When one thinks of cheating in today’s game, the issue of steroids is the first to come to mind. With steroids, excuses inevitably follow. We’ve heard players say they believed they were taking B-12 shots, or ordinary dietary supplements, or most preposterously, flaxseed oil.
Nearly three and a half decades ago, a different kind of cheating took place at Shea Stadium, where the Yankees were playing home games during the renovation of Yankee Stadium. This category of cheating may have been different, but the explanation offered after the game was no less ludicrous.
It was September 7, 1974. I like to call it the day that the "Super Balls" went flying, even though the balls were hardly intact. Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles became the epicenter of the controversy. So what exactly happened that Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium, as Nettles and the New Yorkers hosted the Tigers? The two teams actually played a doubleheader that day, with the first game taking place without incident. Nettles did hit a home run in the lidlifter, but his bat didn’t break and he was not charged with, or even suspected of, having used a doctored bat. His two-run shot, however, couldn’t prevent the Yankees from dropping an 8-3 decision to the Tigers, who pounded Yankee starter Rudy May for six runs in three and one-third innings. Detroit’s Bill Freehan hit a home run of his own, part of a 2-for-5 effort as the Tigers’ cleanup man.
The real fun didn’t start until the second game, as left-handers Woodie Fryman and Larry Gura (in perhaps his lone highlight as a member of the Yankees; boy, Billy Martin hated him) engaged in a compelling pitchers’ duel. With the game scoreless in the bottom of the second, Nettles stepped to the plate against Fryman, who was usually brutal against left-handed hitters. On this occasion, Nettles found his way against Fryman, connecting on a home run. Once again, the bat did not break, and the Tigers expressed no suspicion that Nettles had done anything to alter or doctor the bat.
Well, those suspicions finally began to bubble during Nettles’ next at-bat, which came in the bottom of the fifth inning. Nettles took a swing and nicked one of Fryman’s pitches with the end of his bat, blooping a single into the outfield. While Nettles stood at first, thinking he had picked up his second hit of the game, he also realized that something was wrong. At the moment of contact with the ball, the top of his bat had come flying off the barrel, which was an unusual way for a bat to break into two pieces. Bill Freehan, the Tigers’ longtime catcher, also noticed something out of place, specifically with the larger piece of discarded wood that lay near home plate. Freehan recognized that the inside of the stained brown bat contained a foreign substance, a fact to which he alerted home plate umpire Lou DiMuro. After inspecting the bat, DiMuro called Nettles out for using an illegal bat.
Curiously, some of the newspaper reports of the day (including one in the New York Times) claimed that Freehan and DiMuro had found cork in the bat, but it was actually small pieces of rubber Super Balls that had been inserted into the center of the bat, which had been hollowed out with a drill. (There’s an urban legend that entire balls came bouncing out of the bat, but that is sadly untrue.) Although cork has always been the illegal substance of choice when it comes to filling a bat, any substance other than wood qualifies as illegal, making Nettles a clear-cut "criminal" in this case.
Nettles offered a rather curious explanation when asked about the offending bat. "I didn’t know there was anything in the bat," Nettles told Murray Chass of the New York Times. "That was the first time I used it." Nettles went on to explain that the bat was not one that he ordinarily used. "Some Yankee fan in Chicago gave it to me. He said it would bring me luck. I guess he made it," Nettles claimed, maintaining a straight face throughout his convoluted explanation. According to Nettles, he had previously been using a bat owned by teammate Walt "No-Neck" Williams over the past three days, and selected the "fan’s bat" by accident. "I picked this one up by mistake," Nettles said sheepishly, trying to maintain some semblance of innocence during the reporters’ interrogation. "It looked the same [as Williams’ bat] and felt the same. As soon as the end came off, I knew there was something wrong with it."
While most of the New York and Detroit writers covering the doubleheader viewed Nettles’ explanation with skepticism, Tiger players showed even less willingness to give Nettles the benefit of the doubt. "I’m sure that was the same bat he used when he hit the homer," said Freehan, who knew all about illegal at-bats from his association with Tigers teammate Norm Cash, an admitted bat-corker throughout the 1961 season and most likely later in his career. "I used to see Norm Cash do it a lot," Freehan told Jim Hawkins of The Sporting News. "Actually what it does is give you better wood. You get better wood in a heavy bat than you do in a light one." (Incidentally, Cash didn’t play in either end of the doubleheader against the Yankees, sitting out against left-handers May and Gura in favor of young right-handed hitting first baseman Reggie Sanders, no relation to the former Royals outfielder.)
In contrast to Cash, Freehan pointed out that Nettles seemed to use a unique process in putting together his tampered bat. "Nettles did it differently than I’ve ever seen it done before," Freehan told The Sporting News. "It looked like he had sawed the end off, drilled a hole and put the cork in, then glued the two pieces back together. It came apart because he hit the ball on the end."
Like Freehan, Tigers manager (and former Yankee skipper) Ralph Houk didn’t seem to believe Nettles either, while at the same time defending his own team. "We never cheat," said Houk, perhaps temporarily forgetting about Cash’s presence on his roster. "I don’t know if [Nettles] used it for the home run, but I assume he did." Yet, according to baseball rules, the umpires had no power to take away Nettles’ home run because of suspicion that he might have been using an illegal bat at that point in the game.
The umpire’s reaction to the fifth-inning discovery of the illegal bat provides some interesting discussion for debate. Although DiMuro called Nettles out and nullified his bloop single, he did not eject Nettles from the game. That ruling differed from almost all other subsequent illegal bat incidents, in which the player received an immediate ejection from the premises. The response of the American League proved even more stupefying. The league chose not to suspend Nettles, not even for a single game, even though he had clearly been caught with the incriminating goods.
Unlike the variety of players who have been suspended for failing steroids tests (and other players who have been caught with illegal bats), Nettles was allowed to continue playing out the American League schedule uninterrupted. Perhaps it was a kinder and gentler time in baseball history, or perhaps baseball officials were far more gullible than they are today when it comes to listening to players’ excuses. Or maybe there was something amusing—perhaps even romantic—about players filling their bats with cork and rubber.
Thirty four years after the fact, Nettles can laugh about both the incident and his absurd explanation. In the meantime, few people are laughing about steroids. Is it a case of a double standard, or time healing all wounds, or are they two completely different matters? Let the debate begin.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including The Team That Changed Baseball. He writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.