True Confessions

Are the Spin Doctors still around, and what does that have to do with baseball? First of all, there are two Spin Doctors, the music group and the PR people. While the musical Spin Doctors may have been heard in more than few baseball stadiums during the 90s, today's lesson is about PR. And here's the lesson...

If it looks like you've done something that will not exactly make you real popular with the media, the fans, other players, management, the Commissioner's Office, umpires, the general public or anyone else you can think of, you better have access to a good Spin Doctor before going public. Or, to put it another way, if you're going to go the "True Confessions" route, it's still a good idea to see the doctor first. For while confession may be good for your soul, it doesn't necessarily make you look good by itself.

Case in point… Mark McGwire. At first blush, you'd think his finally confessing to using PEDs would not only set him free, but might even generate some good PR among Hall of Fame voters. And it might of, if he'd had better Spin Doctors. It seemed as if most of the initial reaction to McGwire's prepared statement to the Associated Press was at least mildly positive. Then he made his big mistake. Or maybe his handlers made a big mistake. Even though Bob Costas is not exactly Mike Wallace as an interviewer, McGwire (in terms of his image) made a major faux pas in submitting to a live interview, wherein, in the great tradition of Al Campanis, Happy Chandler, and who knows how many other baseball figures, he put his foot in his mouth. In this case it was a matter of coming off as less-than-truthful and/or delusional, and thus drawing down the scorn of millions. In case you're interested, the PR moral of this story is; when dealing with controversy, stick with prepared, written statements and keep it short. The more you say, the more chance you have of saying the wrong thing. Do you know what the definition of "is" is?

However, we are not here to discuss steroids, andro, PEDs, HGH, Barry Bonds or any other pharmaceutical wonders. They've been thrashed over to death in the past week or so. We're here to talk about baseball's True Confessions. Some of which worked, and some of which didn't. Mark McGwire's is just the latest in a long baseball tradition.

Since we're talking confessions, we'll start with maybe the most famous of all, Eddie Cicotte's confession in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. Although there were a lot of rumors floating around baseball in 1919 and 1920 that the 1919 Series was fixed, there wasn't anything that would stand up in a court of law until the Sox' ace spilled his guts to a Chicago Grand Jury on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1920, a day after the Sox' final home game in a tense, three team (Cleveland, New York and Chicago) 1920 American League pennant race.

While the timing couldn't have been worse for pinch-penny Sox owner Charles Comiskey, there wasn't much he could do to stop the freight train that was about to flatten him and, by extension, turn the southsiders into a mediocre team for almost 40 years. You see, the day before, Jimmy Isaminger, in the Philadelphia North American, broke what would become the Black Sox story when he reported on an interview/confession he had with one of the fixers, Billy Maharg (who had himself played two games in the majors some years previously.) With the cat out of the bag, Sox manager Kid Gleason brought Cicotte to the offices of Comiskey's mouthpiece, Alfred Austrian where, according the Eliot Asinof's riveting book "Eight Men Out," Cicotte sobbed, "I know what you want… yeah, we were crooked." Cicotte then went directly to the Grand Jury, without passing "GO" and certainly without collecting $200 (he'd already gotten $10,000 before the 1919 Series), and spent two hours and 11 minutes detailing the fix. Probably the most memorable line of the entire proceedings? "I needed the money. I had the wife and kids. The wife and kids don't know about this. I don't know what they'll think… I've lived a thousand years in the last 12 months." Eddie Cicotte was making $6000 a year from the White Sox.

How did Cicotte's True Confession play out? Well, he never went to jail. In fact, his confession, along with that of Shoeless Joe Jackson, mysteriously disappeared from the office of the Illinois State Attorney before the Black Sox went on trial on the summer of 1921. (Actually, it wasn't much of a mystery. Arnold Rothstein, the money man behind the fix, arranged to have them lifted.) More significant to the discussion at hand was the jury's reaction when their acquittal of the Black Sox was announced… they summarily picked up the ballplayers and paraded around the courtroom with them on their shoulders, as if they had indeed actually just won the World Series. Not one of the great moments in American jurisprudence. Then they all went out to a victory dinner together.

Of course, none of this did Cicotte, et al, any good. Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned them from baseball, "regardless of the verdict of juries" before the ink was dry on the legal papers. However, the jury's reaction is interesting in retrospect. Admittedly, these were Chicagoans, and maybe White Sox fans as well; still the celebratory reaction tends to lead one to believe that, at least in some quarters, Comiskey was at the time blamed for the whole affair because of his slave wages, and that Cicotte's dramatic confession went down a lot better with the public than one might have expected.

About five years after Cicotte sang for the Grand Jury, another controversial event took place in the World Series. It was game three of the 1925 Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators. With two outs and nobody on in the top of the eighth, the Pirates' Earl "Oil" Smith sent a Firpo Marberry pitch towards the Griffin Stadium temporary bleachers in right field. Normally, the stands in the Washington ballpark were so far away it would take a Congressional investigation to find them. However, as was not uncommon in this era, to squeeze more fans in Clark Griffith had put up temporary stands, with a four-foot high wall, right on the field. Senators right fielder Sam Rice, himself destined for the Hall of Fame one day, headed back and arrived in front of the temporary wall along with the ball. He jumped up, gloved the ball, and then tried to hurdle the wall. He didn't make it, and head over heels he went, over the wall, into the stands, along with the ball. Long moments later, he re-appeared out of the crowd, and climbed back over the fence, also with the ball. Umpire Charles Rigler called Smith out, preserving the Senators' 4-3 lead. Since that would also be the game's final score, a good case could be made for Rice saving the game for Washington . Or did he?  

As you might expect, the Pirates raised hell, with manager Bill McKechnie and owner Barney Dreyfuss (also both destined for the Hall) even going to Commissioner Landis, who was sitting in the stands, to ask him to overrule Rigler. Landis waved them off, and the call stood. The next day, Landis summoned Rice to his hotel room, and asked him if he indeed had caught the ball. According to legend     , Rice told him, "Judge, the umpire said I did." One thing that is for sure, Rice played it cute the rest of his life, never telling anyone, including his wife and daughter, what happened. However, with a brilliant sense of PR, he left a sealed letter, to be opened by the Hall of Fame after his death. A letter that contained his story of the catch, his True Confession, if you will.

In 1965, Paul Kerr of the Hall opened Rice's letter, which proved to be a detailed account of the catch, concluding with the words, "at no time did I lose possession of the ball." However, Rice's letter also said that he was knocked out briefly when he landed stomach-first in the stands, and subsequently some testimony from fans who were there (and remember, they were Senators fans) has indicated the possibility that someone took the ball, which had fallen out of Rice's glove when he was knocked out, and put it back in his glove. Certainly a Senators fan, if it really happened that way. Whatever happened, it didn't really matter, even before the Judge's audience with Rice, let alone when Rice wrote his letter or when Kerr opened it. What really mattered was that Rice's "catch" was not only one of the great moments in Series history, but was also led to perhaps the greatest confession, and a classic PR moment, in baseball history. Way to keep ‘em interested, Sam. 

Not every confession after the fact works as well as Rice's letter. Maybe Mark McGwire is finding that out now, or maybe the fuss will die down and he'll be forgiven enough to get better than 30 percent of the votes on the Hall of Fame ballot. One confession that really didn't cause that much of a stir took place in 1955, when recently-retired pitcher Preacher Roe sat down with Dick Young and, for the benefit of Sports Illustrated, confessed the reason for his success… the spitball.

"The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch" won Young a prize and Roe a $2000 fee, but it didn't really have that much effect on baseball, outside of a somewhat cursory dismissal from the likes of Commissioner Ford Frick ("I doubt he got away with as much as he says.") and umpire Larry Goetz ("I never once saw him throw a spitter.") Frick did acknowledge that if Roe were still in baseball, some action would be taken (which would have been a shock, since Frick seldom did anything except try to take the home run record away from Roger Maris) against him, but, oh well, he was now retired and beyond baseball's reach. According to Roger Kahn, whose "The Boys of Summer" is the source for this story, Frick's reaction led to an amusing response from Bill Roeder of the New York World Telegram & Sun. Roeder's take on Roe's confession might have been in line with what Roe was looking for, in addition to the $2000, except that Roe later told Kahn (while he was writing the book) that he did it to try and legalize the spitball. Be that as it may, what Roeder wrote was a lot cuter -- that Roe couldn't retire until he was 67, a figure Roeder reached by multiplying the 10-day spitball suspension by 1,000 spitballs, or 27 years worth of baseball purgatory.

What Roeder couldn't have known in 1955 was that 19 years later, another spitball pitcher would make a True Confession, this time in a book, and while he was still active. Preacher Roe's tell-all for SI was the precursor to Gaylord Perry's "Me and the Spitter," which came out in 1974, when Perry was not just still an active pitcher, but one of the best pitchers in baseball. He won 21 games that year for the Indians, and would win a Cy Young Award four years later for the Padres. So how come he wasn't suspended for 27 years? Maybe it was because Bowie Kuhn wasn't thrilled with the idea of banning, or at least punishing, one of the game's bigger stars. Or maybe it was because Perry claimed in the book that he'd come clean (so to speak), that he WASN'T throwing the spitball anymore. The fact is, "Me and the Spitter" is both a brilliant piece of PR, and deception. Perry talked at length about all the ways he had to fake throwing a spitball, and cleverly added that maybe even this book was one of them. In other words, that maybe he still was outside the law, despite what he said in the book. Maybe Perry caused just enough confusion about what he was really doing out there on the mound to let him slip by for 10 more years and win 314 games and gain entrance to the Hall of Fame.

Why wasn't Roe's True Confession a bigger deal? Kahn thinks he knows why. While he notes that certain baseball people and some fans expressed "distaste and disbelief" (e.g.; Frick and Goetz) he also says that he doubts Roe's spitters shocked anybody. Kahn thinks that what outrage there was came from the act of confession itself. "The act of public confession bruised a tender area in the national ethos," he wrote in "The Boys of Summer." And that does make sense. After all, Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton caught some of the very same flack after their seasonal diaries were published, books that were labeled "Kiss and Tell" books, as if that was the worst thing you could do, make a public confession of others' faults as well as your own. (It is worth noting that neither Brosnan nor Bouton spared themselves in telling their stories.)

So it would appear that True Confessions were out of favor in the 1950s and 1960s, especially if you were fair to middling pitchers who were neither very famous to start with, nor destined to be a great record-setter for some other aspect of greatness anyway. Or even a very good pitcher. But what if, past the turn of the century, you were very famous, very good, bound for glory, and the holder of one of the most important records in the history of the game. No, we're not talking about Mark McGwire, we're talking about Pete Rose. Although the space of a week or so doesn't give any historical perspective, it's pretty safe to say that McGwire's True Confession won't generate a tenth of the ink (well, there's not much ink anymore, but you get the idea), to say nothing of a fraction of the angst, caused by "My Prison Without Bars," Rose's True Confession that, yes, he did bet on baseball.

It's not a bad parallel for McGwire's situation. Both were very good, very famous, retired players who at one time seemed bound for glory (i.e., the Hall of Fame) and who each held a very significant record in a game obsessed with records; Rose the career hits mark and McGwire the single season home run standard. (And both records were broken with a maximum of hype and, here's that term again, PR.) Both have also been skewered on the spit of public opinion, although Rose's roasting certainly was, and is, at a level far worse than McGwire is likely to ever feel. The suspicion is that the difference is somewhat a matter of timing.

Who can forget that Rose made one of the biggest PR blunders, not just in baseball history, but in American history. An almost inconceivable screw-up, if for no other reason than Rose had always proved himself remarkably media-savvy during his long career in the admiring spotlight. Nonetheless, Rose brought out his True Confession right BEFORE the announcement of the 2004 Hall of Fame vote, and incurred incalculable wrath for upstaging said voting results… a very strange thing to do for someone who, you have to think, did the book with the goal of getting himself into the Hall of Fame some day. It was as bad a move as if Disney Studios had decided to launch Mickey Mouse during the Black Plague.

In PR, timing is everything. You'll note that McGwire's True Confession came out AFTER the Hall vote was announced. It would be very hard to believe that that was a coincidence. And, if he hadn't subsequently goofed by agreeing to talk to Costas live, it might have worked, at least in terms of upping his HOF voting totals.

Having returned back to McGwire and the Hall of Fame, True Confessions are now far more popular. Maybe Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds will continue their current approaches on their pharmacological histories, but Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte and Jose Canseco, among others, have sung like canaries. Although it's too early to tell how their True Confessions will effect their Hall of Fame chances, or their place in baseball history, it is significant to note that A-Rod, Giambi and Pettitte all 'fessed up during their playing days, and all three seem to have, at this point, reached some level of public acceptance for their transgressions. At least, it seems that way after the initial fallout fell out. Even Giambi's clumsy "I'm sorry" speech seems to have withdrawn somewhat into the background. And, does anyone remember hearing anything bad about A-Rod or Pettitte during last year's World Series?

No, the PR moral of the True Confessions story, as far as PEDs are concerned, seems to be that it's better to come clean while you're still playing. However, it can also be postulated that ultimate forgiveness may be an elusive thing for the truly great and famous; the Pete Roses, Mark McGwires and, if he does break the career home run record, Alex Rodriguez. And maybe that's one reason why Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens haven't said more on the subject. In PR, timing is everything, and that's not good news for Rose and McGwire, nor for Clemens or Bonds.

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