Barry Bonds’s Hall of Fame Opponents Can’t Handle the Truth

Barry Bonds’s Hall of Fame Opponents Can’t Handle the Truth

Barry Bonds’s Hall of Fame Opponents Can’t Handle the Truth

A mess of hypocrisy and bias has kept history’s best hitter out of the Hall.


I’ve been writing about Barry Bonds for 20 years, in an effort to make what I have always thought to be an uncomplicated argument: Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players to ever pick up a bat. The stats speak for themselves. As Barry Svrluga wrote in The Washington Post:

The back of his baseball card looks like it’s filled with typos. Last year, for instance, Bryce Harper led the majors with a .615 slugging percentage. In 2004, Bonds posted a .609 on-base percentage.… In that ’04 season, Bonds walked 232 times, still a major league record—by a mile. The next closest: Barry Bonds in 2002, with 198. The next closest to that: Barry Bonds in 2001, with 177. The names that follow him: Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, two of the best hitters to dig into the box. Bonds owns the top OPS of all time—an incomprehensible 1.422 from ’04. Only three men have ever produced a single season with an OPS higher than 1.250—Bonds, Ruth and Williams. They combined for 12 of them.

In addition, in the sport’s bluntest stat—home runs—Bonds is, of course, the all-time leader both for a season and a career.

Yet, this week—in his last year of eligibility—Bonds was shamefully rejected yet again for entry to the Baseball Hall Fame. The ostensible reason for the pushback against honoring Bonds is the widespread belief that he used performance-enhancing drugs. But it’s more complicated than that. First, although it’s widely suspected that Bonds juiced, he never actually tested positive. There are also a rack of players already in the Hall of Fame who meet this description—players whom reporters saw with suspicious acne on their backs or had seasons where their home-run totals hit the moon. Yet these HoF juicers were generally liked and admired. Bonds always had a prickly personality. As one teammate once said, “When Barry says ‘fuck you,’ he actually means it.” This massive chip on his shoulder—an attribute inevitably affixed to unsmiling Black athletes—goes far toward explaining why writers/voters have closed the door on his candidacy.

In addition, Bonds was part of a steroids era, and some baseball writers believe they are the gate keepers for the game’s purity and that Bonds violated that purity. Yet that argument doesn’t explain some inconvenient truths. If we are making the Baseball Hall of Fame an institution for the pure, then why is the commissioner who oversaw and ignored the steroid era—”Bud” Selig—in the Hall of Fame? Why is manager Tony LaRussa, someone who oversaw or turned a blind eye to a de facto pharmacy in his locker room, in the Hall of Fame? Why was the popular, jovial David Ortiz, linked to PEDs, just elected on the first ballot?

Some of these writers also refuse to reckon with the fact that the game has never been pure. The ultimate performance-enhancing drug was the color line, which lasted from the turn of the century to 1947. White players didn’t have to tussle with Black talent and their stats inflated accordingly, yet this hasn’t kept the Babe Ruth or the Ty Cobb from Cooperstown. Then in the post–World War II era, players gobbled amphetamines or “greenies”—as if they were Tucker Carlson’s erotic ideal of sexy M&Ms. For those who say that using any form of synthetic testosterone is a category of “performance enhancing,” then we could go back way before Bonds era, as far as the 1960s in baseball, and witness their use. It certainly picked up in the 1990s thanks to Clinton’s bipartisan deregulation of the pharmaceutical industry, which launched what should be understood as an entire steroid era in baseball. This was an era that owners and commissioners overlooked, because people love home runs, and it was bringing fans to the park, particularly after the 1994 strike/lockout, which canceled the World Series for the first and only time in history. In this “steroid era,” no one could even come close to the player that was Barry Bonds and perhaps no one ever will. Steroids don’t increase your eyesight, and Bonds—those walk totals are obscene—probably had the best eye in the history of the game. Keeping him out of the Hall of Fame is nothing short of a grotesque hypocrisy.

Lastly, there was the part of Bonds that can’t be quantified by decimal points. I used to go to the stadium early just to watch him hit at batting practice. Seeing him swing the bat, one could commune with what it must have felt like to witness a young Wilt Chamberlain, someone who had not only mastered their sport but could wield it in their hands like a child’s toy. (Wilt once led the NBA in assists over the course of an entire season from the center position, just to prove he could.) Players like this come along once a century. The Baseball Hall of Fame, which purports to be a museum, and its media voters are in effect denying the sport’s true history because it makes them uncomfortable, and heaven knows we already have way too much of that in the United States at the present moment. Yes, it is uncomfortable that the national pastime has been rife over the last 150 years with hyper-competitive people looking for any possible edge to win, with all the attendant money and glory that brings. But it’s also the truth. Much better that we reckon with our discomfort and confront our hypocrisies, rather than shutting our eyes and closing our ears until all that was beautiful about Barry Bonds playing baseball cruelly dissipates.

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