There is no greater honor or accolade in Major League Baseball than being eternally enshrined in the MLB Hall of Fame. After a career of hard work, sacrifice and achievement at the highest level, a player who has been inactive for at least five years and who appears on at least 75 percent of ballots cast by the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America is imortalized in bronze and anointed as one of the greatest to play the game.
But baseball players are held not only to standard of excellence on the field, but also a standard of excellence off of it, dictated by what the MLB calls, "the individual's ... integrity, sportsmanship and character."
This Wednesday, the BBWAA and MLB announced that for the first time since 1996, no players had been elected to the Hall of Fame. There was no deficit of talent, as the nominees included MLB career home run leader Barry Bonds, two of the greatest power hitters of all-time in Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, arguably the greatest hitting catcher in history in Mike Piazza and 11-time all-star and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens.
Yet it was a perceived deficit of character based on positive steroid tests and accustations of steroid use that barred these players from eternal glory. The standard by which the players of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s are judged is the same as the one used to judge the ones of old. However, there have been players immortalized in the hall who have abjectly failed that standard by the most basic moral principles.
George Herman "Babe" Ruth (inducted 1936)
Besides being one of the most prolific home run hitters in baseball history, "the Babe" redefined the role of the athlete in American culture, becoming what many would consider the first celebrity. With his powerful bat and voracious appetite, Ruth slugged and charmed his way into the hearts of Americans and appeared on more than 95 percent of ballots cast for the first group of Hall-of-Famers. But Ruth's appetite wasn't just constrained to hot dogs and homers – it also included women and booze. He'd drink copious amounts of liquor and sleep with copious amounts of women, all while married, and he even had a child out of wedlock.
Ty Cobb (inducted 1936)
When it comes to incredible hitters, Ty Cobb stands toward the top of the list. However, Cobb is known as much for his awful demeanor as his offensive prowess. An unapologetic racist, Cobb once slapped a black elevator operator and then stabbed a black night watchman who tried to pacifiy the shortstop.
Rogers Horsnby (inducted 1942)
Rogers Hornsby had a career batting average of .358 and was 70 hits shy of 3,000. He was also in the Ku Klux Klan. I think that says enough.
While there is no shortage of professional baseball players who were less-than-admirable people off the field, plenty of these athletes have found their way into the Hall of Fame, subverting a standard that has been ineffectively enforced.
But what does this double standard of excellence mean? For the sport itself, it means that more players deserving of recognition will be denied and those who don't deserve to stand as living testements to the game's greatness will be accepted.
For society on whole, it sends a much different message. In the United States, a simple principle in justivce prevails: A man or woman accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Some of these players – like Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and Clemens – were in fact proven guilty by drug tests . For Piazza and fellow 2013 rejectee Jeff Bagwell, their status as power hitters during an era tainted by doping is apparently enough to convict them of the most criminal offense in baseball: using steroids to gain a competitve edge.
Whether or not Piazza and Bagwell, two players who have never directly been tied to steroid use by any measure of evidence, will eventually achieve recognition is a matter of waiting. But until the MLB and BBWAA address the double standard of excellence they use to fill the Hall of Fame, they continue to send a clear message to the world: In baseball, being a terrible human being is not a barrier to achieving iconic status, as long as no one thinks your depravity has sunk to depths of tainting America's Pastime with performance-enhancing drugs.
But what does it say about baseball when the only "integrity, sportsmanship, and character" that is valued is that which directly impacts the game, and not that which impacts the perception of its players?
If the MLB cannot figure out a way to grapple with its tainted past and tout those players who have lived up to what the Hall of Fame claims to be, the league will soon resemble one of the players it so desperately tries to distance itself from: a tired, broken-down and ridiculed relic of a once prominent force.
Editor's note, Thursday, Jan. 10 at 3:36 p.m.: A previous version of this article originaly stated that McGwire, Sosa and Clemens were proven guilty by drug tests, when in reality only Bonds was. McGwire admitted to using steroids. Clemens and Sosa were not proven to have used steroids, though they have both been accused. Thanks to commenter Daniel for pointing out the error.