Feared Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz says there is one immutable law under his roof: “When I am home and Bonds comes up it’s the house rule that no one is allowed to talk.” This is the part of Barry Bonds’s legacy that we won’t be hearing about now that the San Francisco Giants outfielder has passed Henry Aaron to claim the most sacred statistical title in all sports: Major League Baseball’s home run king.
In twenty-five years of watching baseball, Bonds is simply the greatest player I have ever seen. In the 1990s, he averaged thirty-six homers and thirty-four steals every season. At 37, in 2001, he hit a record seventy-three home runs; at 38 he batted .370 with an ungodly .582 on-base percentage; at 39 he won his sixth MVP, hitting forty-five home runs in only 390 at bats. At 40 he set a record by being the first person to have an on-base percentage over .600. He mastered the game like no modern player in any other sport save Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.
But Bonds will leave baseball a polarized place. Games away from the friendly confines of San Francisco have become festivals of vitriol. Much of the media talk about him as if he were Barry bin Laden or, as Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer called him, “OJ [Simpson] Lite.”
All of this has created an open-season atmosphere at the ballpark. Seeing the nightly sports highlights of mostly white fans letting it all hang out against one of the most prominent African-American athletes in the sport has deepened the polarization. In the latest New York Times poll, African-American fans were almost twice as likely as their white counterparts to want Bonds to break Aaron’s record of 755 homers; 57 percent of blacks were rooting for Bonds to break the record, versus only 29 percent of whites.
Making the journey more difficult is the man Bonds was seeking to pass: Henry Aaron. Bonds is painted as symbolic for “what’s wrong in sports,” while Aaron has become one of baseball’s elder statesmen and living legends. Aaron made a surprise appearance on the Jumbotron Tuesday night after Bonds hit his historic blast. This surely must have confused members of the media who have used Aaron’s refusal to be at the game to beat Bonds over the head.
As Jemele Hill from ESPN wrote, “Hank Aaron deserves better than to see his record broken by an unlikable, arrogant cheater who has done nothing but heighten stereotypes of Black athletes. He is unquestionably a Hall of Famer and the best player of this generation–but he is not nearly the man Aaron is, and should not surpass him in any way.”
Aaron’s refusal to attend was drenched in irony. In April 1974, he broke Babe Ruth’s seemingly insurmountable record by hitting his 715th home run, doing so in an atmosphere of open racism. In 1973, as he closed in on Ruth’s record, the US Post Office reported that Aaron received 930,000 letters, many of them death threats. One that Aaron later said was similar to many others read, “Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.”
As the Associated Press wrote at the time, “The threats on Aaron’s life began to arrive in earnest in the early days of the chase, both by mail and phone. As he got closer, they steadily increased in numbers and specificity–everything from the city and the time purported assassins would hit, right down to what the killer would be wearing.”
This was not some bygone era but the 1970s. Also, unlike Bonds’s experience, the prime source of the open rage against Aaron wasn’t in visiting parks but at “home” in Atlanta.
Aaron later wrote, “The Atlanta fans weren’t shy about letting me know what they thought of a $200,000 nigger striking out with men on base.” As news of the threats became public, Aaron received support and solidarity from supporters around the country, including Babe Ruth’s widow, Claire. That support did not extend, however, to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. On the day Aaron finally broke the mark, Kuhn made the decision not to attend.
Current commissioner Bud Selig, of course, chose to stand in Kuhn’s tradition and deny the baseball world his presence at the game. Selig did attend the game in San Diego when Bonds hit his 755th home run; he stood as Bonds circled the bases but chose not to clap.
As for Aaron, we don’t know why he refused to be present. Yet his stance has made it easy for anti-Bonds pundits to say that racism has nothing to do with the rancor Bonds is receiving around the country.
Bryan Burwell, an African-American sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and MSNBC.com, writes, “Anyone who honestly thinks that Aaron is the bad guy and Bonds is the tragic victim either has absolutely no sense of American history, or is a complete idiot.”
Burwell goes on to write, “Hank Aaron was a victim of America’s dark soul in his 1974 pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home-run mark. The hatred and resentment that Bonds is feeling now are all about the self-inflicted wounds of a cheater’s out-of-control vanity and ego.”
The problem with this kind of discourse is that it shuts down people who are very rightly concerned about the way racism becomes accepted as an outgrowth of the media’s anti-Bonds avalanche. If folks like Burwell, Hill and Sorenson (among many others) don’t realize that they are spraying lighter fluid on the fire, then they need to get out of the press box and into the cheap seats to hear what people are actually saying as Bonds goes up to the plate. Instead of sparking a serious discussion on sports, steroids, celebrity and race, they have made the Bonds soap opera about the moral failings of one man–and in the process are doing Aaron and the memory of what he endured a grave disservice by keeping the animus alive.