Shoeless Joe Jackson was the only man to bat .382 in his last season in the major leagues. After that he was banned for life for his role in the "black sox scandal," the deliberate throwing of the 1919 World Series.
It was to Jackson that a youngster was supposed to have said, "Say it ain’t so, Joe."
Maybe we are too sophisticated today to react that way to the news that many major league star players have been taking steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. But maybe we have gotten too sophisticated for our own good.
Some people are questioning whether there should now be asterisks alongside the records of Barry Bonds or other star players. That is the least of the problems — and the least of the solutions.
Steroids are dangerous and sometimes fatal. Yet, if some players use them, others will feel the pressure to use them as well, in order to compete.
Most important of all, many young people will imitate their sports heroes — and pay the price. Those young people are far more important than asterisks.
You might think that athletes who are making a million dollars — not per year, but sometimes per month — could spare some concern for the kids who look up to them.
But too many think only of themselves, and not always wisely, even for themselves.
Football star Michael Vick’s downfall was dog-fighting, rather than steroids, but it was the same reckless disregard of rules, jeopardizing a career that would have earned him more in a few years than most people make in a lifetime.
Even those of us who are not Michael Vick fans have to find it painful to see a young man self-destruct this way. If anything good comes out of this, it might be that his fate may deter others.
The bottom line question for those in authority, whether in the courts or in professional sports is, "What are you going to do about it?"
The law has already spoken in the case of Michael Vick. It is too early to say what the law will do in the case of Barry Bonds and others involved in the steroid controversy.
But it is not too early to point out that what the law does or does not do is separate from what the people in charge of professional sports do.
In a court of law, the accused is presumed to be "innocent until proven guilty" beyond a reasonable doubt. But too many people mindlessly repeat that phrase for things outside of courts.
All the ballplayers accused of throwing the 1919 World Series were acquitted in a court of law — and all were nevertheless banned from baseball for life anyway by the commissioner of baseball.
In a sense, that ban applied not only for life but beyond death. None of those players has been put in the Baseball Hall of Fame, even though Shoeless Joe Jackson hit .408 at his peak and left a lifetime batting average of .356.
That was long before we became so sophisticated that we learned to come up with excuses for those who violate rules and additional excuses for those who refuse to impose penalties.
Today there are those who lament Pete Rose’s exclusion from the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite a record on the field that would certainly have put him there, except for breaking rules.
But Shoeless Joe Jackson’s even more impressive record would certainly have put him in Cooperstown, if he had not broken the rules.
There is still some lingering hope of sanity in the baseball writers’ refusal to vote Mark McGwire into the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite his tremendous career achievements.
Keeping known rule-breakers out of Cooperstown would be a lot more effective deterrent than putting asterisks alongside their records, to be disregarded by those who are "non-judgmental."
Unfortunately Senator George Mitchell’s report on steroid use in the major leagues and its recommendations are of the let-bygones-be-bygones approach that has spread the disregard of rules throughout the whole society, from student cheaters to career criminals.