More on the “Jose Canseco milkshake”

I just wanted to follow up the post I wrote last night – “What current HOFer did Tom Boswell see mix a “Jose Canseco milkshake”?” – with some additional thoughts on the “milkshake” and the alleged HOF PED-user. Thanks to Rob Neyer and Craig Calcaterra, there has been a pretty decent discussion around the web about the piece and who the HOFer may or may not be. There’s also been plenty of talk about how a milkshake isn’t a very viable means of steroids ingestion – and, that, in fact, a milkshake (sans steroids) would be a very normal and legal thing for someone to take who was trying to bulk up through a weight-lifting regimen.

Everyone makes good points, and I’m not disputing anything. As I said in the post, Boswell’s claim, and the way in which it was said, could very easily be inaccurate, imprecise, or just plain incorrect. A ten-second sound byte isn’t enough evidence for anything. I only wrote the piece because it seemed pretty clear to me that Boswell felt like he was admitting steroids use by a Hall of Famer, even if it did come out imprecisely. If what he was trying to say was true, I wanted to figure out who the candidates could even be, since we don’t have too many post-Canseco Hall of Famers.

“Jose Canseco milkshake” is not new

Looking around the web, I quickly realized that the “Jose Canseco milkshake” phrase is not new. Here’s a book published in 1993 where they call the phrase one of the best insults in the history of the game. Boswell first mentioned the phrase back in 1988, when he made his very first accusations against Canseco. It clearly meant “steroids”; there’s no confusion about whether these were shakes designed to increase mass or not.

Here’s a quote from the October 5, 1988, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle:

(Click “Read More” to continue reading.)

Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post writer who dropped such strong hints about Jose Canseco and steroids, didn’t appear for the midafternoon workouts at Fenway Park yesterday. The Post office had no idea as to his whereabouts but said he was “en route” to Boston, where the A’s and Red Sox open the American League Championship Series tonight.

When he does arrive, he’ll have some explaining to do. A lot of people are outraged about Boswell’s comments on CBS-TV’s “Nightwatch” program last Wednesday, and there remains the possibility of legal action by Canseco and his representatives.

Boswell, long regarded as one of America’s most eloquent baseball writers, accused Canseco of using steroids to bulk up to 230 pounds. “He’s the most conspicuous example of a player who made himself great with steroids,” Boswell told “Nightwatch” host Charlie Rose. “I’ve heard players, when they’re talking about steroid use, call it a `Jose Canseco milkshake.”‘

Boswell’s reputation among writers is that of an entertaining conversationalist who can occasionally get carried away. “Last year, he flatly stated that the Twins won the A.L. West because they were stealing signs,” said a Twin Cities writer. “That was all very interesting, except he had no factual basis whatsoever.”

The first mention of the Charlie Rose interview is in newspapers like the USA Today on September 30, 1988. Other newspaper articles from that week, including those penned by the Associated Press, add a few extra details. From the October 1, 1988, Orlando Sentinel:

On the program, Boswell also said Oakland Manager Tony LaRussa told him earlier this year that he thought Canseco had made “some mistakes” early in his career.

Boswell, who said other American League players call steroids a “Jose Canseco milkshake,” said it was clear LaRussa was talking about steroid use. But LaRussa said he was talking about playing mistakes.

Other mentions that I can find of the phrase “Jose Canseco milkshake” all seem to be in reference to the Charlie Rose interview. There are no other interviews or articles that I’ve found where Boswell elaborates on the story or even quotes it again (though I’d want to dig deeper before saying that with certainty).

Old vs. New

That doesn’t mean that the Ken Burns quote isn’t new news, though. If the Charlie Rose interview is the only source for the phrase before last night, then Boswell certainly did add some details for us. It’s not just that “other American League players” called steroids a “Canseco milkshake”, it’s that a current Hall of Famer who hit more home runs than he ever had before called the steroids that he took a “Canseco milkshake”. It does kind of change our timeline, though, since it seems pretty obvious that Boswell heard the phrase in 1988, and not 1990 or 1991. Does that make Dawson our number one suspect now? Or does that just further call into question the other details of the quote?

We certainly cannot ignore the imprecision of Boswell’s language or even the gap in time between the two quotes. In 1988, when Boswell spoke with Charlie Rose, the details of all of this were fresh in his mind. Twenty years later (or twenty-one or twenty-two, depending on when the interview was recorded), it’s possible that the details of the story could have been forgotten or blended in with other stories, events, investigations. The fact that he was unwilling to name names in 1988, or even provide further detail other than “players call it a ‘Jose Canseco milkshake'”, only makes things hard for us today – it does not, however, mean that Boswell’s recent story is untrue.

What do I think?

I wish I knew for sure, but my guess would be that Boswell did see a player mix together a “Jose Canseco milkshake” back in 1988 and that Boswell knew that, whatever that “milkshake” actually was, it was mixed with steroids. The fact that the players referred to it as a “milkshake” does not mean that it was an actual shake. I believe that, eventually, this player that Boswell witnessed was elected into the Hall of Fame. I do not necessarily believe that this future Hall of Famer went on to hit his career best in home runs in 1988 (though it could have happened at a later time).

Is Rickey still the prime candidate?

I’m not so sure anymore that he would be at the top of the list based only on Boswell’s statements. He was playing in New York in 1988, and had been there since 1985. The potential for collaborating with Canseco drops a lot because of that. Rickey definitely would have had friends on the A’s at that time, though, so some off-season fraternizing would be reasonable. Plus, he wouldn’t need to be friends with Canseco directly to have it rub off on him; if a pal of his in the Oakland clubhouse learned something from Canseco, it’d be pretty easy for that word to get to Rickey in New York. And let’s not forget that Rickey is originally from Oakland.

All of that is pretty baseless speculation, though. By limiting our timeframe to 1988, the suspects all fall down to the same level. None of them were teammates of Canseco and all of them played in another part of the country. Dawson, Cal, Sandberg, and Rickey are all just as likely as the other, but we now also have Robin Yount and Reggie Jackson and Carlton Fisk and every other Hall of Famer who was still active in 1988 as suspects. Some of these new suspects are more likely than others, of course (Mike Schmidt retired in mid-1989 and admitted recently that, if steroids were around when he was playing, he probably would’ve used them), but none of them can be discounted out of hand.

Now what?

So, did I just completely invalidate that whole post from last night? I don’t think so. As I said above, Boswell clearly seems to believe that he has first-hand knowledge of a current Hall of Famer using steroids. Maybe the details that he expressed are slightly fuzzy due to age, but he’s not lying to us. There are only 16 non-pitchers currently in the Hall who played a game after Jose Canseco joined the league. Most of these guys were too old by 1988 to be serious suspects, which means that the list I provided yesterday is still a pretty solid starting point. And, once you start there, you end up with pretty much the same list of three or four guys at the top even considering the “new” details. Putting Rickey – or any single, specific person – in the #1 spot might be a mistake, though.

My biggest wish would be for Boswell to speak out about this more. I’m not a big fan of making accusations or sorting through a list of suspects looking for the most guilty. We know so little about what goes on off of the field and in the off-season that it’s all pretty much meaningless. But Tom Boswell isn’t one to make accusations. He knows something, and he’s known it for over twenty years. Even if he doesn’t want to name the player due to journalistic integrity or plain old friendship & loyalty, he still owes it to the sporting world to give us more details and to explain why he’s been sitting on the news for two decades when, in 1988, he felt it an important enough story to break with Charlie Rose. If he could do that, then maybe we would all see this whole steroids issue in a completely new light.

I don’t think I’m holding my breath, though.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.