Mark McGwire’s excuse has indeed resonated in some quarters, and I’ve already seen some claims that “Sandy Koufax took steroids – and for the same reason – for his health!”
Different stuff, known now by a different term, and administered under a doctor’s prescription and supervision. Stuff you yourself may have been given.
The origin points are a) an interview Koufax gave upon his retirement in which he references being “high” during games from all the drugs, and b) a passing reference inside Jane Leavy’s fabulous book Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.
Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus explained it more than two years ago in a post (subscription required):
I was able to get in touch with Jane Leavy to clarify. I asked Ms. Leavy if she meant corticosteroids or if Koufax, a player of the same era that we know steroids and HGH made some small inroads into the game, now had to be lumped in with the “juicers.” Leavy states she meant corticosteroids, the same type of “cortisone injection” that we see performed so often in baseball to this day.
So, no, Sandy Koufax did not take the “steroids” Mark McGwire took, for the same reason McGwire claims he took them. He took cortisone injections (cortico-steroids; they used the back half of the word as shorthand in the ’60s; we now use its front half) for the same reason probably a quarter of major league pitchers have taken them, the same reason I took one in each of the last two years – a specialist physician determined it was safe, it would alleviate pain, and do less damage than surgery. And it broke no rule nor law.
Parenthetically, I received steroid drops for my eyes the other day. I had no idea they existed. This also provided the only laugh of the entire McGwire MLB Net interview – when he talked about how no steroid could immediately effect one’s hand-to-eye coordination. He’s literally correct (though all honing of physical strength can lead to improved coordination, too), but if he’d only known about “Eyeball Steroids” he might have dropped the subject just to avoid the confusion.