The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven; Reflecting on Baseball’s Cocaine Era

In the late 70′s and 80′s cocaine was king in Major League Baseball.  Some estimated up to 40%  of players were on coke, including some of the game’s biggest stars.  However, when the federal government stepped in,  it wasn’t the million-dollar athletes who took the fall.  Seven “jock-sniffing” fans were hit with hundreds of charges, while the players were given immunity.  The scandal culminated in the Pittsburgh drug trials, where the credibility of Major League Baseball was at put at stake. Author Aaron Skirboll wrote about this dark era in baseball history in his book, The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven: How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball. The Legal Blitz asked Skirboll a few questions about his book and the MLB’s first drug scandal.

How bad was the cocaine problem in baseball in the late 70’s early 80’s?  Do you believe the estimates of up to 40% of players were using cocaine?

This thing was big. If something like this happened today, the media would be on it non-stop. But in a time before internet and ESPN, once the dangers of cocaine became more apparent and accepted– I mean this was a drug that in the seventies, some were still considering it non-addictive— once the players moved on, like society, the story just kind of died. But the cocaine use, the drug use was indeed widespread. Whether it was 40% like Hernandez stated under oath, I don’t know. But whenever there’s a pennant race going in mid-September and a practical all-star team is in a courtroom in Pittsburgh, including two former MVP’s, discussing their drug problem explicitly and openly, then I think as a league, you have a fairly big problem. The testimony was jaw dropping. Keith Hernandez testified to waking up one morning with a bloody nose, the shakes, and his weight down ten pounds. He testified to using during a game. Lonnie Smith couldn’t play one game because of the jitters. Others spoke of playing wired, hungover- it was a mess. When Peter Ueberroth took over the Commissioner’s reigns from Bowie Kuhn in October of ’84, he cited the drug issue as the biggest problem in the game. He feared that drug use could create more problems for the game than the Black Sox scandal.

Who were some of the big name players using the drug?

Dave Parker, Lonnie Smith, Hernandez, Enos Cabell, Dale Berra, John Milner, and Jeffrey Leonard testified at the cocaine trial of Curtis Strong which was the center piece of what’s known as the Pittsburgh Drug Trials. Willie Mays and Willie Stargell’s name were both mentioned in court as amphetamine (greenies) users, accusations both legends denied. Other big names using drugs at the time were Vida Blue, Willie Wilson, Joaquin Andujar, and Tim Raines, with Raines famously declaring that he used to slide headfirst on the base-paths in order to protect the vial of cocaine he carried in his back pocket.

Who were the Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven?  How did they differ from the stereotypical drug dealers? What was their relationship with the players?

Seven men arrested in ’85 for dealing to MLB players. The headline in one of the newspapers the day following the arrests adequately describes them… “Seven ‘Fans’ Arrested on Cocaine Charges.”

The subtitle of the book is, “How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball.”  Do you think this is a fair characterization?  They were dealing with a fairly large amount of drugs, weren’t they more than just fans?

A couple of heating repairmen, a couple guys still living with their mothers… it definitely wasn’t the big-time arrests many expected after a year of speculation, including the possibility of player arrests. As one of the reporters who covered the case told me of her reaction, which she said was typical of the rest, “Geez, that’s it?” It all was being pinned on “these schmucks from the South Hills for selling bags of coke.” They were described as wannabes and starstruck, guys who felt important because they were hanging out with their hometown team. A few were moving weight, and they might have got pinched at some time in the future, but they were investigated and arrested at the time because of the stature of their clients.

How did they eventually all get busted?

The FBI became involved after a series of events in the spring of 1984. One of which was an outing by Pirates relief pitcher Rod Scurry in San Diego. Called in to protect a 6-3 lead, Scurry threw eight straight balls, walking a pair of batters wildly, with three pitches almost hitting the Padres’ Graig Nettles. He told reporters following the contest that “the plate was jumping.” Later that night, he’d go on to tear apart his hotel room, in a fit of paranoid hallucinations… invisible cameras, imaginary snakes. He was put on the DL and shipped off to rehab the next day. When FBI agents questioned him following rehab he gave them a pretty good blueprint and start as to what was going on inside of baseball.

The standard way the government handled drug cases was by granting immunity to buyers, in order to get the dealers.  This meant the players got immunity in exchange for their testimony.  How did this impact the public perception of the operation? How did it affect the perception of the players?

It was hard for the public to accept. Sort of the rich get a slap on the wrist and the poor get prison. Pampered athlete versus the bartender. It didn’t sit well. But if twas poor man vs. poor man, yes it probably would have been handled the same way. The problem the seven arrested men had was not with being arrested so much, they understood that they’d broken the law, it was the fact that the ballplayers were all getting off scot free, across the board, and the dealers thought many of these athletes were doing the same thing, which in many cases amounted to being the middleman in transactions— one guy going to pick up drugs for the rest, which the ballplayers certainly did.

Only one of the Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven took their case to trial.  The United States v. Curtis Strong, was a media sensation.  Talk about the atmosphere surrounding the trial, and whether Major League Baseball was actually on trial.

Two of the seven went to trial. Another gentleman, Robert McCue’s trial followed Strong’s but it wasn’t quite the sensation as the first, with only a pair of players testifying. I think the McCue trial really epitomized how small some of these cases actually were, as the whole affair involved a matter of $760 dollars. While, as some of the attorneys mentioned, there could be a case involving millions of dollars against Columbian drug lords and a handful of spectators might be in attendance. While on the contrary, the Strong trial was an absolute circus. The joke was that the trial was practically outdrawing the lowly Pirates, who were in the midst of a 100+ loss season. Strong became the forgotten man at his own trial, with his name sometimes not being mentioned for hours at a time, while the ballplayers were the stars of the show.

Defense attorney for Curtis Strong, Adam Renfroe, is one of the most colorful personalities in the book.  Tell us about his defense strategy and his approach as a lawyer.

I stand corrected, Adam Renfroe was the absolute star of the show. Even the US Attorneys said they got a kick out of him, not at the time of course, but now looking back, there’s no denying Renfroe put on a show. He’d keep government witnesses on the stand for hours at a time, asking questions about Dave’s Parker’s Rolex and alligator shoes. His defense strategy was to take the focus off his client and place it squarely on the players. In his opening statement, Renfroe set the stage for what would follow, declaring that not only was major league baseball on trial, but the poor man, as well. He’d go out of his way to inconvenience the players, for instance, insisting on lunch recess in mid-testimony, just so a player would have to spend more time in Pittsburgh and delay their return to their team.

Would Renfroe have been wiser to advise his client to plea guilty?

As prominent attorney, Sam Reich, who represented many of the players involved in this case told me, “The Strong case was a case that cried out for a plea bargain… the trial killed him.” Although, this was, in no way, an attempt to take anything away from Renfroe’s aptitude as a defense attorney, as he was praised by Reich, “some of the most outstanding trial skills of any defense lawyer that I”ve ever seen in action,” as well as his foes in the U.S. Attorneys Office who spoke highly of him as well. But Renfroe knew the stage, this trial, would be big, and the one word that kept coming up when speaking of the attorney was “grandstander.”  Of course, there’s also the side story that Renfroe would later admit to having a cocaine problem himself, a sixteen year habit, which included his role here.

Did the steroid era prove that Major League Baseball learned very little from this scandal?

Having learned of this trial years ago, that’s the one thing I always wondered as the steroid problem was being unveiled. But like I said, if this all went down today, it seems probable that maybe they would have dealt with things a little differently, but since the story was allowed to fade away by media and the public, MLB certainly wasn’t going to shine a light on things. With respect to the drug issue, the league has always played a reactive rather than proactive role.

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