Indecent Proposal: Neo-McCarthyism Slugs Major League Baseball


3-11-05, 8:18 am

For baseball diehards, the name Joe McCarthy has always meant the New York Yankee manager of the 1930s. Now a very different Joe McCarthy stalks the National Pastime. This Joe McCarthy made his bones as the junior senator from Wisconsin in the late 1940s and ‘50s. This Joe McCarthy spearheaded the frightening House of Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC], which aimed to “uproot communism from American life.” This Joe McCarthy spat in the face of personal privacy and political freedom.

And just as Yankee Skipper Joe McCarthy was the public face for a “murderers row” of players including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Senator Joe, merely fronted for a different kind of “murderers row”, namely the most talented and brutally ambitious politicians of his generation. They ranged across the political spectrum from liberals like John and Bobby Kennedy to Richard Nixon and President Eisenhower himself. These men galloped to political fame and fortune while countless lives were left destroyed in their wake.

As writer Elizabeth Schulte put it, “HUAC interviewed thousands of individuals, calling on them to turn in their neighbors, coworkers, friends or family members whom they suspected to be communists. Probably the best remembered are the Hollywood writers and actors who were called before HUAC, but thousands of ordinary people–civil rights activists, trade unionists, people who had signed a peace petition or contributed to the anti-fascist cause–lost their jobs and were blacklisted or jailed as a result of the witch-hunt.”

Now, as Cubs manager Dusty Baker puts it, a new “McCarthyism,” is being imposed on Major League Baseball. A congressional committee, already preening for the nearest cameras, has been tasked with “getting steroids out of Major League Baseball.” Current and former players Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Curt Shilling, Frank Thomas, Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, have all been subpoenaed to testify under oath.

Major League Baseball and the Players Association have pledged to fight the subpoenas, taking the unprecedented step to unite under one attorney, Mr. Stanley Brand. Brand is arguing all over TV land that this congressional committee has no jurisdiction, is violating the player’s first amendment privacy rights with no purpose but to “satisfy their prurient interest into who may and may not have engaged in this activity.” Brand has also made the point that forcing former and current major leaguers to answer questions or risk prison will accomplish nothing since baseball just adopted a far-reaching steroid testing plan. Brand argues that the MLB program, like any drug testing plan in any work place, has a confidentiality agreement that would be worthless if players feel compelled to accept immunity, name names, and rat out teammates.

Reacting to Brand's comments, committee spokesman David Marin sniffed, “Mr. Brand fails to recognize that House rules give this committee the authority to investigate any matter at any time… It's a shame that Major League Baseball has resorted to hiding behind 'legalese' -- and inaccurate 'legalese' at that.”

On this, I agree with Marin. Just like with the first edition McCarthyites, you don’t combat these people with “legalese”, taking the fifth, and hiding behind lawyer-speak. Players instead should call out the congress as a body that has zero legitimacy to ask these questions.

In the mid 1990s, there wasn’t a political hack in the Beltway who didn’t bathe in the glow of Major League Baseball’s resurgence, when the home runs were flying and the syringes were flowing. That was Mr. Sammy Sosa himself, bursting the seams of his suit, in Bill Clinton’s presidential box at the 1999 State of the Union address.

But players and their union shouldn’t stop there. They could bury this ridiculous congressional committee in its own bloated sanctimony. As the statement penned by Davis and liberal cohort Rep. Henry Waxman reads, “…it is important that all Americans, especially children, know about the dangers of drug use. Consistent with our jurisdiction over the nation’s drug policy, we need to better understand the steps MLB is taking to get a handle on the steroid issue, and whether news of those steps – and the public health danger posed by steroid use – is reaching America’s youth.” Just as Joe McCarthy and his thugs had no moral authority to fume about “protecting democracy,” neither do these 21st Century witch-hunters have the credibility to speak to us about drugs, children or the Nation’s health.

If they cared so much about “public health dangers” this committee should hold hearings about why the United States has such a miserable health care system with 45 million uninsured and literally thousands more losing their insurance every day.

If they cared so much about children, this committee would be issuing subpoenas to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney about why their 2006 budget eliminates 48 educational programs, or cuts 670,000 kids from food stamps

If they cared so much about drug abuse, this committee would be raising a stir about the treatment programs currently on the budget-chopping block.

Because Congress does not want these issues raised, there is one slugger whose absence from the subpoena list speaks volumes: Giants outfielder Barry Bonds. Bonds, poised this year to become baseball’s all-time home run king, is the player around whom “performance enhancing drug” rumors swirl and the player whose ascension has stoked the anti-steroid furies.

As USA Today’s Mike LoPresti put it, ”Holding a hearing on steroids in baseball without Bonds would be like an inquiry into the Titanic sinking without mentioning the iceberg.”

Committee spokesperson David Marin, when asked why Bonds wasn’t called, mumbled, “He tends to ramble and get off-point.”

It’s not Barry Bonds “off point” they want to avoid, but Barry Bonds “on point”. While most players will either plead the fifth or cut a deal, Bonds would probably tell them to go straight to hell. The future Hall of Famer seems to have been deeply politicized in recent years by the recent steroid controversy coupled with the death of his father a former Major League player and staunch unionist. In recent interviews, Bonds’ pose has not merely been his normal surly and rude, but surly rude, and political. As Bonds said recently to a group of reporters in Arizona, 'You want to define cheating in America? When they make a shirt in Korea for a $1.50 and sell it here for 500 bucks. And you ask me what cheating means? I'll tell you how I cheat. I cheat because I'm my daddy's son. He taught me the game. He taught me things nobody else knows. So that's how I cheat. I'm my daddy's son.'

It’s language like this that reminds Congressional hacks of their own history. The last time they dragged out a proud, angry Black man with nothing to lose was in 1952. That someone, now seen gracing a US postage stamp, went by the name of Paul Robeson. They expected Robeson to roll over like so many others. Instead he lacerated the committee, saying, “You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people. That is why I am here today. . my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” It is not far fetched at all that Bonds would use the hearing as a platform to also be perfectly clear. Perhaps some will say that these hearings bear no resemblance to the horror that was McCarthy’s 1950’s; that Jason Giambi, even accounting for the stew of drugs he’s ingested, bears no resemblance to Ethel Rosenberg. But this would be wrong. While this is certainly not HUAC in terms of its destructive reach, it should give us all pause when the government arbitrarily picks on seven athlete-employees--whose suspicion was only roused because Canseco, and an effort to avoid tax-court, wrote a best-selling book naming their names. None of the seven have been formally accused or charged with anything or by any authoritative body - save the proudly manufactured body of Canseco himself.

That’s why anyone who opposes the unchecked power of the federal government, who cares about civil liberties and rights in the work place, should oppose these hearings. We can't compare this witch-hunt to the more devastating ones in the 50s but it is part of a trend of attacks on civil liberties, academic freedom, and anyone who dares buck against the bipartisan party line. In a time when students are being investigated for singing Bob Dylan and wearing the wrong t-shirts, and Gitmo is just a stone’s throw away, such hearings help create an atmosphere where the bipartisan pit bull in Washington feels it can get away with more, and more, and more. The time has come for all of us to collectively ask the question of Congress that Joseph Welch asked of McCarthy five decades ago: “How have you no sense of decency, sir?

At long last have you left no sense of decency?” Only this time, we should press for an answer.

--Dave Zirin's new book 'What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States' will be in stores in June 2005. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing Contact him at

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