It's hard to know what's actually going to happen between Alex Rodriguez and Major League Baseball, with so many different possibilities swirling around. Anything from a 50-game suspension to trial by combat now seems feasible.
The words "banned from baseball" immediately call to mind Pete Rose, a Hall of Fame-caliber player who's ineligible for that hall -- still a point of contention among fans and people in the game, forgiven by some, a pariah to others -- but still the all-time hits leader, whether you like it or not. And, of course, there's Shoeless Joe Jackson and his fellow Black Sox, banned as a group in 1920, in some cases with excellent reason, in others more dubiously.
When it comes to blacklists and bans, though, those guys are just the most famous cases, the tip of the disreputable iceberg. While they're now extremely rare, in baseball's early days, "bans were handed out like breath mints," as MLB's Official Historian John Thorn put it.
In 1876, the National League's very first year, pitcher and right fielder George Bechtel was banned for life. You can question the justice or fairness of plenty of baseball's bans, but this one seems pretty clear-cut, as Bechtel rather unsubtly sent a telegraph to a Louisville Greys teammate that read, "We can make $500 if you lose the game today."
In fact, players got kicked out even before the NL existed. In 1865, New York Mutuals players Tom Devyr, Ed Duffy and Bill Wansley were barred for accepting the grand sum of $100 to throw a game against the Brooklyn Eckfords. All three were eventually reinstated -- baseball's "lifetime ban" is not always aptly named -- so Bechtel retains the dubious honor of being the first player actually to be banned for life.
"Gambling was great for baseball, until it wasn't," says Thorn. "If not for gambling, baseball would have stayed a game for kids." Be that as it may, by the early 20th century, the whole enterprise was in danger of crumbling under the public's well founded lack of trust. The Black Sox scandal is only the best-known locus of these concerns; we'll never know for sure how many other fixed or thrown games were never discovered.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis had a reputation as a showboat judge, which carried over into his role as baseball's first commissioner from 1920-1944. Landis operated under what Thorn terms a "virus theory," worried that even one corrupt player could infect the whole sport -- he banned poor Dickie Kerr merely for playing offseason exhibition games against banned Black Sox players. There was no recourse back then for banned players, no way to appeal or argue a ban, no union, no independent arbiters.
While eradicating gambling was a worthy goal, banning was also used for the far less savory purpose of punishing players who rebelled against baseball's unfair contract system, the reserve clause, as players like Oscar Walker and Joe Harris can attest. Pitcher Phil Dougles was banned for threatening to ditch the Giants for the Cardinals to spite manager John McGraw, whom he loathed. One of the most glaringly unfair cases is that of Ray Fisher, who quit the Cincinnati Reds in 1921 to coach baseball at Michigan -- after the team cut his salary by $1,000 and refused to release him when asked. Landis banned him. Bowie Kuhn reinstated him in 1980, when he was 93 years old.
The exact number of players who have been tossed out of the game is up for some debate. Baseball-Reference counts 37 outcasts, but that doesn't include guys like St. Louis Browns manager Jack O'Connor and coach Harry Howell, who tried to fix not a game or a playoff series, but rather the 1910 batting title race between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. (O'Connor played Lajoie deep while he repeatedly bunted for hits, while Howell reportedly tried to bribe the official scorer.) They were fired and never played again, though never formally banned as such.
Also missing from that count is Heinie Groh, banned for the briefest of times for having the temerity to hold out in protest of a lousy contract, but that punishment was so clearly conditional that it's questionable to count it as a true "lifetime ban." Hal Chase was repeatedly suspended based on accusations of gambling on and fixing games, but -- rather oddly, in the era of Commissioner Landis -- he was never officially banned, merely effectively blacklisted. Many 19th century players were also blacklisted from the National League for "contract jumping" but went on to play for the American or Federal Leagues.
However precisely you decide to set the parameters, though, it's safe to say the actual "Banned From Baseball" number is close to 40. And again, a "lifetime ban" doesn't always last a lifetime; 13 banned players, by my count, were reinstated. Since Landis' last casualty in 1943, only seven players have been banned, and all of them eventually were reinstated -- except for Pete Rose. The large majority of bans were for gambling, game-fixing or gambling-adjacent offenses -- about 27 players, with a few gray areas. Kuhn infamously banned Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in 1983, well after they had retired and become Hall of Famers, for accepting work as greeters at casinos. Needless to say, that didn't stick.
Only one umpire has ever been banned -- Dick Higham, tossed out after William Thompson, the president of the Detroit Wolverines, hired a private detective to prove that Higham was deliberately calling close decisions against his team. Surely a lot of team officials have felt the same over the years, but Thompson, who was also the mayor of Detroit, turned out to be correct; his detective turned up a letter from Higham to a gambler, offering advice on just when he should and shouldn't bet on the Wolverines.
Two owners have been permanently banned, both of them Phillies owners: Horace Fogel, in 1912, and William B. Cox, in 1943. Cox was tossed on the familiar charge of betting on his team's games. Fogel is unique, however, as the only person ever kicked out of the game for questioning the integrity of the umpires -- and not even involving his own team. Fogel repeatedly alleged that the Giants' 1912 win over the Cubs was due to the league umpires being biased for New York, but unlike the Wolverines' Thompson, Fogel didn't have any evidence, and the league barred him for "undermining the integrity of the game."
Then there's Benny Kauff, the only player to be banished for selling stolen cars.
The most recent cases are a varied bunch. Under commissioner Fay Vincent, George Steinbrenner famously was banned in 1990 for hiring small-time gambler Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield; that one lasted just three years. While Steinbrenner was out, Yankees pitcher Steve Howe was booted after his seventh drug-related suspension but promptly reinstated by an arbiter. And Marge Schott, the only person Bud Selig has ever banned, was an unhinged bigot -- something that wouldn't have gotten her so much as a slap on the wrist, back in Landis' day.
Back then, the game was consumed by worries about game-fixing, and nearly as much by the fear of free agency. Ironically, when free agency arrived, it very nearly eradicated any concerns about gambling; after all, a player making a good salary has far less of an incentive to risk throwing a game. With those two concerns dispatched, baseball now has entirely different things to police. The sport continues to evolve, and as it does, so does its list of exiles.
If Alex Rodriguez were to get banned, he'd have plenty of company, historically speaking. But it would be a very unusual occurrence in modern baseball, and even more unusual if the ban actually stuck. He would be the first player ever banned for PEDs -- though not the first for being caught with illegal substances. That would be Fergie Jenkins, who was banned in 1980 for cocaine and marijuana -- and who's now in the Hall of Fame. Lifetime bans aren't what they used to be.