In early issues of National Review, readers were treated to debates over Abraham Lincoln’s place in American history, especially in relation to the growth of the federal government that occurred under Lincoln’s watch. Harry Jaffa, the great Lincoln historian, and Frank Meyer, the originator of conservative fusionism, were the two main belligerents in these debates, with Jaffa defending Lincoln and Meyer criticizing him.
Meyer argued that the expansion of the federal government during the Civil War laid the groundwork for the New Deal and future expansions of the state. In 1965, Meyer wrote in the pages of NR, “Were it not for the wounds that Lincoln inflicted upon the Constitution, it would have been infinitely more difficult for Franklin Roosevelt to carry through his revolution, for the coercive welfare state to come into being and bring about the conditions against which we are fighting today.” In other words, FDR never would have gotten away with creating Social Security if Lincoln, 70 years prior, hadn’t bothered to save the Union. The relationship between the two men is tenuous at best.
Harold Hutchison’s article “Eject Gaylord Perry” reminded me of Meyer’s line of thinking. Like Meyer, Hutchison connects an event several decades old with contemporary problems. Major League Baseball’s problem with players abusing performance-enhancing drugs, Hutchison contends, has its roots in Gaylord Perry’s unpunished use of the spitball.
Gaylord Perry, a Hall of Famer, frequently used the spitball, which is exactly what it sounds like. A pitcher who lubricates the baseball enjoys certain advantages. The ball slips off his fingers with more ease, creating more spin, and the ball’s weight is no longer evenly distributed, which can affect its course in the air and make it harder for the batter to hit. The spitball, like the corked bat, is a serious though eccentric baseball transgression that baseball fans have been willing to forgive.
Not Hutchison, though. He is outraged that MLB never threw the book at Perry, going so far as to call for his ejection from the Hall of Fame. He explains:
Much of the steroid use between 1991 and 2006, before testing became common, was by players who when in high school, college, and the minor leagues in the 1970s and early 1980s saw Gaylord Perry get away with flouting the rules. . . . The Steroid Era may get the headlines, and it may fuel the debate today, but the seeds were planted when baseball let Gaylord Perry get away with throwing the spitball.
Sure, these young and impressionable athletes may have been aware of Perry’s spitballs, but they were probably much more familiar with the widespread use of amphetamines, or “greenies,” as they were called. They might have even heard about Dock Ellis’s claim to have thrown a no-hitter while hallucinating on LSD.
Hutchison continues: “Baseball’s failure to deal with a pitcher who routinely violated the rules against doctoring the baseball sent a signal to players that cheating didn’t necessarily have consequences.” Perhaps, though he presents no evidence that players actually learned that lesson.
Why did they put dangerous chemicals into their bodies? Because Gaylord Perry cheated also, and, you know, Que sera, sera? Or did they think that the proper mixture of chemicals could transform them into baseball gods and, in the process, millionaires? Did MLB’s failure to properly condemn Perry lead to the Steroids Era, or did the promise of hitting 62 home runs in one season?
Forget Gaylord Perry and his spitball. He could have been hanged, drawn, and quartered and it still wouldn’t have stopped Mark McGwire from becoming Big Mac. Remember the attention that he and Sammy Sosa received in the summer and fall of 1998. They met world leaders, graced the covers of magazines, and received endorsements left and right. Sosa won the Most Valuable Player award that season, too. The temptation to cheat was so great, and the restrictions against it were so minimal — it seems almost inevitable that cheating would have occurred.
Yes, Gaylord Perry cheated, and yes, Abraham Lincoln expanded the role of the federal government. But not all cheating is created equal. (Neither is all big government.) It shouldn’t need to be said, but, here goes: Gaylord Perry isn’t Barry Bonds.
He isn’t even Abraham Lincoln.