Updated: Oct 13, 2020
The San Francisco Bay Area holds a special place in the story of baseball’s Steroid Era. For decades, select behemoths would crush baseballs into the atmosphere, astonishing fans everywhere. The Steroid Era in the Bay Area began in Oakland with the Athletics. At the time, no one suspected that Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were using steroids. Together, they powered the A’s to three straight World Series appearances and one title. They produced memories that fans will remember for a lifetime but it came with a steep price. Due to the Steroid Era, those memories are tainted. People use steroids for many different reasons, even athletes. Sometimes it’s deeply personal and other times it’s simply trying to speed up the recovery process. Most admitted anabolic steroid abusers haven’t been very forthcoming about their use and Canseco and McGwire are no different. Stories change and truths are altered. So, what is the truth? Did they use steroids and if so when? Are all of those wonderful memories rightfully tainted or can fans rejoice in those memories without feeling guilty? We wish to explore this complicated issue in the following article.
Mark McGwire was born in Pomona, California on October 1, 1963 and was the son of a dentist. He excelled in sports and was drafted out of high school by the Montreal Expos. However, he chose to attend the University of Southern California on a baseball scholarship. There he was teammates with both Randy Johnson and Jack Del Rio. He played well enough to be selected 10th overall in the 1984 MLB Draft by the Oakland A’s.
Jose Canseco was born in Havana, Cuba on July 2, 1964. When Fidel Castro took over, Canseco’s father lost his job at Esso, an oil and gas company, and as a part time English teacher. After six years of hardship, the family was allowed to leave Cuba and settled in Miami, Florida. Canseco played well at Coral Park High School but only played varsity his senior year. The A’s took notice and drafted him in the 15th round of the 1982 MLB Draft.
Anabolic steroids have been a part of the sports landscape since the 1970’s. It was prevalent in the NFL as players added muscle and the game became more physical. Ever since “Pumping Iron” came out in 1972, physical fitness and body building have been a major part of our culture. When McGwire and Canseco entered Major League Baseball, steroids was becoming more prevalent within the National Pastime.
The United States government got involved when it passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 which made it a crime to “distribute and possess anabolic steroids with the intent to distribute for any use in humans other than the treatment of disease based on the order of a physician”. Despite government restrictions, when there is a will there is a way.
Jose Canseco was playing in the minor leagues when his mother, Barbara, passed away from a brain hemorrhage. When that happened, he decided to be the absolute best baseball player on the planet. He wanted to honor his mother’s memory with his talent and he used the game of baseball as an outlet for his grief. He dedicated himself to the weight room and in the offseason he would use steroids provided by a friend from high school. He played well enough to enter the Major Leagues in 1985. Entering the Major Leagues at 6’4” 240 lbs, he hit five home runs in 29 games that year. In the next three years he hit 33, 31 and 42 home runs.
Mark McGwire entered the Major Leagues in 1986 at 6’5” 225 lbs and hit just a single home run in 18 games. The following three years were extraordinary with him hitting 49 home runs in 1987, 32 home runs in 1988 and 33 home runs in 1989. However, despite widespread belief, there is no evidence supporting his steroid use during this stage in his career. His production was most likely due to simply hard work in the weight room.
The A’s made it to the World Series in 1988 but were upset by the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games. They made it back to the Series in 1989 and were tied for ninth in home runs with 127. McGwire and Canseco accounted for an incredible 75 of those home runs as the A’s beat the San Francisco Giants in a four game sweep.
The A’s were swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series the following year. The Reds featured one of the best bullpens in the Major Leagues with Norm Charlton, Randy Myers and Rob Dibble. Dubbed “the Nasty Boys”, those three relief pitchers kept the A’s powerful offense at bay in the later innings; Canseco and McGwire could only watch as their dreams of a repeat championship slipped through their fingers.
In the midst of this incredible run, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were given the nickname “the Bash Brothers”. This name was not only due to their booming home runs but also because of their unique celebration. Instead of a high five, they would bash their forearms against one another. Their bulging forearms proved to be a rallying cry for the A’s and their fans as they went to three straight World Series.
The A’s struggled in 1991 but rebounded in 1992 to make the playoffs. Canseco was having a good year too, hitting 18 home runs by the All Star break. On August 31, the A’s traded Canseco to the Texas Rangers for some pitchers and cash. They needed the help in their rotation down the stretch and decided they didn’t need Canseco’s power services anymore. The A’s have not been back to the World Series since.
After Canseco’s departure from Oakland, Mark McGwire began to be haunted by injuries but he still managed to perform well. He hit 42 home runs in 1992, 39 home runs in 1995 and led the MLB with 52 home runs in 1996. He left Oakland in the middle of the 1997 season for the St. Louis Cardinals where he totaled 58 home runs between the two clubs.
The 1998 season was a truly special year for McGwire. After the baseball strike of 1994, the MLB had had an extremely difficult time generating public interest. Fans felt disillusioned and betrayed by the sport that they loved. The 1998 season saw three players vying for Roger Maris’ historic 61 home run record. Those players were Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark McGwire. For a while it looked like it would be Griffey and McGwire chasing the record but eventually Griffey fell away and Sosa got on a hot streak. It all came to a head when McGwire’s Cardinals faced Sosa’s Chicago Cubs in the latter part of the season. The media was abuzz as it became evident that both players could possibly surpass the record in the same series against one another. McGwire broke the record on… and Sosa followed soon after. The season ended with McGwire having set a new record for home runs in a season with 70. Sosa tallied 66 of his own and the two are forever connected with each other for saving the game of baseball.
While McGwire was dominating the game of baseball, Jose Canseco was trying to stay healthy with the Texas Rangers. He only played 60 games in 1993, his first full year with the club, and hit 10 home runs. He came back stronger in 1994 and hit 31 home runs but was not invited to the All Star Game. He left for Boston after the season and in his two years with the Red Sox he hit 52 home runs and 163 RBI. However, he was never awarded an All Star invitation in either year and he left for a yearlong stint with Oakland following the 1996 season. He signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1998 where he had a last great season, hitting 46 home runs and 107 RBI. Although he was never a great base stealer, incredibly at the age of 33 he managed to steal 29 bases. Despite these great accomplishments he was not invited to the All Star Game until the following year with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It would be his last All Star Game appearance. His numbers were not as good in that final All Star year but they were respectable, hitting 34 home runs and driving in 95 runs. Canseco’s career quickly wound down and he retired following the 2001 season with the Chicago White Sox.
Mark McGwire’s career ended in an exciting fashion. Following the 1998 season, he hit 65 home runs in 1999 and tied a career high 147 RBI. He hit 32 home runs the following year and made his final All Star Game. After hitting 29 home runs in 2001 he called it a career and retired.
In 2005, Jose Canseco wrote “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big”. It was a tell-all book about the rampant use of steroids in baseball. In the book, he listed many players as abusers of anabolic steroids. Two of those players were himself and Mark McGwire. Since it’s publishing, Jose Canseco has been the face of the Steroid’s Era in baseball.
McGwire vehemently denied the allegations against him for years. He finally admitted to the accusation in 2010 but claimed it was for medical reasons. As he got older in the mid-1990’s, his body started to break down. There was a ribcage strain, torn left and right heel muscles and a stress fracture of the left heel. Through all of these injuries, McGwire used steroids to heal faster. The strategy must have worked because he experienced his best years during this time. During his historic 1998 season, it was discovered that he used androstenedione, which is used to increase production of testosterone. Testosterone is a natural hormone of the male genetic makeup which helps build muscle and bone mass. An unnatural increase in the hormone could give an athlete an unfair advantage. At the time of this discovery, that particular steroid was banned from all other sports other than baseball. What McGwire was doing at the time was not outlawed in baseball until well after he had finished using the steroid.
Due to the fallout of their steroid allegations, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco have not been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame even though their statistics show that they deserve a place. Though their alleged steroid use may have given them an unfair advantage, it never hindered their love for the game or their dedication to their craft. Tragically, two great careers are forever tainted by allegations of cheating the sport they loved.