Babe Ruth played professional baseball from 1914 to 1935, hitting a then-record 60 home runs in 1927. The game was much different back then. The game has since evolved. Whereas Ruth was the only player of his generation approaching the 60 home run plateau, that mark is no longer considered an almost unattainable accomplishment.
Four players have hit 60 or more home runs besides Ruth: Roger Maris in 1961, Mark McGwire in 1998 and 1999, Sammy Sosa in 1998, 1999 and 2001, and Barry Bonds in 2001. All of the above, aside from Maris, have been connected with performance-enhancing drugs in one form or another, most notably by recent admission.
But, as stated, the game has evolved. In the modern game, if a pitcher cannot reach 90 miles per hour, he will most likely not make it to the big leagues. If he does not have a devastating off-speed pitch or breaking ball to complement his fastball, he will not make it to the big leagues. Pitchers are pure and simple better than they were in Ruth’s era. Moreover, the game has become specialized. Bullpens are utilized more often now than ever; the idea of five pitchers being used by one team in a single game is not foreign.
If pitchers become better over time, hitters need to do so, as well. In The Neyer/James Guide to Baseball Rob Neyer and Bill James write:
…while some pitchers could make a ball hop and some people could make a ball “sink,” there is no evidence of any major-league pitcher, before 1950, doing both, or switching between one and the other (Satchel Paige threw two distinct fastballs in the 1930s, when he pitched in the Negro Leagues. But neither of them was a sinking fastball.) Pitchers universally seemed to regard the movement of their fastball not as a function of strategy, but as a gift from the heavens. “My fastball had a natural sink to it,” they would say, or “My fastball had a pretty good hop to it,” or “I had pretty good speed, but my fastball was straight, so I had to keep it away from the middle of the plate.” Although certainly some very few pitchers would learn how to make “their” fastball hop or how to make “their” fastball sink, there is little evidence, before 1950, of an understanding that the movement on a pitcher’s fastball was not simply an endowment of nature, but was a consequence of grip, release, and spin.
Even before Maris’s time, pitchers were not universally capable of throwing a hard fastball with movement. Most pitchers had either speed or movement, but not both. Modern baseball is witness to the four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, cut fastball, split-finger fastball, sinking fastball, slider, etc. All of which can be thrown with devastatingly fast speed.
Hitters must be able to keep up. With every generation that passes, the game of baseball will only become more difficult. Players are being trained harder and at younger ages than ever before. Mechanics and biomechanics are terms that every up-and-coming player knows about. Which brings us to the case of hitters using performance-enhancing drugs to get better.
The game is different than it was eighty years ago. If Babe Ruth played today, he would not be the home run hitting machine he was. His bat would be too slow, his eyes wouldn’t be sharp enough and he wouldn’t be able to process the insane combinations of speed and movement on pitches. Hitters today, however, are able to. Why? Because they have been raised to. They have been born into a generation in which the competition is extreme. ‘Practice makes perfect’ is no longer the adage that gets you to the big leagues; it gets you the opportunity to be considered to get to the big leauges. Most high school players are lucky if they can make it into a Division III, II or perhaps even I college program. Some are good enough to even get drafted into the minor leagues right out of high school. Most of these players will never even come close to playing in Major League Baseball. Furthermore, unlike in Ruth’s time, African American players now have an equal opportunity to play professionally. As well, players from Asia and Latin America are quite prevalent in the United States’ professional system. The point? Competition is as fierce as ever—exponentially fiercer than in Ruth’s time—and it will only become more so.
This is why many players turn to performance-enhancing drugs. This is not a defense of their actions; it is a rationalization. They are playing in a different era—the Steroid Era, if you must. There are certainly other reasons players use PED’s, but it is impossible to absolutely know for what specific reason each specific user uses/used.
Times are different. The game is different. If people want to clean up baseball, then do so. Outlaw drugs and enforce testing. But do not punish players for playing during the times they did. They are products of their generation. Is it right? Is it wrong? That’s up to the individual to decide.
One a more newsworthy and specific note:
Mark McGwire did not break any rules when he used steroids. His candidacy for the Hall of Fame should be determined solely on his statistics as compared to comparable players from his generation. If one does not believe that McGwire’s numbers merit enshrinement, then so be it. But to deny the man such an award solely due to the circumstances surrounding his generation is to lack any sense of social progression—it is downright foolish.