It Ain’t No Social Crisis: Barry Bonds in Historical Perspective

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Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

Never mind the national intelligence estimates that terrorists are massing for another strike against the United States, for a far greater threat to our way of life and the homeland is posed by an angry black man. Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants is posed to become baseball all-time home run champion.

There is considerable gnashing of teeth and jeremiads from the media regarding what it means to the youth of America to have perhaps the nation’s most esteemed sporting record in the hands of a man whose achievements are tainted by allegations of steroid use. It seems that Bonds is unworthy of America’s adulation because he gained unfair advantage by cheating or manipulating the system in his favor. Please don’t let the robber barons of the Guilded Age know about this, or we will have to place an asterisk beside the names of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. But before we follow the example of former Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick and begin to qualify athletic achievements with an asterisk, it is wise to place the quest of Bonds within some historical perspective.

There is concern among many sport journalists, especially those at Sport’s Illustrated, that Bonds will foster disillusionment with sport and baseball among the impressionable youth of America, who will be encouraged to take short cuts on the path to success. Of course, it seems that the business community offers plenty of such examples. The Enron scandal moves the exploits of Bonds into the category of small potatoes. And who said that baseball players are supposed to be saints and role models. Charles Barkley got it right when he insisted that parents should be the role models. They get up each day, go to work, and make sacrifices for their children. While athletic skills are admirable, individuals who hit a ball, shoot a basket, or kick a football should never be considered idols.

Perhaps some of this idolatry for baseball players goes back to the 1941 film Pride of the Yankees, which tells the tragic story of Lou Gehrig, who was struck down in the prime of life by ALS. But Gehrig, portrayed by matinee star Gary Cooper, never complains and considers himself the luckiest man alive. The commercial and critical success of this film encouraged one of Hollywood’s worst sporting films, The Babe Ruth Story (1947), with character actor William Bendix in the title role. In this romanticized feature, Ruth, who was abandoned by his family at an early age, takes his responsibility as a role model seriously, healing hospitalized youth with his promise of home runs.

Reality, however, can be a little trickier than the movies. Near the close of the 1920 baseball season, it was disclosed that several members of the Chicago White Sox had conspired with gamblers to fix the outcome of the 1919 World Series. While the players were acquitted in a trial, the newly-appointed Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis suspended eight While Sox players of life. To restore faith in the sport, the baseball establishment endorsed the home run exploits of Babe Ruth. Nevertheless, the extent to which Landis was concerned with the appearance of gambling as opposed to the reality of betting was evident in the failure of the Commissioner to actively pursue allegations of gambling by Ty Cobb. Often referred to as the Georgia Peach, Cobb was a determined ballplayer willing to spike and injure another opponent to gain a competitive advantage. And off the field, Cobb was hardly a great role model. His racism and violent nature exhibited the worst attributes of Jim Crow America.

Ruth, on the other hand, exemplified the excesses of the 1920s celebrity culture with his consumerism, abuse of alcohol, and womanizing. Ruth, nevertheless, is credited with saving baseball after the so-called Black Sox scandal, making the sport strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of the Great Depression and World War II. Yet during the 1930s, Jewish slugging star Hank Greenberg was often a subject of bigotry, and black athletes such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige were excluded from Major League Baseball. Perhaps outstanding white athletes of the 1930s such as Dizzy Dean and Rogers Hornsby should have an asterisk placed alongside their names because their records were achieved during the era of Jim Crow when some of the sport’s best players were denied an equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

Baseball finally abolished its color line in 1947 when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sixty years later baseball is celebrating Robinson’s achievement. Yet, the story of baseball integration is more complex than the sport is willing to acknowledge. The prejudice and hate which Robinson encountered is today denounced, but the slow progress of baseball integration is rarely noted. When Robinson retired in 1956, the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox rosters still included no black players. And baseball would not appoint a black manager until Frank Robinson in the 1970s.

In fact, baseball struggled to incorporate black and Latino players into a conservative institution with white executives and a corporate business structure limiting competition and free enterprise through the reserve clause. The racism of the sport and nation were certainly evident as Henry Aaron confronted death threats when he surpassed the 714 home run mark of white hero Babe Ruth. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn also compounded matters by not attending the game in which the Atlanta Brave star established the home run mark, a snub which current Commissioner Bud Selig appears ready to repeat with Bonds.

As Bonds exceeds Aaron’s home run total, many Americans like to believe that as a nation we have placed race behind us. But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 well demonstrates that the United States still has a long way to go in exorcising our demons of race. Of course, in the case of Bonds and Aaron we are talking about two black men. This fact, however, has not prevented Bonds from receiving death threats. Public opinion polls indicate that there is a racial divide between blacks and whites in their perception of Bonds. An articulate and angry black man does not resonate well with white Americans—and it is interesting to note that many baseball fans seem much more willing to forgive baseball’s all-time hits leader Pete Rose for his gambling transgressions. However, many insist that their opposition to Bonds is not about race, but rather the fact that the San Francisco star is allegedly achieving his record through the use of illegal steroids. Of course, drugs are nothing new to the game as is well illustrated in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four with accounts of amphetamines easily available during the 1960s and early 1970s. And Mickey Mantle, one of baseball’s great heroes of the post World War II period, struggled with issues of alcohol abuse.

But the steroids debate with Bonds is more complicated. Bonds was well on his way to achieving Hall of Fame credentials well before the era of steroids began in the mid 1990s. Bonds denies steroid use and has not been convicted in a court of law, although this is not true for the court of public opinion where Bonds has been tried and convicted through leaked testimony and best-selling books such as Game of Shadows. But even if we accept these allegations as truth, it is again important to examine the historical context.

Following the labor stoppage which led to cancellation of the 1994 World Series, baseball officials feared that fans would not return to the game. Much as faith in the sport was restored by Ruth following the Black Sox scandal, the sport was saved through the 1995 home run contest between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who both exceeded the 61 home run season mark established by Roger Maris in 1961. Despite rumors that steroids might be involved with their exploits, McGwire and Sosa were proclaimed as heroes and fans returned to the ballparks in droves. As revenues increased, baseball executives, Commissioner Bud Selig, and the players’ union looked the other way. The message was made clear in Major League Baseball’s sexist ad campaign, “the chicks dig the long ball.” It is within this environment that ostensibly many athletes, including Bonds, turned to steroids. The new home-run friendly ballparks were full and the athletes larger. Ownership was benefiting from the slugging onslaught , and manifestations of innocence that Major League Baseball knew nothing about these developments is about as honest as Inspector Renault (Claude Rains) in Casablanca closing Rick’s because he is shocked to learn that gambling is occurring while at the same time he accepts the night’s winnings.

So Bonds has become the poster boy for the age of steroids due to his very success, although figures like McGwire certainly embarrassed themselves with equivocal congressional testimony. What are we to make of the Bonds record? He is the product of an era in which ostensibly many players, including the pitchers Bonds faced, were using performance enhancing drugs. On the other hand, there is not evidence that drugs improved the extraordinary hand and eye coordination of Bonds. He is an exceptional athlete. I will applaud rather than boo home run 756, but like other baseball greats before him Bonds is reflective of his times and Major League Baseball’s ambiguous history, pleading American innocence while seeking to maximize profits. We have more to worry about in the summer of 2007 than Barry Bonds.

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    vaughn davis bornet - 8/14/2007

    What makes possible the performance of Bonds? Surely it isn't just muscle that is beefed up somewhat. A home run is facilitated by factors he inherited; by health he carefully guarded and sequestered; by determination he resolved on during a fairly long life; by foregoing wild living including overly frequent dissapation that would have made many at-bats failures; by an attitude born of perceptions that rated baseball highly as an activity and success as a worthwhile goal in life. There must be more.

    All in all, steriods would have had virtually Nothing to do with most of these characteristics--all of which bear on the Bonds Record.

    Anyway, that's my opinion, as a Junior Class pitcher at Emory with five wins in 1938....

    Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D. Ashland, Oregon

    Paul Mocker - 8/12/2007

    You are allowed to conclude whatever you want. You could conclude that Anderson likes prison food. I don't care. Personally, I think his life is better in prison than on the outside (3 squares, shower, etc.) I'm might conclude that he has something incriminating on Bonds if I had evidence of:
    a. threats from Bonds to stay silent
    b. a deep frienship with Bonds

    I don't know.

    All I'm saying is that I'm surprised that historians - who have a demonstrated ability to evaluate evidence - and who have been presented with an opportunity to debate the evidence - with this article - instead have chosen to presume Bond's guilt.

    Andy Moursund - 8/10/2007

    Hmmmmmm. If a historian hears "Sorry!! Executive privilege!" from a president, does he generally just say "Well, I guess we can't deduce anything from THAT!" Yet when Bonds's trainer has been claiming a similar sort of "privilege" for well over a year, we're not allowed to form a few conclusions of our own?

    Andy Moursund - 8/10/2007

    Desi's absolutely right. Do we ignore Bush's transgressions because Saddam Hussein's were far worse? These "so's your momma" defenses of Barry Bonds are exactly like the sort of excuses we used to hear about Martha Stewart ("they wouldn't do this to a man"), Michael Milken ("they're picking on him because they hate unabashed capitalists") and a whole host of transgressors who come equipped with an irritated set of fanboys. And all of them use the "context" and "hypocrisy" cliches not as a method of advancing the discussion, but as a transparent lawyer's device to shift attention away from the original act. What Babe Ruth's womanizing has to do with Barry Bonds's (or Mark McGwire's) juicing has yet to be demonstrated.

    The one point of disagreement I'd have with Desi would be that since Bonds hasn't failed any test in the past three years, there's no reason for BASEBALL to punish him retroactively. And as a user rather than a dealer, pursuing him in court is a bit much. But by all means publish those BALCO records, let Bonds and his trainer Greg Anderson explain them away if they wish, and then let history (and the Hall of Fame voters) draw its own conclusions. This is already happening outside the friendly confines of San Francisco and various pockets of the Deconstruction District....

    George Robert Gaston - 7/30/2007

    Growing up in St. Petersburg Florida in the early 1950s I heard many stories of Babe Ruth’s exploits when the Yanks were down in St. Pete for spring training. As a young boy you had to blend into woodwork, and be forgotten about to hear most of them.

    However, you only had to be in town between January and April to know about the adventures of Mantle, Maris and Billy Martin. They were pretty hard to miss.

    Baseball is a kid’s game that a few grown men get to play for a whole lot of money. I guess we expect so much of them because we envy them so. It would be unfair to ask someone in that situation to be an adult. It just would not be fair.

    Nathan M. Corzine - 7/29/2007

    We shouldn't forget, however, that men like the Walker brothers, Frank Grant, and George Stovey faced considerable racism as they played the game in the nineteenth century.

    They endured vile and hate-drenched taunts from fans, excessively vicious spiking by opponents, and a sometimes shocking lack of effort from their teammates.

    Racism was not precluded simply because they played.

    Having read much of Mr. Briley's insightful writing on baseball, I'm sure the incorrect "1995" date is simply an overlooked typing gaffe and nothing more.

    Gareth Evans Jones - 7/28/2007

    As a professor of physics at Yale (Robert Adair) has pointed out, some of the increase in home runs is attributable to global warming -- warmer air is less dense, and provides less friction.

    Gareth Evans Jones - 7/28/2007

    Warne was not banned for steroid use, but for use of a diuretic (which may have masked a steroid, though). He's also a leg spin bowler, so I imagine steroids would not confer as great a boost as it would to a speed bowler (or chucker, even).

    In any event, as you say, both have been tarnished by accusations, and defenders are more prevalent along racial lines.

    Gareth Evans Jones - 7/28/2007

    Let's not quibble. The average speed of a fastball from a pitcher on steroids, and recovering faster, while throwing on the same number of days rest, will be higher (given his quicker recovery, and other assumptions). This analysis implies the same result, as long as his pitching schedule is such that he is more fully recovered between outings while on steroids, than without steroids.

    BTW, the inventor of "the clear", on Costas' show, said that he was informed by Arthur Conte that Bonds' reaction times were improved while on his regimen (though Conte denies, at least publicly, that Bonds was on "the clear").

    Paul Mocker - 7/27/2007

    I had thought historians would have preferred to debate the evidence prior to judging Barry Bonds alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.

    Have you made up your minds despite the significant lack of physical evidence?

    Mike Huhndorf - 7/26/2007

    After reading Mr Briley's trenchant appraisal of historical hypocrisy, it makes me wonder if we have become too critical as a society.

    Have we evolved into socially policing our athletes whereby character is a criteria for entry into elite? status. Must we now vet them for the qualification of hero worship?

    I am torn a bit because while the examples of Cobb and Ruth are notorious where their off field exploits are concerned, between the lines they played the game by its rules. Gamblers have never been tolerated where they were known as Pete Rose and the Black Sox Scandal attest. The recent NBA scandal attests to that as well.

    What makes me step back and make such a distinction is that the rate, regularity, and distance at which the ball was flying out of parks across America in the late 90's had me wondering if the ball itself was juiced. The concept of friendlier HR parks has been going on since the House that Ruth Built. Also that makes for good arguments when it comes to stacking one ballplayer against another in arguments. Willy Mays had to play in Candlestick Park and he still hit 660. How many more could he have hit otherwise?

    Bonds and the era of steroids saw unprecedented increases in home runs and when one attributes it to steroids, the reaction might be "Oh, no wonder!" The records seem hollow, when we stack Mays, Aaron, Mantle, (alchohal inhibits athleticism) and Williams up against the steroid era athletes.

    I am internally at odds as to how to look at it but my gut tells me I'd rather see someone break the record without help from from an outside substance. I guess I'm a bit old fashioned.

    Tell me, if two players stood side by side with the same record and one had taken steroids and the other had not, which one would you choose as the greater player if you had to make a choice?

    Philip Brown - 7/26/2007

    A very similar situation, with an interesting counter-point, is about to occur in international cricket.

    The current record holder for the most dismissals (for those who only speak American these are "outs") is white: Shane Warne. Assuming no catastrophes, he will be overtaken by a Sri Lankan player, Muttiah Muralitharan, over the coming summer of cricket (Nov 07 - Mar 08).

    Both these players have a blemish on their career. The Sri Lankan Murali is, one of only a handful of current players to have been called for "chucking". Essentially this is the same as a baseball balk - a ball which has been incorrectly delivered. Namely, the ball has been thrown, rather than bowled. Since a thrown ball is much more difficult to hit than a legitimatley bowled ball and a wicket is very difficult to obtain, the allegation of "chucking" is a serious allegation of deliberate cheating. As such, a large number of cricket observers regard Murali's record as inferior.

    However, the white player, Shane Warne has more than a suspicion of drug use. He has been convicted and served a one-year ban for steroid use.

    Who is the better bowler? Is either record pure?

    The general consensus splits along, as may be expected, racial lines. Most white cricket supporters regard Warne as the better bowler. Most sub-continetal supporters regard Murali as the better bowler.

    As a white Australian, I think that neither is completely pure, but can't help but notice the racism is, mostly, symmetric. As easily as the white cricket supporters dismiss the achievements of Murali and endorse the achievements of Warne, the subcontinental supporters do the reverse.

    I think that racism still colours too many of the decisions made in sporting spheres, particularly the decisions over whom to venerate. Unfortunately, to the detriment of both the game and the people who watch them.

    William J. Stepp - 7/25/2007

    Good point re: Walker, who entered the league around 1895, I think.
    Jackie Robinson was not the first black major leaguer, contrary to the reigning mythology.

    Douglas Arden Roosevelt - 7/25/2007

    I have to point out that you comments regarding steroids and pitchers are inaccurate. Steroids are not typically used to help pitchers throw faster. Steroids are used by pitchers to help their arms recover quicker. Throwing 100+ pitches takes a tremendous toll on the arm. Rubbing on steroid creams after pitching allows pitchers to be fully recovered before their next outing, thus increasing their consistency, accuracy, and longevity. Using steroids will increase a pitchers consistent velocity; however they will not help a pitcher who tops out at 95mph to start throwing 98mph.

    Karl Weber - 7/25/2007

    Actually Frick never used the word asterisk. Columnist Dick Young introduced that term. The official baseball record books included both Ruth and Maris, Ruth as the record-holder for a 154-game season, Maris for a 162-game season.

    Desi Derato - 7/25/2007

    Well, being from St. Louis, it kind of
    breaks my heart that Lou Brock is a
    bit of a jerk, but I'm still a fan.
    Dick Allen seemed uppity to me in a
    good way, for some reason I didn't
    find him offensive at all, just in
    your face. Curt Flood of course
    had good reason to be bitter.

    But what does this have to do with
    breaking the rules? Plenty of white
    people dislike Ken Lay, Dick Cheney,
    Lance Armstrong, Michael Milken, Mark
    McGwire for exactly the same reason.
    They cheated. Martha Stewart is about
    in the same boat but it was such a
    small amount of money that people
    think she was being picked on. [Okay,
    I like Milken as explained by someone
    he was breaking the game open from the
    stolid no-returns bond market, which
    helped investors much much more than
    any possible illegal benefits he got,
    and it was mostly a revenge thing]

    Chamberlain could screw as many women
    as he wanted and it didn't affect the
    court. Pete Rose bet on baseball and
    it does affect the sport. Which one
    got denied the Hall of Fame? Bonds,
    McGwire and the rest should be denied
    as well. Bonds shouldn't even be
    playing now - that's the kicker.

    Dick Allen and Reggie Jackson could be
    as loud as they wanted - at the end of
    the day it was their big mouth, big
    skill and hard work that would shut
    you up. With Barry Bonds, that big
    attitude comes from the little shot
    in his hip. Superstars yes, street
    punks no.

    Andy Pochatko - 7/24/2007

    Mr. Briley has done an excellent job in giving perspective on the race issue in baseball. However, he misses a few crucial points. For example: He seems to allude that baseball has always had a racist front, but he neglects to mention players such as Mose "Fleetwood" Walker that played baseball toward the end of the 19th century. Secondly, his knowledge of baseball may be called into question when he writes of McGwire's and Sosa's home run race of "1995," which indeed took place in 1998.

    Gareth Evans Jones - 7/24/2007

    Yes, Bonds is, in part, a victim of his success. He was the most all-around talented player of his generation. He thought, like others before him and with him, that there was a short-cut up Mt. Olympus. He made his Faustian bargain, but forgot the warning -- be careful what you wish for, as you might just get it.

    He made his pact with the devil to get his record, only to find it drained of meaning.

    BTW, people keep mentioning that pitchers were on steroids too. When a batter is on steroids, he swings faster. When a pitcher is on steroids, he throws faster. When a faster bat meets a faster ball, the ball goes further. It is not clear that pitchers on steroids counteract the advantage to batters on steroids, rather than magnifying it -- particularly in the case of home runs.

    Of course, the chasm between the ethical and the historical will always remain there, despite attempts to fill it up. That baseball has been racist and dirty is not morally compelling on the issue of cheering for Bonds. I won't cheer. Just as I won't support the other steroid cheats for the Hall of Fame.

    Stephen Cipolla - 7/23/2007

    This is a terrific article on many fronts. Racism in organized baseball, and other sports, continues to exist, as it does in the American community at large. This has always been true, and the correspondence between societal racism and racism in baseball is well documented.

    Celebrating Jackie Robinson should give us all a chance to pause and reflect on just how few inches forward baseball really moved in 5 decades.

    Also, we should take a moment to celebrate another remarkably talented center fielder named Curt Flood, who took on baseball's infamous reserve clause -- one of the many "badges of slavery" that persisted well after Jackie broke the color line. Flood, one of the best fielding outfielders of his time, left the sport well before he should have, because he refused to succomb to the reserve clause. And, as I recall he left the country to live in Majorca.

    Bonds is angry, articulate and African-American. Thus, the press finds him easy prey. When the establishment sports press covers his quest for the record, the articles always raise the (*) issue, as Riley points out.

    The numbers of white racist players and managers in the Hall of Fame is enormous, and this cannot be excused by the remoteness in time of their election.

    Segregated baseball leagues in the 20th century guaranteed that the big leagues and their fans would forever be denied the opportunity to see Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, and countless others, playing at a big league level in the "Negro" leagues.

    It should come as no surprise that angry, intelligent African-American players are the ones who are treated badly. Barry Bonds is thus in very esteemed company. Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Dick Allen (I'm from Philly--I can't help it). In other sports, Bill Russell's treatment in Boston was vicious, despite the fact that he brought NBA championship to that city year after year after year.

    For years black athletes have been beaten back with a sort of analogue to "Dixie Chicks" treatment: shut up and play. But they don't shut up. Ask Charles Barkley to talk about racism in Philly during his years with the 76ers.

    But, there is one example of an athlete whose treatment went from total ostracism by the white press and establishment to being regarded as one of the greatest people in the history of American sport -- Muhammad Ali. From his outspoken treatment of his opponents (Sonnie Liston) to his defiance of the Selective Service in the face of America's war on Vietnam, to his recapture of the heavyweight crown after 3 years incarceration for asserting that his religious beliefs and his conscience prevented him from reporting for duty, he is evidence that it is possible for a black athlete to be appreciated not only for his physical prowess, technical mastery of his sport, dedication to excellence and skill but also for his fierce independence and courage in facing a racist establishement and naming it as one.

    I hope that Barry Bonds will someday be seen in a similar light. He is a superb athlete and has been since he first walked onto a major league field. But, I just don't see it in his future.

    Harry A Jebsen - 7/23/2007

    Hooray for Ron Briley's candid and clear;ly thought through comments on the Bonds situation. Organized baseball's desire to have their cake and eat it also is not new. The failure of baseball to do something about steroids is clearly a purposeful step because, as Briley, observes it was good for the bottom line of the game. When JUICED hit the book shelves and one player died from the steroids, then the breast beating began in the press and among baseball leaders. But since it had put people back into the ball parks so be it.

    This situation is so similar to the gambling issues of the early twentieth century. Not only to Charles Comiskey know that gambling was occurring in 1920 but Ban Johnson and all other baseball officials in both leagues were aware of it. It was rampant even in the press. Managing the game for profit kept owners from really getting serious about the issue. As Ron points out, when confronted with the Cobb and Speaker scandals, baseball did nothing.

    it is clear that the game has been manipulated before. Eddid Collins and Joe Jackson did not end up in Chicago by accident NOR do I believe that Ruth ended up in New York to fund No No Nanette. Ban Johnson wanted a strong central franchise for the American League in New York City and Ruth was the best vehicle to make that happen. The game has been manipulated in the past and will continue to be manipulated, even if it needs to be juiced to do it.

    Michael Green - 7/23/2007

    Very interesting article, with a couple of notes:

    1. I believe that Ford Frick referred to an "asterisk" appearing beside Roger Maris's 61 home runs, but that he never imposed the rule or was that specific.

    2. If I am correct, Bonds has not denied using steroids so much as telling a grand jury that he used something, but did not know what it was and did not knowingly use steroids. A fine point, perhaps, but still a point.

    Most important, congratulations to Mr. Briley on an article that does a great deal to put matters in perspective. It also seems to me that if Bonds were lovable and white, he would have a far better reputation, despite the steroid allegations.