Alcohol has a pervasive influence on baseball. Beer is one of the game's principal TV sponsors and a top-selling concession item. Players crack open cans after the final out, courtesy of the home team. The drinking may go on well into the night, especially if a team is on the road, where there's time to kill and glad-handers galore to buy rounds at the bar.
Until recently heavy drinking was part of baseball's macho tradition, not only tolerated but applauded. When Ralph Houk was manager of the Yankees 20 years ago, he used to say, "I'll take nine whiskey drinkers over nine milk-shake drinkers any day." If a guy was a boozer, so what? He was young and strong, and he could sweat the alcohol out of his system. The only people who seemed to suffer were some ex-players. Potbellied men with veins showing in their faces, they were always dying in their 40s and 50s. A few years ago former major league Pitcher Ryne Duren showed me group shots of former teammates. "This guy drank himself to death," Duren said, pointing to one player. "This fellow died of an alcohol-related sickness. This one died an alcoholic, though the papers said it was heart trouble." Duren, a recovered alcoholic who now helps teams set up alcohol education and prevention programs, wrote an autobiography, The Comeback, in 1978 in which he argued that many players were quietly drinking themselves to death. That warning was little heeded by baseball management.
No longer. Recently three active players—Darrell Porter of the Cardinals, Darrell Jackson of the Twins and Bob Welch of the Dodgers—have been treated for alcohol abuse at The Meadows, a drug clinic in Wittenberg, Ariz. In 1971 former Dodger Pitcher Don Newcombe, a recovered alcoholic, went to work for his old club as Director of Community Relations, and in 1978, started the first formal alcoholism program in baseball with the team's cooperation. He eventually persuaded Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to include the topic of drinking in baseball's drug education program.
A new autobiography, Five O'Clock Comes Early (William Morrow & Co. Inc., $11.50), by Bob Welch and George Vecsey, a sports columnist for The New York Times, ought to be required reading in the program as a sort of primer on alcoholism. It points out that alcohol is a drug (the most-abused one), that only time (not coffee) will wash out its effects, that alcoholics cry out for help in the most subtle ways. Five O'Clock is straightforward, spare and, thankfully, unsentimental. And despite one obvious error—the authors inaccurately assume that active athletes are permitted to make beer commercials—the book ably documents the pernicious side of the baseball-booze relationship.
Alcoholics drink to deny feelings they can't deal with, writes Welch, and ballplayers have stronger, scarier feelings than most people. Why? Because their lives are "too intense." They're viewed as "pieces of meat," not as individuals; injuries can shorten careers and failure can destroy self-esteem so quickly and at such a young age. As Welch says, "In baseball, when somebody is sent to the minors or released, ballplayers often use the term 'He died.' "
Welch's drinking problem was especially acute. He grew up in Detroit, "where they make the cars, but by night they make the bars," as the saying goes. A shy boy, he began drinking to relax around girls and to mask a growing fear of injury and death. By the time he reached the Dodgers in 1978, he was blacking out so often he couldn't even remember his drinking bouts. Welch's cocktail hour began much earlier than five o'clock. He would duck into the clubhouse for beers during games and once arrived at the park drunk and insulted the Giants' Terry Whitfield, a player he barely knew. Under the influence, Welch's pitching declined rapidly, from a star rookie in 1978 to a little-used reliever in 1979. At that rate, Welch believes, he wouldn't have lasted long.
Fortunately, Newcombe was around. "There's a player on the team who drinks two fifths of Scotch a day," he told me during the 1979 season. Newcombe was shadowing Welch and gathering information, standard operating procedure among some rehabilitation workers. Alcoholics can't be cured by hints; they must be confronted. When the Dodgers buttonholed Welch after the 1979 season, the evidence was too overwhelming for him to deny. He agreed to enroll at The Meadows in February 1980.
The chapters on his 36-day stay there are revealing. Welch's therapists immediately went to work uncorking his feelings—the key to plugging his bottle. They brought in his girl friend, his family and two teammates and urged them to confront Welch with ways he had hurt them while drunk. "What are you feeling?" Welch was asked over and over in group therapy. Finally, the dam broke. He shouted, he cried, he lived, he died. And at last he was "reborn"—a Meadows term for recovered.
Duren says, "Mental health has got to come of age in baseball." He's right. Ballplayers have traditionally treated everything around them as jokes: fans, women, writers, even the psychological problems of their peers. But there are signs that things are changing. In 1979 I wrote a story in which Doug DeCinces, then playing for Baltimore, disclosed that he had seen a psychiatrist. Months later I asked DeCinces if he had been ridiculed by opponents after the story appeared. Not only had he been spared, but, he told me, another player had asked him for an introduction to a therapist. And in Welch's case, although the fans have been rough at times, rival dugouts have been notably quiet.