John D. Fair’s book “Muscletown USA” gives insight into the role played by Bob Hoffman of York Barbell in the use of steroids in sports. Background posts: Who were most prominent 20th-century sports heroes in York and Adams counties? and Richard Nixon’s visit to his namesake park sparks memories and York, Pa. made big, heavy things – and was immensely proud of it.
Major League Baseball again is exploring allegations that Alex Rodriguez use steroids as a member of the New York Yankees.
When steroid abuse makes the headlines, that raises the question about where steriod use in professional sports began – or at least came into steady use.
There’s solid documentation that the answer is York, Pa… .
York Daily Record/Sunday News reporter Jeff Frantz insightfully explored the origin of steroids in his Dec. 24, 2006 piece headlined: “Pecs, pink pills and power, How York played a role in the steroid controversy.”
The following are excerpts:
The voice bounds across the phone line. “I’m not scared to talk about steroids.”
In full detail, the 40-year-old story takes more than an hour. As it unfolds, the voice rises and becomes thin. There are pauses, then explosions of words.
Cheating, paranoia, cover-ups, death – the modern checklist for steroids – are absent.
Doug Stalker is remembering some of the best moments of his life.
* * *
It was a hard sell for a 16-year-old.
Somehow, Stalker convinced his recently widowed mother to let him take a bus from Rochester, N.Y., to York in the summer of 1963 so he could lift weights for two weeks.
Less than two years earlier, he had been a 6-foot, 136-pound weakling experimenting with a barbell in hopes of playing football.
Then lifting overtook team sports, and the family garage became his personal gym. Every addition was stamped “York,” because when the world’s strongest men lifted weights, they lifted York Barbells.
This was his pilgrimage.
He opened the door to the gym on Ridge Avenue slowly, almost reverently, and stepped into the pages of Strength & Health, the York Barbell magazine he devoured monthly.
They were all there: Norbert Schemansky, the four-time Olympic medalist; Bill March, the local who held the world record in the standing press; Tony Garcy, the great lightweight; Gary Cleveland, the two-time winner of U.S. senior nationals, and others.
The massive men worked on the three Olympic lifts – the clean and jerk, the standing press and the snatch – on black mats around the room. Bob Hoffman, York Barbell’s eccentric owner who backed American lifting for 50 years, sat in the middle, writing checks.
“The gym,” Stalker remembered thinking. “The one and only gym. This is it in America, indeed in the world. Where else would you rather be?”
He would arrive early in the morning and read back issues of Strength & Health until the lifters arrived in mid-afternoon. Then he watched. He filled notebooks with details: how they chalked up, how they placed their hands on the bar, how they set their legs, even how they walked.
He was in awe.
The closest thing to mortals were the new men, only a few years older than Stalker, who had recently arrived in York and had yet to prove themselves nationally.
One of them, Homer Brannum, took Stalker out for a drive. They got pizza or hit golf balls or something.
Then Brannum opened up the trunk of his car.
“He had steroids and amphetamines,” Stalker said. “He didn’t give me any, but I took down the names of everything. He said, ‘If you want to get big, this is how you do it.'”
Back in Rochester, he took a name – Dianabol – to a doctor who had worked with his late father.
“Never heard of it.”
The doctor went to his books and found Dianabol was a synthetic derivative of testosterone, developed by a company in New Jersey with a physician from Olney, Md.
“Dougie, these make you big,” the doctor said as he wrote the 16-year-old a prescription for five milligrams of Dianabol and another for diet pills to act as a stimulant.
That’s how steroids started in America.
An ambitious weight lifter would come to York and show he was serious. Then, one of the more experienced men pulled him aside and told him about the little pink pills. The lifter took the secret with him and, most likely, passed it on.
Later in the piece, Frantz provides context for steroid use in those days:
It wasn’t illegal.
In the 1960s, any doctor in America could write a prescription for steroids. It was the end of the decade before sporting bodies studied steroids, much less thought of banning them.
Within three years of March’s initial dose of Dianabol, athletes in other sports reported using performance enhancers. Sixty-eight percent of Olympic athletes said they took them in 1972.
But, for a moment in the early 1960s, steroids were the competitive secret of Eastern-bloc lifters and the men who visited the York Barbell gym on Ridge Avenue.
For those in the know, the pills and injectable steroids were just the latest technological breakthrough to make life better.
The 20 years that followed revealed steroids’ capacity to make life worse.
Unfortunately, for all the fame Bob Hoffman brought to York in the weightlifting and bodybuilding world as Muscletown USA, part of that legacy is shaping up to be as a pioneer of steroid use in sports, however unaware he was of the drug’s harmful effects.
To view Jeff Frantz entire piece, click here.
To view all York Barbell posts from the start, click here.