Why you should care
Because Adolf and your favorite slugger may have shared a vice.
This was no normal day at Fenway Park. Seven months after the Japanese waved the white flag, finally admitting what Hitler had cowardly concluded months before, America’s pastime was back in full force. Ted Williams — aka Teddy Ballgame — and hundreds of other players turned servicemen had returned from the pits of hell. Home runs would be hit, strikeouts made and postwar lives resumed. And, unbeknownst to most fans, baseball’s performance-enhancing drug era would begin.
Discussion of drugs in baseball typically begins and ends with the late 1980s to late 2000s — MLB’s “Steroid Era” — but chemical performance enhancement was a beast in the belly of America’s favorite pastime well before ’80s heartthrob Rick Astley topped the music charts. The sport has long pushed the boundaries of fair, and foul, supplementing shoddy chemicals with spitballs and corked bats. Steroids are the darkest blemish in MLB history, but rampant amphetamine use during baseball’s golden years went unchecked. The use of “greenies,” aka methamphetamine mixed in clubhouse coffee, was seen as game-day preparation, not cheating. And baseball’s long embrace of the drug opened the door to more serious narcotics while ignoring a connection to the Third Reich.
Servicemen brought [amphetamines] back to baseball. It wasn’t taboo in the service. It was a way of life for when you needed an extra pick-me-up.
Jon Light, author, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball
“There was a lot of performance enhancement in the pre-steroid era,” says Jon Light, author of The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball. “I would say most likely it began after the war, in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Then it became a taboo subject as word leaked out in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Ted Williams was one of more than 500 ballplayers to serve in the military during World War II, but unlike many who logged time safely on service baseball teams, Williams became a naval aviator, eventually graduating to fighter jet instructor at Pearl Harbor during the war in the Pacific. In 1946, months after the Japanese surrender, he was discharged and returned to Boston to pick up where he left off on the diamond. In his first season back with the Red Sox, four years after finishing second — behind Joe DiMaggio — in the MVP race, Williams won the award. Widely considered the best pure slugger ever, he went on to claim 521 career home runs, hitting for a .400 or better batting average three times in his career.
Did Teddy Ballgame use PEDs? No one knows, says Light, but those with Williams’ experience as fighter pilots were more likely to use amphetamines as part of their postwar routine. “I have no doubt that servicemen brought [amphetamines] back to baseball,” Light says. “It wasn’t taboo in the service. It was a way of life for when you needed an extra pick-me-up.”
The spawn of methamphetamine, though, was anything but ordinary. In fact, it was somewhat of a transcontinental race. Los Angeles scientist Gordon Alles accidentally created a compound with euphoric, pain-killing, hyperactive results while searching for an asthma remedy. Alles felt great, but his creation didn’t really cure anything. He sold his findings to pharmaceutical firm Smith, Kline and French, leading to the birth of Benzedrine, aka “pep pills,” America’s first methamphetamine.
Meanwhile, Hitler’s cronies had discovered that Pervitin, produced by Berlin pharma giant Temmler Werke, increased confidence and aggression with little need for sleep. The cocktail proved wonderfully productive for National Socialists but drew even better results in the Wehrmacht. In the book Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, German historian Norman Ohler contends that the chaotic reign of the Third Reich — particularly Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 that saw sleepless Nazis launch a series of nocturnal attacks, and Hitler’s deterioration into a bona fide meth fiend prior to his suicide in 1945 — can be traced to mass methamphetamine distribution within the German ranks.
To keep up with the Axis forces, the Allies eventually adopted the drug, according to a study in MIT’s Journal of Interdisciplinary History. This “had less to do with fatigue than the drug’s mood-altering effects,” the report says. Essentially, the “elevated morale” of troops on meth was tough to beat.
Over the course of a 162-game season, elevated morale is a valuable commodity. On a recent episode of the sports podcast Pardon My Take, former MLB catcher Paul Lo Duca highlighted the popularity of greenies. “If you asked [MLB players] would they rather have steroids or greenies,” said Lo Duca, “I guarantee you it’d be 80-20 in favor of greenies.” For decades, greenies were a well-kept secret, in part because, according to Light, mid-century sportswriters were “in bed with the players.”
But in 1985, some of baseball’s biggest figures implicated their own. During the Pittsburgh drug trials, 13 MLB players were called before a grand jury in a cocaine-related case. The scandal led to 11 MLB suspensions. Testimony by several players fingered Hall of Famers Willie Stargell and Willie Mays as two of the league’s greenie leaders. “People like to talk about Mays and Pete Rose,” says Light, “but this was going on long before them.”
The MLB banned amphetamines in 2005, 14 years after steroids were outlawed. If performance enhancement is what baseball aims to regulate, should drug users of eras past be viewed with a similarly skeptical lens to those of the steroid era?
Perhaps, or maybe we should just lift morale.
Correction: A previous version of this story noted that Williams hit over .400 three times. In fact, he did this once, in 1941. Williams batted .400 or above across parts of the 1952 and 1953 seasons, most of which he missed while serving in the Korean War.