Abstract: Bionic Ballplayers: The Contractual Construction of Fitness in Major League Baseball, 1963-2004

Sarah Rose and Joshua Salzmann


Why have professional ballplayers come under fire for using steroids when other career-enhancing medical innovations, such as "Tommy John surgery," have been celebrated? The contemporary debate over steroids is not only a matter of morality, but also one of political economy. This paper draws on archival research, and oral histories conducted with Nolan Ryan, Jim Bouton, and Dr. Frank Jobe. Changes in the business of baseball during the 1970s created economic incentives for players, owners, and medical professionals to manage players' bodies in radically different ways. Before the advent of salary arbitration in 1974 and free agency in 1976, baseball players were essentially disposable parts in a high-risk work environment. But by driving players' salaries into the millions, the free agent market dramatically altered the economics of bodily management. With more money invested in players' bodies, owners, players, and trainers increasingly used the disabled list, intensive medical interventions, fitness training and, eventually, steroids to enhance and prolong players' careers and enrich players and owners alike. In effect, this interplay between economics and medicine created what we call "bionic ballplayers." The product of both biology and biotechnology, bionic ballplayers were bigger, stronger and, in some respects, more fragile than their predecessors.