations, the modern athletic toolkit included amphetamines (for their stimulative effects), steroids (for muscle-building and faster rehabilitation from injury), diuretics (for masking steroid use) and human blood ("blood doping" can aid cardiovascular performance). To these have more recently been added beta-blockers (which slow the heart rate and thus are useful for such athletes as archers and shooters) and synthesized human growth hormone (for building strength).

If anything, the modern steroid-addled baseball players are late to the performance-enhancing party. Synthetic steroids were first developed by European scientists in the 1930s; the first reported use of them by athletes was in the 1950s, when weightlifters and wrestlers discovered their muscle-building benefits, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon. Soon, track athletes from the West (particularly sprinters and throwers) began using them as pressure to keep up with the Soviet and East German athletes increased, leading to the first Olympic drug tests in 1968.

There are few documented (or even alleged) cases of steroid use by baseball players before the late 1980s. The lack of interest may have been a result of some hoary baseball wisdom: Too many muscles could hurt, rather than help, your game. "We were told, 'Don't bulk up. It will bind you up and slow you down,' " says Jim Bouton, who pitched for the New York Yankees in the 1960s before writing his groundbreaking tell-all book, "Ball Four." "Heck, we were always taught not to lift weights."

Instead, as Bouton details in his book, the players' drugs of choice in his day were alcohol and "greenies," amphetamines that Bouton describes being handed out like M&Ms in major league clubhouses. At the urging of his teammate Whitey Ford, Bouton says he also used DMSO, a chemical solvent used in embalming and as a veterinary anti-inflammatory agent, to soothe his pitching arm and shoulder. He also received shots of cortisone, a steroidal hormone that was unknown to Pud Galvin.

But Bouton draws a distinction between the performance-enhancing substances of his playing days and the steroids of today. "Pep pills" -- as amphetamines were benignly called -- "weren't performance enhancers. I consider them performance enablers," he says. "It's an important distinction. You never played better than your natural ability because of them. If you were out the night before, and you were hung over, you could take a greenie and play up to your ability, or close to it. It never made you bigger or stronger, the way steroids do."

Adds Bouton: "There was no sense at the time that taking [amphetamines] was wrong. There was a sense that it was illegal. But it terms of the ethics of the game, it was not considered unfair."

That kind of ethical hairsplitting is lost on Will Carroll, a senior writer at Baseball Prospectus and the author of "The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problem." Carroll says players in both generations benefited from a little chemical assistance. He reframes the issue this way: Would players of Bouton's era have played as well, or at all, if they couldn't fall back on a pill or a shot?

This suggests that the current outcry about performance-enhancing substances is really only a matter of degree, and that such arguments can land on a slippery slope. Sports fans react instinctively to reports of players who use "drugs" to gain an advantage, but a drug is often just a processed and purified version of something that occurs naturally, points out Mallon, a former pro golfer who is now an orthopedic surgeon.

No one would object if an athlete picked the leaves off a foxglove and chewed them, he says, but they might object when an athlete takes digitalis, a weight-loss drug made from foxglove leaves.

Similarly, Dara Torres, the ageless Olympic swimmer, freely acknowledges that she maintains a regimen of amino acids and dietary supplements, even though such supplements are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration and their health effects aren't well understood. "I think the line is hard to draw in these cases," Mallon says. "It's a far more complex issue than what has been written in the press, and the way Congress has come down on it."

Mallon isn't defending the use, or certainly the abuse, of steroids, whose long-term health consequences are becoming clearer every year. East Germany's state-sponsored experiments in athletic engineering three decades ago, for example, are playing out tragically, with as many as 20 percent of the athletes from that era having been diagnosed with liver, testicular and breast cancer, heart disease, infertility, depression and eating disorders. Miscarriages and birth defects in babies born to former East German female athletes have also been reported.

Despite the success (and later ignominy) of some steroid users, Mallon says science hasn't really established whether steroids actually make better baseball players. Yes, the empirical evidence is undeniable -- steroids make you bigger and stronger, as one glance at a pre- and post-'roid Barry Bonds would show -- but how it affects hitting, pitching and throwing hasn't been subject to rigorous evidentiary tests, he says.

Baseball, unlike weightlifting, for example, requires dexterity and hand-eye coordination, neither of which are improved by muscle-building bulk. It's possible, he says, that merely believing they work might be enough. "The placebo effect is incredibly strong," Mallon says.

Or not. In either case, Bouton has no doubts that the incentives for even the slightest competitive advantage in professional sports are so overwhelming that scientific evidence is beside the point. "I've said it before and I'll say it again: If someone told us that there was a pill that would help you win 20 games but would take five years off our lives, we'd all be taking it. Competitive athletes will do anything to win. They need to be protected from their own instincts or guys will kill themselves."

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