Aaron was the last Major League ballplayer to have played in the Negro Leagues. For much of his career he was unable to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his teammates. Despite the distractions of racism and segregation, despite the death threats as he approached Ruth’s record, Hank Aaron was one of the most outstanding players in the history of baseball. He hit more home runs than anyone else had ever hit, and a lot more, too, and did it with class. Hank Aaron was a hero.
“I don’t want them to forget Ruth,” Aaron said. “I just want them to remember me.”
Contrast the modesty of Aaron with the gargantuan ego of Bonds. “In the baseball world, everything is Babe Ruth, right?” Bonds asked during an All-Star Game press conference in 2003. “I got his slugging percentage and I’ll take his home runs and that’s it, don’t talk about him no more.” Someone apparently pointed out to Barry what an arrogant and self-aggrandizing thing that was to say, because three years later when he tied Ruth’s mark of 714 homers, Barry said, “This is a great accomplishment because of Babe Ruth and what he brought to the game of baseball and his legacy. . . . You can’t say enough of what he did and it’s an honor to be in the same class.” Humility from Bonds is about as convincing as sincerity from Hillary Clinton.
Just as when Aaron chased Ruth, there were those who reacted to Bonds chasing Aaron’s record with ambivalence or outright hostility. Some black political leaders claimed this was the result of racism, but I don’t think so. There probably were a few who objected to Barry Bonds breaking the home run record solely because of his race, but when the previous record-holder is also a black man, that objection becomes even sillier than it was in 1974. Besides, why use race as an excuse when there are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons to protest Bonds breaking the record?
Unlike Aaron, Bonds brought most of his problems on himself (unless you consider Aaron being more recently descended from African ancestors than his white detractors to be “bringing it on himself”). Barry Bonds used steroids to enhance his performance. Because his steroid use occurred before Major League Baseball had a serious drug testing policy, this is not an established fact. However, thanks to leaked grand jury testimony documented in the book Game of Shadows, the indictment of his former trainer on steroid dealing charges, and the fact that Bonds gained fifty pounds of muscle and his skull grew an additional hat size during the 1998-99 off-season, it is as close to a fact as any conjecture can be.
Testing positive for steroids, or even allegations of use, have ruined the careers and reputations of some of the defining players of the last twenty years of baseball. Jose Canseco cheerfully admitted to using steroids throughout his career, virtually guaranteeing he will never be elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Canseco’s old Oakland A’s teammate, former single-season home run champion Mark McGwire, was recently denied election to the Hall in his first year of eligibility due to the likelihood that steroids played a role in his proficiency as a slugger. Rafael Palmeiro, never a player in the same class as McGwire or Bonds but still a noteworthy power hitter and possible Hall of Fame candidate one day, and also a former teammate of Canseco, tested positive for steroids and was suspended for 10 games under the new drug policy, effectively ending his career and killing his Hall of Fame hopes.
What, then, to do with Barry Bonds? He may retire as soon as this year, or he may play another season or two, in which case he could easily finish his career as the first man to ever hit 800 home runs in Major League Baseball. Can baseball really deny the all-time home run king a spot among the greats in Cooperstown? Fortunately, baseball doesn’t elect the Hall of Famers; the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) does. The BBWAA could permanently reject Bonds on his first ballot and not lose a wink of sleep. And that is precisely what they should do.
Before he began using steroids in 1998, Bonds was a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. Bill James, writer of the invaluable New Historical Baseball Abstract, rates him as the best player of the 1990s, and he probably was. Had he continued down that road instead of turning to banned substances to chase home run records, today, even with his well-known animosity toward the press, he would be one of the most praised and respected players in the game, and his election to Cooperstown would be a foregone conclusion. It is sad that the last eight years of his career should negate the first fifteen, but it can be no other way. If Pete Rose, holder of the all-time record for hits (a mark which may literally never be surpassed) is denied entry to the Hall because of his gambling activities, then men like Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro and Canseco, who damaged the integrity of the game far more seriously than Rose ever did, must be treated no better.
Baseball is tied to its history more than any other sport, and fans enjoy the feeling that they are witnessing some more of that history being made. That’s why many fans, even those opposed to Bonds breaking the record, eventually gave up and decided to forget about the steroid accusations and enjoy watching Barry hit some home runs. This was also the attitude of most of the media coverage. I found the general lack of outrage disturbing.
Bonds hit his record-breaking homer just over a week after the induction into the Hall of Fame of Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., two men who embodied baseball at its finest. After seeing those two men enshrined at Cooperstown, bronze plaques bearing images of their faces hung alongside the one belonging to Hank Aaron, anyone who cheered when Barry Bonds hit number 756 should be ashamed.