John Buell

Chasing Bonds, Writing Cultural History

Should an asterisk be placed beside Barry Bonds' name in the career home-run list? His critics assume illegal steroids have enabled his accomplishments. Many baseball "purists" already vote for the asterisk even before the investigation is complete by greeting his every plate appearance with a chorus of boos. Bonds has become a uniquely polarizing figure. An ESPN poll showed that blacks are nearly twice as likely to think Bonds has been treated unfairly. Sports heroes are seldom role models, but sports commentary has become one central way our culture establishes and passes on its values. Even baseball haters should pay attention to Barry Bonds, the cultural spectacle.

I am a fan. Bonds' father was one of the heroes of my youth. My suspicion is that Barry used steroids, yet I respect his accomplishments and feel even more strongly that he has been treated unfairly. He has been singled out and subjected to a seemingly unending series of investigations and exposes. Yet historical iniquities taint many baseball records. In addition, whatever deceptive acts he perpetrated had accomplices at every level of the game.

Before Hank Aaron's time, Babe Ruth's many prodigious drives established and defined the modern game and set the record. One positive outgrowth of Bonds' record-shattering quest is reminding fans of the crude racism Aaron faced. That in the mid-'70s a black athlete would receive death threats -- even in his home park -- merely for chasing a sports record speaks to the depths of racial hatred still persisting a decade after the civil rights movement.

If Barry Bonds' homerun total must be asterisked, so too should Ruth's. Ruth, by most accounts a heavy drinker, violated Prohibition-era drug laws. His whole career was also played against a pool of pitchers limited only to whites. Many of the best pitchers of that era played in the separate Negro Leagues. St. Louis Cardinal Hall-of-Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean once called Negro League legend Satchel Paige, against whom he had played in exhibition games, the greatest he had ever seen. Ruth's numbers would have been outstanding against any competition, but surely his final totals would have been less had he faced a full talent pool.

Ruth's number is tainted by a grave injustice for which owners, fans, and many white players were responsible. How to apportion responsibility is an inevitably contentious task, but in this society attributions of responsibility are interwoven with race and class biases. Though many highly paid players are distrusted, the huge subsidies for new ballparks billionaire owners extort from the public receive little media scrutiny. Outspoken black superstars attract more adverse attention than arrogant white stars, even those suspected of improprieties.

Bonds is vilified, but steroid use has been widespread and widely discussed for nearly two decades. Yet in the wake of strikes and other public relations blows to the game, media and owners celebrated the homeruns of such suspiciously enhanced megamen as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds. As *Nation* sports columnist Dave Zirin reminds us, when Congress finally decided to investigate the subject, it pursued individual players and never even asked owners why steroid use had become common or why owners never asked that the subject be addressed in collective bargaining agreements.

Sports historians will likely never come to closure on controversies of this sort. Nonetheless, at least some serious historians may conclude that just as Ruth was the greatest slugger of the whites only era, Bonds was the greatest player of what thoughtful ESPN analyst Peter Gammons has called baseball's steroid era. It was a time when all athletes faced difficult choices. (The pitcher who served up Bonds record-tying home run had also been tested positive for steroids while in the minor leagues.) Bonds had a choice not to use such drugs, but "just say no" is harder when large numbers of pitchers and competitors are doing it, the media are celebrating their accomplishments, and owners have eyes wide shut.

Historians will also have to consider other scientific wrinkles omitted in current discussions of responsibility. How hard is it to confirm the use of these drugs and how easily can other agents mask them? Perhaps we have reached a tragic point where our ability biochemically to enhance performance exceeds the capacity to monitor the practice.

If some reasonably satisfactory resolution of the scientific issues can be achieved, sanctions by sports leagues against dangerous performance enhancers would be appropriate. Their use is not a victimless crime. Ruth's excessive drinking violated the repressive laws of his era but probably only shortened his career. Use of dangerous steroids,by some athletes, however, can improve performance enough to force risky choices on other competitors. An obsession with Bonds' personal failings, however, feeds on and intensifies racial animosities, gives corporate leadership one more free pass, and hardly solves a difficult dilemma athletes at all levels now confront.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2007

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