It’s no coincidence that the baseball card boom of the late 1980’s and early 90’s happened alongside what has come to be known as The Steroid Era. As home runs launched out of ballparks, mainstream media outlets like ESPN packed their nightly shows and recaps with home run highlights and fans across the country tuned in to follow along. Larger-than-life characters like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire not only stood out on the field, but their comic book physiques absolutely popped in card photos and enthusiasts everywhere bought packs by the box in order to collect the latest big fly bopper.
Fans now know that the home run explosion that occurred in MLB was not due solely to the combination of league expansion and the replacement of cavernous multipurpose stadiums with smaller, hitter friendly ballparks, as was the standard talking point. Rather, it was a combination of those things along with increased use of performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids and amphetamines that built the foundation for baseball’s greatest offensive era.
Players across the league took advantage of MLB’s lack of regulation to exploit the recovery and strength benefits afforded by these substances to post offensive numbers never before seen. Marginal players became feared bench players worthy of high-dollar contracts; mid-tier players put up career-best numbers; and bonafide superstars became unstoppable juggernauts who re-wrote baseball history.
One of the great outlier statistical seasons during this era is Baltimore Orioles CF/leadoff hitter Brady Anderson’s 1996 season. Anderson, previously known for being a speedy CF with 15-20 HR/season power, posted what was at the time only the 15th 50+ HR season in baseball history just one season after hitting a then career-best 18 dingers in 1995.
This isn’t to say that Anderson wasn’t a notable player before 1996. In fact, Brady Anderson was regarded among the best CF in the AL. An All-Star in 1992, Anderson became the first American League player in history to have 20+ HR, 75+ RBI, and 50+ SB in a season.
After a strong-if-not-spectacular 1993 season, the strike-shortened 1994 season would see Anderson set a record by successfully stealing 31 bases in 32 attempts. In 1995, he would be even better on the basepaths, by setting a new AL mark with 36 consecutive successful stolen bases. Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr, a long-time teammate of Brady Anderson, called him the best athlete he (Ripken) ever played with. Ultimately, Anderson’s Orioles career was so outstanding that he won election into the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame in 2004.
But in a historical context, Brady Anderson’s 1996 season moved him into the realm of baseball’s elite, as he became the first player ever have both a 50+ home run season and a 50+ steal season (53 in 1992) in their career.
Just how much did Anderson’s 1996 production impact his career numbers? The 50 home runs Brady Anderson hit in 1996 account for just under 25% of the 210 career home runs accumulated over the course of his 15-year career.
As a result of his exploits, Anderson achieved a level of stardom that he hadn’t previously experienced. Anderson’s good looks, stylish long sideburns, and well-known gift of gab made him a popular subject among media outlets around the country. In 1996, there were a spate of published pieces detailing everything from Anderson’s workout routine to his relationship with Belgian model Ingrid Vandebosch (who interestingly enough would later marry NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon).
But as the inquiring mind of the sports media began to scrutinize not just Anderson’s otherworldly production but MLB’s seemingly endless parade around the basepaths, the 1997 season would seem to offer Anderson the opportunity to prove the doubters wrong by continuing to hit the cover off the ball as he did in 1996.
Unfortunately for Anderson, that didn’t happen.
While the Orioles would follow up their 1996 playoff run with an AL East title in 1997 and reward Anderson with a brand new 5-year, $31 million deal, Anderson’s regression to numbers which more closely resembled his typical production happened immediately.
Anderson fell back to 18 home runs in both 1997 and 1998. Anderson would rebound to hit 24 round-trippers in his age-35 season of 1999 but never again would Anderson top even that number in a season. Anderson’s production would continue to slide as age and injury caught up to the man once known for being uncatchable, and the Orioles would release Anderson after the 4th year of his 5-year contract.
Truthfully, even while it was happening, something felt unique about Anderson’s offensive explosion of 1996 and more than just fans eyes stared intently at Anderson’s plate appearances.
Anderson’s season totals caused many officials and reporters to finally give credence to the notion that there might be more than juiced baseballs at play. One might argue that from here, the investigatory snowball would begin to roll down hill and the subsequent findings would change the game forever.
I’m not here to litigate anything or damn anyone. Whatever happened, happened and the game learned from and is better for it.
Realistically, MLB itself directly benefitted from turning an extended blind eye towards a situation that was identified very early on and is culpable as well.
Stadiums were packed with fans rabid for the long ball.
Baseball cards flew off shelves as fast as they were stocked.
TV contracts increased and star players were more famous than ever.
Owners handed out contracts with attached dollar amounts which were unheard-of not 5 years before.
So, if MLB is going to look the other way and make stacks of money as a result, why not get your bag as well?
In a world where the size of your paycheck is directly tied to the amount of your production, some players will look for any advantage they can get.
While there was never any conclusive evidence that Brady Anderson took steroids or any other PED’s, and Anderson himself has repeatedly denied any allegations of use, I honestly can’t fault him or anyone who did.
Thanks for reading!