About 90 years ago Major League Baseball suffered its first blow to the integrity of the game. Rumors flew that the 1919 World Series between the Cincinnati Red Stockings (now called the Reds) and the Chicago White Sox was fixed. The allegations made their way to court, where the White Sox players were cleared legally of charges of throwing the World Series. However, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis decided to ban the players in question for life for the integrity of the game. Those players were forever known as the "Black Sox" because of the dark shadow they cast over what was at the time America's overwhelming past time.
Among those players banned was "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a natural talent at the game from Greenville, SC. Though Jackson could not read or write, his affable manner and outstanding play on the field made him a popular figure in Chicago. When the scandal broke, a Chicago paper headline blared the words of a little boy who appealed to Jackson, "Say it ain't so, Joe. "
Baseball historians have debated for decades whether or not Jackson had a role in the scandal or if his affable nature and illiteracy got him caught up in a scandal he really had nothing to do with. Regardless of the truth of the matter, Jackson was banned and spent the remaining years of his life playing minor league and textile league baseball under false names and then ran a liquor store.
Nearly 90 years later, baseball faces another crisis of integrity. Barry Bonds, the newly crowned all time home run champion, was indicted this past week for allegedly lying under oath and obstructing justice in the federal investigation of steroids in baseball. The essence of the issue is whether or not Bonds used illegal steroids to enhance his physical prowess and his performance on the baseball field.
Some argue, "so what?" Those who argue that contend that baseball is a competition, and if a competitor wants to sell out his future health to gain an edge, so be it.
I see it differently. I love the game of baseball, though I admit I never played it well. It is the all American sport. The history, the past acts by professional baseball to insure fairness in competition and just the joy of spending an afternoon at the ballpark to me symbolize what America is all about.
That is why I am so disturbed by the indictment of Barry Bonds. The men he passed in his home run championship run were men who competed fairly and were true American characters.
Let's start with the now number four man on the home run list, Barry Bond's godfather, Willie Mays. Mays was a cocky player who completed clean, and according to several baseball historians, was the best player that ever played the game. He fought through the racism still present in his playing days to be a national hero. It is a credit to Mays's character, and not a defense of Bonds, that Mays, with grace, presented Bonds with a gift when Bonds surpassed him on the list.
Then there is the now number three man on the home run list, Babe Ruth. Ruth was the true American character of his time. Ruth partied hard with the best of them his entire career, drinking more than what we would now call a case of beer a day. Ruth loved the women and eating hot dogs as well. He lived life to the fullest. There was nothing artificial about him. With all his personal vices, he still hit 714 home runs and was an outstanding pitcher as well in the early part of his career, winning a total of 94 games.
Another true American character is the man now second on the home run list, Hank Aaron. Aaron personified the American working man. He was quite, lived clean, and got the job done day in day out. He did so even when faced with the racist threats that dogged him the year he eclipsed Ruth. Aaron was and is a true American hero. He worked hard and quietly, and achieved his goals, even when those who hated him for no reason tried to intimidate him. I can think of no better role model in baseball and life than Hank Aaron.
That brings us to Barry Bonds. Whether or not he used performance enhancing illegal substances will be determined by the courts. He was a very talented baseball player. He is also a symbol for the state of American culture today. Bonds is rude. Bonds has always seemed selfish to fans and even his own teammates. Bonds is controversial. His supporters seem to almost relish his indictment as some sort of award. Critics of baseball point to Bonds and say, "this is what is wrong with baseball today."
I see something bigger. The fact that baseball does not shun him and that there is an element that celebrates an alleged cheater, who is rude to fans and teammates, illustrates not only the state of baseball, but the state of American culture. Babe Ruth might have drank like a fish, womanized and ate like a glutton, but he always was nice to the fans, and it would not have crossed his mind to cheat. To Ruth, that would have cheapened his victories. Hank Aaron would never put himself in a place where he could shame the game he loved so and the people who loved it with him.
Ruth and Aaron, though, were men of a different time. One an all out party guy, the other a workhorse, they both shared some values of decency and fairness. I wish the game of baseball I love so much could offer the same today. That is why the little boy in me, who could never play the game all that well, is screaming out, "Say it ain't so, Barry. Say it ain't so!"