The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven by Aaron Skirboll

I wanted to like this book. I actually wanted to love this book. But ultimately I was let down. The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven by Aaron Skirboll is a book that, like a biography of Dave Parker, has been practically begging to be written. Skirboll wrote it and did a credible job. However, he could’ve done a lot more with it. This reminds me of someone who was writing a term paper on a tight deadline. Some obvious connections were left out and the result is a good story that is only partially told.

If that sounds harsh, I don’t mean to be quite so critical. In fact, I would encourage everyone and anyone who loves baseball to go out and purchase this book because quite simply this tale has not been told in full before in print. Skirboll does a very good job piecing together the story of the the jock sniffers – Dale Shiffman, Kevin Koch, Curtis Strong and four others – who wind up providing cocaine to various players throughout the league. Koch was the first Pirate Parrot. Shiffman was his best buddy. Strong was the Phillies caterer. Another – Shelby Greer – happened to meet Dave Parker on an airplane. Two other men got hooked up with John Milner at a bar that he frequented. The total number of people who served time for providing drugs to the Pirates was eight. But Strong wasn’t from Pittsburgh. Hence the title.

Skirboll also more than adequately goes through the trial process. Most of the men plea bargained. But Strong went to trial and it was in that court room where many names were named. Notably Willie Stargell and Willie Mays were mentioned as sources of aphetamines.

But this book lacks in several places. First, only a couple of former players who were users – Lonnie Smith, Al Holland and Dave Parker – were interviewed. No clean Pirates of the day (Jim Morrison, Johnny Ray and Tony Pena for example) other than Don Robinson (and Jim Rooker who was long retired by 1985) were interviewed for the book. Did Skirboll attempt to track them down? Did they other players refuse to talk with him about the subject? He is silent on the issue. But it is a gaping hole in narrative of the book – the voice of the active player whose clubhouse was literally turned into a drug den is missing.

Also missing is a discussion of how quickly the drug of choice came to be considered highly dangerous. In 1986 the #2 pick in the NBA draft Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. Eight days later, Cleveland Brown Donnie Rogers died from a heart attack related to cocaine. I would imagine most baseball players had seen the damage that cocaine had done to the careers of several players (Rod Scurry and Dale Berra come to mind). With Bias and Rogers passing away, many had to realize that their lives were also possibly at stake. While this certainly didn’t scare everyone straight, it likely curtailed cocaine usage without a testing program in place. Skirboll doesn’t address Rogers or Bias at all. In regard to the fall of 1986, Skirboll writes on page 213, “Then something unexpected happened. Everything on the drug front went eerily quiet. By October it was World Series time…” That silence was undoubtedly due to players coming to their senses. Their paycheck and their life was potentially on the line. It was time to stop abusing. But Skirboll ignores this and with the voice of the active player absent, there is no discussion on what effect the death of two star athletes had on the mindset of the partying MLBer. Skirboll does mention the drug related deaths of Scurry (in some disturbing detail), Alan Wiggins and Eric Show. Those untimely passings came long after the final witness was sworn in at Strong’s trial. Bias and Rogers passed away while the topic was still hot.

He also makes a huge leap in suggesting that if MLB had been able to get mandatory drug testing into the collective bargaining agreement that getting mandatory steroid testing would have been simpler. I disagree. As noted above, the push for mandatory cocaine testing died off as it was obvious that cocaine was on its way out as a drug of choice. Had it been included in the CBA, expanding testing to performance enhancing drugs would’ve required both sides – owners and players – to want testing. To be blunt, neither side wanted steroid testing until public outcry was enormous. And at that point, both sides came together to get steroid testing in the CBA. But in 1993 or 1996 or 1999 or whenever steroid use became more common than not, the players and owners were both raking in money. No one was pushing for PED testing. So even with a comprehensive test for coke, getting streroids tested for simply wouldn’t have happened because there wasn’t a great impetus for it. During the mid 1980s the owners wanted drug testing. The players – citing privacy – didn’t. 10 years later, neither side was interested in steroid testing.

While Skirboll makes the leap from coke to steroids, what he doesn’t tackle is the leap from amphetamines to cocaine. It has been cited too often in the past not to be mentioned, but Jim Bouton’s Book Ball Four sent the National Pastime’s drug and alcohol problems straight into the open. Despite the mention of amphetamines during the strong trial, Skirboll doesn’t dive into baseball’s very weak attempt at ridding the game of greenies in the early 1970s. Chuck Dobson, for example, went on record stating he used greenies prior to a start in 1970. He was told firmlly by commissioner Bowie Kuhn to retract the statement, which he eventually did. Baseball had a history of turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to what Bouton describes as performance enabling drugs, like amphetamines. None of the Kuhn’s feeble attempts to rid the game of baseball of greenies or his equally unsuccessful attempts at preventing such knowledge of becoming public is discussed.

Finally, I have to question Skirboll’s knowledge of the Pirates performance during the cocaine era. He writes of the team’s struggles at the gate and in the standings: With the team up for sale and suffering from poor attendance, not to mention an image problem that had some calling their stadium the National League drugstore, the Pirates responded with a series of odd moves. First, on May 23 they fired general manager Harding Peterson…

Unless Skirboll is a personal friend of the Peterson family, I don’t see how that could be considered an odd move. Peterson had run the team into the ground. Empty drafts and poor trades had left the team devoid of hitting talent. They were in last place and the fault belonged mostly to Peterson. He deserved to be canned. There are no two ways about it. If it was odd, it was only odd in that it was overdue and took too long to happen.

I would also love to see – but costs probably prevent it – a full transcript of player testimony during the Strong trial. Word-for-word. Let’s see all of it.

Skirboll, in painting the tale of the 1979 Pirates, notes that Pittsburgh acquired Tim Foli from the Mets one month into the season. It was earlier than that. That’s a minor, nit-picky issue. But I have to wonder who is doing the fact checking.

As I stated earlier, despite some issues – notably the lack of interviews with contemporary players and the leap into the steroids issue – this book is a good one. It is indexed properly and Skirboll’s has referenced his research appropriately with a complete bibliography.

Overall, this book is worth purchasing. It is also worth having someone more thoroughly write this story in the coming years.


Enjoy this story? Pirates Prospects will be switching to a subscription site on 4/13, so that we can continue bringing you the best Pirates coverage there is. For a very small monthly price, you can continue getting articles like this, along with coverage from every minor league city. Get more information here, and subscribe today!

Share This Article

Randy Linville

Randy is currently living and thriving in suburban Dayton, OH with his wife and two kids. He was raised in Cincinnati, OH and attended Anderson High School. He went to Miami University (Ohio) and received a degree in Paper Science Engineering from MU. He is a devout Christian and a pop culture buff. He coaches his son’s baseball and basketball teams and his daughters softball and basketball teams. Randy has been a Pirates fan since the late 1970s and has fond memories of the 1979 World Series team. He began blogging for Most Valuable Network in 5/2004 after stumbling across a help-wanted sign for a Pirates blogger. He wrote for Pittsburgh Lumber Co. until the site merged with Pirates Prospects in 2/2011.

Fans Scouting Report

Next Story »

Wilson Dominates As Curve Take Game 3

Latest Analysis

  • Gregory Polanco

    Q&A: Trading Prospects For Rentals, Polanco Concerns, Meadows vs Appel

    9 hours ago

    I missed the Q&A last week due to a common problem in Spring Training: I forgot what day it was. It was around 6:00 that I was ...

    Read More
  • Nick Kingham f

    Improving His Two-Seam Fastball will Make Nick Kingham a More Effective Pitcher

    1 day ago

    With Jameson Taillon returning from Tommy John surgery, and unlikely to make an impact at the Major League level early in the year, the top prospect to ...

    Read More
  • Arquimedes Caminero 3

    The Roster Situations That Could Impact the Makeup of the Pirates Bullpen

    4 days ago

    There are less than two weeks remaining in Spring Training, and the one area where the Pittsburgh Pirates had actual position battles is heating up. There were ...

    Read More
  • Jordan Luplow

    How the Pirates are Trying to Stay Ahead of the Curve With the New Draft Rules

    4 days ago

    The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement brought a lot of changes to Major League Baseball. The biggest change for the Pittsburgh Pirates came in the draft. From 2008-2011, ...

    Read More
  • Alen Hanson

    The Key For Alen Hanson to Help the Pirates in the Majors This Year

    5 days ago

    When the Pittsburgh Pirates moved Alen Hanson to second base last year, part of the plan was to get him to the majors faster by putting him at ...

    Read More
  • Tyler Glasnow 2

    What the Stats Don’t Tell You About Tyler Glasnow

    6 days ago

    The stat line for Tyler Glasnow’s start at Pirate City yesterday looked great: 3 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K. The lone run ...

    Read More
  • JaCoby Jones Josh Bell

    JaCoby Jones Did Fine in the Move to Shortstop, But Needs to Cut Down on Strikeouts

    1 week ago

    The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted JaCoby Jones as an outfielder in the third round of the 2013 draft, then surprised everyone the following year when they moved him ...

    Read More
  • Cody Dickson is a lefty with the upside of a middle of the rotation starter. (Photo Credit: Mark Olson)

    The Mental Adjustment that Led to Cody Dickson’s Dominant 2014 Second Half

    1 week ago

    Trusting his stuff and not trying to do too much — that has been the key for left-handed pitcher Cody Dickson so far in his professional baseball ...

    Read More
  • Third Base Mathisen Luplow Joe

    Who’s on Third? In the Pirates’ Farm System, It Could Be Anyone

    1 week ago

    If you have ever played third base in your life — professional, college, high school, slow pitch softball — then the Pittsburgh Pirates might be contacting you ...

    Read More
  • Jason Creasy

    Another Pitcher to Watch From the Pirates’ 2011 Draft

    2 weeks ago

    The 2011 draft is shaping up to be a great class for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They picked first overall that year, so naturally you’d expect good things ...

    Read More
  • Browse More Articles